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In recent years, Naughty Dog, the developer once famous for creating colorful 3D platfomers starring furries...er, bipedal animal protagonists, has become famous for another strength - crafting layered, nuanced, and believable characters and character interactions. In both the Uncharted franchise and their newer IP The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has crafted characters that defy many of the tropes they originally seem to embody and mastered the art of realistic character dialogue and banter that does wonders to making each face gracing the screen feel like a living person.
However, this clashing of characters does not only happen externally through dialogue or action; it also occurs on a much more subtle and covert way through Uncharted 4's masterful use of "foil characters." This is a term many of you English majors out there may be familiar with, and is defined as any character who possesses a quality that clashes with one of the qualities of the protagonist. Foil characters exist to highlight the traits of the main character and give the reader, viewer, or player (depending on the form of media) further insight into the protagonist's characterization by depicting someone who is the opposite of the lead character in some way.
In the spirit of Game Club, many others here have done a fine job of demonstrating how Uncharted 4's writing has matured after Naughty Dog's experience developing The Last of Us. The adventure is more grounded and focused on nuanced character development than ridiculous action-packed setpieces, and this was a wise move on the developers' part, as we got to know the Uncharted cast on a more intimate level before saying good-bye to them in their final outing. Uncharted 4 also helps us understand and appreciate Nathan Drake's character on a much higher level due to its masterful use of foil characters in the plot, of which there are many. So today, to celebrate Game Club and Drake's final adventure, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the foil characters of Uncharted 4 and how their presence makes the game's story and characterization all the more rich. Needless to say, this blog will be riddled with spoilers, so beware! For your own protection, do not advance below this obnoxiously large photo of Uncharted 4's box art if you haven't finished the game or don't want the story ruined for you. You've been warned!
Uncharted 4 bounces around a bit chronologically, but every time jump and flashback feels deliberate and intentionally done for maximum effect. The most notable example of these is the flashback that ensues after Elena saves Nathan's life once more following Chapter 15. Drake takes a nasty, potentially deadly fall and would probably have been left to die alone had it not been for Elena saving his life again, something she admits she was hesitant to do. A major theme of Uncharted 4 is the importance of having social support and the inability to accomplish great things without the help of others (the main reason why Rafe never amounts to anything - more on that shortly). This is most strongly demonstrated in how Nate's life would be in forfeit had it not been for Elena's prompt arrival.This theme is further highlighted in the ensuing flashback, which takes players back to Nathan's young teenager years, where he and his older brother Sam raid a home in an attempt to recover their mother's journals, who were sold to an unknown party after her death. Once again, Naughty Dog proves why they are the king of environmental storytelling; as the Drake brothers explore the house, it becomes increasingly clear that no one lives here anymore. A layer of dust coats everything. The mail slot in the front door is stuffed to the point letters haphazardly fall to a pile on the ground, and the premises lack any presence of life or warmth. In its place however, are unimaginable riches and relics rivaling that of any museum, with all manner of astounding artifacts the history enraptured brothers enjoy. As players explore the house, they can find clues that tell the sad backstory of its owner.
The house was originally owned by Kenichiro and Evelyn Namba, a couple drawn together by their shared passion for history, exploration, and world-trotting. In initial correspondence between the two, the love and respect that Kenichiro has for his wife bleeds strong, but their relationship because increasingly strained as they get older in life. After the two bear a child, Eddie, Kenichiro yearns to put their treasure hunting days behind them and be caring parents in their newborn son's lives. Eveyln, not content with motherhood, instead leaves her family behind to periodically travel the world. While Kenichiro has nothing but love for his wife until the end, this does place strain on their marraige to the point of divorce. Evelyn would go on to be absent at their son's graduation and her husband's funeral, frequently choosing her own fame and success over the love their family has for her. It's a mistake she realizes far too late in life, as a letter riddled with pain sent from her son reveals that he wants nothing to do with her and refuses to accept her in his life.
It's a sad state of affairs that reflects why Evelyn's residence resembles a museum more than a home - the family and love she could have cultivated through the years are nowhere to be found, because she chose glory and danger over them, a choice that eventually ends in everyone she ever loved abandoning her in the end, with nothing to show for her choice but a house full of ancient collectibles that provide her no solace in her twilight years.
What particularly makes this scene sad is how it demonstrates that Nate could have lived this very same life had things gone differently. By choosing to lie to Elena and not tell her that he was risking his life to hunt treasure with his brother "one last time," he was choosing glory and riches over his family, just as Evelyn did before him. Even if he had miraculously survived the potentially deadly fall he goes through in Chapter 15 and escaped the island, it wouldn't have mattered had Elena not forgiven Nate. Because he would return to the mainland rich beyond his wildest dreams, but poor where it really mattered. He isolated the love of his life, and even his best friend Sully in pursuit of Avery's treasure, and came dangerously close to living the rest of his life without them.
The timing of Chapter 16's flashback initially seems odd, but ultimately, Evelyn serves as a foil character that shows players how Nathan's life could have tragically ended if he had continued to choose treasures and glory over what truly matters in life.
Evelyn ultimately dies surrounded by all of the treasures she amassed in her life, but none of her loved ones. She likely asked herself the same thing Nate did upon finding Avery's treasure - "was it all worth it?"
Nathan Drake is a self-made man. His parents died at a young age, forcing him and his brother to live on the streets and make a living and name for themselves at an early age. They adopt the Drake namesake and work their way out of poverty without the help of anyone else. Later in life, when Drake goes on to become a famous treasure hunter, he needed the help of allies such as Elena Fischer and Victor Sullivan to discover the fabled lost cities he does, but even then he does much of the hard work himself. Nate solves the puzzles that lead his group to the ultimate location of the treasure, wields the weapons that put hundreds of deadly mercenaries down, and so and so forth.
If we accept that Nathan Drake is the biggest reason for his personal success, it's easy to see how Rafe Adler is a foil to him. Rafe Adler never had to earn anything in his life. The son of an exceedingly wealthy mother and father he has had everything handed to him for his entire life. Even the business he owns during the events of Uncharted 4, which has earned him fortunes that you and I could only dream of, is only his because it was his inheritance. Rafe himself even admits that being as wealthy as he is, he has no need for Avery's millions of dollars of pirate gold. Rather, he pursues it solely to make a name for himself and become world-famous due to something he accomplished by his own hand.Except over the course of Uncharted 4, Rafe still never accomplishes anything on his own. Nadine Ross and her SHORELINE hired mercenaries do all the physical work - excavating treasure sites and fighting Drake and co. whenever they may appear. Rafe never gets his hands dirty until the very end of the game. More importantly though, even though Rafe had a 15 year head-start in the search for Avery's treasure, he is never able to make any progress towards finding it without the wits and knowledge of Nathan and Sam Drake, the latter of which he releases from prison for the sole purpose of helping him find the treasure. Nathan and Sam solve the puzzles that point the way to Avery's treasure; Rafe merely finds the clues after the fact through hacking their phones, pursuing the brothers, etc.
Even at the very end of the game, as Nathan and Rafe fence to the death in the burning ruins of Avery's ship, Rafe's inability to accomplish anything on his own consumes him. He confesses his unhealthy obsession with Nathan and the legends associated with him and laments that people don't speak similar legends of him and his accomplishments because he could never do anything to earn such talk. Rafe can't even make a name for himself in death; in part thanks to luck, he is able to best Nathan in swordplay, but just before he can plunge the sword through his adversary, he relishes that he has finally fought and earned something in his life, and will enjoy the moment. Only to get crushed by the weight of Avery's gold. Rafe had lived his life with the weight of his parent's legacy and wealth on his shoulders, desperately trying to match it through his own deeds, and it was ultimately more weight that led to his demise.
Rafe serves as a despicable foil character to Nate; while Drake had nothing as a child, he was able to pull himself out of poverty and become famous by his own accomplishments. "Greatness from small beginnings" indeed. On the other hand, Rafe was born silver spoon in hand, yet despite having a seemingly endless amount of wealth, was never strong, nor cunning enough to ever make a name for himself. While Nathan's name will no doubt be remembered for decades to come in the universe of Uncharted, Rafe will likely never get to enjoy his appearing anywhere other than the obituary.
Rafe lived his life in envy of Nathan Drake's accomplishments, hoping to one day make something of himself in the same vein, but ultimately, thanks to Nathan, he never would.
While Evelyn Namba and Rafe Adler both contrast with Nathan Drake in a key way, by far the most important foil character in Uncharted 4 is his own blood, his own brother, Sam Drake. In order to understand why these characters have grown differently and into foils of one another, it's crucial to remember that while Nathan was out and about exploring and growing as a person for 15 years, Sam was rotting in a prison cell, remaining stagnant as a character.While Nathan eventually grows into something bigger than the "small boy with delusions of grandeur" Rafe accuses him of being, the same cannot arguably be said of Sam. Nathan ultimately becomes a family man who learns the importance of social support and putting loved ones above the thrill of danger. Sam never learns such a lesson and despite being the older brother, arguably never reaches the same level of maturity of Nathan. Or depending on your perspective, merely matures differently than Nathan.
Throughout Uncharted 4, Sam makes many decisions that a younger, less experienced and reckless Nathan arguably would've made. Sam lied to Nathan about being in debt to a dangerous drug lord in order to encourage his brother, who was supposedly "done" with treasure hunting, to do so with him "one last time." It's a selfish action that shows a fundamental misunderstanding that Nathan is done with the type of life Sam wants to live. Much later in the game, when an opportunity for Nathan's group to escape the Madagascar island they are trapped on arises, Sam eschews safety for a chance to continue pursuing Avery's treasure, another selfish move that once again puts Nate in danger as he follows his brother to save him, becoming his "brother's keeper" as the title of Chapter 21 implies.Even at the very end of the game when Nate's group miraculously survives and Nathan gives up the dangerous life of (illegal) treasure seeking for good, Sam isn't ready to call it quits yet. While Nathan eventually settles down and has children, Sam instead continues to hunt treasure and take up dangerous jobs with Sully, preferring to seek treasure and adrenaline over "the family sitting around at a table at Thanksgiving" as Sam himself put it. The argument could be made that Sam never matures in the way that Nathan does, but I prefer to see it as the two characters maturing differently and each wanting different things in life. Nathan is happy raising a family, Sam is happy continuing to hunt treasure. There isn't anything wrong with either path in life, since Sam never puts Nathan and his family's life in danger again.Sam is essentially Nathan if he had never met Elena and grown into someone who wanted to pursue family over gold. Sam is a foil character showing how Nathan's life would've gone if he remained the "two-bit thief" we all fell in love with in Drake's Fortune and continued to hunt treasure for the rest of his days, though unlike Evelyn, with his friends by his side. In this sense, Sam is also the healthiest of Uncharted's foil characters as unlike Evelyn and Rafe, he still ends up living a fulfilling life, just not the kind of life Nathan wants any part of anymore.
In some ways, waiting until the final game in the series to bring Sam into the fold makes a lot of sense from a story perspective - he is a reflection of who Nathan Drake would be if he never experienced his character growth from the previous Uncharted games.
Ultimately, Naughty Dog is heralded as a modern master of characterization, and for good reason; yet while their characters are strong on an individual basis, it is really the interactions between them, the silly banter, the butting of heads, and the casual conversations that makes them live in in our minds. Yet it is also the invisible ties between these characters that also make them memorable. Evelyn, Rafe, and Sam are all strong characters in their own right, but it is how certain aspects of them clash with qualities of Nathan Drake, and their purpose as foil characters that truly bring out the strength in Uncharted's writing.
It is unknown where Naughty Dog will take us next (though to the post-apocalyptic United States in The Last of Us 2 is a safe bet). However, wherever Naughty Dog takes us, and whoever's shoes we fill, hopefully Uncharted 4 is only a taste of what's to come in terms of powerful foil characters from the talented studio.What did you think of the foil characters of Uncharted 4? Do you have a favorite? Am I missing one? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!
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