Photo: Naughty Dog
Now that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has been out a few days, I feel comfortable talking about the ending, as I beat the game last week ahead of the review embargo and I have been positively itching to talk about it since. I avoided as many spoilers as I could manage in my review, but I knew I was always going to do a separate post to talk about the end of the game, especially so since this is supposed to be the last we ever see of Nathan Drake, if not the Uncharted series as a whole.
To do that, of course, we’re going to have to take a deep dive into spoiler territory, so this is not a post to read if you have not beaten the game. I think the die-hard among you may have sprinted to the finish over the last few days, but perhaps some of you will find this article weeks, days or months later. Given that nothing is going to change, I don’t think it really matters.
For now, I will make it clear, we’re about to go into full ending spoilers here, so turn back now if you’re not prepared for that.
There are two main components to the ending I want to discuss here, first the ending of the actual game storyline, about Nathan’s journey with his brother and the discovery of the pirate treasure. The second is the playable epilogue, and how the game decides to ultimately resolve the entire series in a way that indicates Nathan Drake is never coming back. But not in the way we might have expected.
Photo: Naughty Dog
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought that there was some possibility that Nathan Drake would die in Uncharted 4. I mean, the game is called A Thief’s End after all, and much of the time in popular fiction, an action hero has their tale end by heroically sacrificing themselves for one reason or another. With the inclusion of Sully, Sam and Elena, and the bond these characters share, a scenario could have easily been contrived to force Nathan Drake to face certain death on their behalf and finally not emerge victorious, like he has a hundred times before.
Uncharted 4 doesn’t kill Nathan Drake. Instead, they give him an ending so peaceful, it’s almost unheard of in video games. And the title, as it turns out, is more in reference to the legend of pirate thief Captain Avery than it is implying Drake meets his end. His story does end, but not horribly the way we see with Avery.
First of all, let me have an aside where once again I praise the brilliance of the central “legend” of Uncharted 4, modern day character attachments aside. I loved the tale of Captain Avery and his treasure. First, it starts out as a simple “where did this guy hide all this gold?” tale, then you realize that he started a secret pirate city to hoard the treasure of all pirates, then he and his famous pirate friends stole all the gold from the pirate rabble. After that, they all turned on each other as Avery and his partner got away with the gold, then of course, the two betrayed one another in the end. Everyone ends up dead, and there’s a pirate ship full of treasure lost to time. It’s just a really great, evolving story.
But I also like how it’s integrated with the main characters as well. Drake, for his part, is always more concerned about his brother than he is actually finding the treasure. Yes, it’s true he lied to Elena and hopped back into illegal treasure hunting, but he only did so because he thought his brother’s life was in danger. Once he figures out that isn’t the case and his brother is safe, he’s ready to pack up and leave. It shows he actually has changed, to some degree.
Photo: Naughty Dog
Sam’s motivations are equally interesting as well, though. It may seem like he’s a liar who is only after the treasure at any cost, but when you look closer, you can see that isn’t the case. If he wanted the treasure, he could have simply partnered with Rafe like he was supposed to, gotten a big cut, and gone home rich. Instead, he concocts this elaborate plan to double-cross Rafe and find the treasure with Nathan instead.
Through a well-placed flashback, we learn that this treasure hunt was the brainchild of Nathan and Sam’s mother, who died when they were young. When Sam decides to go confront Rafe at the end instead of safely leaving with Nathan, again, it’s not about the treasure, it’s making sure Rafe doesn’t steal his mother’s legacy.
In the end, Rafe is killed (in a not-great boss fight, I’ll admit), and Nathan and Sam leave with almost nothing, just a few coins Elena swiped as they left. Part of me wanted Nathan Drake to end his treasure hunting reign siting on a pirate throne, laughing uncontrollably surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars in gold and jewels, because this always happens where he makes some great find and leaves with nothing valuable and barely any proof of his discovery. And in this case, it makes no sense that they couldn’t have just returned to the scene later, cleared some rocks and scooped up millions of dollars in treasure from the floor of the bay. This ship blew up, sure, but it’s not as if gold simply…atomizes.
And yet, that would have led us to a place where we didn’t get the epilogue we saw in the game, one where Sam and Sully go off to have their own adventures (I would not rule out another Uncharted game starring Troy Baker’s Sam), while Nathan settles down with Elena and finally starts a family.
Photo: Naughty Dog
In the end, it’s hard not to love the game’s playable epilogue, one where you’re playing as Nathan and Elena’s daughter, Cassie. There’s no action. You simply wander around their beach house, play with your dog, and discover Nathan’s secret treasure cabinet that has remnants of all his past adventures, from El Dorado to Avery’s treasure.
Ultimately, you discover that after years of promising to settle down, Nathan Drake has really done it. In this future, he and Elena are still explorers, famous ones even, still discovering cool things, but doing so legally through a salvage business. They’ve found great success, but with less outright thievery and murder.
I know that some will complain that there’s a piece missing here, that when Cassie finds out about Nathan’s past (“you’re holding a shotgun?” she asks), that the game is glossing over the fact that Nathan Drake has murdered hundreds of people in cold blood during his adventures. In truth, he and Elena aren’t just hiding these famous finds of lost cities, but all the bloodshed that it took to get there.
The Uncharted series has always been criticized for “ludonarrative dissonance,” and though I’m not smart enough to say exactly what that means, more or less it’s the idea that Nathan can kill all these people and still be some wisecracking, loveable hero. This has always been the case, and I’m not sure it would have been a good idea to suddenly stop now. Would the game really have benefitted by ending with a tortured Nathan Drake, suffering from PTSD and racked with guilt from 1,000+ murders? I don’t think so. And the fact is, in this genre, our heroes kill. Lara Croft puts down mercenaries by the hundred as well and a pre-Crystal Skull Indiana Jones killed dozens of people throughout his adventures. Like, this is just such a consistent plot hole that it would be worse to finally acknowledge it as the game ends, rather than just let it go.
I’m happy with this happy ending. Too often in games, everyone is determined to give us shocking finales and big cliffhangers, but with this flash-forward epilogue, we get a touching conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story that fits with the feel of the series. Drake dying or Drake atoning for his “brutal crimes” would have added nothing to this finale, in my opinion. But this tale of brotherly love which turns into a peaceful future for all parties involved is a good note to end on. The more I reflect on it, the more I think this was the perfect finale for Nathan Drake, and for us, as fans.
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