Note: Mild thematic spoilers for Uncharted 4 are discussed ahead. If you haven't played it yet and want to go in completely fresh, turn back now.
Being brutally honest, until The Last of Us, I never bought Naughty Dog’s reputation as a master storytelling studio. The first three Uncharted games undoubtedly tower above the average actioner in terms of tone and characterisation, of course. They’re upbeat, witty, likable, and decidedly human adventures, beaming like warm gold in the middle of the games industry’s traditional swamp of angry grey bile. But grand narrative achievements? No. They’re lovingly executed, pulpy fun. Great Saturday morning cartoon stuff, whose Joss Whedon-lite dialogue is bolstered and elevated by a charismatic and perfectly cast set of actors. That’s a wonderful thing, and something that was very much necessary in 2008 – and beyond - but we’re not looking at Breaking Bad here.
Not that Uncharted hasn’t tried to grow up several times over the course of its run. Uncharted 3 in particular picked up its predecessor’s penchant for expanded cast dynamics and attempted to inject some serious, adult, emotional drive into proceedings. There was the smartly matter-of-fact failure of Nate and Elena’s relationship as a direct result of Drake being exactly who he is. There was exploration of Nate and Sully’s proxy father/son stuff, taking in their dynamic from the very start right through to – what briefly looked like – the very end. But it just didn’t quite work. Because Uncharted 3’s valiant attempts at weight and pathos were undermined by the simple fact that it was Uncharted 3.
It had to top Uncharted 2, the game that had made the case for exhilarating action pacing and cinematic set-pieces better than any other since Resident Evil 4. It was the closing part of the trilogy, and the last Uncharted game of its generation. Its narrative aspirations were constantly at odds with its need to be bigger, to look more spectacular, to deliver cooler and more unexpected ‘Holy shit’ moments than the game that had come before it. Ultimately, there was no room for both sides to really flourish – in terms of either running time or coherent tonality – and the final product ended up feeling like an ambitious but less resonant remake of its predecessor.
But Uncharted 4, it seems, understands what went wrong. It seems to get that such character-driven heft can’t just be shoehorned into a big, summery action game and expected to fit. It understands that form and function have to serve each other, and so it deliberately breaks down the Uncharted format, before rebuilding and retooling to fit what this really last, actually final game needs to do in order to attain the narrative weight that the series has lately aimed for.
And so we get a long prologue. A really long prologue. It lasts around four hours, and is concerned as much with exploring slow-burn character dynamics – usually in one-to-one scenarios, in relatively intimate settings – as it is climbing and skull-cracking. It has action, but it’s delivered in self-contained bursts rather than through the series’ traditional sequences of monumental escalation and climax. And every one of these short, sharp shots of Uncharted is couched in noticeably prioritised storytelling. If an action scene isn’t explaining the historical dynamic between characters via a shared past experience, then the setting it plays out in is speaking volumes about someone’s past or present situation. Often, Uncharted 4 is doing both.
It’s an opening conspicuously influenced by its directors’ previous game, the aforementioned – and narratively excellent - Last of Us. Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley are now clearly confident in their ability to hold a mainstream audience’s attention with relationships as well as gameplay, and so they take their time in setting up the dynamics that Uncharted 4 will use as its foundation. And that’s great.
Because at this stage, Uncharted does need this stuff. Cut that opening sequence, and we have pretty much the opening act of Uncharted as standard. A really good iteration of it, mind, but still a polished version of very familiar tropes. The early, night-time infiltration of the palatial compound, which starts out stealthy but inevitably goes loud at the end (the auction sequence even borrows its architectural flow from Uncharted 2’s Museum heist). The ‘getting the team together and striking out on the path’ bit. The stately European ruin bit. Several instances of international puzzle solving that reveal only that the princess is indeed in another castle.
Uncharted 4 needed to go beyond that. To properly send the series off, all ambitions realised, it had to explore and discuss something more than ‘Isn’t this exciting?’. So it had to slow things down. It had to set up major themes and emotional beats early, so that its characters - through their actions and their interactions with each other - would have time to really explore them over the course of the rest of the game. Only by front-loading so heavily could the campaign be really, innately framed by the bigger picture, and focused – even if sometimes just on an ambient level – on what its moment-to-moment action means beyond the mission.
And just as importantly, that long, slow start authorises the rest of the game to take it easier as well, relaxing the pace from the beginning so that things don’t have to scale up anything like as hard or as fast as before. We can now have long, ambient, pseudo free-roaming sections that are as much about dialogue as exploration. We can have a reduced number of scripted set-pieces, the action’s peaks and troughs materialising more through stand-out moments fashioned from ‘normal’ gameplay, and all the more grounded and open to characterisation for it.
From a narrative design point of view, all of this a good thing. On paper it’s exactly what Uncharted needed in order to end on an entry that really resonates. On paper, that is. Because in practice, while Uncharted 4’s prologue does some great, important work, it’s hampered by one key element. It tries to use Sam as its catalyst. And regardless of your personal feelings towards the guy, the contrivance of his appearance in Uncharted 4 hamstrings the excellent work being built around him.
Because this, ultimately, is a game about taking stock of the benefit and cost of being an action hero. It’s about the perks of being Nathan Drake versus the cost on his relationships and those around him. It’s about whether it’s possible – and responsible - to have an adventurous life and a ‘normal’ life. And it’s about how the man trying to juggle all of this can and should respond. One who wants to do the ‘right’ thing, but still has one more escapade in him, and isn’t sure how to be happy despite knowing he wants to be. It has to realise what Uncharted 3 only danced around. It has to cut deep into Drake’s life, loves and priorities. It has to show us why he’s making his choices, right and wrong. It has to show us the stakes on both sides. It has to show us how he weighs the conflicting priorities in play. Because building and resolving difficult conflict is just how drama operates.
On the one side, we have Elena. That works. We’ve been with these two from the start. We know her. We’ve seen their relationship grow, fall, rebuild, and change both of them as they rework themselves to help maintain it. Drake’s actions in regard to her – both positive and otherwise – can be understood and discussed instinctively, because we’ve been through it all with him.
On the other side, we have some guy we don’t know, who canonically didn’t exist before this game, and who Uncharted 4 has to jump through a whole bunch of contrived storytelling hoops to justify the appearance and importance of. The whole thing is stacked against Sam from the start. He’s just not part of it, however much the game tries to make him an emotional touchstone in Drake’s actions. We still understand Nate’s sacrifices and struggles, but his brother adds nothing.
You can’t deliver edited highlights of a relationship that no-one has ever mentioned before and then expect it to become a meaningful, organic part of your fictional world. And you certainly can’t when you have to deliver it via such awkward sleights of hand, with long-term character disappearances and really convenient time-scales key to making the story even remotely logical, let alone believable. It feels forced. It feels plastic. It feels fake, and it fundamentally lacks the relatability that it needs in order to be a focusing lens for a meaningful exploration of Drake’s internal conflict.
That’s the thing with narrative justification. If a concept doesn’t hold true instinctively, it doesn’t stick emotionally. Your brain rejects it. Elena’s presence is felt throughout the game, where she’s present or not. But from the off, Sam feels like a manufactured interloper. His plight holds no weight, and so the conflict breaks down. The early dramatic tension would actually be greater if just Nate made a personal choice to go off adventuring of his own accord.
Bah, nearly, Naughty Dog. Nearly brilliant. Maybe you should have brought Chloe back instead. Hell, I’d have even taken Charlie Cutter.