The Corporeal Supernatural of Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series is touted as the Indiana Jones of videogames; a globetrotting treasure hunt, complete with a wise cracking adventurer, an evil organization and a cheesy romantic conclusion. Working with the archetypes endowed by the Action-Adventure genre, the Uncharted series follows the same roadmap of any adventure flick, right down to presenting a supernatural element in the third act. But Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, to players’ bewilderment, didn’t overtly use any ancient magic to hammer in the gravity of the treasure hunt. It was just teased, a carrot on stick that’s never quite in full view.

Instead Naughty Dog took it upon themselves to practice subtlety, something they later mastered with The Last of Us. Supernatural elements are still present in the game; we see the jar holding the djinns during the final act, though they’re never actually shown to the player, merely used as a plot device. Instead, more complex supernatural elements are embedded in the composition of the characters.

Protagonist Nathan Drake and his father figure Victor Sullivan, find themselves in a variety of harrowing situations throughout the entire series, though by some stroke of luck they escape predicaments unscathed. Where their escapes are usually credited to the simplistic “good guys always win” rule, Drake’s Deception actually uses history aficionado Charlie Cutter as a manifestation of this divine intervention. Cutter takes the role of a guardian angel, watching over the duo and paving the way for their safety even in the most dire of situations. At the beginning of the game, he stages Nate and Sully’s murder so they could escape the scene while Katherine Marlowe, the game’s antagonist, leaves with a fake of the ring that she sought after. Later in the game he pulls a gun on Nate, only to wait for Marlowe’s right hand man, Talbot, to lower his weapon and become vulnerable to Cutter’s. Shortly after this trickery Cutter takes a hit so Nate and company can get away, ensuring once again, that the hero may continue his journey.

Katherine Marlowe and Talbot.

Talbot on the other hand, is more or less a devil figure, testing the bond between Nate and Sully in his every appearance. In a section of the Syria chapters, Cutter is drugged by Talbot and is instructed not to trust Nate. Subsequently a fight between Nate and Cutter ensues and as Nate is being strangled, Sully pulls a gun on Cutter, ready to fire if he didn’t let go. The immediacy of this action expresses Sully’s care for Nate; willing to murder a friend at blank range to ensure his “son’s” safety. In a tapered scene in Yemen, Nate is drugged by Talbot, and suffers a hallucination in which he sprints through a market filled with contorting merchants. When he awakens from his drug induced state he finds himself sitting down with Marlowe and Talbot, and much to his dismay, he realizes he told them that Sully knows where Ubar is — the lost city housing the mystical djinns. When Marlowe and company reach Ubar, Nate foils their plans and causes the city to ruin. Marlowe is buried in sand with the crumbling city, and everyone begins to escape the premises. However as the city falls, Talbot avenges her death, fighting Nate on a platform sinking into the sand. Sully then jumps down to the dilapidated flooring, shoots Talbot, and helps Nate avoid his demise, risking his life for Nate’s. One thing to note is how the relationship between Talbot and Marlowe acts as a counterweight to Nate and Sully. They have their own mother-son relationship, evident by Talbot’s hollering and need for revenge when Marlowe died.

Most interesting of all the characters in Drake’s Deception is Marlowe. She doesn’t carry many qualities beyond that of an evil witch. She doesn’t even add much to narrative by her personality — she’s just a standard antagonist, like the ones in previous instalments. But what separates this game from the others is how much attention is given to developing Nate, his history and the bond between him and Sully. Marlowe acts a conduit for this information, sort of like a ghost of the past threading Nate’s backstory to the player through her presence. When we’re first introduced to Marlowe, Nate and Sully are shot and the player is to assume that they’re gravely wounded. What follows is a flashback, showing how Nate came to meet Sullivan when he was a boy — an event she was a part of. In Yemen, after Nate’s hallucination, she berates Nate for living a fraudulent life, exposing his family history to the player, and how Drake isn’t even his real surname.

As a link to Nate’s past, Marlowe is also the instigator of both chases in the game — one when he’s young, and one when he’s an adult. During the flashback at the beginning of the game, Sully sides with Nate as Marlowe beats him for not handing over the key to a museum. A chase ensues, in which Nate escapes from Marlowe’s private army with the help of Sully, marking the beginning of their friendship. But as an adult, Nate breaks Sully’s trust in his drug induced state. In the chase that follows Nate is the chaser, going after Talbot to find out where Sully is being held — though he fails to save Sully, unable to return the favour done for him when he was a child. Through complementary distribution these two chases reflect each other as one brought Nate and Sully together, and another separated them.

I think it’s very possible that the reason why Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception wasn’t met with the warm applause dealt to the first and second game is because of the lack of any overt supernatural threat. It didn’t hit the same story beats, the rubric of the conventional action-adventure, and I imagine that’s what everyone wanted out of the “Indiana Jones of videogames.” Instead of relying on a simplistic plot composed of romance, betrayal, untold riches and the supernatural, Naughty Dog decided to give its audience a stronger, smarter, and more subtle narrative, allowing for the supernatural to exist in the form of conduits for character development, rather than a plot device.

The Empty Heart of Max Payne

Upon loading Max Payne 3, the violins of the ominous menu music sent a chill down my spine. My mood was dragged down with each note as I began to speculate where this story could go. I was lost in the music, enamoured by imagination, by all the possible manners in which this foreboding score may complement the narrative. Max lost his wife, his child and years later when he opened his heart again, his newfound romance was quickly added to his list of tribulations. Broken and vulnerable; Max had nothing to live for.

Which is exactly what coated my thoughts: where could this story go? Max Payne is dead. He’s lost everything he cared about, and is left as the shell of a man, in every sense the cliché entails. The ex-detective’s an alcoholic and a drug addict, living life as a slug about his apartment. Which is sad, of course, but this state of depression culls the game’s most glaring issue: it goes absolutely nowhere.

You’d think a man who’s had so much taken away from him — a man who harbours his own lethal take on justice, may hold some character beyond the stereotype. Well, that’s not the case. Max is the same hackneyed character you’d expect. Where the narrative abandoned Max in the second game was flawless. It was bleak, depressing, and perfectly conveyed Max’s ironclad fate: he was destined to live an unhappy life.

The self destructive state of Max Payne.

As sad as his situation may be, nothing interesting comes of it.

Spoilers follow.

Max Payne 3 beats a dead horse. Our protagonist has nothing to live for, no one to protect and no one to avenge. The game’s largest plot twist merely relies on his existence, as it establishes how Max’s addiction landed him in his current predicament: fighting another man’s war. The initial instalment in the series had him seeking revenge for the death of his family. In the second, he fought for his life, and the protection of his new love interest. The latest title strings Max as a fly who was too drunk to notice the web he landed in. Skin the narrative even further, and it’s simply the story of a middle aged man attaining sobriety in the most arduous way imaginable.

Without drive, without direction, Max Payne literally and merely serves as a means for the player to witness the story. The entire narrative has little to do with Max, besides the antagonist’s plot to use him as patsy for his crimes. Fabiana’s kidnapping is what carried half the plot, but only because it’s Max’s job to take care of her, and the rest of her affluent family. After her execution Max continues his rampage, seeking revenge for machinations he’s completely dislodged from.

Sad to say, but Max Payne becomes very similar to the infamously one-dimensional Kratos, from God of War. Both series began as tragedies, giving concrete reason and goals to their protagonists. However, by the third instalment they’re both angry bald men with nothing to live for, apart from their lust for violence and self-caused/justified desire for revenge.

Max's drinking problem proves to be the most important part of his character.

It’s unfortunate to see a character with so much depth have his history almost entirely neglected.

Stylistically the story is well told, but needless to say, it’s hindered by its impersonality. I assumed that this third piece would interlock with the original, that it may show an older Max Payne, trying to redeem himself by helping a family in need — a kind of karmic compensation for not being able to save his own. Instead, he’s left protecting a rich family with little to no compelling qualities beyond the inherent shock value of how self obsessed one can be. Furthermore, the plot quickly accents his own ineptitudes and inadequacies, straying away from any subplot that may symbolize or allude to his prior futility in saving his loved ones. We could have seen Max Payne in his own personal hell; reliving all the misery he endured, and trying to escape the cyclicality of his misfortunes. But while the score paints a menacing backdrop, the story fails to complement the atmosphere.

The whole Tony Scott vibe coupled with Rockstar’s finest shooting mechanics serve for an entertaining experience, only it puts little emphasis on Max Payne’s character. It doesn’t feel like it was a game written with him in mind, but rather the gameplay mechanics of previous titles in the series. Hopefully the next game will make appropriate use of this once-compelling character, instead of casting his husk into a dissolute and depraved setting.