Uncharted 4 and the Dangers of Obsession

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The most important moment of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End comes near the end of the game.  Sam has been rescued from the clutches of Shoreline, and for the first time, the game’s four leads all stand together.  They are at a crossroads: continue forward, down the path of Rafe and Nadine in search of Avery’s ship; or abandon the search altogether and make for a clean and safe escape.

Sully and Elena both argue strongly for the latter.  After all, they only came this far to save the Drake brothers – from themselves as much from Rafe and Nadine.  Sam, still driven is his goals, lobbies fervently for the former.  He’s come this far, and desperately wants to see things through to their end.

Nate is pointedly quiet through most of the exchange.  As Sam dukes it out with Sully and Elena, it quickly becomes clear he won’t be able to bring them over to his side.  Sam then turns the argument away from the four of them – creates a barrier between the others and the Drake brothers.  This is what they’re all about, he says.  He implores Nate, insisting that the others can’t understand, attempting to create a distance between the two parties.

When Nate finally speaks up, it’s done without hesitation.  No, he tells Sam.  They know exactly what it’s about.  He bridges the distance to the others that Sam tried to create, in the process bringing his story full circle.  It is a powerful character moment for Nate, a culmination of everything the character has been building toward across the preceding three games.  It’s his last temptation, and he resists.

For the first time in his life, Nate is able to willfully say no.  And in the process, reinforce and resolve the central conflicts at play at the heart of Uncharted 4.

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The linear opening of the game – past the flashforwards and flashbacks to set the stage – finds Nate in a very different position from how we’ve encountered him in the past.  No longer the derring-do adventurer, always ready with a handy quip and a gun, he now fishes old trainwrecks of copper out of city rivers for a living.  His desultory existence extends to an evening spent with paperwork, even as he balks at a the illegalities of a potentially lucrative salvage opportunity in Malaysia.  He’s sworn off anything remotely approaching the dangerous life he once had.

This emphasis continues well into the successive chapter, as we follow him through the painstakingly normal existence of an everyday life and home.  He literally keeps everything about his previous life locked in a drawer – to be perused, but not entertained.  Life and death battles are a fond reminiscence, engaging in fake shootouts with toys in the attic.  Exploration of his home further emphasizes the traditional, the mundane: messy laundry, walk-in closets, and achingly sweet wedding photos of our two lead characters.

Nate tries to be happy with it.  Probably even wants to be happy with it.  He made the promise to Elena.  He made the commitment in their marriage.  But as he listens to her detail her day, he all but sighs wistfully while gazing off at a picture that calls to mind the excitement and adventure of his before life.  When Elena asks him flat out if he’s happy, he says yes.  But it’s a lie as much to himself as it is to her.  Uncharted 3 spent its time exploring the psychology behind the Drake persona, how entangled it became with Nate’s identity.  Uncharted 4 picks up on these threads, and finds a way for Nate to accept them – to accept letting them go – of his own accord.  To let go of the obsession and the need without letting go of his own self entirely.  To even finally make, if you will, a brand new self altogether.

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Reunion with Sam comes not long after this, and it provides the story’s inciting incident.  It’s been 15 years since the brothers last saw one another – Nate believing Sam to have been dead all this time.  And almost immediately, the first thing’s on Sam’s mind: not to-reconnect with Nate, or make a life together, or get to know the people in his brother’s life.  But instead, it’s to go off in search of that lost Avery treasure they had been pursuing all those years ago.

Context is hugely important here, and it unravels over the course of the game, while details provided by Drake’s Deception help fill in the gaps.  These early moments with Sam became even more interesting in retrospect, upon learning the entirety of what’s really going on.

Because one of the first things Sam starts doing when he’s reunited with Nate is lie.  And not just little lies: but big ones, that will have damaging consequences over the course of the story.  He lies about his release from prison, and this is important in the context of that Drake persona: he claims a dramatic escape attempt, complete with gunplay, and threats from a powerful warlord.  A far different reality from one where he simply walks out the front door because someone paid off the warden on his behalf.  The other lie is more of omission – not revealing the all-important detail that it’s been not days but two whole years since his release, and that he’s been working with Rafe all this time.

The lie is itself is something of a disease – or put another way, it’s a symptom of a larger problem.  It’s an aspect of the Drake persona.  It’s the way life is lived when one is a Drake.  One of scheming and stealing and running and fighting.  Nate picks back up on that symptom as soon he allows himself to be drawn back into that web.  He accepts the Drake persona back to himself as soon as he picks up the phone and – like Sam has done to him – he lies to Elena.

Sam’s response to others is hugely important to his character.  It establishes and distinguishes the difference between the brothers – likely due to circumstances as much as personality.  After all, the Drake persona was something both of them took on.  To a degree, life has just afforded Nate enough good fortune in his personal encounters that he’s wound up better off than his brother.

Sam is completely indifferent to the idea of meeting Elena.  Hearing that his brother is married doesn’t even faze him, and he expresses no interest in even learning more about her.  Likely she’s little more than a distraction to what really matters: finding Avery’s treasure.  He’s similarly mistrustful of Sully – openly questioning Nate of the man’s reliability up until their reunion with the older man.  We know from the third game that Sully met Nate when he was alone, and took him in as something of an adopted son.  The warmth of that relationship endures, even as Sully’s openness toward Sam – and Sam’s cool attitude in turn – suggests it never translated over to the other brother.

This is arguably the most important dynamic in the game, as each sides represents the two different arenas of Nate’s internal conflict – that he’s struggling to choose between.  The life of a Drake, with adventure and treasure; or the life of safety, security, and reliability.

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Flashbacks add a great deal of texture to the storytelling here, and they wonderfully flesh out our understanding of the history for these brothers.  Based on details learned in the third game and what we see here, we know that life was not kind to Sam and Nate.  A father who gave them over to be raised by strangers rather than take care of them himself.  A mother who died too young.  And a world of deep unhappiness raised by strict caregivers in a Catholic orphanage.

Revelations about their mother offers them an out.  They learn more about her career as a historian (a trait she passed on to the both of them – in more ways than one).  And just as important, they learn of her own research into finding Henry Avery’s lost treasure.  That it would’ve been the grandest discovery of her long, distinguished career.

Circumstances back them into a corner.  They can’t even go back to their old lives – what little of it they had.    And so Sam makes a decision – he recognizes that out, and he proposes it to Nate.  What if they let go of the sad, little lives they led, and in essence, take on a brand new one?    Life no longer offers them stability; so instead, they shirk off the need for it, and declare themselves the inheritors of Sir Francis Drake himself.

In a sense, it becomes their means of coping with that lack of stability.  Who needs a regular home life with reliable parents and relationships, when you’re going to be the new Francis Drake?  When you live of life of romantic adventure – find long-lost treasure in far-flung hidden corners of the unmapped world, discover that which has been lost to history, and take some dangerous, thrilling risks along the way.  The glory will be worth far more than anything that stability would’ve been able to offer.  Or so it would be so easy to believe when one is so young.

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This is where Nate has had the advantage.   He’s already met and bonded with Sully by the time he, Sam, and Rafe infiltrate a Panamanian prison.  He’s not the one left for dead when things go sideways.  And the intermediate years introduced him to Elena – the other facet of structure that moves him a few steps away from that Drake persona.

These details provide even more clarity for the events of Drake’s Deception – and what likely went down between the second and third games.  We see there how difficult it’s been for Nate to settle down into a life with Elena – even trying a go, and failing, at a marriage.  In the end, he’s drawn back into that life of daring discovery and adventure.  He probably can’t help himself.  He’s been wrapped up in the Drake persona for so long that it’s blinded him to realities of what stability can offer him.  He can’t accept stability because it’s a foreign concept to him.

Sam, in this game, then presents something of a dark mirror.  Because in very real ways, he is what Nate would’ve been had he never acquired those stable relationships in Sully and Elena.  And he is the Drake persona taken to its zenith: driven purely by obsession.  For 15 years, he’s had nothing to hold onto but the belief that one day he’ll escape from his prison and discover Avery’s lost treasure.  It was his lifeline.  And it’s why the treasure itself became more important to him than anything else.  Even Nate.

Nate was able to reach an important milestone in Drake’s Deception on this path in part because he achieved a new sense of clarity about his own identity.  Driven by the need to prove that he was greater than his meager (read: small) beginnings, he overcame this by defeating the threat that Katherine Marlowe provided.  She believed every bit as much as he did that his small beginnings made him worthless, less worthy.  And by rejecting those beliefs – and by rejecting her – he was able to achieve a measure of acceptance.  For himself, most importantly of all.  It’s why his walking away with Sully and Elena – newly committed to his marriage with the latter – provided a great sense of resolution to that narrative.

But resolution does not necessarily mean closure.  And what makes A Thief’s End all the more impressive is how it picks up on these threads.  It suggests that for Nate to ever completely cast off the Drake persona, he must walk through the fire one last time.  He must face the fundamental reasons why acquaintance with the Drake persona began altogether.  It’s what Sam provides for the character.  And in viewing those reasons head-on, he’s finally able to transition more fully away from it.

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The revelation of Sam’s treachery becomes the pivotal turning point.  Up until that moment, Nate was swept up into it, falling more and more back into that life the longer it continued.  Even as he tells himself – and Sully – that he’s only doing it to save Sam from Alcazar, it rapidly becomes clear that’s no longer the case.  Sully challenges him on it – and Elena recognizes it in him the moment she catches him in the hotel room.

He fell back into the Drake persona of deceit and mistrust – where relationships with others matter less than finding the next adventure.  Elena’s despair and anger are understandable.  Even as her actions going forward are significant, for both their characters.  In spite of everything that occurred – in spite of how much these conflicts have infected their relationship (it’s probably why they broke up after Drake’s Fortune as well) she still comes after him.  She admits to him flat out that she almost didn’t this time.  But that she did is important.  Because more than any other person in the game, Elena represents stability.  The thing Nate most desperately needs: someone to latch onto him with such fierce stability – such ardent loyalty – that it’s able to drag him so completely out of the obsession.

Sam’s own lies are what finally force Nate to recognize the truth.  And his willingness to confess everything to Elena is what demonstrates his final turn away from things.  He’s completely shattered of the illusion now.  No longer swept up in the romanticism of glory and treasure.  Like Elena, it’s about offering someone caught up in the throes of obsession something they desperately need: that stability.  And it’s why they continue to pursue Sam, no matter how difficult the task.

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Obsession is at the heart of the narrative, and it’s cleverly alluded to not just from Sam, Nate, and Rafe.  It becomes more and more clear as the game progresses that everyone who’s held too long a proximity to this treasure becomes infected by it.  Notes left scattered on the island indicate Banks drove his own crew to madness – and eventually death – while trying to find what was left of Avery’s treasure.  The colonists of Libertalia turned against the pirate captains, who in turn abandoned them for their own new haven.  And from there, things whittled down further and further: Tew and Avery killed the other captains, and then gradually turned on each other, creating more and more strife and violence, as obsession took its grip.  It’s fitting that we see at the very end what fate befell the two men: killing each other at the exact same instant over that dangerous, selfish obsession.

‘Avery’s Descent’ provides some pivotal thematic elements in this instance.  We see that as Avery became more obsessed with the treasure – more driven to keep it all for himself – he grew fanatically and dangerously mistrustful of everyone around him.  To the point of taking out vicious revenge and displaying it as a warning to others.

Obsession then becomes, in a sense, the counter to stability.  The two serving in direct contrast to each other.  Obsession means only looking out for yourself, to the point of horrendous violence done upon others.  Stability means loyalty in your relationships, a willingness to go to any length on their behalf; that a selfless act for the well-being of another is of greater value.  Given how much obsession has been a driving force behind the Drake persona, it’s an apropos means of challenging that persona in order to allow Nate to finally let it go.

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But one of the kindest acts of the game is in compromise.  In realizing and accepting the middle ground.  And it’s enabled by one of story’s sweetest character moments.

While carving a path up to New Devon, Nate and Elena chat on and off – quips and bantering that hearkens back to the old days, amidst a wistful melancholy about the managing of their marriage.  As they arrive in New Devon and discover the dead pirate captains, Nate becomes swept up in the moment.  He imagines the scene for the two of them – exactly how it must’ve played out.  And Elena pauses to watch – not in anger or recrimination.  But in something more revelatory – and maybe a little bit sad.  This is driven by something very, very different from obsession.

It’s what most likely enables her solution at the end, when all is said and done.  The obsession and the Drake persona can be put off – but there’s still a place for discovery and adventure.  Love of history is in Nate’s blood.  Elena herself admits to missing it herself.  And there’s a way to accomplish it all without the illegalities and the dangers.  The adventure need not be driven by the Drake persona.

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In the end Sam himself can’t really let go.  But that’s not entirely his fault.  He talks with Nate about the emptiness following the grand discovery.  In his own way, he’s starting to learn about living without the obsession.  He’s not there yet, understandably.  But both brothers are finally reaching a point where the Drake persona can finally be left in the past.

Note: This is a companion piece to an essay I wrote a few years back about Uncharted 3 and Identity.  It should almost go without saying that A Thief’s End is my pick for GOTY.  Curse you Naughty Dog for being so damn good at this.

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