The Narrative Missteps of Uncharted 4

[Originally published June 6, 2016]

Listen – I’m a huge fan of Uncharted 4. I had a great time experiencing its setpieces, dialogue, and narrative. That being said, it still suffered from lots of deeply structural problems that diminished the effectiveness of its narrative. I mean to examine them. So let’s cook this sacred cow. Tear its meat. Strip its bones. Suffice it to say: Spoilers Ahead.

 1. The Villain(s)

Dynamic Duo

The Uncharted series has always suffered from a bit of a villain problem, and A Thief’s End screws the pooch on two fronts. Our narratological internalization suffers from the flawed implementation of both the primary and secondary antagonists – Rafe and Nadine, respectively.

I’ll start small and work my way up. Nadine is a criminally misused character. There’s very little for us to go on – she’s the head of a struggling PMC, sports a no-nonsense attitude, and has biceps for DAYS  – but it’s enough to see the spectre of an interesting character. Maybe if she’d had a greater effect on the plot, these traits could have come into play in any meaningful way. As it stands, however, she’s essentially superfluous. She doesn’t actually prevent Nate’s progress. She barely impedes it. During the finale, even her mercenaries betray her. She could be switched out with literally anyone else, and the game would remain the same. The only real action she takes that has a direct effect on the plot comes during the final moments of the game, when she locks Nate, Sam, and Rafe in a burning pirate ship. That’s literally it. Sure, she fights Nate at one point, but he gets away – no worse for wear. He still achieves what he came to do. It’s a wicked huge bummer that a character with legitimate, interesting motivations is made redundant within the narrative.

The primary antagonist, unfortunately, doesn’t fare much better. The game completely botches its inclusion of a red herring antagonist – psychotic drug lord, Hector Alcazar – and fails to realize that the character structure of the Uncharted series gives this twist away.

The idea of a red herring villain isn’t necessarily bad, but this attempt at faking out the player ultimately falls flat on its face. This technique is used well in other narratives – take The Bourne Identity. Wombosi is built up as an antagonist – an unstable, brutal former dictator, pursuing Bourne for the failed assassination attempt. He is, however, killed towards the end of the second act by the films trueantagonists – the U.S. government. It’s an effective moment. We get to see a cruel, powerful character outdone by another entity – one even more threatening than the last. It contributes to our understanding of the strength and ruthlessness of the true enemy. Uncharted 4 does no such thing. Alcazar was simply a lie, concocted to sell Nathan Drake on an adventure to save his brother. It does nothing more than distract, where figures like Wombosi actually serve the characterization of the true villains. You spend a lot of time hearing stories about what a freaky-deaky dude Alcazar is, when really you should be learning more about Rafe – a legitimately interesting, grounded villain character. By the time you learn the truth, the game is well entrenched in its final act – when it’s almost too late to care.

It’s also hard to care when you know ahead of time that Alcazar won’t end up acting as villain. The Uncharted villains have always followed a bit of a formula. You have your Big Bads – the folks who’re in charge of the treasure-getting – the secondary antagonists – often a combat-oriented character that provides the muscle – and a third party – the Friend-Turned-Enemy-Who-Has-A-Conflict-Of-Consciousness-And-Rejoins-You-In-The-End. A little long, that last one. Three villains. Three characters for the player to root against. This formula deviates and bends somewhat from game to game, but it’s safe to assume that each title will follow this pattern. That’s why I knew – upon the introduction of Rafe and Nadine as Primary Antagonists – that Alcazar wouldn’t factor in. It broke the villain formula. None of the Uncharteds have introduced a secondary Big Bad. They just haven’t. They haven’t – and they didn’t. Alcazar is a mere spectre, and Rafe is the only party worth focusing on. This made it all the more frustrating when Sully and Sam shot the shit about Alcazar – I knew all the character buildup would amount to nothing. It cheapened the reveal, and only vindicated my frustrations. It was as though the words ‘and it was all a dream’ flashed on the screen, followed immediately by the series finale of Lost. A decent idea, but – ultimately – unsatisfying, much like…

2. The Betrayal

Uhhhhhhh So Gritty So Bold

Part of the Uncharted games, as mentioned before, is the F.T.E.W.H.A.C.O.C.A.R.Y.I.T.E. Again – a little long. Once again, the formula[1] betrays the narrative’s true intentions. It’s obvious that Sam’s the one who’ll fill this role. You already have your primary and secondary antagonists. Sully and Elena are series vets – they’re not going to be the ones to stab Nate in the back. That leaves Sam. It’s unfortunate when a narrative shows its hand like this – it really cheapens the impact of what’s meant to be a gut-wrenching twist.

Naughty Dog poorly implements Sam’s betrayal. This was my biggest disappointment with the narrative. A double-cross is meant to give you someone to root against, and provide you with conflicted feelings over a character you once cared for and trusted. Often, their renewed loyalty comes after a lengthy period of time, during which we see them question themselves and their morals. It’s a cool character trope that allows the narrative to really explore the justifications of each side. Sam fills the role, but the execution ends up hackneyed and weak.

Part of what made Chloe an interesting character was her struggle to pick a team, and earn back the trust of Nate/crew. It was a protracted battle of loyalty and respect. Sam’s betrayal is brief and nearly meaningless. His betrayal doesn’t even involve a switching of sides – he just lies about the nature of his motivations. He immediately takes a bullet for Nate, who then welcomes Sam back into the fold with only minor trepidation. I know it’s supposed to be a ‘brother thing,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s not an unearned narrative decision. There’s no tension from an internal conflict – Sam still pursues the treasure without questioning the validity of his motivations – and there’s no drama from a struggle for loyalty – Nate follows after, meaning to protect Sam. It sucks to see legitimately interesting tropes so heavily misused, especially since they have an effect on the impact of other tropes such as…

3. The Fall

mmmmm lookit that handsome man in the sand with a plan but his name isn't stan but i bet you his hands for sure can take a tan and i'm so sorry this is the worst thing i've ever done oops oops oops

Naughty Dog likes to put Nate through the ringer. He hallucinates from thirst while wandering through the desert in Uncharted 3. In Uncharted 2, he’s shot in the gut and left for dead in a train wreckage. Like the betrayal, this is – hypothetically – a cool character moment. We get to see our protagonist at their most desperate and vulnerable. We feel for them, and connect with them on a deeper level. It’s a moment of acute despondence, where our hero really has to struggle to overcome the roadblock that’s been unexpectedly thrown in their face. That’s why it works. Not so, in Uncharted 4.

‘The Fall’ is disorganized and easily overcome. Elena shows up, having discovered that Nate has lied to her about being on a business trip.[2] She storms out after he defends his actions – via the overused and alwaysnonsensical ‘I was trying to protect you! But I guess I was really just trying to protect myself’ cliché. It’s not Nate’s best moment. Immediately afterwards, he’s physically brought down by an intense boating accident. Much like Uncharted 2, he stumbles around, barely able to keep going. Then, he is knocked off of a G.D. cliff after Rafe reveals Sam’s lie. So many threads, all introduced – and then resolved – in mere moments.

Immediately after falling off of the cliff, Elena ex machinas herself to Drake’s location, heals his wounds, and takes him back. Nate then forgives Sam shortly thereafter. ‘The Fall’ is rendered inconsequential – a mere annoyance, rather than the life-threatening setback we’ve seen in previous entries. It didn’t even have to be as dramatic as the falls of 2 or 3. It just had to have real impact on the character. It had to highlight the severity of his predicament. Instead, players are left with a rushed moment of character accomplishment that only highlights the invincible nature of Nathan Drake. It eliminates the implication of stakes, and destroys any sort of tension the game still had.

I like this game. I really do. It’s one of my favorite titles of 2016. There’s plenty to like – the grappling hook is amazing, the stealth is the best Naughty Dog’s ever designed, and the ending is literally perfect – but it’s still riddled with missteps that go beyond the sometimes fragile nature of the setpieces. I look forward to Naughty Dog’s next title, and hope that they’ve learned from these mistakes.

[1] One quick aside: I’m aware that Uncharted 3 didn’t have a ‘betrayal’ figure, though I suspect that Charlie Cutter was meant to fill that role. If you watch Did You Know Gaming, you know that his actor had to leave before production on Uncharted 3 was finished, ending that character’s story. I have DEEP suspicions that the absence of a betrayal was in direct relation to this departure. Of course, that’s mere speculation, but it makes sense, no?

[2] By the way, Nate Drake is a monster poopy garbage fire, and Elena deserves better.

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