Crash Bandicoot may have been Naughty Dog’s call to fame and one of the most iconic console mascots in gaming, but there’s no denying that the formula was perfected with Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series putting the PlayStation 3 on the must-own consoles list. Much like Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter to an extent, the Uncharted series emphasized their central character, understanding that the personal journeys of these unlikely heroes is the reason gaming has been held in high regard as a strong medium of storytelling. However, no one else portrays the lovable, complex, and down-to-Earth nature of protagonists quite like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake.
In 2007, Naughty Dog had once again reinvented the wheel for a new generation of consoles in the same way Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter did for the Sony PlayStation and PlayStation 2, respectively. This time, the developers toned down the cartoonish antiques and character design for a more grounded, realistic tale of adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones and the obviously inspired Tomb Raider series. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune launched to massive critical and commercial acclaim, with many praising the sleek graphics, mature story, and its core cast of characters, particularly its protagonist, explorer Nathan Drake.
Nathan Drake, the chiseled-jaw everyday man, took on a very subdued, more human persona in comparison to his whacky anthropomorphic bandicoot predecessor. The story of Uncharted presented a very believable plot set in our perceptive world, making the characters appear more sincere and relatable as a result. Nathan Drake, like fellow explorer and resident tomb raider Lara Croft, never appeared supernatural or above the challenges that he had to overcome (and trust me, the Uncharted series is best known for its absolutely bonkers action set pieces next to the charming characters). Nate, in all intents and purposes, was driven by mostly singular, daring goals and motives much like the adventure hero archetypes Naughty Dog took some notes from.
However, rather than making the new face of the PlayStation 3 just another generic everyday man, Naughty Dog gave Nate several layers to get emotionally invested in. Each Uncharted game since then had all presented new adventures and interesting treasures to find, and while Nate’s unwavering thirst for adventure always remained a consistent trope about him, each game built upon his backstory, peeling away at these layers to reveal tiny details that would go on to define his whole character. A petty thief as a kid, a law-breaker and a fraud, Nate was never introduced as a hero with bold or innocent intentions. As Among Thieves greatly illustrated, your past can come to define a person or break them. This battle of moral dilemma is what kept Nate a surprising, very likable main character with insatiable charisma to sugarcoat his emotional depth.
Four primary games in (and seemingly over), Nathan Drake has gone on to become one of gaming’s most beloved adventurers, sitting high among the ranks of Lara Croft and the numerous cinematic icons that clearly lent a hand in his development. If Naughty Dog’s intentions were to take their winning formula back to the drawing board in favor of creating a more (clears throat) human element in their protagonists, they’ve certainly struck lightning for the third time.
Nathan Drake enters the Video Game Icons list thanks to the impact left in a generational gap where Tomb Raider was mostly absent or becoming irrelevant (up until the reboot, at least), and his charismatic, goofy persona that became the backbone of Uncharted’s brilliant attention to character detail, later perfected in Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, The Last of Us. While opinions may differentiate on how Nate managed to stir up such a collectively huge fanbase despite borrowing a few tips from the old book of witty, adventurous hero stereotypes, the answer simply lies in the small beginnings of his past leading up the emotional catharsis of an ending in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End that truly brought this instantly recognizable gaming explorer full circle.