Naughty Dog vs. Audience Expectations

Nathan Drake, lost in the Rub' al Khali

Note: This article contains story spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was, to put it mildly, pretty well-received. Less known for innovating and more known for wrapping all the elements of its gameplay and narrative into a sleek package, the title proved that on a purely technical level, being a master of all trades isn’t quite as important as bringing gameplay and narrative together in a seamless fashion. It was flawed, to be sure, but an impressive accomplishment.

So Naughty Dog had their work cut out for them with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. It was a game with enough pre-release hype that it felt like the months leading up to Metal Gear Solid 2 all over again. Drake’s Deception couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. To many, it did. To others, not so much. Naughty Dog’s ability to tell a story while seamlessly weaving it in and out of gameplay is still unparalleled. But the toned down story of Drake’s Deception itself meant that series-defining traits stood at odds with the story that needed to be told, versus the story that the some of its audience expected.

In Among Thieves, Drake’s motivation was clear-cut. Drake was hired to do a job. Drake’s partner-in-crime betrayed him. Drake decided to turn the tables on his former partner. Things unravel from there. Among Thieves touched on Drake’s ego and sense of self-worth being tied directly to his life as a treasure hunter – we saw him ready to give up after nearly being killed for trying to play the hero. His motivation in Drake’s Deception (particularly to himself) is decidedly less clear.

Early on in the story, after narrowly escaping death by burning to death in a chateau, Sully stops Drake in his tracks with a question that I was wondering to myself at the time:

“I gotta say I’m losing the plot here. Remind me again why we’re doing this?”

It’s a question Drake has no answer to. By this point in the story, Drake is ahead of Marlowe – he has Sir Francis Drake’s ring, decoder, and map. He has everything Marlowe wanted for herself, yet he’s focused on moving forward, without real any reason to do so and despite evidence that he may not like what he finds when he uncovers his ancestor’s secrets. The sheer momentum is pushing him, and like a kid in a candy shop, Drake’s impulse control is nonexistent.

Sully tries to get Drake to slow down

And there it is. It’s in Drake that the player is being reflected – much like him, players often have no substantial reason to move forward in the games they play. They’re presented with the thinnest of story lines, plotted together rather arbitrarily where each thing they do hurls them toward the next grandiose event that continues the chain. Through sheer compulsion, they find themselves plowing through hordes of enemies, with only the most superficial motivation powering their actions.

Although Drake is forced to face these questions about himself throughout Drake’s Deception, it is a question meant to hearken back to previous stories in the series as well. Why is it that Drake feels compelled to push himself into such situations, despite their destructive nature? Uncharted 3’s storytelling never quite breaks the fourth wall, though it certainly pushes against it – if not for gaming as a whole, then definitely for the series. Where is the line that separates Drake from any one of the lunatics he competes with? And what does this mirror in the player? Do players even need reasons, or is pure momentum, complete adrenaline, the only motivation necessary? It is not judgment Naughty Dog is passing, they are merely asking the questions so that players can consider it themselves – similar to the fashion in which Sully does not expressly condemn Drake for his actions, he only asks him to be straightforward with the reasoning behind them.

In Yemen, it’s revealed that Elena and Drake have separated; the implication being his obsession with treasure hunting has pushed her away. Similar to Chloe earlier on in the game, Elena had sensed Drake’s obsession bordering on self-destructive, and distanced herself from it. Because of the Uncharted series’ inextricable mix of story and gameplay, Drake’s character himself has changed the dynamic of the game. Gone are the days where his allies would support him, even begrudgingly. Drake’s Deception is more intimate. It’s heavier. For all its over-the-top moments, it carries a real sense of weight. If not for Sully’s presence, Drake’s latest adventure would feel completely foreign and isolated.

Elena's appearance in Drake's Deception is bittersweet

“[Sully] would go to the ends of the earth for you, Nate. Just – don’t ask him to,” Elena says as she wonders just why Drake is okay with putting Sully’s life in danger as well.

This is the first moment when we’re given words to an underlying theme from the beginning of the series. Drake and Sully’s affection for one another and the needless danger Sully is put in because of it. Up until this game, Sully has had no issues both having Drake’s back as well as even backing out when he thought things were getting too crazy.

But Drake is much more persistent in this game, and Sully sticks with him out of loyalty despite Drake’s questionable motives. Everyone else has detached themselves from him. Players have always learned more about Drake through his interactions with his friends – in fact, Drake has learned more about himself through those interactions. Now, those characters are largely in the background.

It’s within these changes that lay the biggest transformation in Drake’s Deception – the focus is much more in what is implied than what is said. Drake’s motivation is never explicitly stated, because he doesn’t even know what it is. The audience learns of it from the questions he is asked by those closest to him. Players used to the character dynamics in Among Thieves might not even initially be able to place why this game feels so different. Surely Naughty Dog knew they’d be disappointing some, or at least throw them for a loop – but these changes needed to happen. The story of Drake losing those closest to him is absolutely essential for his growth as a character.

Drake grows up in Drake's Deception

His obsession comes to a head when he reaches Ubar. Drake and Sully aren’t more than a few minutes into the city when one of Drake’s worst fears comes true – Sully takes a bullet in the back, and dies on the spot. It’s soon revealed that this was a hallucination caused by a drug in Ubar’s water supply – one meant to bring a person’s deepest fears to the surface – but it is enough that the culmination of everyone he has pushed away or taken for granted finally snaps him out of his obsession.

Those moments where the player must proceed without Sully are definitely noteworthy, though. Drake’s anger is palpable. The chapter following the shooting is bizarre, and for more reasons than Drake’s drugged-up visions of the Djinn. There’s no sense that someone will show up in the nick of time to help Drake out. The sense of solidarity the player feels with Drake is somewhat removed, as they see him furiously chase after Talbot. Drake feels completely different. The game feels noticably different.

Naughty Dog proved to be incredibly brave by allowing the story that needed to be told to take the forefront Drake’s Deception. It may have sacrificed Among Thieves’ boyish sense of freshness, but in its place stands a somewhat more grown-up experience, albeit one that is definitely frayed around the edges. It stands as one of the few examples of video games telling a story that is necessary to the series, but may or may not be what anyone had asked for to begin with – another notable example being Metal Gear Solid 3.

That’s not to excuse the game’s flaws – and the game is definitely flawed, from a series of chapters that is almost violently out of place, despite being superbly designed from a gameplay perspective; to a couple of dangling plot threads (what’s up with the dead guy in the chateau, and how were those spiders all over the globe?), but perhaps this can give us a different perspective on the story.

Though this is just part of the current argument surrounding Drake’s Deception, by understanding it, those disappointed that it wasn’t bigger and more bombastic than Among Thieves can at least have an alternative viewpoint by which to understand why it was necessary.  More in the interest of honest storytelling and less so an effort of attempting to feed into audience expectations and constantly one-up themselves, Naughty Dog showed remarkable restraint in an industry more interested in going bigger than telling an honest story. That alone should earn them a lot of credit.


  1. Max

    Wow, what an incredibly well thought out article. I honestly was not expecting that. You’re analysis of the game is spot on. Really, good work. In a sea of rehashed articles and sameness it’s nice to know at least some people still take “video game journalism” seriously.

    • Robert Ramnauth

      Thanks. I think articles like this are good to have, but hard to find. I think if we want games to be considered art then we probably need to take coverage of them seriously. I appreciate the compliment.

  2. Scott

    Great read, and an interesting take on what needed to be said this time around. I agree with a lot of your points, except maybe the degree to which you call this story a “brave” step for Naughty Dog.

    I personally felt like Sully’s death ended up being little more than an emotional cop-out, allowing Drake and company to reach the end of the narrative in essentially the same mind set they began it in. Had they really wanted to tell a brave story, instead of pulling the “just kidding” card, they might have left Sully dead, or shown Drake that his impetuousness does have consequences through even the other ancillary characters.

    Having finished the game, I don’t feel like I ever needed to play it, from a narrative point of view, anyway. The characters are in the same place we left them in at the conclusion to Uncharted 2, and I feel like an opportunity to really push them somewhere was squandered.

    Again though, you made a lot of great points, and I’m probably just not appreciating how under-stated the character changes are. Perhaps it would warrant a second playthrough for me.

    • Robert Ramnauth

      Fair enough. I also think Sully’s death would have had a greater emotional impact if they had followed through with it. The fact that they didn’t is very much a holdover from their Hollywood inspiration, unfortunately.

      Drake learned a similar lesson at the end of Uncharted 2 (seeing Elena nearly getting blown up), but Sully’s near-death seems to have a greater impact on him. There’s definitely a heaviness to the chapter where he gets shot and the ending itself that wasn’t as prevalent in Uncharted 2, in my opinion.

      Either way, I think we may not even know the full implications until the next adventure. I doubt Naughty dog is willing to write Drake off just yet, but how Uncharted 3 factors into the series in the future we’ll have to see.

  3. Brien

    Great article, though I can fill in those plot holes:

    Guy in the chateau: killed by the spiders. That one’s easy.

    The spiders are a bit harder, but here I go: the original home must’ve been the underground chamber in Yemen (the final place), which was originally found by the Templar knights whose coffins the other two locations were found in France and Syria. If the Templars wanted to keep the secret hidden (since they’d obviously been to this place and found these relics/the spiders), they might have–somehow–captured and bred the spiders to serve as a deterrent in their own tombs. It’s convoluted, but it would fit with the legends of Templar mysticism and makes some sense with the story as well, even if it wasn’t explained correctly.

  4. naaros

    Great article! But just so you know, the dead body in the chateau died to spiders. When Talbot takes your piece of the puzzle down in the crypt areas, one of his henchmen gets attacked by spiders and dies. If you look at his body before running away from the spiders with Sully, I’ll notice he looks just like the other guy in the chateau. I didn’t notice it the first time, but I saw it on my second playthrough – I thought it was a great touch. 🙂 As far as what the spiders were doing all around the globe, who knows. Maybe they were placed there by Francis Drake or whoever hid the puzzles pieces there.

    • Robert Ramnauth

      That IS a nice touch. I’ll have to take a look at it when I play through again.

  5. Stego111

    The dead guy in the chateau I thought was showing that Marlowe’s group has been around and hunting for these things for a long time.

  6. Colin

    Please explain how U2 is “flawed”. It was fully developed, the mechanics worked, and the gameplay and story flowed incredibly, not to mention the set pieces.

  7. André

    I started reading and sensed almost from the beginning that you were going to have something good to say about U3. I wanted to disagree immediatly, not because I didn’t enjoy the game, but because I thought it was a bit anticlimactic. I was so enthralled by U2, by it’s boisterous sense of aventure, cliché villains – so fun but so flat in characterization – fantastic sense of scope, and perfect homage to Indiana Jones, that I was underwhelmed when U3 lacked the layed back nature that acted as the glue to hold all the other elements together.
    But I can’t disagree with you and you might have released the acceptance I was holding back for this game. U3 is more personal but it is very subtle about it. I was so caught up in some details that where never explained – the corpse in the Chateau, Drake’s real name, Marlowe and Sully’s realtionship, everything related to Talbot – that I forgot the essencial: Drake’s compulsive commitment to the chase. The dialogue between Drake and Sully is so compelling and nurturing – a true father/son relationship – that you never get to question it, just accept it; and yet he is, as you put it, so fixated in going forward in his quest for answers, that he fails to realize that he might be the one to bring about the demise of those whe loves.
    U3 is does not have a good flow of gameplays as it’s predecessor, some sections are very drawn out and there is no true game/gunplay for extended periods, but on the other hand it has some true cinematic moments that the player controls for the sake of a deeper immersion – the part where a drugged Drake wonder’s through the crowsd and when he’s lost in the desert. This elements coupled with the scene when Drake sinks the urn before we get to see what is inside, reveal that Naughty Dog did not go for the simpler route: instead of more monsters, or other elements of the sort, we are left with our imagination to fill in the blanks – which is a wonderful thing – and the final boss is a good ol’ fist fight.
    Thank you for a wonderful read and you are right, for games to be considered art, we must treat them as such in our approach.

  8. HAHA

    What a load of crap. U3 was a disappointment from start to finish. Bad writing. No character development whatsoever and no explanations to any of the plot holes. U2 was one of the greatest games ever created, with everything U3 lacked.

    U2 worked, it’s story was perfectly written and it deserved every award it got and then some. God knows what went wrong when Hennig wrote U3… but U3 just took a huge shit all over U2 and reduced the series to something that just got caught up in overwhelming success and tried too hard, and failed. Naughty Dog REALLY got sucked in by U2’s success. It’s a shame, Uncharted had so much potential to be great as a whole. The disconnection between gameplay and story was touched on perfectly in U2, which helped the fact that it was ignored in U1. Unfortunately, no care was given to it in U3 and all the characters changed in personality.

    To add to the disappointment, the graphics and animations were downgraded and the game was buggy as shit. What happened to the polish present in U2?

    Golden Abyss is a great game, better than U3 for sure. I hope Uncharted 4 can redeem it, perhaps get Bend Studio to make it, or simply get back the two directors of U2 back on board.