At first, you think maybe Nathan Drake is finally going to learn something from all this.
We’re deep into the fourth and ostensibly final game of the Uncharted series—at least the last with protagonist Nate in the lead role—and it looks like maybe he’s finally realizing his adrenaline-addled treasure-chasing mercenary killing gunshot-dodging lifestyle is maybe not that great. The memories seem better than the reality. This is, of course, a thing he first vocalized way back in his first game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, but hey, whatever. Character growth. Settling down might not be as boring as it first appeared.
That’s the story Uncharted 4 tries (and fails) to tell, anyway. It starts with a domesticated Nate living life away from the globe-trotting fortune seeker game, after having discovered and subsequently lost three separate amazing treasures and one fabled city in the previous games. Along the way, he’s also defeated, with a clutch of close friends, three private armies, a warlord, and a host of literal, honest-to-God monsters. He has finally married, in some kind of lasting way, Elena Fisher, a journalist who’s been similarly adrenaline-fueled throughout the series. They have a nice suburban house. Nate does river dive salvage to rescue cargo from trucks that go off bridges.
Of course, Nate is wistful for the good ol’ days when he would race a scary murderer and his hired goons to an amazing pile of gold or something, only to find out that the last people who made it here all turned into zombies, and then the whole place falls into a sinkhole.
Then, Nate’s long-lost brother Sam, who we’ve never ever heard of, shows up and quickly convinces Nate to go looking for a pirate treasure the pair were after some 17 years ago. Before Sam was seemingly killed and then lost almost two decades of his life in a Panamanian prison. And which he has to find to avoid murder at the hands of a drug lord. Sounds like a great idea!
By the way, during this conversation, Nate and Sam talk basically all night and it’s only hours after Sam’s reappearance that Nate even thinks to mention he’s married. I imagine you can see where this is going.
NATE DRAKE, GIANT MANCHILD
So Nate enlists cultural artifact theft mentor Sully, lies liberally to Elena because he’s “given up that life,” and sets off to track down the hidden treasure of pirate Captain Henry Avery. A bad guy with a private army shows up, shockingly. Nate and pals kill a huge number of mercenaries. The adventure takes them across multiple countries and continents, a real rollicking adventure.
It should be noted that Nate is in mortal danger the entire time, but nothing that 1) he can’t handle, and 2) that he hasn’t gone through before with his wife. But as Elena notes when she finally finds out about all this, Nate lies to her for weeks. She’s understandably upset, and the game does her a pretty big disservice by painting her as something of a wet blanket. This is the woman who, in the first game, wanted to keep chasing the dangerous but amazing treasure even after Nate was all like, “Hey, this dumb idea isn’t really worth getting shot in the head over!”
But, you know, character development or something.
Elena shows up and confronts Nate, but his marriage crumbling before his eyes for no better reason than he’s acting like a 14-year-old isn’t enough to stop him. However, obsession finally does start to take its toll, and as the game progresses, Nate starts to maybe kinda sorta learn some things about himself. Maybe. Like, adventure is cool but it’s also exhausting. That really seems to be the big takeaway.
After some more twists, a semi-falling out with Sam, and nearly drowning, Elena shows up on a jungle pirate island to save Nate’s life by way of plot convenience. In the best chapter of the game, Elena gets back to her old self, climbing stuff and shooting dudes and being a general asskicker as seen in previous Uncharted games. Meanwhile, actress Emily Rose gives Elena the best performance of this or possibly any game, and thanks to Uncharted 4’s visual fidelity, it really plays—as Nate tries to joke his way back into Elena’s heart and talks about their future vacations together, you get a real sense that, when he mentions the future, he’s imagining something far different from what she is.
Nate Drake’s getting divorced, y’all.
Or at least, that’s the way it seems. There are definitely some personal conflicts that need to be worked out here! Nate’s actually being held accountable for his actions! He actually seems to be changing as a result of his experiences!
Hold up a second, though. Not so fast. This is a video game, after all.
THEN IT ALL TOTALLY COLLAPSES
At a key moment, Uncharted 4 drops a flashback chapter into the game in which Nate and Sam, as children, break into a well-to-do home in search of journals belonging to their dead mother, ostensibly sold by their estranged father. In the house, the kids discover a number of historical artifacts, gathered by a globe-trotting adventurer. And scattered throughout the house are notes and letters from the globe-trotter’s husband, laying out how she chose adventure over family.
The last letter suggests the damage the adventurer’s choices did to her loved ones—her husband grew sick and died, and her son wants nothing to do with her because she chose obsession over family. She’s old and alone in the end thanks to her decisions.
It’s a poignant moment in the game, when a young Nate Drake sees the consequences of his later actions, right there in front of him. Obviously, its inclusion in the game is meant to demonstrate something meaningful to Nate, a lesson he learns, a person he chooses to avoid becoming.
Or it would in any other story. But in Uncharted 4, it’s not Nate reading those notes, it’s you. Nate goes through the whole scene never really learning anything about the adventurer woman. It’s a significant moment for the player that does nothing to help Nate grow.
And that’s the trouble with Uncharted 4 in one handy example. Nate never learns anything. After the reunion with Elena she basically just forgives him—or rather, their conflict more or less evaporates. It never comes up again. All those meaningful looks just aren’t that meaningful.
Same goes for Nate’s trouble with Sam, the obsessed liar who dragged him back into the life into which he secretly wanted to return. Sam risks both their lives repeatedly for his fortune and glory, but that conflict just stops being a thing in the end.
Uncharted 4 totally flubs the most important part of its story: the resolutions of the conflicts between these characters. At a certain point, the interpersonal conflicts get ignored or swept under the rug. In the final moments of the game, Nate goes back to his salvage job—the one that held him back, the one he longed to leave for a taste of his old life. In the the end, Nate just goes back to where he started, making the same promises to himself and to Elena that he couldn’t keep in the first place.
It’s Elena who solves Nate’s conflict. She buys the salvage company. She gives him permission to go back to the semi-adventurer lifestyle. She saves the marriage.
Nate just sulks.
Uncharted 4 brings Nate Drake’s story to a close, but it doesn’t give him an arc. Nate never learns anything from what’s happened to him. He never makes a choice to change who he is. Instead, Elena gives him what he wants so he never has to worry. And that’s a bummer.
Despite all its efforts, Uncharted 4 is an incomplete story. Elena acts as a deus ex machina to resolve Nate’s conflicts so he doesn’t have to do it himself, and that robs him of his agency. Nate Drake never determines who Nate Drake is, or who he’ll be for the rest of his life. Instead, Uncharted 4 fails Nate by letting him off the hook.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. He was hoping the latter would help him get Han Solo hair, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. He lives with his wife and annoying cats in Los Angeles.