Once You See it: Uncharted and the Burden of Awareness

This post could also be entitled: “Uncharted 2 and Why I Can’t Enjoy Anything Anymore.

Let me preface this rant by saying that Uncharted 2 is a remarkable game, on both technical and aesthetic levels.  It is in fact the PS3’s “killer app” and is well-deserving of all of the accolades it has received thus far.  I have been playing it for the past two weeks and I am still discovering little details that demonstrate both the level of skill and love for the craft that can go into a triple-A title.  But perhaps it is for all those accolades and that demonstration of skill that I must call the game out on a several fronts.

I’ve had discussions with various people – particularly African-Americans – about video games where they expressed to me their problem with the prevalence of white protagonists.  They felt a disconnect from the characters they were playing for this reason, felt they couldn’t “relate” to them.  For a long time, whenever I had this conversation, I thought it was silly.

Afterall, there were plenty of ways/reasons to identify with a character outside of race/ethnicity.  Most of these games were taking place on other worlds, where our racial categories did not exist.  Even where themes of discrimination were visited, as in Chrono Cross, it was a problem between humans and some actual other race – like Elves or Metahumans.  What did it matter that the heroes in these worlds happened to be blue-eyed blonde-haired ubermensch?  I’m looking at you, Cloud Strife.

As you might imagine, something changed for me.  It’s still true that most games take place on other worlds, but these games are made by people from this world, and so my problem is not with the white protagonists, but with a development community that completely ignores multiculturalism, or where characters of color are stereotypes or mostly disposable.

I’m looking at you, just about every game out of Japan.

In Uncharted 2, you play as Nathan Drake, the white treasure hunter (thief).  In the previous game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, we learn that Nathan is the descendant of Sir Francis Drake – one of many brutal European conquerors of the the Americas.

Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2

Nathan is pursuing a lost treasure that his ancestor is said to have left behind.  My problem with that game, aside from the fact that Nathan is plundering cultural sites, is that it maintains the mystique of Francis Drake the explorer, rather than Sir Francis the conqueror.  Now you may say, it’s a just video game, not a social commentary.  But that’s just it.  It doesn’t have to be a social commentary to at least acknowledge that Sir Francis Drake was a plunderer and murderer, amongst other things.

This made it difficult for me to relate to the main character.  Here we have the descendant of a plundering conqueror doing some more plundering – and he’s the hero of the story. He starts off fighting native soldiers of what looks to be some place in South America, and ends up fighting some kind of zombies.

The “zombie” thing could’ve been interesting if they were the vengeful dead left behind by Francis the conqueror, but it was nothing so relevant.  It was some “woooo! savage magic” that changed people into creatures. I could write another post about the idea that pre-Industrial peoples, especially non-Europeans would necessarily be practicing some “primitive magic” rather than building technologically advanced civilizations, as was the case in the Americas. Or about the expectation that native practices – be they magical or spiritual – must present some sinister threat. Again, this idea would’ve made more sense if the plunderers had triggered some sort of ancient defense put in place just for people like them.

But I digress.  This essay is about Uncharted 2.

There was not a moment of playing the game where I wasn’t thinking “I don’t want to be this plundering white boy”.  Nathan Drake for me, by his very premise, is a character with few redeeming qualities.  As the game proceeds, we see him robbing a museum in Turkey, at least having the moral integrity to use only tranquilizer guns on the museum guards – at least those he isn’t pummeling into unconsciousness or choking out.  These guards are all dark-skinned, which from my understanding of Turkish demographics, is rather improbable.

He goes on to loot temples and other sites in Nepal.  The villain is a burly homicidal maniac from some unnamed Eastern European country named Zoran Lazarevic. I could also spend time talking about ground zero for white supremacy is Western Europe, and how this often means that Eastern Europe is a common origin for unsavory international villains. Zoran is exploiting some sort of Civil War in Nepal to raze temples to the ground in search of a certain artifact.  Drake is hot on his trail, not to stop him, but to beat him to the punch.

Zoran Lazarevic in Uncharted 2

After several disasters, Drake ends up isolated in snowy mountains, and is rescued by a Nepalese mountain man.  A popular story. White hero aided by peaceful natives, only to…well, I’ll get to that in a minute. When Drake wakes up, he finds himself in a village where, as is to be expected, no one speaks English.  Drake makes a number of snide references like “Yeah, I still don’t speak that.” and “Why do I bother?”

Oh, sorry to burden you, white plunderer, by having the audacity to not speak your language up here in the Nepalese mountains, and hinder you in your efforts to steal from us.

By some sheer coincidence, Elena – Drake’s reporter friend from the first game (she’s white, too) – and who for reasons unknown can speak the language of the Nepalese mountain people – is there waiting for him when he wakes up.  She proceeds to take him to someone who “really wants to meet him”.  At this point I was expecting the Nepalese equivalent of the “magical Negro”, or “noble savage”, some sagely old woman or diminutive hunchback.

Imagine my surprise when it’s some jolly old white guy wearing the Nepalese garb – obviously a transplant.  Turns out he was once an “explorer” like Drake, looking for the same elusive artifact, but he gave up and settled in this village.  Phew!  Good thing there was another white guy around, because for a minute, Drake’s quest for plunder might’ve been obstructed by a language barrier!

Schäfer, the white elder of Nepalese mountain people

Drake’s presence in this mountain village eventually brings a full scale assault from the villain down on the natives, who are mowed down relentlessly as Drake himself runs for cover.  We’re talking men, women, children – being gunned down by soldiers and a plowed by a tank.  A tank.  Seriously.

In exchange for your hospitality, kind villagers, I bring you death.

In spite of the mass devastation of innocent villagers, the only two moments of mourning in the game are upon the deaths of Elena’s cameraman – also white – and Schafer, the former treasure seeker. Maybe the moral of the story is, if you’re a Nepalese mountain person and find a white man collapsed in the mountains, leave him there to die.

Oh, and let’s talk about Chloe.  She is Drake’s other potential love interest, a direct contrast to Elena, his reporter friend.  Elena is white – very white – with blonde hair and blue eyes and an investigative journalist.  Chloe is dark-skinned, green-eyed, dark-haired, and a fellow thief.  She’s the “exotic” one.

Chloe in Uncharted 2

In only her second scene in the game, we find her straddling Drake, ass in the air.  Completely forced sexual banter continues between the two throughout the game – brilliantly written lines like “You know you’re going to miss this ass”, and “I think you’re enjoying this too much” as she climbs a ladder.

Chloe, straddling Nathan Drake

Of course the only woman of color with a speaking role must also be shady and selfish, her motives and loyalty repeatedly questioned, whereas Elena is the reliable mainstay.  Elena’s also the only one to call Drake on being a pig, and to have anything close to a sense of feminism – that is to say, some self-respect as a woman.  She’s also the one that Drake chooses to “love” in the end, with Chloe going on to…who knows where.

Elena in Uncharted 2

But no worries, because Drake points his friend, a lecherous cigar-smoking old white man, in Chloe’s direction.  So we can assume she won’t be alone for long.  You know, because she has nothing better to do than wait around for the next white dick.

Once upon a time, I was able to just play video games and enjoy them.  I didn’t see race, I didn’t see cultural issues, or gender issues, or anything.  Games, after all, were my escape from such heady things.  But now I can’t help but notice them. There is hardly a movie or a game or a book where I’m not looking for and easily spotting a slew of cultural faux pas and outright offenses that can only be attributed to the obliviousness or indifference of white game developers.

Although awareness can be a burden – an obstacle to escapism – I wouldn’t choose to go back the days of blissful ignorance. After all, there has to be someone to call these games out on their nonsense.

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