Sunday, 1 January 2017

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Using reality to deliver the ultimate fantasy

The following article contains spoilers for all 4 Uncharted games.

Many story-driven games use fantastical or other-worldly settings to make the player reflect upon real life, but the Uncharted series has always done the opposite. Nathan Drake, clad in jeans and a plain T-shirt, is possibly the most mundane protagonist ever to front a blockbuster game, and the contrast between the normality of his characterisation and the outlandishness of his adventures is what makes the escapism of the latter so potent.

Unremarkable protagonists are common in films and literature because they make it easy for an audience or reader to imagine that the events in the story are happening to them. However, they're unusual in games because the events are already, unequivocally happening to the player, who therefore wants those events to be as fun and empowering as possible. If it's a given that you are the protagonist anyway, wouldn't you rather play as a space marine/cyborg/wizard/demon hunter than just a "guy in a t-shirt"?

Most players would, or think they would, so Naughty Dog's decision to make Nate an "everyman who struggles to get by" was a deliberate one to wrong-foot the player, who'd be unable to form any expectations about the adventure based on what the protagonist looked like he was equipped to do. Moreover, in contrast to superhuman video game characters, who can use their powers to overcome obstacles, Nate's limited skill-set means his survival often relies on good luck and improvisation, which raises the stakes of each encounter.

In the first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007), Nate's everyman qualities seemed to extend to his motivation, too: he's cast as a treasure-hunter whose only difference from his acquisitive enemies is that he's driven by a love of adventure and a fascination with history's secrets rather than a desire for material gain. Since the player is also more concerned with the challenge and the journey than the end reward, this means that they’re in the same headspace as the character they’re controlling, increasing the immersion and thus the payoff at every triumph.

The next two games went deeper, exploring the potentially destructive consequences of Nate’s actions, both for his loved ones and the wider world. In order to do this while keeping Nate likeable, they examine his motivation, and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011) reveals that behind his enthusiasm lurks a lonely need for identity and recognition borne of his abandonment in an orphanage by his father, and dismissal by every adult since. But while a more extreme backstory was required to explain (if not justify) Nate’s increasingly irresponsible actions, it also created distance between him and the player, who was still in it for the ride.

By the mid-point of Uncharted 3, it was clear that far from being an everyman, Nate is actually the survivor of a childhood so upsetting that he spent his life trying to erase it by assuming the false identity of Sir Francis Drake’s decendent. Although this first half of the game puts yet more distance between Nate and the player, its ending - in which Nate retires to a life a bit more like the player’s - closes the gap. Nate's decision to live a normal life is not just satisfying because it seems to resolve Nate's own arc (see below), but also because it restores Nate's relatability by showing the player that the guy they hoped was just like them is ultimately happiest with a life that is just like theirs.

However, this ending left nowhere for a sequel to go. The first three games in the series presented and enforced a dichotomy between Nate's lust for adventure and his need for love: the former destructive and the latter redemptive. When Uncharted 3 brought his arc to an apparent conclusion by having him choose love, it seemed there was no meaningful way for the series to proceed. Within the established framework, the only options for a sequel would have been to either undo the character development of the earlier games, or to to repeat them, reaffirming established truths, but saying nothing new.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) avoids both of these pitfalls by adding the bittersweet complexity of the real world to its morality, its character development and its world, all of which were defined in previous games by a fantastical simplicity. By re-calibrating Nate's world so that it is more like the player's, Uncharted 4's ending doesn't just show players that everything works out for the hero, but actually taps into their fantasies about their own life, thus delivering a wish-fulfilment far more potent than any of the previous games.

It makes its intentions clear early on, in a sequence that shows that Nate's choice at the end of Uncharted 3 hasn't brought him the happiness that he and the player thought it would. He and his now wife Elena are trying their best to live a normal life, but Elena's job writing puff-pieces for travel magazines leaves her dissatisfied, and Nate's work as a salvage diver is a poor substitute for treasure-hunting, so he spends his evenings fantasising about past exploits. Neither is happy.

This casts doubt over Nate's ability to bring a happy ending to fruition, not because, as in previous games, he may lack the skills to find treasure or defeat evil, but because his nature is fundamentally at odds with the trappings of a stable, law-abiding life. It's a troubling sequence because it's so recognisable: many people have tried their hardest to live a certain way, been unhappy, made what seems like a rational decision to live differently, and yet still found themselves unhappy. In Nate's case the diverging paths - lawlessness and domesticity - may be extreme, but his dilemma is one that most people face at some point. If you've explored both the paths that life seems to offer and neither made you happy, what are you supposed to do?

Nate, flawed as ever, does what all too many of us might do in such a situation, and jumps on the first excuse that presents itself. When his brother Sam - whom Nate had long given up for dead - reappears claiming to need Nate's help to find a legendary stash of pirate treasure to pay off his bounty, Nate chooses not only to believe the story, but convince himself that the right thing to do is go with Sam, risk his life, and lie to Elena about it. The fact that Sam's story turns out to be a lie is almost irrelevant as far as the wrongness of Nate's decision is concerned, because the dramatic conflict in the story comes from his struggle to acknowledge both to Elena and himself that his motivation is selfish.

It's also important that Uncharted 4 is the first game in the series in which the treasure is just, well, treasure. In each of the preceding games, Nate sees sense and decides to go home, only to find out that the mythical MacGuffin actually possesses apocalyptic supernatural powers, and that he needs to stop the crime boss/warlord/cult leader from getting hold of it. By dispensing with magic, Uncharted 4 makes the motivation of everyone except steely mercenary Nadine Ross (of whom more later) purely emotional. Sam wants to make up for half a lifetime behind bars, nasty Rafe Adler wants to prove he's more than just his parents' money, and Nate's trying to fill a void.

This not only adds weight to the story, but by giving Nate a mundane life he guiltily wishes to escape from, also gives him something in common with the player, who is firing up the PlayStation after a hard day to roam free over the wilds of Scotland or the lush plains of Africa, where all problems can be solved by pulling either a lever or a trigger. It's much easier for a player to immerse themselves in a video game when the character they're controlling wants to do the same things as they do, and Uncharted 4 makes it easy to believe that itchy-footed Nate relishes the thrill of exploring the fantastic locations just as much as the player does. 

Uncharted 4 goes further in its quest to align the protagonist's experience with the player's by taking small steps to alleviate the ludonarrative dissonance that has dogged the series since its inception. The term refers to the disconnect between what a player is told about a video game character during cutscenes and what the character actually does during gameplay, and with a lovable protagonist at odds with its vast bodycount, the Uncharted games have arguably exemplified it better than any others since it was coined.

When it was launched in 2007, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's success was surprising not just because it was a realistic action-shooter from a studio best known for the cartoon platformer Crash Bandicoot, but also because its gung-ho approach to shooting mercenaries bucked a trend for self-consciousness and introspection on the part of violent video games. At a time when most big shooters were undermining the trope of the video game “hero” whose achievements are measured in corpses*, the first three Uncharted games dismissed such concerns. “Don’t they know we're going to get buried here?” yells Nate, headshotting goons as he races to escape a collapsing city in Uncharted 3. “Something tells me they don't care!” replies his companion Sully, exonerating the player of guilt by confirming that since the baddies don’t mind if they disappear into a sinkhole in the Rub’ al Khali desert, the player needn’t feel bad about sending them on their way a little early.

The violence may be incongruous with Nate's characterisation, but it's also required for gamification, pacing and economic feasibility: without it, the series could never have achieved the sales required to allow for the scale, graphics, motion capture, music, and everything else that makes Uncharted what it is.

Consequently, the player needed to interpret the violence figuratively instead, in the same way that an audience must accept theatrical devices such as props and gestures as the things they represent, not the things they actually are. Just as the actor’s donkey mask in A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a living animal head that cannot be removed from Bottom’s human body, so Uncharted’s violence represents a practical hurdle that Nate must bravely and deftly overcome in the same way he solves ancient mechanical puzzles and traverses treacherous crevasses.

This is underscored by Nate's squeamishness about killing any character with a name. He takes an oddly principled stance against finishing off genocidal maniac Lazaravic at the end of Uncharted 2, and even goes as far as to try and save the life of sadistic cult leader Marlowe at the end of Uncharted 3. The lives of these head honchos should be worth the same as those of their many employees, and yet Nate differentiates. In order not to break immersion, the player has to assume the same viewpoint.

While Uncharted 4 retains the high body count of its predecessors, it is the first game to incorporate the violence fully into the story, acknowledging its stakes for Nate**, his victims, and those that love him. Like the earlier games, it features big shoot-outs against hordes of nameless enemies, but unlike them it humanises its mercenaries and gives them a collective motivation in the form of secondary antagonist Nadine Ross, leader of the paramilitary organisation Shoreline.

Nadine has none of the mindless bloodlust or downright sadism of the heavies in earlier games. Instead, she is a ruthless pragmatist whose stakes in the outcome are just as high, if not higher, than Nate's, since she faces ruin and possibly death if she is not successful. Teaming up with Rafe Adler in the hope of securing a future for herself and her men, she forces the player to consider the lot of all the mercenaries Nate has faced over the course of the games - desperate people with no choice but to throw their lot in with megalomaniacal villains with sinister goals.

It then goes one step further by acknowledging the implications of Nate's violence by having his daughter Cassie discover evidence of it years later. Sneaking into his office and unlocking a cabinet of keepsakes from his adventures, she is taken aback first by his gun holster and then by a photo of him cheerfully wielding a shotgun. The ending is still a happy one - Cassie is enraptured as she walks down the beach with Nate as he tells her stories of his escapades - but her initial shock is telling. Cassie sees her father as kind and loveable, and the guns don't quite fit.

The final sequence, in which the player controls Cassie as she wanders lazily around the family's beach house, shows the blissful outcome of a brave decision Nate and Elena make at the end of their adventure. With Sam rescued and Rafe vanquished (buried, fittingly, beneath a pile of treasure), Nate, who has finally resolved to give up illegal treasure-hunting for good, returns to the life he left at the beginning of the game. One night, as he resignedly trudges through the salvage company's paperwork, Elena announces that she's on the verge of buying it so that they might resurrect their adventuring ways, legally this time, admitting that "in our attempt to lead a normal life, we may have oversteered". Nate enthusiastically agrees, and the two embark on an uncertain but exciting future.

For the first time in the Uncharted series, a third possibility emerges for Nate, somewhere between illegal treasure hunting and a 9-5. Elena's proposal may seem like an overly convenient solution to a complex problem, but in the context of the world it's a satisfying compromise. Firstly, Nathan and Elena acknowledge, as all people about to make a major career or lifestyle change must, that "it's not going to be easy" because "nothing worthwhile is", and secondly, the money they use to buy the salvage company comes from a handful of gold coins, lifted from the stash of pirate king Henry Avery, that Sam slips into Elena's pocket as they hug goodbye.

By funding their bright future with the spoils of their dark past, Nate and Elena acknowledge and accept the impulses that brought them together in the first place***. The happy and fulfilling life they begin at the end of the game is forever shot through with the danger and moral ambiguity of the coins that bought it. While Nate and Elena keep the full truth from Cassie until it becomes clear she's ready for it, the relics they keep in the cabinet show they're never in denial about who they are, or how they got to be where they ended up.

And that's a good lesson. Unlike video games, real life doesn't let you save at a convenient point so you can re-do difficult sections with the knowledge you've gleaned from your errors. Instead, you have to keep pushing through and owning your mistakes. We are all, for better or worse, the products of our experiences, desires and decisions, and acknowledging that and making the best of our own unique mess is a the only way to be happy. Nate and Elena might get the kind of perfect ending that only fiction can deliver, but that ending is only satisfying to the player because of the reality their heroes have had to face to get there.

All screenshots taken from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End on PlayStation 4, by me.

* In the same year, Tomb Raider: Anniversary re-wrote the previously amoral Lara Croft’s first kill as a desperate act that would leave her traumatised, while BioShock’s groundbreaking twist was a dark joke at the expense of players’ willingness to kill whatever a game tells them to. Two years later, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s deliberately horrifying airport scene forced players to confront the gleeful abandon with which they’d been killing everything in their path up until that point, in that game and all other shooters. Although games that pitted players against monsters, robots, demons and zombies still afforded players guilt-free trigger-happy pleasures, the Uncharted series stood almost alone in setting gunplay without consequence in the real world.

** Well, its practical consequences, at least. None of the violence Nate perpetuates in A Thief's End has any lasting psychological effect on him, in marked contrast to the leads of Naughty Dog previous game, The Last of Us, a brutal, serious road epic that incorporated its in-game violence into the psyches of its two damaged central characters.

***In a promotional featurette for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Emily Rose, the actor who plays Elena, asks a question - "Can we handle the mundane?" - which that game, for all its soul-searching, leaves open. The first three Uncharted games may end with Nate and Elena happily united, but only once they’ve been pumped full of endorphins after defeating evil, and faced with the prospect of each other’s - and their own - deaths. Theirs, explains Rose, is a love fuelled by “risk” and “romance”, and without those things it falters. Both Uncharted 3 and its predecessor Uncharted 2: Among Thieves open with their relationship having fallen apart as they fail to adjust to civilian life. As Rose points out, they “only seem to be able to function in a chaotic world." In A Thief's End, Nate and Elena finally create a world in which their relationship can survive.

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