NOTE – Despite everything else I say in this article, Uncharted 4 is an awesome game that everyone should play.
Uncharted 4 is a massive step up in terms of writing and directing quality compared to the previous three Uncharted games. More than that, in terms of sheer cinematic excellence, there are probably only a handful of game ever made which can match U4, one of which is director Neil Druckmann’s previous Naughty Dog game, The Last of Us. Note that this doesn’t mean that I think U4 and LoU are the greatest games of all time or even have the best video game stories ever, but I do think their story presentations are nearly unmatched. I truly hope that the success of these two games will lead to something of a revolution in cinematic game design so that video game directors actually start paying attention to basic cinematic craft when stuffing half-baked movies into their otherwise functional video games (as discussed here by Film Crit Hulk).
Yet as much as I admire the cinematography, writing, motion capture, voice acting, pacing, and story control which contributed to U4’s quality, I can’t help but get hung up on a single plot point. This one story event is of such abysmal quality that it very nearly sunk the whole experience for me until U4’s superb ending changed my mind.
Everything about Sam’s imprisonment is nonsensical. Some of the problems with it are simple contrivances where the logic of the story is stretched beyond its expected parameters (despite the Uncharted games having a pretty loose sense of plot logic to begin with). Other problems are outright plot holes which break the story entirely.
****SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT****
To summarize the relevant part of the story…
In the beginning of Uncharted 4, Nathan is locked in a Panamanian prison with Sam, Nathan’s brother who has never before been mentioned in the series, and Rafe, a wealthy backer of their latest treasure hunting venture. The trio’s plan was to bribe their way into the prison where they would pose as prisoners, so they could explore a long forgotten ruin within the prison’s walls. But their plan goes south when the warden extorts the trio to get a larger cut of their future profits. Rafe kills the warden, and the trio flee the prison while under fire. In the chaos, Sam is shot and left for dead.
U4 skips ahead 15 years when Sam suddenly shows up at Nathan’s business. It is revealed that Sam had been in prison the whole time. Nathan tried to find him but Sam claims the guards kept him hidden away out of revenge for being involved in the murder of one of their own. Recently, Sam broke out of prison with the help of his cell mate, Hector Alcazar, a notorious drug lord. Alcazar broke Sam out on the condition that Sam find the treasure he was looking for 15 years ago and give him half of it. If Sam fails, Alcazar will kill him.
To save Sam, Nathan agrees to go after the treasure, and enlists Sully for support. They soon discover that Rafe is also still searching for the treasure, now with the help of Nadine, the leader of a powerful mercenary army. For most of the game, the two teams pursue the treasure in tandem, as Nadine’s mercenaries constantly try to stop Drake and co. from reaching the next clue. Drake and Sully have multiple personal run ins with both Rafe and Nadine, though Sam never seems to be present for them.
In the third act of U4, Rafe reveals that Sam’s Alcazar story was a lie. In reality, Rafe eventually discovered Sam was still in prison and bribed his way out on the condition that he continue to work with Rafe to get the treasure. Sam then betrayed Rafe and went to Nathan instead.
I can’t simply summarize every way that Sam’s imprisonment doesn’t make sense, so I’m just going to make a list:
- Sam is amazingly well adjusted for a person who spent 15 years in a Panamanian prison
This point is technically just a contrivance rather than a plot hole, but it’s a massive contrivance.
What would you do to avoid being locked in a third world prison staffed by explicitly corrupt and sadistic guards who all hate you, for 15 years?
Would you give up your job and every possession you own? Would you join the military and go to an active combat zone? Would you have all of your arms and legs broken? Would you be savagely beaten to within an inch of your life by a street gang? Would you be tied to a post and whipped 50 times in a row?
Personally, I would do all of those things rather than lose 15 years of my life to that hell.
And yet, after 15 years of not seeing his home, enduring daily beatings, torture, navigating rival gangs, eating slop, not getting adequate medical care, and fearing for his life every second of every day, Sam comes out on the other side pretty much ok.
As far as I can tell, individuals who go through the American prison system for just a few years are changed forever. They don’t all become psychopaths or basket cases, but an individual can’t be forced into absolute subservience while simultaneously navigating omnipresent threats for an extended period of time without something changing in their mind. Sam’s experiences in Panama must have been a billion times more extreme than even that.
But we don’t see any evidence of the cost of Sam’s ordeal in U4. Sure he laments the time lost in a few instances, but he never mentions how nice it is to not be hit by night sticks five times a day, or to not have to worry about being shanked in the showers, or to be able to sit in a room alone, or to eat whenever and whatever he wants, to have modern comforts, to see and interact with women, etc.
Ok, maybe I’m relying on prison movie/tv show tropes so much. I suppose it’s vaguely possible that Sam managed to develop some sort of steady life in prison and wasn’t always concerned about getting raped or murdered every second of every day. But still, 15 years!
If Sam entered prison in his late 20s (my best guess based on his appearance), that means he didn’t get out until his early to mid-40s. While Sam’s peers were meeting spouses, getting married, having children, enjoying movies, playing video games, exploring the world, treasure hunting, enjoying professional fulfillment, etc, Sam was in a Panamanian prison for a third of his life.
Sam doesn’t act like he was locked in a third world prison for 15 years, he acts like he was stranded at the airport on layover for a few days.
I know the Uncharted games are supposed to be light fun, but I can’t let this go. What Sam went through was unbelievably horrible and it completely breaks immersion when the game fails to address that fact. If subject matter like PTSD and the lamentations of wasted life are too dark and heavy for the Uncharted series, then they shouldn’t have been implied in the game.
- Why did Nathan stop looking for Sam?
Sam is Nathan’s brother. Actually, U4’s flashbacks reveal that Sam is more than that to Nathan. The brothers grew up as orphans after their mother died and father abandoned them. As a result, Sam became Nathan’s surrogate father figure (along with Sully, a fact the game comments on) and easily the person Nathan most looked up to during his early years. Given the strength of their bond, you would assume that Nathan would go to ends of the earth to save his brother from the nightmarish fate of being locked in a Panamanian prison for 15 years. Or at the very least, Nathan would move heaven and earth to confirm his brother’s death before moving on with his life.
Yet Nathan somehow doesn’t manage to discover that Sam was in the very same place he last saw him for 15 years.
The game weakly tries to deflect this blatant plot hole by having Sam claim that the prison guards kept Sam off the books so they could torture and hold him indefinitely as retribution for his part in the warden’s death.
This is nonsense. There is no way Nathan would stop looking for Sam unless he found Sam’s body or received extremely credible evidence of his death. Nathan is not an idiot, and only an idiot would assume Sam was dead just because the guards said he was.
We, the players, see the prison through Nathan’s eyes at the start of the game. It is not a high tech or high security facility kept under lock and key. It’s a third world hell hole with corrupt enough officials that Rafe was able to buy access for himself, Nathan, and Sam at the start of the game. How difficult would it have been for Nathan himself to get back to the prison to personally search it? Ok, so the guards might recognize Nathan and not take too kindly to his return, but in that case Nathan could send Sully, Chloe, Cutter, Flynn, or any one of the dozens of shady characters he knows in his line of work to the prison in his place.
Hell, Nathan could go to the American government and inform them that an American citizen is being illegally held in a corrupt Panamanian prison. Ok, there might be some trouble as Nathan explains how Sam got into the prison, but it would be better to deal with that bureaucratic mess than possibly leaving his brother in prison indefinitely.
Granted, these options might be difficult, expensive, and time consuming for Nathan, but we are talking about possibly the most important person in Nathan’s entire life! How could he not explore every available option to rescue Sam or confirm his death?
- Why didn’t Rafe rescue Sam earlier?
No reason is ever given for why it takes Rafe 15 years to rescue Sam.
Let’s accept for a second that Nathan has a colossal lapse in judgement and assumes Sam died in the prison without seeing his body. What about other people who might not want to leave Sam to his fate?
The most obvious candidate is Rafe. Eventually Rafe does discover Sam is still alive and buys his way out of prison, but how come this only happens after 15 years? It’s made abundantly clear that Rafe is extremely wealthy, it’s pretty much the entire basis of his character. Given that he could easily buy his way into the prison in the beginning of the game, why couldn’t he buy confirmation of Sam’s status after escaping the prison? Again, if the concern is that the prison guards would recognize Rafe and not work with him, that could easily be solved by using his wealth to send a proxy. And again, this is a low tech, corrupt prison in a third world country, it shouldn’t have been that difficult to approach a guard while off duty and give him a boat load of cash for information on Sam.
This is pure contrivance for the sake of maintaining the plot.
- Why didn’t Sam escape the prison on his own in 15 years?
I admit this is the least offensive contrivance on the list, but still: why couldn’t Sam figure out a way to escape prison in 15 years?
90% of what Nathan, Sam, and the rest of the gang do throughout the Uncharted games would result in all of their deaths 99.9% of the time. These people live in the joyful world of action movies where the heroes never get shot (except when dramatic tension needs to be built) and platforms only collapse when there is an even cooler platform to grab on to at the last second below. We’ve seen Nathan kill thousands of men in gun fights, dozens in fist fights, survive multiple car crashes, a train crash, a plane crash, being stranded in the Arabian desert without water, and live through encounters with evil magical artifacts.
In this world, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to expect Sam to figure out a way to escape a Panamanian prison, especially after 15 years.
But ok, I’ll admit this is a very minor gripe and I’m willing to ignore it.
- Why didn’t Sam get word to Nathan or someone else in 15 years?
But I can’t ignore this.
It needs to be repeated again and again: 15 years. That is a long-ass time for anyone to be anywhere. It’s an especially long time for anyone to be in any single location. And it’s an especially, especially long time to be imprisoned in one place. In 15 years, how could Sam not get in contact with anyone outside the prison walls.
If Solomon Northrup could get a letter to his family thousands of miles away in 1853 while living on a remote farm in Louisiana and literally being treated like property in only 12 years, then Sam should have been able to get a letter, email, or phone call out of a corrupt Panamanian prison in the 1990s (?) in less than 15 years.
Keep in mind that Sam didn’t have to get a letter specifically to Nathan, all he needed to do is alert the outside world to his survival. He could have contacted Rafe, any other friends he might have, or (again) even the US government via the local embassy. Any of those parties could have broken Sam out on their own or at least could have contacted Nathan who would have done it himself.
As with Nathan’s excuse for giving up on finding Sam, the game throws out another extremely weak defense of this plot hole. While in Madagascar, Sully outright asks Sam why he didn’t get a letter to Nathan after all that time. Sam claims that at one point he managed to befriend a guard and nearly got him to send a letter, but the rest of the guards noticed their relationship and transferred him away from Sam. And that was that.
That’s absurd. I don’t mean the specific story about the guard, I mean the idea that Sam only had one decent plan in 15 years!
Keep in mind that we’re talking about mailing a letter or making a phone call. Sam wasn’t trying to covertly assassinate someone, smuggle drugs, or run a crime syndicate from prison, he was trying to mail a letter, something that the vast majority of prisons allow prisoners to do anyway. How difficult could it possibly be to bribe a guard or someone else to get a letter out, especially when such an action would pose virtually no risk whatsoever to whoever helped Sam? Ok, so the hatred of the guards would explain why they wouldn’t let him send mail, but surely Sam could find a way around that in such a corrupt prison by bribing a particularly unscrupulous guard or bribing another prisoner to do it for him.
- How do neither Nathan nor Sully not discover that Sam’s prison escape story was false?
Sam tells Nathan and Sully that he was broken out of prison and blackmailed by Hector Alcazar, one of the most famous and ruthless drug lords in the world.
This is like telling someone that El Chapo broke you out of prison. Even if the average person doesn’t follow El Chapo’s every move, anyone who regularly reads the news has at least heard of him. And if my friend told me that he had been involved in an explosive battle that involved an internationally famous criminal, I would sure as hell look up his story.
Given that Sam claims his explosive prison break was accomplished by attacking the prison with an army, and that it also resulted in Alcazar’s escape, one of the first things Nathan and Sully should have done after hearing the story should have been to look it up online.
A quick Google search would have revealed that (1) there was no massive assault on the Panamanian prison, and (2) that Alcazar had already been killed a few months before Sam’s alleged escape.
This is the sort of thing that Nathan or Sully could have done in literally a minute, as long as they had their smart phones and service. Even if both Nathan and Sully completely bought Sam’s story (which doesn’t fit Sully) there’s no reason not to further investigate his claims out of curiosity or to get the full picture.
- Why didn’t Rafe or Nadine say anything to Nathan about how Sam really escaped prison earlier?
So Rafe breaks Sam out of prison after 15 years and offers to team up again to find the treasure. In a complete dick move, Sam refuses the offer, flees with information pertaining to the treasure discovered by Rafe, and coaxes Nathan into resuming the hunt. The info that Sam gets from Rafe is that a crucifix connected to the treasure has been located and is being auctioned at a swanky event in Italy. Sam proposes to Nathan that they go to the event and steal the treasure. Nathan agrees and enlists Sully to help.
The three arrive at the auction, break in, and mull about on the auction floor amongst the other guests. Shortly after, Sam wanders away, and then Nathan and Sully bump into Rafe and Nadine. They exchange a few terse words, but neither Rafe nor Nadine bring up the fact that Nathan’s brother screwed them over.
This is just plain bizarre. Nathan hadn’t seen Rafe in close to 15 years (they worked together a bit after Sam’s departure, but soon parted ways), but now they run into each other mere weeks after Rafe was betrayed by his long lost brother, and Rafe doesn’t even say anything about it. Rafe actually suspects that Nathan is there to steal the crucifix and we can infer that he assumes Nathan would do so for Sam, yet Rafe doesn’t say a word about Sam to his brother.
This same discrepancy occurs over and over again throughout the game. Nathan and Sully come into contact with Rafe and Nadine numerous times, and despite how much the latter two love to monologue, they never once mention Sam’s betrayal until the end of the game. It’s pure contrivance for the sake of maintaining the plot twist.
- Why didn’t Rafe contact Nathan when he found out Sam was still alive?
After 15 years, Rafe discovers that Nathan’s brother is still alive. Wow, that’s amazing! I know Nathan and Rafe didn’t part on the best of terms, but surely that would warrant Rafe giving Nathan a call to let him know, right? Especially since Nathan Drake, the greatest treasure hunter in the history of mankind, could potentially help Sam and Rafe as they resumed their treasure hunt.
I guess not.
One potential explanation: maybe Rafe was concerned that if Nathan knew Sam was alive and that he and Rafe were going after the treasure, then Nathan would join them on the hunt and thereby overshadow Rafe’s accomplishments and steal all the glory. After all, Rafe’s entire character motivation is based around wanting to be recognized for his own efforts rather than the efforts of others.
How the hell is that supposed to work? Surely Rafe would expect that the very first thing Sam would do after getting out prison for the first time in 15 years is call his brother/best friend to let him know he’s alive. Unless Rafe planned on keeping a gun on Sam indefinitely while they treasure hunted, there was no way he could keep Nathan from learning about Sam’s release.
So why the hell didn’t Rafe just tell Nathan about Sam from the beginning?