Uncharted’s Nathan Drake has a man cave. It’s in the attic of his otherwise unremarkable middle class home. Dotted around on dusty metal shelves are the relics he found in past games, creating shared nostalgia between the character and those playing.
Seeing the home life of a run-and-gun action character is unusual. Such details are often ignored in video games’ rush to arrive at the next action scenes. Uncharted 4’s patience is uncanny. Of the opening seven chapters, only two of them (briefly) require a gun. Uncharted’s typical bombast has settled down with age, and so has its lead character.
Drake’s character traditionally combines sarcasm and homicide. In three games prior—four including the PlayStation Vita’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss—he’s killed thousands to thieve historical artifacts. He’s the lesser Indiana Jones, though a better climber. His career choice includes elements of the anti-hero, if an enthusiastic, endlessly likeable one.
Naughty Dog has earned the luxury of restraint in Uncharted 4. Their story building techniques are marvelous. Compare to Quantum Break (a recent Xbox One exclusive), which introduced two characters and explained parallel universes, time travel and wacky physics in under 15 minutes before guns were brought out. It felt almost panicked to reach the action. Uncharted 4’s first four hours are composed entirely of leisurely character building.
There’s a normal life to consider. This is where Drake resides during his time off. Reaching near death in the deserts of Uncharted 3 must have slowed his adventurous sense, forcing him to reconsider what matters. He now dives for treasure as part of a salvage company. A video game protagonist with a playable day job—how odd. The Mario Bros. may be plumbers, but they’ve never unclogged a residential toilet in-game.
THE THIEF AND THE BANDICOOT
Still in the attic, Nate is called down by his now wife Elena for dinner. They causally chat on the couch, nursing bowls of pasta as they small talk about their days. Nate has been domesticated. Authentic relationship issues then flare up—Nate drifts off as Elena talks about her journalistic work. He’s still a thief who wants the rush.
The situation is rescued over a game of Crash Bandicoot. Developer Naughty Dog’s bouncy mascot from the early PlayStation era appears on TV, and as the player you walk down memory lane with Drake.
The hero quips and grows frustrated by Crash’s concept, the years of real world treasure hunting still on his mind. Elena turns all smiles. Their bond—which dates to the first Uncharted—has become natural. They’re meant to be together, a fact you can sense in these six minutes whether you played the other games or not.
While seemingly inconsequential, this playful moment is sublime to me. The Crash Bandicoot cameo is humorously meta, but more importantly the soft sequence makes it believable a man who has shot and stabbed so many—and seen so many supernatural happenings—can be happy without the adventure.
Later plot developments reveal the scene as clever foreshadowing. Drake’s persona and outlook changes. Chapter 4 isn’t an innocent waste of time; it’s a critical narrative moment that has impact on the series’ closure.
It’s also a competent thematic romance, well beyond hokey sex scenes. There’s a marital bond at play. Elena and Drake are the American middle class couple. They’re real(ish). You can sense the strength of their relationship; they’re giddy spending time next to one another. This too rolls into the final chapters.
There are errors to Uncharted’s storytelling, ignoring the grand implausibility of its climbing challenges, lengthened shoot-outs, and undiscovered ruins hidden in broad daylight. Uncharted’s joyous B-level pedigree still seeps through, an adventure that adores betraying all logic.
Well-worn tropes bleed from the story’s arteries, including deaths that aren’t deaths and a character—Nate’s brother—being suddenly introduced despite having never before been mentioned.
Consider this though: while video games have mimicked Hollywood’s visual artistry since the 8-bit NES (at the expense of their own style), they have struggled to find their narrative voice. Contemporary franchises still lack sensible character progression. Sony’s God of War series begins with an angry Kratos and ends with an angry Kratos, his battles among the gods never changing his persona, even after seven games.
Nathan Drake, through Crash Bandicoot, carries an arc to conclusion. The rest of Uncharted 4 wrestles with themes of guilt and doubt. Meta humor becomes a feeding point for the series’ finale. The series finds its voice on its own terms.
By hinging so much on those domestic circumstances, Uncharted 4 achieves greater stakes and credible emotion later. Uncharted isn’t featuring someone with a gun who shoots for the loot—it’s someone who is vulnerable to real world relationships. A simple action creates a string of consequences later. Drake isn’t greedy and homicidal anymore. He’s empathetic and genuine, budding from a relationship which began back in the first Uncharted. The pay-off has come for this Sony-exclusive series. Hopefully the lessons penetrate and become a new norm.
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