The recipe for a blockbuster these days is essentially a concoction of action, drama and comedy. For example, you’ve got your Marvel movies, which tend to ratchet up the comedy to great effect, you’ve got the grandiose films of Christopher Nolan that crack up the drama, you’ve got the James Bond franchise, which more often than not seems to be written around action sequences and you’ve got The Force Awakens, which is arguably a near perfect cocktail of the three. But there’s more to life than action and drama and comedy.
Where’s the romance, gang? Where is the romance?
Romance almost seems like a bad word. At its best it conjures up adjectives like “sappy” and “mushy” and at its worst it disproportionately marginalizes women, turning them into tired variables within the machinery of the story. Both are reasons I could see used for straying away from romance in storytelling. Not every story needs to have romance. There’s an endless list of movies that suffer because of the misguided notion that every protagonist needs to have a love interest. Not every hero needs to have a love interest. Captain America: Winter Soldier is proof of that.
But I suspect the real underlying reason that romance is a waning presence in blockbuster storytelling is a lot more straightforward. It’s hard to do.
Films like Jurassic World or Captain America: Civil War sprinkled in a romantic seasoning to jarring, arguably laughable effect. A kiss in Civil War between characters who’ve shared maybe 13 minutes of screen time is particularly peculiar given that the film is built on the poignancy of relationships thirteen films in the making.
Inversely you have the likes of Deadpool, which some have argued is a straight up romance, in which the female love interest, while certainly charming, ultimately feels like little more than a MacGuffin.
Then you have Amazing Spider-Man 2, which does the romance so, so well and everything else so, so poorly.
For a storyteller I can imagine it wouldn’t seem worth it to inject romance into your story. Too much and you turn characters into plot points, not enough and it feels disjointed and silly. Why bother?
Enter Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a flowing banner for romance done right. It may be a video game, but make no mistake Uncharted 4 is undoubtedly one of the biggest, most exhilarating blockbusters of the year.
The fourth installment in developer Naughty Dog’s action/adventure video game franchise, Uncharted 4 continues the story of Nathan Drake, the most charming collection of pixels and soundbites in all of gaming.
Uncharted 4 finds the former thrill-seeking treasure hunter living a quiet, routine life with former globe-trotting documentarian Elena. We spend time in their quainter life, wandering the relics of the attic, perusing the fridge and generally bandicooting about. It’s a nice, relaxing segment early in the game, but it’s hardly something you’d want to spend ten plus hours playing through and similarly it becomes quickly apparent that while Nathan and Elena’s life is perfectly lovely, it hardly seems like a routine they’d want to keep up for any extended period of time.
It’s that tug of war between nice enough and genuinely fulfilling that serves as the backbone to Uncharted 4’s story, which gets off the ground when, as expected, circumstances drag Nathan Drake back into his old life.
Every set piece and action sequence and headshot in Uncharted 4 is heightened because of Nathan and Elena’s relationship to each other and their respective perceptions of their shared life. I didn’t want Uncharted 4 to end because it was fun as hell (particularly after having spent a month with Dark Souls III) but often enough I found myself wishing the adventure were over because I wanted Nathan and Elena to go back to their life together and find some resolution to that aforementioned tug of war.
Nathan and Elena love each other, but neither of them is being honest with the other or themselves. It’s a compelling enough narrative in its own right but between the dutiful writing of Neil Druckman and Josh Scherr and the untouchable motion capture and voice performances from Nolan North and Emily Rose it’s so good and so poignant that I found myself ruminating on it when I should have been paying attention to the mercenary army I was running over with a jeep.
Every time I entered a new environment or hid at the precipice of an inevitable firefight I found myself at once thinking both “oh hell yeah, let’s bust some skulls/climb some rocks/use some winches” and “Nathan you should not be here, what are you doing with your life.”
Inversely, when Nathan and Elena communicated with each other and got along I found I had a certain spring in my thumbs while I shot antagonists in the chest with a shotgun.
Uncharted 4 is a testament to the power of romance.
I’m really pulling for Naughty Dog to use that blurb for the Game of the Year edition.
Romance is not a mandate. It doesn’t belong in every story. Sometimes you just want to watch a dinosaur eat people, or Nicolas Cage infiltrate Alcatraz, or Harry meeting someone else. But Uncharted 4 goes to show that when romance is injected into a story thoughtfully, with honest consideration paid to all the characters involved, it can throw new colors and cast new shades onto even the lushest, most vibrant pallet.
Romance doesn’t have to be Hugh Grant or a baseless kiss over the corpse of a pterodactyl. It can be so much more. Among the towering heap of praise Uncharted 4 has been amassing, its handling of the romantic should be near the top.