Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Video Game Storytelling That Finally Got Marriage Right

Written By: Erika Haase

This article contains full spoilers of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End & Silent Hill 2, as well as partial spoilers for Catherine. Read only if you’ve already beaten these games, or don’t plan on playing them.

There are very few games on the market that dare to take on the topic of marriage. There are far more lone-wolf heroes with vague, if any, mention of a loved one. If marriage is brought up, usually the spouse is already dead. Sometimes, that death is a pivotal factor for the plot – Silent Hill 2 couldn’t exist if James wasn’t following a guilty conscience into a personal hell after having killed his wife. Other times, marriage is used as a reason for why an otherwise unlikely hero would suffer through so many ordeals – Red Dead Redemption is a good example of what a man will do to get his family back. More commonly, we see the beaten, bruised, and lost in misery character who is reeling after the token line of “losing everything.” Max Payne’s entire character development arc is centered around him coming home from work and finding his wife and infant murdered, and his subsequent revenge and rebirth of sorts in Max Payne 3.

There are, of course, games that have dared to take on the beast that is marriage. Catherine by Atlus, for example, was about a man having to come to terms with becoming a responsible adult when faced with a long-time girlfriend demanding he step up. Throw a little infidelity into the mix, an assortment of horrible relationship advice from his buddies at the bar, a pregnancy scare, and some pretty sick mind games, and you had a decent showing of taking on “grown-up” topics in a video game. However, not even Catherine offered the complexity of decision making and consequences for actions that it should’ve. In the end, it boiled down to a good or bad ending – and to be honest, the good ending seemed to be a pretty boring life. Catherine didn’t do a great job of portraying marriage as anything attractive. The options for infidelity seem disproportionately more interesting, and your long-term girlfriend often becomes annoying. While Catherine did many things fantastically, and it’s a wild ride that shouldn’t be missed, I can’t say it was very fair in regards to its portrayals of relationships. Nothing in life is so black and white, and marriage is no exception.

Then came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the much-anticipated conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story, possibly the last game you’d expect to be a game-changer when it came to relationship advice. Elena Fisher and Nathan Drake are the only two game characters I would dare call a “video game power couple.” Through the Uncharted series, we see them meet, bicker, fall for, marry, estrange, and finally land up happily ever after with each other. However, what Uncharted 4 did for the series was look beyond the “happily ever after” into a reality of marriage that I’ve never seen a video game take on.

In Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, we get told, albeit a bit abruptly, that Nathan and Elena have gotten married off-screen and that they’re already estranged. Based on the ordeals the two of them had already been through together in the first two games, it made you wonder what could’ve been the breaking point that made she and Nate reach this point in their relationship. You soon find out the truth. Nathan Drake doesn’t want to hang up his holster just yet, and Elena wants a life where they are, understandably, not getting consistently shot at in the pursuit of lost treasure. In an admirable stroke of writing on developer Naughty Dog’s part, they don’t make Elena out to be the nagging wife. She’s smart enough to know that no good comes of trying to change a man like Nate, so she’s left him to his own devices. While Uncharted 3 ultimately sees Nate choose his wedding ring over the infamous “Sic Parvis Magna” ring he’s worn around his neck since the first game, Uncharted 4 shows us that he’s still not quite cut out for the 9-5.

“I am a man of fortune, and must seek my fortune.” – Henry Avery

In a notable departure from the life motto of Nate before this point “Sic Parvis Magna” (From small things, greatness), we instead have the words of a legendary pirate which foreshadow all the events of this game and the character struggles that ensue. Nate isn’t trying to prove he can be great anymore. He’s fighting the truth that he’s also a “man of fortune,” adrift in a sea of normalcy. Seeing Nate as an average human being doesn’t give you the warm fuzzy feeling of seeing a man at ease. When he goes up into his attic study, and you see the entirety of his past life stuffed into boxes, with only vague hints at the adventures he used to lead, there is a wistful sadness in it all. This is the precise moment I realized exactly how relevant this game was to adults, particularly adults in relationships. Nate and Elena aren’t young, hormone drunk teenagers. Easily in their 30s, it’s a period of life for many of us where we’re facing down the future and perhaps feeling like the past (and our youth) is slipping away.

You don’t have to have been a treasure hunter, or globe-trotting journalist, to have things you regret never doing. Every single one of us has a box somewhere that contains a piece of who we used to be, for better or worse. Sometimes we can look at it with the satisfaction of knowing it’s a chapter of a finished book. For many others, however, things have been given up in the pursuit of what we hoped would be the better choice. Do what’s right. Skip the promotion to start a family. Abandon a career because the lifestyle would ruin a marriage. Maybe you were commended for choosing the people you loved over the thrill of your passions, but will you be satisfied ten years from now? Was there ever a way you could have made both worlds work? Are you happy?

Nate is clearly shown as loving his wife. He and Elena’s now famous moment on the couch, playing Crash Bandicoot together to settle who washes the dishes, shows us that his love for her is not disingenuous. However, the nagging desire to get back out into the world hasn’t left his system. A salvage job in Malaysia is beckoning, and even Elena is encouraging him to pursue it. However, an issue getting the proper permits keeps him from doing it in fear of getting another taste of the forbidden fruit he’s left behind. Nate is desperately trying to convince himself that the only fortune he seeks these days is a happy life at home. We even discover that he hasn’t talked to Sully, his partner since the first game, in nearly two years. This marriage may seem happy on the surface, but one doesn’t have to dig very far to realize that it’s not built on honesty.

Finally, Nate gets an offer he can’t refuse. We’re introduced to Sam, a brother Nate thought was dead since before the days of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, the series’ first game. We also find out that right before Sam’s supposed death, he and Nate were hot on the trail of clues leading to Libertalia – the legendary haven of the world’s most infamous pirates and all their undiscovered wealth.  Sam weaves together a story of having escaped prison in Panama thanks to the leader of a drug cartel, and to pay off his debt must finish the search for Libertalia, and Captain Avery’s treasure. Sam stresses how little time he has to complete this task and begs for Nate’s help. The temptation that Nate’s been avoiding all this time has come face to face with him in a way that seems impossible to turn away from. Using the Malaysia salvage job as his cover, Nate lies to Elena that the permits were obtained, puts in a phone call to Sully, and off we go. It all feels too easy. I cringed to myself hearing Nate lie so effortlessly to Elena about the trip. You want Nate to be the hero, you play as him in the game after all, but you can’t deny his actions. Torn between feeling happy for Nate at being back in his natural environment, the touching moments between him and Sam bonding again as brothers, and being reunited with Sully, you’re now operating with the constant shadow of this lie that is growing in proportion. Elena has no idea where he is. She’s at home writing articles for travel journals thinking Nate’s in Malaysia, while her husband is getting shot at in Italy and planning to outrun mercenaries to Scotland.

Since you’ve already seen that Elena is willing to leave Nate for this behavior in the past, and you’ve also witnessed the reality of them living happily together, I wanted to smack Nate for being so selfish and lying to her instead of trusting her to support him in a quest to help his brother avoid a horrible death. I wanted to be mad at Nate for finding it so easy to lie to her about the trip, or lie when he’s checking in on the phone with her. I couldn’t be, though. “I am a man of fortune….” This is who Nathan Drake is. Left to his own devices it will be the end of him.

The scene where Elena realizes he’s lying is so perfectly acted. Maybe you’ve gotten this phone call before from a person you loved, maybe you’ve been the person making the call. Either way, it felt very close to home and definitely not in the territory of any game I’ve played before.

It’s the moment in a marriage where you realize someone is capable of hurting you more than you realized. We all have the capacity to lie, but to pull off a lie so convincingly to the one person who’s supposed to be your partner in life – that’s salt in the wounds.

When it all hits the fan and Elena inevitably finds out what’s going on, there’s another award worthy scene where the guys tumble into their hotel room after nearly all dying in one high speed chase after another. Their spirits are high, they’ve cheated death and are one step ahead of the “bad guys” in getting to Libertalia, and the fire of being an adventure hunter has been fully lit back in Nate’s eyes, even while he protests that it’s all just “to save Sam.” Things only get worse from there as Elena essentially tells Nate what we’ve all been thinking and leaves. The most heartbreaking part of that moment, however, is that he doesn’t follow her. It’s Sully who steps up to ask him what the hell Nate thinks he’s doing letting her leave that way – Sully’s old and wise enough to know it’s the death sentence of the marriage — and instead Nate snipes at Sully in a way we’ve never seen him do before to his best friend and father figure. Passing the self-loathing and blame from himself to someone who only has his best interests at heart is another “too close to home” moment, and when Sully also leaves, you realize exactly how much it costs to be a “man of fortune.” Nathan Drake’s life ceases being glamorous in that moment.

No matter how much Sam tries to convince him they’re close to finding Libertalia, it all rings hollow. The reality is too painful – if you only ever follow your passion with blinders on to the world around you, then everything else is lost. What fortune will you really seek at the end of it all?  Will it have been worth it?

When Sam reveals the truth of his motives to Nate – that there has been no death threat over his head – it’s hard to feel entirely bad for Nate when he asks Sam if he understands what he’s risked. If Nate’s marriage was so precious to him, he would have been honest with Elena from the start. If Nate hadn’t wanted this adventure as badly as his brother did, he wouldn’t have kept the lie going so long it could no longer be considered “forgivable.” He wanted an excuse out of his life and didn’t have the courage to find a middle ground himself. When Nate nearly falls to his death in the ensuing fight, he finds himself in the arms of Elena – convinced to follow him and Sam for the time being by Sully – and Nate finally tells her everything.

From that point forward, the game takes on a new layer of depth and crafts beautiful moments between Nate and Elena. She understood that the man she married had many secrets, and she never resented him for it, Elena only ever wanted the truth. While she doesn’t exactly forgive Nate for what he’s done, she also refuses to damn Sam to a quick demise just so Nate can be whisked back home to safety. Neither of them could ever forgive themselves for such an action, and so they go forth as partners once again.

This time, however, whatever was left of the rose-colored glasses of the honeymoon phase are gone. Elena has seen Nate for who he truly is and what he’s capable of, even towards the people he loves. The man she thought she knew, with demons she thought were settled, has become a man possessed. You can see the sadness in her eyes when she realizes that he may never be happy leading a “normal life.” There may be no place for her, and if they make it out alive she may have to leave him.

Again, no pun intended, this is uncharted territory for games and story-telling. Wrapped up in a fantastic pirate tale is a relateable message to every married person out there, full of the moments – good and bad – that we’ve all had. Of course, most of us haven’t had these conversations while driving through waterfalls in a Jeep stolen from mercenaries, but these make or break moments big and small, and hurtful comments said without thinking, happen every day in billions of households. What Uncharted makes clear, however, is that the way through these painful moments isn’t by giving up. Not on the dreams, and not on the relationship. The way through is by redefining what the “fortune” is that you seek, by letting your partner see you for everything you are, hero and villain both. Nate realizes how good Elena is at being his partner, and more jarringly, realizes that he’d forgotten. Elena rediscovers Nate as she watches his passionate explanation for what happened to Libertalia leaders Thomas Tew and Henry Avery at the deadly dinner table. Every line in these scenes has double meaning to how quickly a life you’ve built up can fall apart. If even the greatest heroes can fall to ruin, how quickly can simple, every day things like relationships fall apart?

While the settings are obviously dramatic, the methods are the same that can save many people’s relationships in the real world. Communication, honesty, and respect – but with a realistic understanding that there are elements to each individual that we should never change, because we fell in love for them for those very reasons. To try and change it, is to ruin them.

In the end, Elena and Nate come home with a new found understanding of each other. After a combination of a honey-moon from hell and marriage boot camp, Elena lays out a better future for the two of them – one Nate hadn’t even thought of himself. A future they could pursue together, legally, that would satiate both their appetites for adventure. Elena realizes that even she wasn’t being honest with herself by ignoring it before, and she wasn’t respecting Nate fully either by expecting him to have given up his love of the great unknown. They begin an archaeological salvage company together, and go on to be renowned researchers and explorers – and amazing role-models to their daughter.

When the epilogue scene takes place, with their daughter discovering the key to her dad’s cabinet full of relics from his past days, it isn’t sad anymore like when we saw Nate’s attic storage at the game’s start. Sure, her parents have some serious explaining to do for their pistol-packing, highly illegal pasts, but when Nate sees his old things that last time, it isn’t with a wistful eye. Nate and Elena now live a life fulfilled, a marriage of honesty and shared adventure. Instead of being two separate people under one roof, they’ve let their talents complement each other, lifting the other up to be the best version of themselves possible.

nateelenaexplaining
Ugh, Can’t We Just Explain The Birds & The Bees Instead

What Naughty Dog created in Uncharted 4 was not simply the best story told yet by the franchise, but also the best lesson in marriage survival I’ve probably ever seen. They don’t pull any punches in making it clear that marriage is one of the hardest things to succeed at in life (even if you can swing from collapsing ruins like Tarzan on steroids), however they also make it clear that when the love is real, it can be the greatest fortune you ever seek.

The reason games like this are so important should be more obvious to game developers who shy away from the topic. According to a study by the ESA conducted in 2015, the average age of a gamer is about 35 years of age (the most frequent female gamer age being higher at 43 years of age). It also found that these gamers have been playing regularly for at least 13 years of their lives. 35-year-olds clearly have plenty of room for epic hero fantasies, sure, but also are looking for stories to be meatier than your average Michael Bay film. It’s rare to have something come along that rings so true against life experience, and there’s a reason that games with themes of being a parent, protecting a child or family, and yes, even saving a crumbling marriage, have won so many awards. I hope the gaming industry continues to raise the bar in storytelling, and doesn’t continue to take the easy road of making “mature” games be simply young-adult novels with more explicit sex and violence. Uncharted 4 was given an ESRB rating of T for Teen, however, it’s story could not have been more “adult.” Higher level story telling is starting to happen with more regularity, and I’m happy to say that games like Wolfenstein: The New Order, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break also fit the bill for very grown up storytelling. Relationships, however, still seem to fall in an area of avoidance for many game developers, and I personally hope to see more risks being taken in this regard in the future. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End set a very high bar, but in an industry as talented as this, it should only prove a challenge to be just as good, if not better. Who knows, maybe you’ll even save a marriage or two along the way.

/BCG              

2 thoughts on “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Video Game Storytelling That Finally Got Marriage Right

  1. This was an absolutely fantastic read. Nate and Elena’s relationship was one of the most amazing things to see develop over the Uncharted series. The 4th game really brought things full circle and gave us a conclusion that wasn’t only satisfying in terms of plot closure, but also for emotional closure. It gave us the ups and downs of marriage and a couple that never gave up on each other no matter how tough things got. It’ll be very hard for any other game to dethrone these two as THE #relationshipgoals of gaming. 😛

    That said, would you like to share your articles in our FB group? We’re a growing community of gaming bloggers and we’re always looking for more great writers to share their work and discuss all things gaming. Just search for “Game Bloggers United” on Facebook.

    Like

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