All roads lead to this. At least, that’s what Naughty Dog would have us believe, as the developer looks set to bring the curtain down on Nathan Drake’s swashbuckling adventure with the release of Uncharted 4. It’s a conclusion that’s been teased many a time — heck, it’s even in the subtitle — and though fans have found themselves walking on egg shells no thanks to a broken street date, anticipation for A Thief’s End is beginning to reach a fever-pitch.
Arriving at such a point, however, hasn’t been without its setbacks. Yes, Uncharted 4’s development woes have been the cause for much debate, but in tracing back along the timeline to the sequel’s inception, we’re able to get a better sense of how Naughty Dog’s vision has changed through time; moulded in many ways by the creative talent that fired The Last of Us to international success three years ago. So, how has Uncharted 4’s prolonged development affected Drake’s final voyage?
Carry on My Wayward Son
Ground zero, November 2013. Sony, having just launched the PlayStation 4 into the vying hands of consumers, rolled out a teaser trailer for the next installment in its marquee franchise. Then, the sequel was simply known as Uncharted PS4, and the reel of footage itself featured Todd Stashwick’s gravely voice teeing up a tale of revenge, plundered treasure and unpaid debts.
Continuing a red hot streak at the helm, Creative Director and Series Writer Amy Hennig and Game Director Justin Richmond (Drake’s Deception) were placed in the driver’s seat for the then-untitled Uncharted 4. But only five months after that foreboding teaser trailer, Naughty Dog formally announced that Hennig and Richmond were no longer involved with development, when each creator moved on to pastures anew — Visceral Games and Riot Games, respectively.
It was the loss of Amy Hennig that arguably resonated the most with the Uncharted faithful. This was, after all, an esteemed writer and creative lodestone that had been with PlayStation’s tentpole series from the very beginning, working as Game Director on Drake’s Fortune before going on to lead the 150-strong team behind Uncharted: Among Thieves — considered by many to be the best in the franchise.
Even to this day, there’s still much we don’t know about Hennig’s abrupt departure. Did the developer leave on her own terms? Or was she “forced out” as those speculative reports had suggested?
Whatever the case, Naughty Dog’s internal overhaul would eventually translate to two fairly significant delays for Uncharted 4, with figures such as Nolan North estimating that production had been set back by around eight months as a result.
El Goddamn Dorado!
In the fallout, once the studio hit the hard reset button and ostensibly scrapped much — if not all — of Amy Hennig’s original story, it was announced that Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley would take point in Naughty Dog’s mission to bring about A Thief’s End.
Riding high after the barnstorming success of The Last of Us, the appointment represented something of a homecoming for Druckmann and Straley, who worked across both Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves before ducking out of Drake’s Deception to unleash the cordyceps virus upon the world.
ND’s dynamic duo came bearing some changes, too — changes that didn’t go down particularly well with some of Uncharted 4’s voice cast at the time. Todd Stashwick, who had been in line to portray Nate’s brother Sam before the torch was passed to Troy Baker, was one of the first to leave. And he was followed quickly out the exit door by Firefly actor Alan Tudyk.
Reflecting on the “weird changes” brought about by Druckmann and Straley’s arrival, Tudyk’s statement was the first tangible sign that The Last of Us alum were steering A Thief’s End in a decidedly different direction.
“I left because they decided to go a different way with it, and so when they did that, when they changed leadership, it made my contract null and void and I was able to take that opportunity to walk away, which was great because I got the experience of doing it. Todd Stashwick was in that as well… and he did the same thing I did, which was, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna leave now. Y’all are making some weird changes, we’re gonna leave.’”
Will we ever learn more of Hennig’s vision for Uncharted 4? Unlikely. Currently leading development on a third-person Star Wars game at Visceral, one consolation is that A Thief’s End gives an honorable mention to Hennig and her contributions to the franchise.
It is a tantalizing thought nonetheless — the sequel that never was. Had Hennig remained at the helm, would Uncharted 4 be a totally different experience? Or a similarly dark and intense final voyage without the design touchstones of The Last of Us. Alas, in the words of series newcomer Troy Baker, “no one will ever miss what they didn’t know.”
March 19, 2016 — three and a half years after it was first announced, Uncharted 4 finally breaks past the finish line, going gold and placing the ardent fanbase on red alert in the process. From there, Naughty Dog was rounding onto the final stretch, pulling the necessary feedback from March’s beta and ironing out any last-minute technical issues.
Fast forward to now and, despite a retailer blunder sparking fears of mass spoilers, reviews for Nathan Drake’s swan song are, unsurprisingly, nothing short of stellar. Our own Chandler Wood held up Uncharted 4 as a fitting farewell to Nate, Elena, Sully and Co., with Naughty Dog exceeding in just about every department — cinematic, gameplay, presentation, you name it.
Where exactly the Uncharted franchise goes from here is anyone’s guess. As one of, if not the crown jewel among Sony’s roster of first-party exclusives, it’s all but certain that the platform holder will carve out a future for Uncharted in some shape or form — be that a prequel series or finding a new developer to carry on the torch from Naughty Dog.
Such a line of thinking raises more questions than answers, of course. Chief among them being the one conundrum that will surely become a heated conversation in the months after A Thief’s End arrives; is Uncharted really Uncharted without Nathan Drake? We’ll leave that one to the Powers That Be.
Uncharted 4 will bring about A Thief’s End — and a bittersweet adventure to boot — when Naughty Dog’s actioner makes a beeline for PlayStation 4 on May 10.
One last time? One last time.