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Uncharted 4 does nostalgia the right way

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Spoilers ahead

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End could well be the last game of its kind, part of a dying breed of lavish single-player experiences that focus on telling a specific story in a cinematic way. But — if you believe developer Naughty Dog — it’s also the last of the many adventures of series hero Nathan Drake. That’s a big deal. Since his debut in 2007’s Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, we’ve seen Nate go on countless adventures, uncovering lost cities and ancient artifacts. But more importantly, we’ve seen him grow as a person. What started out as a wise-cracking mix of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft has turned into a flawed, relatable, and lovable character.

Naughty Dog clearly understands this because Uncharted 4 feels like the perfect send-off for the charming rogue. It’s a game that’s laced with nostalgia, with nods both big and small that will remind you of some of Nate’s most iconic moments. But these glimpses of the past don’t feel like tacked-on fan service; instead, they’re smartly interwoven into the story in a way that feels natural. This is nostalgia done the right way.

Warning, this piece includes major spoilers for Uncharted 4, including the game's ending

One of the most important moments in Uncharted 4 for me is early on, in chapter four, when Nate is living a surprisingly traditional domestic life. He’s given up the illegal — and dangerous — life of a treasure hunter, and settled into a role at a salvaging company. He has a nice house that he shares with his longtime partner Elena Fisher. They spend their evenings talking about work and arguing over who does the dishes.

But remnants of Nate’s past are everywhere. The chapter opens with a fantastic moment that has Nate sitting alone at a desk in a dingy attic. It doesn’t look like a part of a suburban home; there’s nothing new or shiny to be seen, no computers or televisions anywhere. Instead, it’s filled with mementos from his past adventures. Old bits of treasure that he couldn’t bear to throw away, photos of friends and places he didn’t want to forget. There are notebooks filled with sketches and stories. As you walk through the attic it really hits you just how much Nate has done over the course of the past three games.

Uncharted 4 spoiler gif

What makes this scene really work is that it lets you reminisce as much or as little as you want. If you don’t care, you can just walk through, catching small glimpses of the baubles littered about. But, if you’re like me, you’ll stop and soak it all in. You can pick up every object and turn it over in your hands, examining it from multiple angles. You can listen to Nate think back on the times he clearly misses so much. That small layer of choice makes it all the more powerful.

When you finally leave the attic, it’s like walking into a different world. The attic is a room full of memories tucked away inside a traditional suburban home. Downstairs, there are hints of Nate’s past life in the form of of stylish art prints from faraway places like Sana'a and Nepal. But for the most part it looks like any other house — aside from the mess. (Seriously, do some laundry guys.)

Then, of course, we come to that scene. You know the one; here I’ll remind you:

Uncharted 4 spoiler gif

For those unaware, this is a fully playable Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog’s first breakout hit, which launched on the original PlayStation two decades ago. It might be the best Easter egg ever featured in a video game; a classic game playable inside a modern game, that isn’t some diversion, but an important part of an emotional scene. But more than that, it furthers the nostalgic vibe by looking beyond just the Uncharted series. It shows how far Naughty Dog has come as a studio over the last 20 years. It shows how much gaming has changed over that time.

The attic sequence is the most prominent example of this kind of smartly-integrated nostalgia, but it’s a theme that continues throughout the game. When Nate meets his long lost brother Sam, one of the first things he does is tell him all about one of his most daring adventures (in another example of the power of choice in games, you get to decide which adventure he talks about). Throughout the game you’ll hear Nate, Sam, Elena, and their long-time partner Sully chat away, and often they’re reminiscing about pivotal moments from past games. Nostalgia is the background noise of Uncharted 4; rarely at the forefront of the experience, but always there, lurking.

This all comes to a head in the final moments of the game, when we meet a surprise new character: Cassie, Nate and Elena’s young daughter. We learn that she’s just like her parents, a budding explorer with a thirst for adventure. She appears to be in her early teens, yet she’s already graced the cover of a magazine for young thrill-seekers.

Eventually she stumbles upon a locked cabinet in a beach house that belongs to her father. She manages to open it up, and inside are all of the same objects from the attic. You can pick them up again, and see them through fresh eyes. They’re still there, just as they were before, and they always will be. Those moments are unforgettable.