Thursday, May 26, 2016

Why Uncharted 4's ending bums me out - Opinion

[contains spoilers]

Silence—a first for the series.

Boot up any of the other Uncharted games, and you'll be greeted with momentous fanfare that pumps you up for yet another exciting adventure. It's fittingly titled "Nate's Theme" after our intrepid hero, capturing both his bravery and the exotic thrills that await him on the road ahead. But Uncharted 4: A Thief's End eschews with the series' bravado, opting to instead welcome the player with a solitary, silent, and haunting image:

The tonal shift feels deliberate; the dead pirate serves as a warning for those that tread down this path. And as you progress through the game's story, it's clear Uncharted 4's narrative revolves around greed and its consequences. Sam's naivety and lust for treasure sweeps his brother off his feet, transporting them both to Avery's island in a race to find the legendary captain's treasure before their ruthless adversaries do. Elena is also dragged into the struggle, first to rebuke Nate for his betrayal but then to watch over her reckless husband. Shortly after the two reunite on the island, they share a pithy exchange that reveals what's at stake:

Nate: "Thanks for saving me. Again."

Elena: "I almost didn't this time."

This journey isn't merely about risking one's life for gold and glory—it's about straining the fragile trust of those closest to you. Uncharted 4 masterfully echoes this in the tale of Libertalia and New Devon, where colonists and pirate leaders alike were deceived, tortured, and slaughtered by each other. Their internal strife shattered their proud allegiance, the venerable pirate utopia now left abandoned, flooded, and booby trapped. For half the game you stand in awe at what the pirate brigade was able to accomplish together, but eventually you uncover the truth of their arrogance, violence, and madness. Greed ultimately consumed them, and their mistrust for one another ensured that no one would survive to tell the tale.

Similar seeds of doubt are strewn amongst the main cast late into the game: Sam has lied to Nate, Nate has lied to Elena, and the uneasy alliance of Rafe and Nadine is quickly crumbling. Nate realizes the severity of this obsession with gold, first chiding himself for taking advantage of his wife and then bearing witness to the horrors of New Devon. It's clear this treasure is cursed—insofar as the people seeking to covet it don't seem to survive for long—and after reuniting with Sam, Nate makes a bold decision: they're all getting off the island, empty pockets in tow.

Nate & co. abandoning the plot wholesale was an interesting pivot in the story for me. Even though it felt like the game was warming up to an explosive finale (especially after the amazing ship graveyard section), this decision felt logical—after going through so much trouble to locate Avery's stash, our resilient hero has seen where this path takes him. His time with Elena has grounded him, Sam's betrayal let him taste his own bitter medicine, and the letters he collected illustrated how this tale would play out. This life wasn't fun—it was extremely selfish and dangerous. The player is then struck with an elongated period of silence as the cast slowly descends down the mountain back to the plane, an unceremonious anti-climax to our story.

Yet this is not where the game ends.

Sam somberly remarks about the explosions off in the distance, aching for the same resolution the player is. Eventually he gets separated and heads off to finish the journey he and his brother started. Nate coincidentally stumbles into an opportunity to pursue him, and does so. At this point, I figured the story was going to conclude with a fistfight to bring Sam back, as it seemed like an appropriate and emotional crescendo to close on (after all, how often do you brawl with the final boss in order to save his/her life?) Perhaps—I figured—there might be an epilogue of a playable Rafe or Nadine (or even Sam) descending into Avery's ship, discovering that the grisly pirate had rigged the vessel to burst if anyone stumbled upon his loot-laden corpse. Thieves dying with their desperately-sought treasure isn't exactly a fresh trope, but if there's something Avery seemed dead-set on, it was killing anyone that dared to steal from him.

To my surprise (but I'm sure the delight of many players), there's no subversion or shock—Nate travels to the pirate ship, duels with Rafe, and saves his brother. He escapes the crumbling vessel and returns home to shed his boring life, managing a salvage company with his wife which undertakes less risky ventures and explores the world. Almost everything ends better than expected for Uncharted 4's cast, the villains of the story being the only ones to receive a reprimand for their greed. Sure, Sam can't get back the time he lost in prison, but there's still a whole life full of adventure ahead of him with the best partner a guy can ask for.

I don't like this ending.

It may feel like a fitting conclusion for a sentimental fan of the Uncharted series, but it is not a good closer for this particular story. I know these games are a far cry from the bleak world of The Last of Us, but I expected a more serious resolution to accompany the more mature writing. Instead, the game follows in the thematic footsteps of the past three titles, placing Nate in constant peril but doing nothing to leave a lasting impression that he learned anything on this journey. At best Nathan realized he shouldn't lie to his wife, but at worst Elena's concern for him comes across as incessant nagging that keeps him from his true calling. Nearly nothing of importance occurred to convince me that this was definitely his final outing into the wild, other than the developers stating so.

A major part of my disappointment is because there were no demonstrable opportunities for Nate to quell his greed. I yearned for the mountaintop brawl with Sam because it would be a dynamic way to prove the treasure wasn't worth sacrificing one's life for, especially because Sam was emulating Nate's younger/more brash side. Instead, Avery's ship is set ablaze so the brothers—under immediate duress—can only escape with their lives, the lagoon caving in to ensure that the treasure was irrecoverable. But what would have happened if they had an opportunity to pillage it safely, or if they had the choice to hand it over to Rafe and Nadine? Doesn't Nate being forced to pull Sam away from the gilded goods sound like it would reinforce the narrative the players received throughout the game?

Robbing the story's main character of his agency to reject this lifestyle proves nothing to the player. Despite the subtitle, Uncharted 4 isn't about a thief's end—it's about a thief's reward. It's about how scavenging, trespassing, shooting, and narrowly avoiding death every minute can be quite thrilling and glamorous. As long as you act like the good guy, you get rewarded with a loyal wife, a fantastic job, a gorgeous beach house island, and a brilliant daughter. There are no lasting injuries, dead friends, or monetary losses to speak of—only the splendor of a life well-lived. Hell, the game ends on Nate recounting how fun and awesome his memories of the first game were. That right there is prime evidence of how enviable this lifestyle is, outside of your wife potentially thumbing her nose at you for doing it without her permission.

Perhaps, looking back, The Last of Us set too high a bar for Naughty Dog to achieve. Whereas that story ended exactly when it needed to and with the perfect tone, I can't help but feel that Uncharted 4 is a squandered opportunity. So many magnificent little details lured me in the wrong direction: the inclusion of the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus, the old woman at the estate alienating her family, and the discovery Burnes' grandson's corpse moments before the climax of the story. These remarkable tidbits unfortunately stand in stark opposition to how the narrative wraps up. There was no punishment for Nathan's thievery in the end; all the treasure hunter needed to do was stop chasing after illegal jobs and he was perfectly fine. Compare that to Avery's beloved Saint Dismas—despite being penitent, the man still suffered and died for his trespasses, only able to find solace through repenting for his sins.

Uncharted 4 should've just opened with a dramatic shot over Avery's island with Nate's Theme 4.0 playing. The lone skeleton swinging in the rusted gibbet is the exact opposite tone of this mindlessly optimistic game.

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