Inside ‘Uncharted 4’, ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the Limits of the Limitless
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 IV: 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.