The success of Uncharted 4's ending
Warning: You should finish Uncharted 4 before reading this, unless you want to know the exact specifics of how the game ends. This article will assume your familiarity with the final scenes. There’s also going to be some discussion of Gears of War 3 and Mass Effect 3, but you’ve finished those by now, right? In any case, consider yourself warned.
A few days after Uncharted 4 released, a friend finished the game and sent me a message. “I think the reviews all overstated the ‘there’s no way they can make any more Uncharted games’ thing”, he said. “If Sully can do it into his mature years, so can Nate. Or they could switch to the daughter. My theory was that Nate would get severely injured in some way, like losing an arm or something.”
I agreed that Naughty Dog’s latest game didn’t make it impossible to justify Uncharted 5. In my own review, here on Zam, I had this to say: “(the game) presents a very clear and logical end-point for the Uncharted series, and it does so without tearing down the world or making anything short of a reboot impossible.” I was deliberate with my wording here – while Uncharted 4 has been framed as the series’ endpoint, that doesn’t mean that it will be. Naughty Dog closed the door, but they didn’t lock it.
The rhetoric surrounding the game might have you believe otherwise, with pre-release chatter suggesting that it would be very difficult to make another Uncharted after this. And, yeah, there’d be some work to do to come back from how the game ends, but it wouldn’t exactly be heavy lifting. If Gears of War can come back after eradicating the entire threat, Marcus symbolically removing his bandana at the end of the third game to reveal a full head of hair (neatly subverting last console generation’s Bald Space Marine Syndrome), and Mass Effect can come back from destroying just about everything, then Uncharted can go a fifth round, easily.
But the real beauty of Uncharted 4’s ending is that it finishes in a way that doesn’t leave you hungry for another sequel – not because it would be impossible, but because the story is very clearly over. Nathan lived a life worthy of an action videogame up until that point, but then the game ended. He changed in discernible ways across his adventures. He doesn’t feel remorse for what happened, he’s not ashamed, it’s just not who he is or what he wants to do anymore. This isn’t because anything horrifying happened, or because he can’t anymore, but because he grew as a person.
The epilogue conveys this through the wealth-porn of Drake and Elena’s new family life – the riches of their two houses set against a beautiful beach, the boat, the still-handsome smile on his aged face. The epilogue’s perhaps a little on-the-nose with it all; you wander through the house as Drake and Elena’s daughter, filling in the gaps of those missing years by reading carelessly discarded letters and examining rooms that confirm that, yes, these guys properly settled down. Elena’s decision to buy the salvage company has allowed them to live a life of more low-key adventures, and it’s probably been a while since Drake killed anyone. You could argue that it’s a neater, happier ending than a mass-murderer deserves… but it’s also an ending logically supported by what comes before it.
Managing to make this feel organic is a real achievement. Uncharted is a series that has long been accused of particularly bad ludonarrative dissonance, with Drake killing thousands of people without a hint of regret, but there’s always been a sense that all the murder is there not because it makes sense, but because that’s how you make a videogame fun. Uncharted 4 is more resistant to some of the older game’s excesses – while it still has the exciting set-pieces, the bombastic sequences where the world collapses around you, this latest Uncharted is far more about exploration than murder. There are long sequences without any killing, and the people you do kill tend to go down a bit faster than the heavily armoured bullet sponges in the older games. The enemies are fewer, but they’re smarter, and the barriers you hide behind get wrecked so fast that the shootouts often involve more of the climbing, swinging and jumping parts of Uncharted that everyone loves than the older games did.
Uncharted 4 makes it clear that jumping, climbing, and insane acts of physical ability are a part of Drake that he cannot let go of – but he doesn’t want to be a videogame star anymore. He wants to find a different way of using those skills. He feels the same way a lot of us did after playing Uncharted 3 – a bit fed up with the whole shtick that goes along with these types of adventures. He loves being out there, seeing new sights, solving mysteries…but he doesn’t need to be the sort of adventurer who risks his life or goes up against the ‘bad guys’ of the world anymore.
Having seen all the talk before Uncharted 4 released, I tensed myself and waited for something awful to happen the whole time. Elena would leave Drake. Drake would die, or lose an arm. His mind would break. His brother would die (which the game very nearly does, before pulling a ‘surprise – smiles and sunshine from here on’ fake-out that I rather enjoyed). But instead, the game did something far more interesting – it left the door open so that Uncharted 5 could totally be about Drake again, but it would be betraying the character’s journey and arc to make that game. I enjoyed the game more than I’ve enjoyed any other PS4 single-player adventure so far, but I really hope that they don’t make another one. Hell, I’m even more apprehensive than excited about the single-player DLC that’s incoming (although my money is on a prequel chapter).
Naughty Dog has openly said that they won’t make another Uncharted, although I suspect that Sony will have trouble leaving all that money on the table considering how successful the series has been. So if Uncharted 5 is inevitable, I hope that whichever company has the unenviable task of creating it finds a new hero. Let Drake’s story end with him and his family taking the boat out and reminiscing about old times. For once, videogame market, let a happy ending stay a happy ending.