Be warned, there ARE SPOILERS to parts of the story; even if not explicitly stated, they are implied.
“I am a man of fortune, and I must seek my fortune” – Henry Avery, 1694
With 4 games spanning almost a decade across console generations, Uncharted tells the swashbuckling story of Nathan Drake: the titular everyman hero (with incredible upper body strength) who finds lost cities, obliterates any military opposition and always has the moral upper hand on his fellow grave robbers. For PlayStation fans, Nathan Drake is a household name. His devilish good looks, nice guy romantics and brilliant one-liners (delivered by golden boy, Nolan North), are wrapped up in one of the most fleshed out and real video game protagonists of all time. Of course, a brilliant character (along with an equally great ensemble of supporting acts) doesn’t just make a great game – the action, adventure/platforming gameplay is fluid, grounded and satisfying, the environments are breathtaking vistas and each iteration has been a solid improvement on the last, as well as breaking technological barriers.
Naughty Dog has successfully brought the cinematic blockbuster to PlayStation, given you control, and set up tense, edge-of-your-seat set pieces as well as perfectly sculpted writing.
The latest outing for Drake and friends is arguably the best. Comments over the few weeks around Uncharted 4’s release have been positive – and that’s putting it mildly.
Okay, fanboying aside, Uncharted is not perfect, nor is any video game, but what it does, it does better than anyone else. Period.
I’m a platformer geek and was brought up watching Indiana Jones; Uncharted takes those two things and takes it to its natural, final, combined evolution. Now, explosions, puzzles and island vistas aside (Photo Mode), I want to talk about something else in Uncharted 4, which makes the game stand out from its predecessors.
I’m talking about storytelling.
With the directors of previous Naughty Dog masterpiece, The Last of Us, helming Nathan Drake’s latest adventure, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley have definitely left their iconic creative mark on this, zombie-free escapade. And that’s a good thing. While this game most certainly feels like an Uncharted game, it also extracts that award-winning pathos seen in TLOU and injects it surgically into the gang’s dynamic, giving Uncharted a realism that elevates the game beyond what franchise fans have seen before. Uncharted 2 (spoilers) gave us the cinematic, explosive kick up the backside, shocking critics and fans into utter awesomeness, but Uncharted 4 gives us a heart-wrenching, cathartic tale of obsession, greed and friendship – an equally, if not tastier dish.
My motivation to write this down is specifically the relationship between Nate and Elena. Chapter 4, A Normal Life, gives us an atypical insight into super awesome explorer, Nathan Drake’s life working a desk job (with the occasional dive) at a scavenging company, preparing dinner and playing video games (yes, playing video games inside a video game is mind-blowing) with beautiful journalist wife Elena Fisher – Nathan’s romantic interest from the series.
It had me at the edge of my seat, wanting to inhale every single detail, read every post-it note scattered in the Drake & Fisher’s home, pour over their wedding pictures, and spend far too long rooting around the attic, reliving all of Nate’s past adventures.
I’m not exaggerating. This wonderfully realised chapter sets up the motivations that makes us truly vested in the characters, and with the subsequent introduction of Sam Drake later on, we really understand why Nate comes out of semi-retirement, even if there are more superficial reasons presented to us. We see a strained relationship between Nate and Elena, where both are a little bit world-weary of this ‘normal life’, even though neither wants to admit it. This comes out a little in the dialogue, but so much more in their facial expressions, Nate’s wandering thoughts, and the unspoken tension in their eyes.
I’m talking about a video game, right?
In Chapter 17, For Better or For Worse, Elena comes back into the adventuring fray when she teams up with Nate, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune style in order to save Sam, dowsing Nate’s obsession with treasure-hunting. It’s a real married couple moment, where bouts of gun-toting action are punctuated by moments of apology, of understanding, of domestic life – like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but better and more fleshed out. Near the end of the Chapter comes a silence: we’ve taken our truck up through Libertalia and Henry Avery’s mansion in New Devon is just a short drive away (more action later). That drive could have been a 2 minute segment through the environment, with either of our characters spouting witty banter (this tactic is employed very well and appropriately in Madagascar with Sam and Sully), but instead, there is silence, risen by a very soft soundtrack; a poignant melody envelops the couple, dislocating them from the present. Beforehand, Nate apologises, confronts his own fear of breaking his promise to her not to go off gallivanting again, Elena accepts, yet not everything is perfect yet. You can’t go from arguments and lies to ‘everything’s back to normal’ in a few minutes. So, the music comes up, a sad tune, the truck noises fade, and we are sitting with a husband and a wife, fighting to come to terms with the life they thought they had left behind, but instead can’t seem to escape. For a second, we forget we’re in Libertalia – we could be driving to the shops. It’s beautifully domestic.
At the end of the game, Nate and Elena are transformed. They both realise (well, Elena instigates everything) that a ‘normal life’ doesn’t have to be a ‘boring life’, and hence they begin a successful (legal) treasure hunting business – D&F Fortunes. No guns, no explosions; just treasure, permits and exotic locations. Those adventures we don’t see may not be PlayStation worthy, but man would I like to travel with them.
Nathan Drake’s journey from child thief, to reckless treasure hunter, to more sensible treasure hunter is not something taken lightly by Naughty Dog.
The Uncharted franchise hits spot-on emotional beats, delivered by highly talented actors, interspersed with jaw-dropping cathartic rest-bites.
A video game does all these things. A goddamn video game. Pay attention Hollywood execs, this is how you do blockbuster storytelling. Forget explosions, forget bullets; heart is what you need to deliver stories that we’ll remember. And we will remember you, Nathan Drake.