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September 1, 2016

Let’s discuss Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Part 2).

I know this is a post on Uncharted 4, but I feel like I should start off by mentioning Who Killed Captain Alex.

I saw it basically under the same circumstances that introduced me to Dinosaur Island -- i.e. “celebrating” the holidays with bad movie night.  But even though I went in expecting the worst, I found myself getting into the movie.  The story behind it is bizarre, to say the least, and that’s before you get into the actual movie -- which to put it simply is a Ugandan kung fu murder mystery.  Despite that (and the utterly absurd “dub”), I couldn’t help but grasp characters, motivations, and themes.  It was as much about “mortal combat” as it was about understanding the impact of the late captain, and what it meant to exact revenge for him and those closest to him.  Coupled with the sincere effort and energy infused into the film, it’s hard not to feel a sense of admiration.

Even if Who Killed Captain Alex is held together by pocket change, used floss, and a whole lot of hope, it still manages to impart something on an audience.  No matter how deep of a read you make, there’s still something to enjoy -- something to respect despite (or maybe because of) the pitiful visuals.  So while it is technically a bad movie, it doesn’t quite come across as one.  Why?  Because it’s proof that it doesn’t take much to win people over.  It doesn’t take much to win me over, even if my posts have suggested otherwise over the years.  Good stories come in many forms, regardless of the money or resources poured into it.  Still, that’s the immutable end goal: to tell a good story with the means available to you.

So here we are with A Thief’s End.  And disagree if you will, but I’m convinced that it either has a terrible story, or one so baffling that even now I have yet to grasp it.  And this is coming from someone who could grasp Who Killed Captain Alex.

Well, I talked about the gameplay last time, so if we’re going to go over the story, there’s no better place to start than the setup.  See, after the events of Uncharted 3 (and 2, and 1), Nate has chosen to walk away from the life of an adventurer.  He’s taken up a new job as part of a salvage company; while it doesn’t exactly deliver on the thrills of being shot at, it does allow for a stable, cushy life in the suburbs with his wife Elena.  As fate would have it, though, he gets a visit from his older brother Sam -- AKA a man Nate thought was dead for well over a decade.

Back in the day, the Drake brothers -- along with their partner-turned-villain Rafe Adler -- sought to make off with the treasure of Henry Avery, a notorious pirate.  But the plan went awry, which left Sam seemingly murdered -- though the truth is that the elder Drake survived and spent the past 15 years in a jail cell.  His roomie at the time was Hector Alcazar, a notorious drug lord who hears all about Avery’s treasure from Sam’s wild stories; the lord engineers a bombastic escape and helps Sam go free.  But the catch is that he’s forcing Sam to find the treasure and offer up a cut within three months, or face lethal consequences.  So Sam tracks down Nate and asks for his help -- and thus, Nate gets dragged out of retirement for one last job.  As is the standard.

I have…many, many, many questions and problems with this story.  But before I can get to them, there’s something that’s been on my mind lately.

Okay, so across these four Uncharted games, Nate has shown an incredible knack for uncovering ancient secrets.  He’s solved puzzles, gathered clues, and pretty much waltzed his way to locales that defy reality itself.  Two of his four major adventures have involved magic bullshit that put the kibosh on finding hidden treasure; the other two may have spared him from zombies or ancient warriors, but they still have the same progression: “Well, actually, it turns out that there was some horrible secret that destroyed this group/culture, and we should probably walk away empty-handed.” 

The climax of most of those adventures involves incredible destruction to those finds -- Shambhala and Iram of the Pillars being notable examples, but Avery’s ship ends up going all “your head asplode” once the characters get involved -- so you could argue (successfully) that maybe Nate shouldn’t get involved.  But here’s my issue: why does it have to be a zero-sum game?  Why does Nate have to choose between reckless adventure and day-to-day drudgery?

If this franchise owes a lot to the Indiana Jones movies, then there’s a path that’s seemingly been overlooked -- especially in the context of this game.  Apparently, Nate and Sam’s mom was a famous explorer in her own right, and doing her part to uncover the mysteries of the world.  But the critical difference between Cassandra Morgan and her shitty sons is that she (presumably) did so within the bounds of the law, and for the betterment of mankind.  Further, Nate and Sam decide to do the whole exploration bit because they want to honor their mom’s legacy -- to prove some of her discoveries (like the truth about Avery and Sir Francis Drake) right in her absence, i.e. her untimely death.

Okay, so why did they have to become criminals?  Why do they have to keep being criminals?  Why does Nate think that just because he’s going on the straight and narrow means that he can never go on another adventure again?  I mean, sure, it’s not as if he’s a tenured professor or trusted archaeologist or anything, and it’d be harder to prove his trustworthiness given a rap sheet that’s probably as long as the Great Wall of China.  Still, are his talents just not suited to helping others?  Is he only willing to honor his mother’s legacy if it involves crime and potential (but inevitably-dashed) personal gain?

I only ask, because even if Nate’s destroyed a lot of stuff, he hasn’t destroyed everything.  Setting aside the fact that he’s apparently managed to bring all sorts of ancient artifacts home and lock them away in his attic or a cupboard (including items he shouldn’t even have, like the astrolabe from Drake’s Deception), he’s managed to destroy the final locales in his games, not the locales leading up to them.  Soooooooooooo…he’s pointing people in their general direction, right?  He’s helping people find the merit in Syria, Madagascar, France, Nepal, Scotland, Italy, Panama, and more, right?  He understands that just because there’s no gold, those sites he uncovered -- often rife with incredible technology -- aren’t worthless, right?

I mean, shit.  Nate’s made discoveries that could pretty much transform our understanding of history, if not the face of the earth.  Art, culture, technology, and more are primed for a revolution just by bringing the right people in for a glimpse.  Plus, given that he’s found dozens of hidden secrets across the globe, I’m inclined to believe that Nate’s universe is full of mysteries itching to be solved.  Is there monetary gain involved in all instances?  Probably not.  But it’s something.  He could work with archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and more to uncover secrets buried by time.  And yet the most he can come up with in his life -- despite substantial proof to his claims -- is to accept a job as part of a salvage crew, stamping papers and lamenting the fact that he can’t keep killing people?  I only ask, because at the end (thanks to Elena’s funding and the revival of her old TV show) that’s what Nate ends up doing anyway.  Why did it take him so long to come up with a new solution?

I guess it doesn’t matter, though.  Naughty Dog thinks Nate is Jesus Christ.

That’s not hyperbole.  That is not fucking hyperbole.  If the symbolism of this game is to be believed, Nate is Jesus.  One of the major through lines is that Avery’s treasure is tied to Saint Dismas on the cross -- someone propped up as the “penitent thief” while crucified next to Jesus.  Meanwhile, there’s Gestas the “impertinent thief” (the “jerk thief” as he’s called in-game).  Gestas and Dismas alike mocked Jesus, but Dismas sees the error of his ways and explains that they’re rightly being punished -- while Jesus has committed no crime, naturally.  Dismas goes on to ask Jesus to remember him when he reaches his kingdom, to which Jesus replies that Dismas will join him in paradise.

I got a sinking feeling in my stomach the moment Nate brought it up, but I gave Naughty Dog the benefit of the doubt.  I mean, nobody could be that much of a hack to introduce (and explain) such obvious symbolism, right?  So I figured that -- even though Nate, Sam, and Rafe are the trio on the hunt for Avery’s treasure -- Nate would be the penitent thief and Sam would be the jerk thief, with Jesus there just to throw players off.  By extension, that would mean Nate could complete his character arc (such as it is) in a satisfactory fashion.  Maybe he’d stare his past and present selves in the face, acknowledge his problems, and move toward a brighter future.

And to be fair, he does move toward that future.  It’s just a shame that it’s done in the most asinine, insulting way possible -- a way that makes me think that the minds behind him just don’t get it.

Here’s the thing.  There’s a point later in the game where (once again) the good guys are held at gunpoint by the bad guys.  But since there are two Drakes instead of one, Sam has already taken the initiative and snatched Nadine Ross -- a South African soldier and mercenary accomplice to Rafe -- into his grasp, and has a gun aimed at her head.  Sam threatens to take the shot, but Rafe decides to call the Drakes’ bluff.  He says -- and I QUOTE -- “These guys don’t kill anyone in cold blood.  That’s just not their style.”

Right then and there, the franchise just died.  Well, it’s not like it hadn’t already become some shambling corpse long before that point, but even the zombified remains turned to dust and scattered in the wind. 

And you know what?  Honestly?  My reaction at that point was so earnest, so potent, that I wish I was a Twitch streamer so I could share it with the entire world.  I blew raspberries for a few seconds, then burst into laughter for a pretty big swath of the cutscene.  But to my surprise, the laughter didn’t stop.  I had to pause the cutscene to keep laughing -- a string of breathless guffaws and lung-shaking chuckles.  And even though I had half my face buried in my palm, that wasn’t enough to stop the tears from pooling in the corners of my eyes.  For a few minutes, I turned into a fusion of The Joker, Vega, Sideshow Bob, and Iori Yagami.  It was when I had conclusive proof that Uncharted had finally, truly broken me -- had become 100% irredeemable in my eyes. 

It’s like…Naughty Dog, you just…you just don’t get it, do you?

Nate’s blasé murder of others has been a point of ridicule and derision for ages now -- a running joke that’s parallel with the series’ acclaim.  It’s a problem that’s long since been noted, but it’s not just something made up by detractors; it’s something that the devs themselves brought up in Among Thieves.  Lazarevic calls Nate out for all the killing he’s done, suggesting that they’re not so different and probing the “hero” on how many men he’s killed in that day alone.  Nate doesn’t give him an answer, or even register that he heard the question.  Maybe the idea was that Naughty Dog would provide an answer in Drake’s Deception, but they completely dropped that through line.

So there’s been an uncomfortable specter hanging over Uncharted for the better part of a decade.  It’s something that needed to be addressed; it needed to be addressed five years ago, but it’s something that could’ve been addressed this year.  But they didn’t.  Both the Drakes are murderous shitbags out for their own gain (don’t worry, I’ll come back to that in a bit); even if you set aside their body counts in this game -- and the argument that they act in self-defense, which is wrong when they get the drop on enemies via stealth segments -- they’re still willing to commit grand larceny, trespassing, and assault.  That’s at a bare minimum, and doesn’t include the instances where they put the lives of others in grave danger with stuff like the Madagascar chase/setpiece. 

So that thing suggests two things to me: Naughty Dog wasn’t interested in probing the matter to its fullest (or they were worried they couldn’t run back Nate to an ideal, acceptable form), and/or they actually didn’t see a problem with Nate the Killer.  Honestly, I’d prefer the former reason to the latter, because I thought that The Last of Us implied they were ready to accept that being the hero of a western, modern-day AAA game meant being an unrepentant murderer.  Then again, it may just be a Naughty Dog problem; The Last of Us made Joel Grumpybuns out to be a villain even though the game coded him as a hero, while Uncharted made Nate out to be a hero even though the game coded him as a villain.

But I still prefer the approach TLoU takes over Uncharted.  At least there the characters accept and declare that they’re shitty people.  In Uncharted, we’ve got a guy who’ll willingly put innocent people doing their jobs in danger if they get in his way (remember, Among Thieves started with Nate dragging a museum guard off a roof and into the ocean depths just to show a gameplay mechanic).  And we’ve got a guy who’ll go out of his way to overkill his foes if given the chance, even if it’s at great risk to himself and others (like the plane sequence in Drake’s Deception). 

His action and inaction alike leads to others dying, getting hurt, or otherwise having their lives notably worsened.  He enables the games’ villains to get ever closer to their goals, with devastating results for the past and the present.  Nate is a whirlpool of death and destruction, and the fact that Naughty Dog would willingly sidestep that -- to pretend like Nate doesn’t kill in cold blood like he already has -- comes off as one of the most insulting parts of a franchise that practically mocks you for playing it.

I think I know what the root of the problem is (well, besides pinning so much of the franchise on blockbuster drivel).  Your mileage may vary, but I’m starting to think that Nate -- and several others -- never really had defined characters to begin with, so they’re written and rewritten for whatever will help move a scene along.  It’s not a matter of the creators going “What would this character do in this situation” or asking “Wait, would this character react in such a way?”  It’s more like they’re going “Okay, what does this character need to do so we can have the game move in the way we want?” 

It’d help explain why motivations remain so unclear for so long and/or don’t make sense when they’re introduced; why opinions seem to flip-flop in the span of an hour; why past events and context get thrown out on a whim because they make the story grind to a halt. It leads me to believe that despite the hardware behind him, Nate is somehow less defined than mainstays like Mario or Link.  But Nintendo games can more or less get away with it because they’re not following strict, Hollywood-style narratives -- and even then, those guys do enough to establish their personalities without saying a single word.   

Comparatively, it feels like the more Naughty Dog tries to characterize Nate, the worse he becomes.  It’s probably because they had to rush to give him something worth sinking teeth into; everything having to do with Sam and suddenly being a huge influence on Nate’s life comes off as a frenzied attempt to inject something into the nothingness where his heart (and brain) should be.  The character has too much baggage over the years from his simplified role as an escapist avatar -- someone who’s rugged, athletic, brilliant, successful in all of his endeavors, not wanting for the fairer sex, can literally get away with murder (among other crimes that could qualify as natural disasters), and is practically invincible unless a cutscene says otherwise. 

This is a character that shrugs off point-blank grenade explosions, slamming into walls at sixty miles per hour, and taking a direct blow to the head while plummeting off of a cliff.  Can you even characterize someone’s who’s stopped being human by design?  Should you try to introduce drama in a game that’s not even remotely ready to probe that drama?

I ask this because Elena returns once more.  And her implementation in this game makes me feel really, really bad for women in general, let alone fiction.

As part of the “I’m retired now and giving up the adventuring life (but not really)” shtick, Nate and Elena are married.  I have no idea how that happened, given that Uncharted 2 AND 3 had them broken up at the outset, but whatever.  Now they’re an item again, able to cuddle up next to each other, chat, have dinner, and bond over a rousing game of Crash Bandicoot.  Nate ensures her that he’s done with the reckless exploits of yesteryear, even though it’s obvious that that’s not the case (because otherwise there would be no game).  Weirdly, Elena pushes Nate to take on an illegal job in Malaysia with his salvage company, despite the dangers present.  I guess she’s trying to play the enabler, and proving once again that characters in this franchise flip-flop all the time because plot.

Once Sam comes back into his life (on the grounds that Alcazar will kill him if he doesn’t get the treasure), Nate decides to help his brother out.  Here’s the thing, though: Nate doesn’t tell his wife that he’s going on another globetrotting adventure.  And okay, sure, I get it -- he’s trying to do the noble thing by keeping her from a mission that can get very dangerous very fast.  He’s out to protect her.  Alternatively, he thinks that he has to go it alone so that he doesn’t worry her.  So he tells her that he’s going on that illegal job (and mentions that he got the paperwork to make it legal) as an alibi.  I don’t really know what his plan was if Elena did even a cursory glance at his workplace, but whatever.  There’s an important question that needs to be asked.

Why didn’t Nate tell her the truth?

Well, I know why.  The lie only exists so that the drama could be force-fed into the plot later -- because Elena would figure it out, and she’d have a big fight with Nate over it.  Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.  Through the power of Naughty Dog Teleportation™, Elena SOMEHOW manages to not only track Nate to Madagascar, but also be there in his motel room at the exact moment he walked through the door, all for the sake of a dramatic reveal/cool shot.  (I don’t know; maybe she followed Nate’s trail by parsing through his transaction history or tracking him via phone like the bad guys…which are admittedly terrible answers, but Naughty Dog gives you nothing, so who knows?)

Naturally, Elena chews him out for going on another big adventure without her, to the point where she asks “who are you?”  You would think that she’d know the answer to that by now, given that -- excluding the time he stole her boat in Drake’s Fortune -- he’s left her behind twice already to chase treasure, and one of those times had an engagement/marriage on the line.  She shouldn’t even be surprised by this point, especially considering that she pushed him toward illegal activity earlier in the game.  But as eager as I am to point fingers at Elena -- and not give a shit about this forced melodrama -- I’m inclined to take her side.  Nate fucked up hard.

He didn’t tell her about the treasure.  He didn’t tell her about his journey across the world (which probably cut deep into his -- possibly their -- bank account).  He didn’t tell her about the scores of dangerous gunmen eager to find the treasure, even after it had long since become clear that they would be a perpetual presence.  But what’s really killing is that he didn’t bother to mention that he had a brother -- not just at any point between adventures, but also when the time came for A Thief’s End to get in gear.  Why?  First of all, he’s a family member, and his existence is probably going to come up at some point, especially if he meant so much to Nate.

Second off, Sam’s predicament (such as it is) gives Nate his first genuine motivation to do the right thing.  Uncharted 1, 2, and 3 are all predicated on selfish whims; the implication via this game is that Nate wanted to honor his mom’s legacy and become something more than an abandoned orphan.  That’s still the case with this game -- and throughout all four, it’s as much about the “validation of existence” as it is about lining pockets with gold -- but now that his brother’s under fire from a drug lord, he has a legitimate reason to want to go on a hunt.  Why didn’t he say as much to Elena, given that the circumstances are different?  Was he afraid that she’d shoot him down?

Again, my guess is that Nate didn’t tell her because he didn’t want her to come.  But that’s the clincher, and the symbol of the major problem here: maybe Elena wanted to go on an adventure, too.

Nate’s not the only one getting older here, or settled in to a routine lifestyle.  So is Elena.  It’s true that she’s tried to pull “our hero” away from the rip-snorting adventures that have epitomized the Uncharted series, but A) that’s when she’s not flip-flopping on her stance like everyone else, and B) she’s still been a key player in each adventure up to that point.  Even if she’s the spurned nag in some scenes, she’s still the capable action girl in others.  Hell, A Thief’s End doubles down on that once she actually gets into the action; Naughty Dog makes her so hyper-competent in all of the adventuring stuff Nate does that it actually comes off as irritating.  It’s as if he should’ve brought her along from the get-go.

But that’s missing the big picture here.  Elena has her own desires that need tending to, even if that includes the reckless globetrotting of previous installments.  She needs that release, that outlet, just as much as her husband.  If we think of her and Nate as adrenaline junkies, then it makes sense why she’d push him to do more illegal stuff (even if she’s only living vicariously through him).  Alternatively, you could argue that the key to their bond -- and a happy relationship -- is that they’re able to share something together.  That “something” just so happens to be plunder and murder.

There’s an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Debra realizes that she’s missing out on connecting with Ray because she doesn’t put up enough of an effort for (or show interest in) something that means a lot to him -- in this case golf, but sports in general as shown over multiple seasons.  So she opts to go to the course with Ray and watch him go at it to see what she’s been missing out on.  A lot of the concepts and practices are lost on her, but early in their venture she and Ray end up rekindling their passion in the middle of the green.  Of course, being the show that it is, it’s not long before the laughter and love give way to super fighting spouses.  Still, I get it.  Lesson learned.

I don’t think Nate realizes how much he hurt Elena by turning his back on her -- which I’d argue was the point Naughty Dog was trying to make, but given that they think “Nate did nothing wrong”, I’m inclined to believe it was the result of terrible writing.  On the surface, Mr. Drake is saying “I’m doing it to protect you,” even though it’s plainly obvious that she doesn’t need protecting.  But cut just a single layer deeper, and it becomes “I’m doing it because I need to get away from you.”  Or “I’m doing it because you’re less important to me than treasure and crime.” 

Even if his intention was strictly pure-hearted -- if he only wanted to protect her -- then it still comes off as insulting at best and hateful at worst.  It’s coded as “You’re not as good as me, so stay home,” even though that’s decisively proven false in this game.  Or, alternatively, “You’re not allowed to go on an adventure, because you’re not me.  Only I get to have a mid-life crisis that can only be solved with a long, dangerous vacation with my guy pals.”  Given the state of the game industry and the controversies running through it -- justified controversies -- the subtext of this game threatens to set women back another decade in gaming narratives.

But even if you divorce all of that baggage from Uncharted 4, it still leaves you with a game, and a character, who’s basically an insufferable manchild -- maybe someone in dire need of counseling.  I don’t buy for a second the idea that Nate went on this adventure solely for the sake of his brother, given that A) there’s more than one way to save Sam than finding a treasure that might not even exist, and B) it’s inferable that if Elena hadn’t popped in, he would’ve been goofily gunning for Avery’s gold.  He only starts to realize how much he’s fucked up once he’s caught in the act -- and even when Elena calls him out, and even when Sully comes up with better options than “let’s track down this centuries-old treasure”, Nate’s still like “Nah, man!  We HAVE to go after it!”  And he chews out Sully for even daring to suggest it.

And I’m just sitting there thinking, “YOU HAVE A MORTGAGE NOW, FUCKER.”

You know, I’m reminded of Linkara’s aside in regards to Spider-Man and One More Day -- pointing out that the web-head is skewed too far toward being the escapist character while still trying to play up the personal drama of Peter Parker.  He argued that it didn’t work there.  In turn, I’ll argue that it doesn’t work here.  Nate has a house, bills, a job, and a wife that need tending to.  It’s not a glamorous life, but it is a safe one, and one worth nurturing.  I know he’s basically invincible throughout these games unless the cutscene dictates that he’s hurt, but what would he have done if A Thief’s End was the game where his luck ran out?  What would he have done if he actually died?  Would he have willingly saddled Elena with droves of financial burdens?  What if he didn’t die, but suffered a grievous wound that left him handicapped?  What about the treatments and medical bills needed just to get him to par?

And what about the future?  True, if he found the treasure he might have been able to set the Drake estate for life (assuming he managed to secure a cut, which is likely given that he reasons the treasure is far bigger than anyone thought).  But are the risks worth it?  Is he only thinking about the treasure, and making ALL DA MUNNY in one fell swoop instead of stably building it up over time?  What happens when it’s time to start thinking about raising a family, from birth to college?  Can he prove that he’s reliable enough to settle down with Elena?  More importantly, can Elena truly trust a man that ditches her THRICE to chase after ill-begotten wealth?

I guess the answer to that is yes, because once again, an Uncharted game (epilogue aside) ends with Nate and Elena firing off quips while in close contact, in the middle of a picturesque sunset with a slow pan away from them and a screen that fades to black.

I don’t get it, Naughty Dog.  I don’t get you.  Are you guys actually interested in deconstructing Nate and the nature of his lifestyle?  If so, then why is it such a toothless affair that doesn’t probe farther than six inches deep, or presents genuine consequences for his actions?  Why does the game end with him owning a stunning beach house and living the most successful, saccharine lifestyle imaginable with his teenage daughter?  Why does he walk away from his murder-fest with the “paradise” Jesus promised to Dismas?

And if you’re not interested in deconstructing Nate, then why even include that subtext in the first place?  Why try to saddle your adventure with suburban living and woes when that’s likely what a chunk of your audience is trying to get away from?  Why ask questions that never get a sufficient answer, and only serve to sour the experience to anyone listening to even a fraction of the game’s dialogue?  And perhaps most critically, why are you trying to sell this game as a thrilling conclusion to the series when you’re completely incapable of thrills?  What does it matter if you can see the cartilage in Nate’s ear when you’re padding the fuck out of your game with stale mechanics and setpieces?

But I guess there’s no sense in wondering about the deep stuff.  Remarkably, Uncharted 4 has even more problems than the ones I’ve mentioned here.  And I’m gonna get to them in the finale.  At least, I hope it’s the finale.  I really, really do.

*sigh* I’m gonna need another 80s breakup song.

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