Character Study – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Featured image courtesy of usgamer.net

In Uncharted 4, the most telling character moments are unspoken. Bonds forged over years create preternatural connections more chiseled than Nathan Drake’s heroic chin. These are the stories of people who feed off each other’s lives, people who’ve grown together, lost together, laughed together. The gamut of emotions is represented in their psyches, and by extension, in their expressions. For some time, the Uncharted series has been compared to the most bombastic Hollywood franchises of today. It’s the closest things video games have to a Marvel blockbuster, complete with the banter and third-act problem impeding storytelling through frequent combat sequences. Uncharted 4 continues that sort of bluster, spitting out bombast like a late night fast food joint. However, this final arc illuminates the error in that theater comparison, instead showcasing that these characters, and their intertwined digital lives, play out far more like a television show. So much so, that by the end, they create an emotion what only the finest shows can elicit: We never want to leave.

There is a finite amount of famous, antiquated buried treasure in the world. By this fourth entry, one would think Nathan Drake has discovered most of it. However, even as he lays with his most treasured find, his wife Elena, he falls into another source of adventure. This time, it comes from his long-lost brother, Samuel, who Nathan presumed dead after a failed getaway from a mission in a Panamanian prison many years ago. Startled, Nathan discovers that Samuel must collect the buried treasure they were seeking back then, that of the famed Pirate Henry Avery, and return it to a crime kingpin to whom Sam owes his life.

From there, the adventure ensues, as Nathan leaves his domesticated life with Elena, lying to her in the process. It’s quite apparent that Nathan is dealing with strife while adapting to his spacious New York pad and The Wire Season 2 dock working occupation. He’s a maritime trash collector, so the Hero’s call to adventure rings in his ears like an angelic hymn. The lie to Elena is where Uncharted begins its affecting emotional heft, the kind garnered by years of growing closer with an audience. The fib isn’t that of a disgruntled treasure hunter we just met, it’s an admission of his mistrust with a woman we’ve seen Nathan struggle to commit to over three entries. Drake is an impulsive man, and the years we’ve spent with him during this journey makes this lie even more painful. The happy ending remains elusive for Nathan. Perhaps he just needs this one final chase, and then he’ll be happy.

This is the Don Draper syndrome. A man constantly searching for the next thing, hoping it will finally provide the happiness he so desires. For Don, that is generally women, and sometimes advertisements. For Nathan, it’s treasure, and previously women. It’s an addiction, and one we see gradually transform to actualization over the period of the show. Don perpetually pines for the kind of meaningful relationship that validates his life in the wake of an orphaned, distant upbringing. Nathan’s taken a similarly nomadic approach to life, finally settling down after handling the pursuits he believed necessary to bring him happiness. Don believed he had it with Megan, only to discover her youth and vigor didn’t jive with his melancholy middle-aged manhood. He abandoned it, finding peace within himself after stripping away those vanities and returning to his innate sense of self. Nathan has happiness in Elena, but it’s come at the cost of suppressing his adventurous affinity. Drake’s tribulations played out in our lives, his history bared on our screens over the course of four games. Here, it comes home to roost. We can sympathize with him because we know the horrors he’s faced, we’ve lived through it with them both. So to see their genuine affection outshine turbulence feels like a victory in the same way we root for on-screen couples to make it work.

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Nathan and Elena are characters tailor-made for ‘shipping. Their flirtatious chemistry was obvious from the start, and this entry only heightens the fact fanboys were right this time around. These two belong together. Drake doesn’t often linger on the women of his past, in fact the love triangle spawned by the second title was quickly whisked under the bed to re-focus on Nathan and Elena’s relationship. Just as the now blip of Karen and Jim in The Office season three was a necessary evil to make Jim realize he truly loved Pam, Nathan’s dalliance helped cement that he belonged with Elena.

These sort of emotional ties are what take Uncharted to storytelling strata other games rarely sniff. It understands the minimal stakes involved with the actual gameplay. The whole game is a series of repeating danger room scenarios. There’s no real investment needed, because there’s no chance these characters are really going to die. Even when a misstep caroms Nathan to his death at the steep, frothy waves below, Naughty Dog’s pristine tech has practically already respawned the player, snuffing out even the brief holler of anguish from companions at Drake’s alternative fate mere seconds ago.

They understand the real stakes lie in the emotional fates of these characters. How they grow together, who they end up with, whether Sully will ever realize those cigars are the greatest danger he’s faced? These are the mundane but more memorable fates resonating with players. Audiences have a deep investment in where a show’s characters end up. How they leave the screen in those final moments, who they end up with, what their last line is. Character beats that seem trivial take on grandiose meaning when recognizing they’ve compounded over literal years of people’s lives. One need only look at the outrage over How I Met Your Mother’s finale to see how affecting a finale can be.

This sort of minutiae speaks to us on a humanistic level because it is us. This reflective quality is precisely why NBC just made a show with almost that exact name, “This is us”. Seeing ourselves in characters takes someone from a flattened plot device to a rounded glimpse at realism. Hinting at the everyday deficiencies one can face in their own life, amidst the turmoil of continual conflict, is why they feel so resonant.When Elena and Nathan so briefly start to spat before pausing it to focus on the mission at hand, the dizzying distress of anyone’s fraught relationship moments likely come back to them. Crafting artifice that lifelike is supremely difficult, that’s why television shows prepare their groundwork for years of a show’s characters and their stories to slowly unspool. Naughty Dog stumbled into that precise scenario, which is why its characters were never truly in danger.

So few games deal with the aging of a character, allowing players to spend enough time with someone that they see those minute shifts in their lives and motivations. More often than not, alterations come as the result of a bombastic event: a death, a murder, a kidnapping, blackmailing. Such are the tropes of many a game, and while Uncharted uses grandiose motivations as justification for its similarly over-the-top set pieces, it deftly understands that its character moments don’t need those sort of titanic shifts. Indeed, the game’s most powerful interactions are generally not the result of a bombastic explosion or motorcycle chase, but caused by simple lies or a hurtful remark. Turns out, those cause far more pain to Drake than the barrage of bullets peppering his ripped frame.

Image courtesy of TechKee

Image courtesy of TechKee

Lies often ripple across seasons of a show, perversely sitting as a Chekhov’s gun prepared to go off. Walter White’s numerous falsities provided a clear illustration of the disastrous aftereffects of that choice. Inside Uncharted 4, there’s an alternate game where the player follows Sam’s fib. His story begins with his false motivations, and you play through the entire ordeal gingerly stepping over the literal and figurative bombshells littering your path. Similarly, the mistrust Nathan shows for Elena belies the relationship we’re privy to in the beginning of this game. These are also the necessities of long-running series. Imbuing drama, recalling tensions buried deep under seasons of a show or new game entries. This collective history allows one to uproot these problems, creating the type of emotional distress only caused by time. Naughty Dog calls upon this approach as the impetus for Nathan’s initial lie. After all, most show’s happy endings are ephemeral. We rarely show what happens after the “just married” convertible drives away.

In Uncharted and television’s case though, these series stroll on. They don’t fade to black, leaving people with a quaint smile. They poke and prod at character’s motivations, leaving players with an opportunity to see how their own perceptions of these characters change as they themselves age. Seeing oneself in the jet-setting, thrill-seeker early game’s Nathan Drake is unlikely, but grappling with the sedentary lifestyle of his adulthood certainly is. That’s the pleasure provided by time, the opportunity to shift how people connect with characters long past their design doc.

Uncharted 4 provides a satisfying coda, giving people one final chance to chew on potential parental issues. The series transformed, not just in terms of gameplay and environmental innovation, but in how its characters traversed the shifting motivations of young adulthood to settling into a career. These universal themes resonated over nine years of people’s existence, consistently reminding people of the fluctuations in their own lives. That is the most powerful part of television, the way it ingratiates itself into one’s life over years. It imbues characters with enough life that to part with them is as painful as saying goodbye to a good friend. No longer just creations, their lifeline matches up with a specific sections of your own.

These aren’t wireframes anymore. Their departure spawns tears. Reminiscing about their own journeys inevitably reminds you of your own. Genuine emotional entanglement is a rare feat, reserved for only the most personally affecting media. Just as shutting off the television after a finale does not sever your tie to a show, ejecting this disc did little to dissuade Uncharted from dancing around my mind.

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Dead Weight – Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

They await your embrace. Staring idly into the distance, their hands dawdle at the menial task before them. Crouching low like a cat about to pounce, you eye your target, pupils dilating in anticipation. Trepidation conflates with excitement, and your emotions jitter as if you’re undergoing a state change. Oh so carefully, you pitter patter forward on the lightest of steps, your target merely breaths away. And just like that, you lurch forward, snagging them tightly in your arms before planting a loving kiss on their neck. This is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s stealth tutorial, teaching players the techniques as they approach their soon-to-be deceased wife with a heartwarming bouquet. Imprinting this memory on the player at such an early stage feels trivial, it’s a novel inversion of the typical tutorial. The moment lingers though. Like a gas station burger at the start of a road trip, it sits in your stomach, a constant sense of dissatisfaction at odds with the sense of joy you feel on the road. It permeated the experience, feeling like an albatross around the neck of a game that worked best when it embraced the manic over the mainline.

After stealth is used to kiss your slaughtered spouse, it is forever after used for covert orc obliteration.

Shadow of Mordor fancies itself a revenge tale, one where a cardboard cut-out of Aragorn, named Talion, traipses through Middle Earth. His journey is predicated on avenging the death of his wife and son, and he’s returned from Purgatory by a ghastly ghost-elf spirit named Celebrimbor, who’s equally trapped in this hellish reality and inhabits Talion’s body. Orcs have overrun the land, and it’s his job to stop them.

One of the first impressions of Mordor is how limited the world feels the instant you step on the ground. It’s a blase blanket of dullness the size of a Wal-Mart Parking lot, just expansive enough that getting to your car feels like a drag, but close enough that you can still spot your destination in the distance. This has been one of my major issues with any expanded Lord of the Rings stories in general, the world doesn’t feel like it has any extra room to breathe. Everything still seems to revolve around the central Tolkien novels, and while it’s prudent to keep a universe from spiraling into incomprehensible canonical forays, this world feels like its glass walls have turned to diamond in the interim.

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Meanwhile, Talion spends much of his time trying to find out the history of the ghost-Elf named Celebrimbor that co-habitates his body. Unsurprisingly, that story also winds up tying back to the central LOTR tale surrounding Sauron and the One ring. All the while, Talion rarely mentions his family, but his lone connection to his past life comes in a happenstance stumbling upon an ex-compatriot of his who went rogue. They have little rapport, and their embattled history feels like an issue that would fall by the wayside when the entire human race is crumbling around them. Ancillary story issues stack like Jenga blocks covered in petroleum jelly, and they come to a head with the introduction of Gollum as another key cog in the story’s central mystery. The presence of such overt canonical tethers feel like stuffy safeguards, their insertion only muddling the simple tale Monolith is trying to tell. The overwhelming collection of these mainstream ties can smother a title that actually found a way for players to create their own revenge tales on a scale far grander than Talion or Celebrimbor’s pursuit of Sauron.

Monolith’s Nemesis sytem allows players to manipulate the orcs in this world by targeting specific ones, slaying them, conquering them and eventually commanding them. As the player defeats those orcs, new ones step up to take their place. The opposite works as well, as any orc who defeats the player increases in power, improving their place in the orc hierarchy. What makes it more unique is its sincere lack of self-seriousness. Orcs will readily comment on the fact that they recall slaying your puny human meatbag body before, and how they’re prepared to strip your dignity even further. Some orcs also return from the dead, sporting gnarly scars and sometimes bags over their head to cover their grotesque appearance. Who knew they were so vain?

But Mordor has an Orc problem, and they’re prone to suffocating the player at points. Small skirmishes balloon to widespread battles within minutes, as any new Orc passerbys join the scrum like Urukhai to a freshly slaughtered goblin. Those types of amassing battles may bludgeon home the bleakness of one’s situation, but it can make missions that require the pinpoint assassination of one particular orc nearly impossible. Even if you manage to take down the legion surrounding him, don’t worry, there’s another patrol of 20 orcs just waiting to take their place. These belt-loosening battles have a shelf life, and after the twelfth time of trying to take down Goober the Monstrous, I pined for the simplistic counter-immediate kill of Assassin’s Creed days.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Creed is a useful comparison in this sense, since the exploration and side missions feel like the most enjoyable components of this Mordorian Madness. Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from other games, as is the case with most open-world grab-bag games nowadays, but they make no bones with the comparisons, even using tower scaling as the impetus for opening more of the map. They stop just short of having Talion dive off these structures making an eagle sound, although his graceful falls look eerily similar. What they do instead is take out any of the artificial craft that’s grafted into Creed. Talion doesn’t linger seeking out the next small crevice to place his hand, he flies up flat walls like it’s nothing, and Monolith’s decision to ensure scaling and movement would be a superhuman strength rather than a realistic portrayal works well when fleeing or maneuvering around Orc strongholds. These additions bleed right into some of the side challenges that task players with performing a particular number of kills with a weapon to earn upgrade points. The carnival game nature of them provide a refreshing break from the gray seriousness of the story, and steer players directly into the skid of this game’s most pleasurable mechanics, stealth, exploration and the bow. Oh and that bow, with its willingness in slow-motion mode to allow for instant kills. It truly is the best part of Shadow of Mordor.

Monolith’s novel nemesis system provides a deep, system-based revenge tale for those seeking a player-based emergent storytelling more satisfying than the one they penned, but it’s impossible to escape the trappings of a world whose only fleshed out new character is an orc named Ratbag who’s hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor weaponizes other open-world game systems with an ease of maneuverability welcomed in this hostile territory, but fails to engage the player beyond that surface level excitement. That stealth kiss of your wife in the beginning feels like a misnomer the more you play, as any level of intimacy with anyone in this world is shredded to pieces. If I could’ve just once, snuck up on old Ratbag and planted one slobbery kiss on those seaweed, emaciated cheeks, Shadow of Mordor would’ve at least made me feel something.

Gloss and Circumstance – The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 is a serious game. Its characters take their jobs seriously, they take their combat chatter seriously, and the game’s color palette tells players to take it seriously. Ready at Dawn, the game’s developer previously known for its God of War entries on PSP, was handed an opportunity to dabble in the AAA game space with a new IP, a high honor for a studio hoping to break into big budget blockbuster console games. It’s akin to Colin Trevorrow getting the call-up from indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. They took this transition seriously. The end result is one of the biggest high-profile flops in recent memory and a game that exemplifies the very worst perceptions of AAA games.

The Order: 1886 focuses on an alternate history late 19th century London. The Order is a group of knights sworn to protect the land, and each are named after the original knights of King Arthur’s round table. These knights live centuries through the use of “Blackwater”, an elixir that grants long life and heals all wounds. Sir Galahad is the game’s protagonist, a rugged hero who personifies masculinity and sports a moral compass permanently affixed true north. Remember this is a AAA game and Ready at Dawn knows there needs to be a male hero people are familiar with (eye roll).

The game opens with Galahad escaping the Order’s imprisonment, a seed planted to encourage players to see how the yarn unfolds. Almost immediately, the game lays out its minimal threshold for death, as a torture scene ended with me pressing triangle to kill someone. Repeatedly pressing X brutally killed another guard nearby. The Order: 1886 doesn’t have time to mess around with non-lethal take downs, that’s not serious. Death is serious.

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Soon after this escape scene, they flash back in time and show Galahad as a prime Knight of The Order, the arbiters of morality who’ve battled rebels and half-breed werewolves in London for centuries. From there, you play through the investigation of these purported rebels as the story hints at questions over whether the Order is really as wholesome as Galahad believes it is.

The story is rote, the kind of B-movie blockbuster plot you expect in the doldrums of late July from a DC castoff superhero flick. Despite this, the gameplay is the nadir of the entire experience.

Combat is more droll than the story. Its archaic gameplay conventions defy comprehension. It functions as a cover shooter, and by that I mean you have to be in cover during combat or you’ll die almost immediately. The game plays like a laundry list of outdated AAA shooter features: A cover system that isn’t intuitive, whack-a-mole AI popping out of cover (at one point I entered an area and eight different enemies popped out of cover at once like a Three Stooges sketch), and map triggers that you have to trip for new enemies to flood in. When you’re not busy shooting enemies, you’ll be doing any number of minute tasks including unlocking doors, shoving carts forward, overloading circuits or climbing on ledges. Their idea of gameplay diversity is an eight weapon armament, quick-time events, and unlocking mini-games. This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.

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The Order: 1886 is a dinosaur. It seems like Ready at Dawn looked at common practices from five years ago, threw them all into a bag and started randomly sprinkling them throughout the pristine world they crafted. And that’s really the only highlight of The Order: 1886, it is a technical masterpiece.

The Order: 1886 is like a beautiful bauble your grandmother has but never lets you touch. Perfectly rendered corridors contain only a single element of interaction. The character models are creepily lifelike, dynamic lighting shifts minutely as you saunter through a hall, lamps elegantly reflect off windows. Literally everything looks like something polished beyond exhaustion. Ready at Dawn knows it too.


This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.


I can’t recall a game that’s been more obnoxiously transparent in its fascination with itself. Oftentimes Galahad will only be able to move slowly in new areas just so you can admire every little detail in the environment. If an area is too dark to properly appreciate, don’t worry, they’ll hand you a lantern. The world even contains tiny objects to pick up and examine so players can truly appreciate the precise level of intricacy Ready at Dawn etched into everything. Despite their obvious attempt at environmental storytelling, these trinkets and documents added literally nothing to the story. They even instituted a full-blown camera mode, replete with features down to the lens length of the shot you want. The entire game feels like an aesthetic circle-jerk.

Despite this overzealous gloss, the world itself leaves a lot to be desired. Its gray tones bring to mind the type of “dark” blockbuster that has commandeered the summer box office since Nolan’s Batman films landed. DC steered into this skid with their cinematic universe, and The Order: 1886 takes its cues directly from that. There is no time for banter in this world, there are freaking werewolves to kill. The game is so devoid of levity, the only respite I found was in this entirely out of place SackBoy prop I could pick up and examine.

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The characters seriousness is unrelenting as well. Galahad scowls constantly. I don’t recall even a smirk from any characters within the game. Most of the dialogue involves shouting, which must’ve made for an interesting recording session. Even when Galahad just needs a drink, he doesn’t hold back as he shouts at the bartender, “A drink goddam you!”. And don’t worry, in case you fall into a haze and forget the seriousness of the situation, Galahad will remind you. “I’m in no mood to jest,” he bellows at one point to a fellow knight following a firefight. Woah dude, I get it!

If the setting and characters weren’t serious enough for players, Ready at Dawn even manipulated historical figures to lend credence to the time period they chose. Nikola Tesla pops up as your version of James Bond’s Q, although he provides little to no technical assistance. He mainly serves as a prop to justify some of the more technically majestic weapons in the game. Even Jack the Ripper is shoehorned in through an egregious plot twist.

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The Order: 1886 will stand as an exemplar of the worst of AAA games: all gloss and no substance. Ready at Dawn seemed far more preoccupied with making a film than trying to create compelling gameplay, and the resulting story was uninspired at best. Cutscenes make up probably 1/3 of the game, and what little gameplay there is remains woefully devoid of imagination. The game’s technical mastery is overcome by a self-indulgent title intent on showcasing the developer’s hard work rather than letting people appreciate the world’s intricacy on their own.

There’s a point in The Order where Galahad insists that you don’t kill guards you believe to be innocent men. Within 30 seconds, he’s opened fire on a crowd and stabbed a guard in the face. And why wouldn’t he? What kind of hero just chokes someone out? Remember, this game is serious.