Here’s something I don’t like to share with people: My dad died when I was thirteen. He was a lifelong alcoholic who struggled through a divorce with my mother, the constant weight of finding this month’s rent, and a presumably overbearing conscience that always reminded him he wasn’t living his life the way he should have been. By the time he passed, he was living in a rundown trailer in his friend’s back yard, absently detoxing, losing an unhealthy amount of weight, and salvaging whatever amount of his time as a father he had left. I loved him.
These fatherless figures displayed their heroism by combating the dad-induced voids within them.
Since then, I’ve taken up gaming as my preferred form of entertainment. Videogames have been my food for thought, my inspiration, and my escape for years now; when I was going through my roughest portions of adjusting to dadless life, certain games were always there, inviting me to revel in their fantasies.
As I grew older and began to engage with my artistic medium of choice beyond a surface level, I realized the heroes I had been playing with were just like me – at least much more so than I had previously thought. They could kill hundreds of Nazis or zombies or monsters at a time, sure, but they had issues, too. They were flawed. They were pained.
I came to realize that, like me, many of gaming’s greatest, most noble, heroic, and seemingly fearless heroes even had their fair share of “daddy issues.” Some had lost their father, some never had one, and some even had to defeat theirs on the field of battle. I could relate to these pixilated people – beyond the whole nonstop action, romance and killing things stuff, their struggles were my struggles. And almost every time, these fatherless figures displayed their heroism by combating head on the dad-induced voids within them.
This theme of absent fathers, either in the physical sense (as it was with me) or the emotional one (as it is with so many today) is certainly not one unique to videogames. Lately, though, it has featured rather prominently in the medium in varying ways. Recent blockbusters such as Gears of War 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Uncharted 3 all feature heroes who at first appear physically and emotionally invincible, but deep down are haunted by the tragic failings of their fathers.
For me, the story of Uncharted 3‘s Nathan Drake in particular best demonstrates just how the loss of a father fundamentally alters the trajectory of one’s being. While Nate is oftentimes seen as unflappable in the face of danger, beneath all the wisecracks and perfect hair is a boy still frantically struggling to make up for the fatherly care he was denied as a child.
We don’t know too much about Drake’s past, but we can say with certainty that the treasure hunter has some serious issues with his father, the most significant of which may never be resolved. Uncharted 3 hints that Drake’s dad left him to the state when he was five (after his mother killed herself), leaving him to grow up in an orphanage with nothing but the reverie of his history books as company.
From there, Nathan Drake (which isn’t his actual name) looked to larger-than-life figures like Sir Francis Drake to occupy the empty space created by the Uncharted hero’s absentee dad. But it wasn’t until Victor Sullivan, Nate’s elder partner-in-adventuring, came along that a 14-year-old Drake found something close to a tangible father figure.
When Sully came into his life, Drake came to cling to him as the dad he never got the chance to have. Nate sees much of himself in Victor – from the devil-may-care attitude to the insecurities and imperfections equally imposed in them by lousy fathers. Nate always had the choice to continue the loner’s life, but it was his inner longing for that missing sense of fatherhood that caused him to put himself under Sully’s tutelage. Nate would, as Uncharted 3 frequently shows, protect Sully to the death, not just because they’re best friends, but because Sully represents a sort of fulfillment of all that Drake never had as a kid.
Yet at the same time, that very fulfillment is what makes Drake who he is in the first place. Drake is a man who, at first glance, looks to be nothing less than a demigod among men. After years of death-cheating and baddie-bashing, he’s become an expert hand-to-hand fighter, a skilled shot, and essentially a one man army. His life is never stagnant, as he travels the globe, always finding new adventures in which to partake, and new villains to thwart. He even has sexy women lusting after him now and again. His existence is one of pure excitement, and he seems to prefer it that way.
In other words, he’s a videogame character. As a heap of pixels, Nate is given the capacity for heroism, and the ability to do things real people simply cannot do. His world is controlled by a clearly-defined set of rules, and by our actions as players. There’s no potentially “random” aspect to Drake’s life – he lives in a fatalist state, one that will always play out the way it is meant to play out, provided that we bring him there. He’s a product of fiction, a world-saving, infinitely-respawning, physics-defying object that is, in part, something no mortal being can ever dream of being, because Nate is like a dream in and of himself.
If his father did not abandon him, Nate would assuredly not be the same hero we presently know and love.
But only “in part.” Even though he is confined his own personal gaming otherworld, Nate’s underlying motivations – namely, making up for his absent father – make his so much realer than he has any business being. Examine the fictional past that has been created for him, and ask yourself, who is Nathan Drake if not someone defined by the personally uncontrollable forces that made him who he is today? If his father did not abandon him, Nate would assuredly not be the same hero we presently know and love.
If his father gave him the love every child is owed growing up, there would be no Cartagena, where, as shown in Uncharted 3, Drake and Sully began their father-son-like relationship. There would be no Navarro or Lazarević or Marlowe to defeat, no self-imposed duty to save all of creation, no need for heroism on Nate’s part. There’d be no Sully to learn from, no Elena to marry, no Chloe and no Cutter to fight alongside, no Francis Drake to idolize. Whether or not Nate would be a better or worse man if he was granted a more “normal” childhood is impossible to say. All we know is that he wouldn’t be the guy we pay to play as today, and that we probably wouldn’t want him any other way.
Time and again, we see Drake do the impossible, and time and again, we learn that nothing Nate does in the present is ever going to change his past. He can take Elena as a wife, Sully as a father, and treasure hunting as a thrill, but none of that will reset the way things fell into place for him, and the way he was denied his dad’s affection. He is the most classic of heroes, wrapped and packaged with the hero’s necessarily tragic past, fighting an unwinnable battle against a father who isn’t tangible, and a past that isn’t malleable. That’s just who he is.
And that is what makes him “real.” When I look at Drake, when I see his unattainable physical perfections and his tragic personal imperfections, borne out of his fatherlessness, I see a hero I can admire, and a brother with whom I can relate. I see a protagonist that transcends the barrier between videogame player and videogame character; I see someone with the same pain I know all too well. Sure, Nathan may not be able to “feel” anything as a computer program, but his created existence is one that touches me, and I’m sure many others, on an empathetic, emotional level.
Who is Nathan Drake if not one of us? Like the rest of humanity, he lives with, as Sully puts it at the end of Uncharted 3, “the hand he’s dealt.” For him, and for me, that means having a father taken from him far too early. Nate is a symbol of living with any tragedy or loss you can’t take back, and making “real greatness” come about in spite of it, and because of it. As a videogame character, Drake is more readily prepared to do “great” things. But as a symbol of humanity, he is a challenge for us to try and do the same. There is strength and inspiration to be found in those things we can’t reset. Sometimes a character like Nate is an exceptional reminder of that.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. A staff writer for Cheat Code Central, his work has also been featured in such publications as PopMatters, Unwinnable, and other sites you don’t read. Follow him on Twitter and he’ll hug you.