By Harold Goldberg
As a journalist, I’ve followed the Uncharted series and the people who make it for a decade. In Dubrovnik at a Sony event for the first Uncharted offering, I remember the happy pride the Naughty Dog team displayed when debuting the very idea of a series based on everything from Victorian penny dreadful novels to The Perils of Pauline to the Indiana Jones series. Behind a podium in an old castle rich with history, there stood Amy Hennig, looking more like a thoughtful librarian or college professor than a game developer. She had a certain gravitas. Point by point, she smartly made the case for this new, narrative-rife game series.
But times change. After a dispute that wasn’t so much uncovered and researched by the press as it was re-imagined, Hennig left for EA to make an upcoming Star Wars game. And game directors Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley made what they say is the last Uncharted game, one that’s as often as just as powerful in narrative as the predecessors, occasionally moreso. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End can be completely affecting, certainly in one searing sequence very early in the story.
Before I go on, I have say I’m a single working mother’s only child, and while that had perks in the form of, say, more presents for a birthday, it also came with a kind of abject yearning for a traditional nuclear family. My father was a deadbeat and none of my aunts had kids of their own, so what I wanted was a brother or sister. I kind of found it in TV, and at the time as a small kid, I imagined fictional kids to be real, and the stories they spun each week were real, too. To a more macro extent, the TV itself was my brother, loquacious and boisterous, always ready with a story of some sort at the mere click of a button.
Older and sadly wiser, I can see Uncharted 4 for what it is, fictional entertainment that can provide thrilling escape from reality. But there was a salient moment in the first hour or so in which the good-hearted thief Nathan Drake as a young boy sees his brother Sam’s beacon shining from the rooftop of a massive orphanage. That’s where Nathan is unhappily ensconced. He’s kind of the black sheep there, a caged boy who lashes out physically due to unseemly bullying and cutting insults. The battles he picks are also probably due to loneliness.
Almost everything that’s said speaks volumes to me during these minutes. And that has to be hard to do: you have two brothers who are climbing like mountain goats and leaping about like Spider-Man. It’s not real but it feels real. For me, that’s because of the bond between the two brothers. Sam, the troubled older brother you (as Nathan) look up to, mildly jabs at the younger sibling, wondering if he can keep up. But some of his first words to you are sage things, like “You’ve got to learn to watch your back.” Sam even offers a jacket to Nate because it’s cold outside.
Yes, it’s just a tutorial. But the positive comments from Sam for every feat you accomplish reinforces your inner strength. When the two hit the ground and briefly feel free, Sam shows off his new motorcycle. Yet Nate becomes suspicious. It’s suspicion based on the history he’s endured with Sam.
Wide-eyed, Nate looks at Sam and it’s clear he’s hurt. “The only time you pull a stunt like this is when you’re trying to make up for something.” Sam’s going away for a job that’s probably criminal in nature. And Nate? He has an abject feeling of loss, of being left behind.
At the scene’s end, there’s a hint of a more optimistic outcome. But if it wasn’t for the words behind the tutorial, the words about the brothers’ relationship, I wouldn’t have been as hooked on Uncharted 4 as I’ve become. So, those 20 or so minutes of narrative that come as you learn the ropes? They’re golden because they fit so naturally without taking away from the gameplay. They actually enhance the idea of story in games. I’d venture to say that game makers will look on those scenes and learn about how smoothly story can become part of a game. And a player, no, as a human, I was touched — because it all felt so human.
Harold Goldberg is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The New York Videogame Critics Circle.