Uncharted 4: Cartographers At The End of The World
Jorge Luis Borges penned a one paragraph short story that proposed the paradox at the heart of cartography. Borges imagined an empire where scientists pursued creating the most exact map of their country possible, and in this endeavor, came to realise that the only true map of their country was the scale and size of the very country itself. They built the map but had to build it forever, and before long the empire met its own ruin, defeated by their hubris. The empire fell, and the map with it. “In the western deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.”
Borges articulates a unique sort of problem we face as artists. In attempting to describe a thing, we must confess that the truer and more accurate the description, the closer to recreating the original work we grow.
Uncharted 4 paints a rich, detailed story of Nathan Drake’s adventures from childhood to retirement. We see snippets of the man at the most pivotal moments of his existence. And these moments are compelling: well acted, well written, animated with style. Plot set up and pay off weaves through each mission. Without realizing it, we end up knowing Nate’s life story.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, so much as an observation. In Borges’ story he points out the extremes of being exact to highlight the reason why art is not exacting. Good art describes the edges of a thing, inviting us to fill in the silences with our imagination, allowing us to invest in ideas and make them our own.
In following Nate’s relationship with his brother, we’re rarely offered the opportunity to imagine for ourselves. The story is not as prescriptive as Fallout 3, where we literally start the game at birth and end it with death, but Uncharted 4 becomes a little too invested in the Nathan Drake mythology at the expense of the plot at large. It’s no mistake that Nate’s brother flips on him, or that his allies and rivals come out of the woodwork. This is the final story in his saga, yes, but by centering the Drakes the world shrinks around us. The good work of the second game feels restricted by this retrospection. Suddenly all of the adventures are coloured by how Sully and big brother Drake influenced Nathan. No longer are these daring deeds the unique actions of the one-and-only-hero, now they are part of a larger tapestry, predestined.
To this end, Borges imagines the map decaying: after all, if it is so large as the country, how can it be maintained, updated. Equally, Uncharted 4 staggers under the weight of its lore. All must have an explanation. All must lead back to the necklace and the long lost brother and that first time he went tomb raiding and Sully’s lessons.
Rather than a grand adventure where Indiana Jones seeks out danger and artefacts, it begins to feel like things just sort of happen to Nate because he was raised by his brother and Sully. The hero of fortune becomes a beggar to his programming. Which is sort of the point of the game’s story, I think. The narrative proposes to challenge Nate’s beliefs, his assumptions about why he does what he does. But does it?
Take the prison sequence: the ‘you don’t want to be in X prison’ is a running joke in the series. And because Prison Break had that season in a middle eastern prison, Uncharted takes this for a ride. The danger is real in the prison—well, as real as Uncharted gets—so it’s not quite satire. There’s no commentary on the trope, no discussion of the justice system or the freedom the Drake’s have as white men within the institution’s walls. It’s joked about, then we see it, and we escape. That’s it.
We see the whole shape of the thing, every beautiful pixel on my 4K TV running at buttery frames on my new Playstation 5. Every dust particle caught in the raytraced beam of sunlight. Every bead of sweat on Nate’s forehead. Each hair on his knuckle as his fist mashes in a cheek bone. In the ability to show everything, and the freedom and budget to do so, Druckmann and co commit the one sin they resisted in The Last of Us. We learn the backstory of all our characters, have their motivations and desires explained to us, and rather than allowing any subtext whatsoever, the best map they could think of is the country itself.
Hundreds of people spent years pouring their hearts and souls into what ends up being a flashy, turn-your-brain-off Uncharted romp that pretends to be more than it is. To say that this is by design is accurate, but it left me wanting more. In the best moments, Uncharted 4 alludes to a richer story. More complex dynamics. How exactly will Nate and his wife reconcile his true nature? Oh it’s fine he just retires because he realizes there are more important things. Why can’t Nate trust Sully after all these years? Every time Nate thinks Sully betrayed him it always turned out to be a ruze, so why is he always so suspicious? Why does he trust his brother so implicitly and shouldn’t this say a lot about how vulnerable Nate is to manipulation? The story raises these questions over and over, relitigating its best themes while constantly dismissing us, the audience, for thinking it might be going somewhere with all of this. It isn’t and it doesn’t. You can see this problem taking root in Uncharted 4 and matriculating, growing malignant, a cancer on Druckmann’s work by the time The Last of Us Part II arrives.
After 40 or so hours immersed in the world of Nate from day one to his retirement, I just… wish there was something left to explore. Something left to imagine. Instead, silence is abandoned at the edges of the world, forgotten, caked in the desert sands. If you walk into the dunes at just the right hour after dusk you might even see the bones of once great ideas, now no more than forgotten, pale impressions of what could have been.
This article was originally written for Level Story Magazine.