Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a momentous video game, not only for its beauty and gameplay but because it brings to an end a beloved series that started way back in 2007 on the PlayStation 3. Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the co-directors of the game, said that one of the first decisions they made on the game was to decide that this Uncharted would be the final installment for Nathan Drake. That’s where the meaning of the subtitle, A Thief’s End, comes into play.
This interview has spoilers about many different scenes in Uncharted 4, including the ending –Ed.
But you can apply many interpretations to the subtitle’s meaning. Druckmann and Straley say that they always had one particular kind of ending in mind to bring closure to the series. How this wraps up actually surprised me, as I thought that there might be another way the series would come to its close. For those of you who haven’t finished Uncharted 4 yet, now is your chance to get out of this article.
But for those who have finished it and had many of the same questions that I did, here’s your answers. I sat down last week for an extended interview with Druckmann and Straley at Naughty Dog’s headquarters in Santa Monica, California.
Here’s an edited transcript. If you’d like to read the rest of the interview, here’s the links on saying goodbye to Uncharted, advice for game developers, making games over movies, Naughty Dog’s headquarters, and the Monkey Island Easter egg. And here’s the full comprensive interview.
GamesBeat: I like how you guys have these things you throw back to. Is that often part of the storytelling you like to do?
Neil Druckmann: Last of Us and Uncharted 4, there are lots of parallels and imagery about starting and ending. It helps to reflect back on where you were and see things in a similar setting. Now they’re different. Now they’ve changed.
GamesBeat: I thought about The Last of Us that way. There’s the very beginning and the very end, and they resonate together.
Druckmann: Yeah. They had that mirror structure.
GamesBeat: The ending was interesting. I have a three-paragraph question here, but I’ll read the first part now and give you a moment to start with it.
I thought, given the path you chose, the ending was good, but it was entirely different from what I thought it was going to be. I took my clues from the title. The way Uncharted 3 also started out with Nathan and Sully getting shot and thinking that there’s some kind of loss that may happen here. I felt like I was set up for that story. But was I, really?
Druckmann: A Thief’s End can mean a lot of things. I guess there’s something possibly misleading there. In interviews and the way we constructed trailers and the tone of it, we were definitely trying to throw people off. It was important that you felt like that was at stake as you played the game. It’s possible someone could lose their life, even if ultimately they don’t. So hopefully it was subverted in an interesting way and you were intrigued that it didn’t happen. But we still wanted you to think that it could happen.
GamesBeat: Do you think that also not having a loss at the end is sort of consistent with this franchise? That this is the way, from beginning to end—this has always been just more fun and adventurous, maybe not as serious? That was some of my thinking as to why it turned out this way. Compared to Last of Us, again, there’s the powerful scene in the beginning with the loss of a character, and it resonates with the emotionally lasting ending.
I was very fearful while I was playing. I had this overwhelming fear that somebody’s going to die. I put my logical money on Sam, I guess, because he was not constructed as a crowd-pleasing character. He has so many flaws that you just have to wonder about him. Anyway, that was some of my reaction. I wonder if a tragic ending was ever something you considered? Or were you aiming for this ending from the very beginning?
Druckmann: From the very beginning, this was the ending we constructed. It was about the conflict between a man and the passion that becomes a sort of obsession in his life. The woman he loves, the family that he’s formed and that he loves, and the fact that he can’t reconcile those two things. A relationship is about compromise sometimes. He’s given up a part of himself. Elena has given up a part of herself. But what they’ve constructed at the end is greater than what they’ve given up.
Bruce Straley: I also feel like a death of a main character in video games or any kind of media right now is, for me personally, almost cheap. It’s not that we’re trying to stay true to something in the franchise as much as it didn’t feel right for us. There was some other resolution we were getting at. I liked when A Thief’s End, the title, came up as a proposal. It was perfect because of the multiple meanings that people could read into it.
Druckmann: This doesn’t just apply to Nate. It applies to Henry, to Thomas, to Rafe.
Straley: It’s also a metaphor. It’s the end of a thief’s lifestyle. A thief in his behavior, Nathan Drake’s behavior. I like the fact that it still has absolute meaning for the game. It’s just misleading in a fun way.
I also liked, when we were watching playtests—we have cameras and a little picture-in-picture of the players. When they would go into Henry Avery’s ship to fight Rafe, as soon as the fight starts there’s a fire going and gold all around. You’d hear people say, “Oh, shit, is this when it’s going to happen?” You’d see them double down on wanting to win the fight. They’re more engaged in not letting that happen. I liked that. I liked the fact that there was that possibility hanging out there, that we are proposing some thief’s end. It added a bit more investment, honestly, near the end of the game.
Druckmann: In regards to Sam, ultimately his love for his brother is what saves him. That’s the thing that Rafe, who’s a sort of reflection of Nate – representing Nate’s ego – he doesn’t have that. What he does to Nadine, he doesn’t have that person that’s going to save him at the end. That’s his undoing.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like, in this way, this is a contrast to Last of Us? You can have a story that’s darker in Last of Us, whereas in Uncharted there’s more brightness to it.
Druckmann: It’s a different challenge. The world of Last of Us affords more drama and tragedy, things that are more easily seen as weighty. This is a more lighthearted pulp action-adventure. The challenge we gave ourselves was, how do we tell a meaningful human story with complex relationships, complex characters, in this more lighthearted drama?
GamesBeat: Was Sam always part of this story? Was he conceived way back in the early days of the franchise?
Druckmann: No. There was a lot of discussion, around the time of Uncharted one, about who Nathan Drake is. Is Drake his real name? Where did he get the ring from? We would brainstorm ideas. A brother might come up in those brainstorms. Or his dad. His dad took different permutations. But that was never pinned down. Nothing like that was pinned down until Uncharted 4.
GamesBeat: In some ways I think of an angel on Nathan’s shoulder and a devil on the other side. Elena is one of those, and Sully the other for a while. Then Sam appears, and he’s sort of this third thing. It’s a simple way of looking at it, but they tug Nathan in different directions.
Druckmann: Sam plays an interesting role. He’s where Nate used to be. Over those 15 years, he hasn’t matured in the way Nate has matured over these adventures, settled down and found Elena. It’s a way for him to reflect and see what he was and why it’s so important to mature and change, and how if you don’t it could lead to something very destructive.
GamesBeat: The Last of Us is still my favorite game of all time. I think it has something to do with the way the ending felt. Being so surprised by that ending was—I wasn’t sure whether you guys had set something up and changed your minds at the end.
Druckmann: No, the ending, all the way until the dock, that was always the plan, of them coming to a compromise. Nate has changed now. It’s always Elena to some degree. And then through production, I had lunch with one of the designers, and he was poking at the ending and saying, “Yeah, something’s missing.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “How do we know he changed this time? We know it, because made that choice. But as players we’ve seen Nate get together with Elena at the end of every game. Something always comes along to drag him back in.”
I totally saw his point. We needed something else that was going to definitively tell you that this time it was different. That’s where the epilogue came in.
GamesBeat: The presence of the kids tends to cause people to settle down. I think maybe that, for me, plus the passage of so much time — because his child is so old — tells me that they’ve been in this life for quite a while now.
Druckmann: It stuck this time.
GamesBeat: I guess that’s the way you learn that this is really the end of the story.
Straley: We also talked about how we wanted to end on a high note. There was something in the resolution that felt satisfying. It was a positive ending. That felt right for the franchise as well. There’s no irony, no questions. There was closure and it was complete.
GamesBeat: Without the epilogue there is no ending, I think.
Druckmann: It’s not as definitive. You could question it. People will question it on forums and so on. They are, in fact.
GamesBeat: I wonder, if you have an ending like that, how do you do DLC? Maybe you can put it earlier in time?
Straley: From your perspective, I wonder—there’s this thing we see online. We were chatting about it for a second the other day, about how people feel like there’s a—in this story, it’s got a Last of Us influence. Do you, knowing so much about Last of Us, feel that?
GamesBeat: This has a lot more stealth in the gameplay. That reminded me of Last of Us. Because I was expecting more of Last of Us in this story, I think I was, again, thrown off at the end.
Straley: What do you mean by that? What were you expecting?
GamesBeat: I expected a darker story, maybe. I really expected Sam to die. Somehow that fits more in a universe like Last of Us, as you said. I’m not sure what else I would say. It does seem consistent, at least. What would be your answer to that part? Was there anything you learned from Last of Us that went into making this game?
Straley: For me it was about how to tell a more personal story. It’s what Neil said earlier. How do you still keep the tropes and the lightheartedness and the sense of adventure and the faster pace, but still take time to invest in character relationships and add that level of—one of the most interesting things when we were first laying out the outline of the story that I got excited by was the conflict in the player’s heart. You know Nate’s lying to Elena. We have scenes where he deliberately lies to her. But at the same time, I want to go on adventure. I have the joystick in my hand and I’m actively engaging in the adventure. I’m hooked like Nathan Drake is hooked.
To have that conflict of not necessarily agreeing with what this strong-willed person is doing as a character, yet still playing how I want to play as the high-adventure Nathan Drake character, was interesting. To then have the highest, most epic set piece we could ever create—at this time, in Naughty Dog’s path, that was the chase sequence cascading into the drag sequence cascading into the convoy. That’s the most epic thing we could produce.
GamesBeat: They get this chance, maybe, to open up to their daughter now and tell her about their lives. They’ve kept this secret as well, maybe?
Straley: It’s a better foundation for the daughter, certainly, rather than a life of secrets with your parents not necessarily being honest. They’ve gone through it now and they’re willing to expose themselves to their daughter. That’s a better family unit.
Druckmann: It’s a reflection of where Nate was, when he didn’t have his parents and they weren’t there for him. Through everything, he’s ended up building a strong family.
GamesBeat: Because you have Last of Us, because you have this new thing you could do now, was it easier to let go of Uncharted?
Straley: For me, no.
Druckmann: Maybe for people thinking about business, or money. But no.
Straley: It’s a cool world. It’s a cool set of characters, cool opportunities for gameplay. We have a relationship with those characters and that world. I’m glad there’s closure. But there is something in the back of my mind—there are still more ideas that could be generated for a type of set piece or a combat scenario or a moment in those characters’ adventures. But just like when we’re creating things, not every idea makes it. You use that energy for something else.
Druckmann: That’s why, in a lot of ways, Uncharted 4 was a love letter to the franchise. But also in a way a love letter to Naughty Dog, if you think about all the stuff we put in there, the nods to Crash Bandicoot and so on. When I started at Naughty Dog, one of my first memories was seeing Bruce at a programmers’ desk with an early version of a PS3, this character running around, and someone telling me, “That’s going to be our PS3 title.” My memories of Naughty Dog are all part of the Uncharted franchise.
GamesBeat: Do you have a sense of loss, then, letting go of Uncharted?
Druckmann: It’s bittersweet. The fact that it came out, though, and that it resonated with so many people—they got what we were trying to do. Because you never know. We’re part of the game. It’s the game we want to play. But you never know what the industry’s taste is, what players are into now. If it’s not open-world—who knows? Maybe they’re not going to be into it. So the fact that it was satisfying to so many people, it feels satisfying to us. Okay. We left this in a good spot.
Straley: It’s OK to let it go.
Druckmann: Maybe if it really sucked, we’d want to do one more.