More than getting to play through three of my favorite games from last generation, I’m finding that my favorite part of replaying the Uncharted trilogy through The Nathan Drake Collection was that it gave me an opportunity to really reflect on the scruffy, charismatic treasure hunter that is Nathan Drake.
Developer Naughty Dog has made no secret of the fact that it plans for March’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End to be the closing chapter of Nate’s story. If the game’s subtitle was too subtle, several quotes on the game’s story and even tweets from Naughty Dog’s higher-ups are pointing to a definitive ending for Nate and company.
Almost as frequently as it’s claimed that Uncharted 4 will be an ending for Nate, Naughty Dog has gone on record saying that the dark tone of its recent post-apocalyptic story, The Last of Us, won’t seep its way into A Thief’s End. Prior to playing the Nathan Drake Collection, I would have been inclined to say that this was the right way to go. While The Last of Us was a heart-wrenching and depressing story about loss, familial bonds, and surviving at any cost, Uncharted was a rollicking adventure that was constantly campy and endearing.
But now that I’ve played through each of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games nearly four years later, I’m starting to see some patterns in the way that Nate treats his extended family of thieves, and it has me thinking that Uncharted 4 shouldn’t end with him getting to ride off into the sunset again.
For starters, it’s worth saying as early on as possible that I don’t think Nathan Drake is a bad guy. Sure, he’s stolen plenty of priceless treasures and killed hundreds of people (albeit in self-defense), but even in the face of immeasurable wealth, he’s shown a great deal of integrity and was never willing to endanger the world for his own personal gain. However, throughout the first three Uncharted games, he’s proven himself reckless and perfectly willing to forsake promises he’s made and responsibilities he’s taken on in the name of the hunt. Uncharted 3 highlights this when we see him carelessly putting the lives of his friends and family in harm’s way due to his own pride.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception still stands as my favorite game in the series because it’s the most penetrative look we’ve ever gotten of Nate across multiple games and several other pieces of media. In this game we learn that he’s not the descendant of the great explorer Sir Francis Drake that he has claimed to be for decades. This revelation is brought on by villain Katherine Marlowe, who reveals that Nate is actually an orphaned cast off who was given up to the Saint Francis Boys Home, where he apparently became fixated on Francis Drake’s voyages and adopted the name and false history that went along with it.
In his attempts to surpass the legacy of his “ancestor,” Nate finds himself and his friends in the crosshairs of an organization originating from the 16th century known for its use of fear tactics and espionage to control enemies of Britain. Despite protests from characters like Chloe and his estranged wife Elena, Nate continues on the path to succeed where Francis Drake ostensibly failed, risking his own life for a legacy that isn’t actually his own, as well as jeopardizing the safety of his loved ones.
This thread of obsession runs through all of Uncharted 3 up until the point where Nate’s ring inscribed with Francis Drake’s motto symbolically sinks into the sands of Ubar. When Elena offers her condolences to Nate for the lost ring, a priceless keepsake that he’d been wearing around his neck for over twenty years, he assures her that he’s traded it in for something even more valuable than treasure or a legacy by revealing his own wedding band is back on his finger.
It’s for this reason that Uncharted 4’s premise, one that doesn’t appear to have contrived some way to force Nate into traveling across the world to find supposedly lost treasure, was initially surprising to me. Uncharted 3’s ending is him telling Elena that he values his future with her more than living up to some imaginary legacy as a treasure hunter. But here we are, with Nate going behind her back to join his long-lost brother Sam on another life-threatening adventure in search of pirate treasure.
While the news cycle is churning out a lot of Uncharted news, we’ve actually seen very little of how characters other than Nate and Sam are involved in Uncharted 4. But during the game’s E3 demo, we saw a brief glimpse of Elena, who has managed to track Nate down after he apparently lied to her about the nature of his latest trip. Uncharted 4 takes place about three years after Nate made the promise to Elena that he was picking her over his dangerous past time, but it seems that was not enough time for their trust of one another to be fully repaired, and Elena was clearly right not to blindly trust him.
By the time that Uncharted 4 begins, Nate and Elena have known each other for around a decade. They’ve been through a lot together, and that included at least one break up and one separation, both of which were revealed and resolved in Uncharted 2 and 3 respectively. While we still don’t know much about what’s happened in the years between Drake’s Deception and A Thief’s End, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out that Nate and Elena have a family now, or that they were perhaps planning to start one, as one likely would in a scenario where they’re no longer having to worry about dodging bullets or falling off of ruined architecture.
But despite these facts and the speculation on my part, Nate still is willing to undermine the lessons he supposedly learns. Despite knowing he’s broken promises and is putting friends and family at risk, Nate still talks about outsmarting his adversaries and tracking down forgotten pieces of history with the same glint in his eye and child-like excitement in his voice. Even when he’s claimed to put these things behind him, he still clearly has an insatiable hunger for danger and unraveling mysteries.
The fact that after all that he, Elena, and even father figure Sully have been through he still is chasing X’s on treasure maps tells me that Nathan Drake loves the hunt too much to be a reliable husband to Elena, and maybe that means that Uncharted 4 shouldn’t end with him getting everything he wants. As frustrating as it has been to see this relationship constantly in a state of turmoil at the beginning of each of these games, maybe that’s more of a sign that these people don’t work as a unit than it is a lazy repetition of the same plotline.
An ending that gives Nate an ounce of humility would be welcome after him going through three games where he got to have his cake and eat it too. Nathan Drake may not be a bad person, but a happy ending where he claims he can sacrifice his lifestyle of cheating death in order to be a responsible friend, husband, son, or possibly father would feel disingenuous, especially after the amount of chances he’s been given.
I think a conclusion where Elena leaves Nate for good after his repeated betrayals would be thematically fitting for the final Uncharted. Naughty Dog has stated that Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Sony Bend’s PlayStation Vita launch title, was omitted from the Nathan Drake Collection because it existed outside a narrative arc that led directly into Uncharted 4, but for the most part, each Uncharted game is fairly standalone. The villains Nate faces and the treasures he is searching for aren’t connected, leaving only character threads as the sole narrative tissue that connects the Uncharted series.
The one character that is present through the entirety of the mainline trilogy that is absent from Golden Abyss is Elena, and considering Naughty Dog has stated that the theme of Uncharted 4 will be the “balance between pursuing your passions and being with the ones you love, and what happens when you have to choose between those two things,” I imagine that Nate’s relationship with Elena is the narrative arc Naughty Dog is alluding to, and perhaps that has been the underlying theme of the entirety of Uncharted — Nathan Drake doesn’t know how to balance his passions and his personal relationships, or maybe he can’t.
Now that Uncharted 3 has shown that Nate at some point wanted to give up this life, but doesn’t appear to be able to bring himself to actually follow through on that act, means that he is a person incapable of change. I can’t see Naughty Dog giving Nate one final chance to truly let go of his preoccupation with uncovering lost treasures and cities after Elena has been burned in this relationship several times already.
There are undeniable parallels between Uncharted 3’s and Uncharted 4’s themes, and considering he already had the opportunity to forsake his treasure-hunting life for one with Elena, it may be time to show that this side of Nathan Drake may be beyond redemption. The care that Naughty Dog puts into its storytelling has me hopeful that some modesty could be coming to the all but untouchable treasure hunter we’ve come to know, because after three games of always managing to get away safely from every threat he’s ever come across, maybe it’s time that Nate lost something.
I don’t know what I want to ultimately happen to Nate. A Thief’s End is a pretty ominous subtitle, so Uncharted 4 may end with a greater sense of finality than just tying up loose threads. Nathan Drake is not a bad person, he’s not a man who deserves death. But perhaps it’s time for his decisions and priorities to catch up to him after all this time.
Despite everything he’s been through, Nathan Drake is not invincible, he is merely a man. A man who needs to, for once, be shown that his actions have lasting consequences, and that not everything will always work out in his favor. And as we head into his final adventure, I think it’s time that both he and the audience be reminded of that — in whatever form it may come.