Having long ago crossed the digital oaf barrier into full "Dad Gamer," my vision for a pre-launch sneak peek of Naughty Dog Studio's final installment of the Uncharted series and Hello Games' buzzed-about No Man's Sky was well off the mark. I pictured the usual brace of rumpled hacks and maybe dozens of lucky fans let in off the street into a Hyatt conference room where they would be free to get the first chance to spawn in a new world and wreck shit.
As it happens, even in game launches, as in games themselves, the narrative of how the game is approached and played is more curated than you'd expect.
Instead, I was escorted to a suite at the Nomad Hotel, a gorgeously undemocratic place near Midtown Manhattan designed in the Beaux Arts and company-expense-account style, where $35 buys you a glass of Nebbiolo at the bar and God only knows how many hundreds of dollars gets you one night in a room where the bathroom doors are heavy wood and freestanding bathtubs are set against nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing guests to (finally!) gaze down Broadway while nearly fully submerged. I passed expensive sconces lining the walls of its thickly carpeted hallways – lush and dark in the way hotels are in books where English retirees solve murders.
Waiting for me in a suite was Josh Scherr, the 45-year-old co-writer of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, who'd previously worked on story development and directed interstitial scenes in the previous games. Persian rugs lined the hardwood floor, and green and red lights shone on the ceiling above walls hung with prints of the game cover and random scenes. In front of a TV on which the game was paused, Scherr sat on a spare, modish white bench that looked like it could have been stolen from the set of A Clockwork Orange.
The moment I told him that I was a cheerful idiot and wouldn't yell at him about Uncharted 3's shooting engine and enemies that withstood too much damage, he leaned forward with excitement and a little relief to explain how we all got here.
While the game's pillars are exploring, solving problems and combat, the emotional engine has always been, as Scherr and Naughty Dog like to think of it, to "focus on the family, this group of rogues and scoundrels" bound together on exotic adventures. This time, Drake was dragged out of retirement by his brother for one last score, both for him and the studio. For the latter, a final installment came freighted with the same problems facing all sequels: how to present familiar characters and tropes while organically integrating new game properties and skills germane to the story that players need to practice to see it through.
Before the plot fully kicks in, players get to fiddle with the new stealth mode, learn how to use ropes to problem solve and traverse precarious territory, and they get to screw around for the first time with a fully controllable jeep, complete with a winch to sort out transportation issues that a rope and an engine can't.
Obviously, however, you can still screw around on your own terms.
To demonstrate a complete anti-stealth approach, a grinning Scherr had Drake run over a bunch of guards with the jeep and hop out, gun blazing, in a completely fuck-it-all assault on a tower. After setting the skill level to Big Baby Idiot, he turned the controller over to me, and I flung the jeep all over the Madagascar countryside, grinding over rock and scudding through mud, utterly failing to upend the thing and kill everyone inside.
"Uncharted is not Grand Theft Auto," Scherr said. As fashionable as open-ended gameplay is, that's never been this series's raison d'etre, even if the PlayStation 4 allowed Uncharted's designers to partially split the difference.
"We are telling a very specific story, and ... making something open-world doesn't allow us to control the pacing," he said, mapping out storyline beats with his hands before throwing them up in the air. "The game is linear, but within that linearity we try to offer as much choice as possible.
"Even open-world games exert a certain degree of authorial control. What it comes down to is: What are the choices that you give players? The choices we give don't affect the outcome, but they do affect how you get from Point A to Point B and how you feel about it," he added. "For people who like to explore, we have tchotchkes sprinkled everywhere, and it makes for a richer experience."
And even if the story may not fully grab some players, the visuals more than make up for it: Uncharted 4 is gorgeous, and Scherr and company took pains to make it its own universe. The game's Madagascar shimmers with greens and radiates with ochres more vivid than reality without feeling like someone with cataracts messed with your TV. It's not quite real, but it is wholly, logically, splendidly itself.
After we talked, I was left alone to explore Madagascar with Drake, his brother Sam and his buddy Sully. Eventually, I exited the jeep, turned the gun on my companions and tried to force them to make out with each other, but apparently this feature is not currently available. Despairing of my inability to slaughter the extended Drake family via automotive murder-suicide, I handed the controller over to a nice person with a clipboard. As I was walking away, I overheard someone else sit down in front of Scherr and begin complaining loudly about Uncharted 3's shooting engine.
But before I reached the door, another person stopped and pulled me aside.
"Excuse me. Would you like to see something in another room?"
Hoping for the Eyes Wide Shut experience I felt I was owed after showing up to an upscale semi-anonymous New York setting, I burst through the doors ready to shout "Fidelio!" to whomever was on the other side.
Instead I found a smaller room, with gold filigree wallpaper lit up with purple spotlights and covered with large prints of the retro sci-fi cover of No Man's Sky. An unshaven man with slightly disheveled hair – No Man's Sky co-creator Sean Murray – greeted me with an off-kilter grin that suggested he was so tickled to be there that it almost didn't matter what happened next.
As he started demonstrating his game, he told our small group of assembled hacks, "Normally the player would never be able to go this far, this fast. This is me being the god of this universe." If there's a God of ours, he should at the very least have as much fun as Murray.
Murray blasted off from planet to planet, incrementally showing us the process by which No Man's Sky created a procedurally generated universe of over 18 quintillion planets. Each player begins on his or her own, equidistant from the center of the universe, equipped with a space suit, a spaceship and a multi-tool capable of providing defense, hollowing out materials for shelter and mining natural resources. What they do with their home – and indeed even where and what it is – will remain a mystery until what they chart and develop is automatically shared with the game.
Players spawn on serene and idyllic planets complete with soothing John Tesh-y keyboards, or they emerge to find a soundtrack of urgent and ominously surging synths, on a world "completely barren or toxic or radioactive. That's just your luck. Kind of like being born." Countless planets among the 18 quintillion generated may "never be discovered," because they won't be the first home to a player or visited by one.
"Every other game that you've ever seen has been built painstakingly by artists by hand," he explained. "But because the universe will have been generated, we won't know what's out there. So players will, in a very real way, report back and discover it themselves."
But there are a few restrictions against certain behavior baked into even seemingly limitless universes. For instance, over-mining of resources, too much destruction and attacks on freighters and shipping lines controlled by NPCs (non-player characters) attract the retribution of automated sentinels "put there by [an] ancient race to…maintain the Prime Directive."
That kind of automation speaks to a need addressed before Murray got halfway through his demonstration: I leaned over and said, "Not to take a dim view of humanity, but I'm wondering at what level the genocide starts."
Murray laughed. "I know that you want to build your own Death Star, but in the scope of a planet, you're making tiny dents… People always ask, 'Could I eradicate a whole species?' And actually, on your own, that's way harder than you would think. That is a grim couple of years for you, where you just shoot rodents non-stop.
"We never want you to be the kind of unassailable king of the universe," he said, despite having declared himself a god in it at the outset. "Sci-fi for me has a certain kind of vulnerability".
"There's a beauty and optimism in it, but also a starkness, of being right on the edge of the frontier, the loneliness."
Even though the ultimate idea is to reach the center of the universe, a journey aided by a linear progression of technology as you get closer to the goal, Murray hopes a lot of people don't bother. Certain tasks – like determining what resources are best for building a better hyperdrive (or what factories to break into to poach technology) – can be simplified by going to YouTube or Wiki sites where other players will have sussed them out, but so much of the universe will remain mysterious that he hopes people just futz around.
"Most games [try] to normalize the player experience, so everyone has the same exact experience: die in the same place, survive in the same place, get health just before a boss battle. We want players to just totally diverge and to talk to each other."
Playing the game called to mind the immediacy of problems presented by movies like The Martian. Your suit is insulated, but you need to resupply it to keep the cold or toxicity of planets at bay. To begin with, most action is directly purposeful: You can explore, but only for so long before you need to build the skills to provide shelter from the elements, a pinging in your suit reminding you that there is work to be done.
There is a profound and awesome desolation to it. Washed-out pastels and sleek retro-futurist shapes achieve Murray's ambition to echo faded paperback covers from the library – a man operating a machine against a backdrop of inky blackness, 2,000 light years from home. Meeting anything else is instantly exciting. I ran into a plump quadrupedal dinosaur-thing with a poky gait and a friendly disposition that I reflexively named Mitch, classifying him with my player's scope and sending the data back to the game. (If you see Mitch, please say hi.) Inwardly I resolved that I would name every animal after a different member of – or roadie for – The Allman Brothers Band.
However, after you begin solving problems and get used to creating new problems to solve, a bigger one presents itself, one fundamental to open-world gaming and only intensified by the stark enormity of the No Man's Sky universe. Namely, why are you here?
For Murray, the answer is easy. People can become traders or botanists or warriors; they can enrich themselves or become stellar cartographers. "The more you communicate," he said, "the more your rank will rise. You'll be able to trade, get weapons, get ships. I've seen people play and say, 'I'm an ice-world trader. I mine resources from ice planets.'"
But what Murray calls your "ultimate endgame" could also be mordantly called your career: One could just as easily view the game as a labor reclassified as recreation. In obnoxious hands, you can see Murray's explanation metastasizing into an understanding of No Man's Sky as little more than Space Imperialism: The Game! And while that's reductively unfair to it, it's also a higher-order political reading of the more essential question about who you are, what you want to do with your infinite life and what it means. There might be answers at the center of the universe, but you might not have the dedication to seek them out, and you might not like them very much if you found them.
Read by the lights of Murray's mid-century sci-fi optimism, these are good existential problems to have, the essential mission statement of science fiction to plumb our identity in light of the possible. The ineffable vastness of the No Man's Sky universe reifies both our cosmic insignificance and the vivifying significant moment of discovering on our own terms why we, ourselves, are here.
This kind of open world provides endless possibilities to witness modes of socialization and creativity, to grant people tools and the loosest framework for inward and outward discovery. The uglier potential is that its boundless ineffability eventually begins to feel oppressive.
(If anything, the awesome magnitude of No Man's Sky's universe also points up the tasteless futility of fans threatening both Murray and journalists over the game's delay. Beyond the by now customary sociopathy that the Internet engenders, it exhibits a total want of the sort of perspective that the game's scope involuntarily forces upon you. What difference, after all, is there in waiting a few weeks to begin exploring something you can never comprehensively grasp? It's like screaming at God that he made you five minutes late to start eternity.)
We have gods for a reason, from the omnipotent to the petty to the lowly game developer, and there is safety in their narratives. There is comfort in knowing that the universe is conquerable, and it looks just like home. That, for this moment, you are as free as a dude in a jeep to power up a hill and park a radial on an armed goon's face. That the only thing you need to do is get past this point and summit a hill and gaze at a stunning vista no less beautiful for its being limned by a mountainside. That your endgame is the girl, the goods and family.
Ultimately, the question you have to answer – the question all games have to answer, irrespective of their tone – is just how uncharted you want your universe to be, and how alone you want to feel on the path of finding your way through it.