Can Drake Save Next-Gen?
After showing the world it can spin mature, emotional storytelling with The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog is ready to return to the story of Nathan Drake, and mix that bombastic Hollywood adventure movie with the nuance and craft the studio has become known for…
Do you think there’s been a game this generation that has been a standard bearer for what we can expect from this new generation?” we ask Josh Scherr and Ricky Cambier – writer and lead designer of Uncharted 4, respectively.
There’s a pause. Eventually, Josh says “The Last Of Us Remastered?” Both Naughty Dog developers laugh – of course Scherr didn’t mean it, not really – but the writer’s still got a point: The Last Of Us is as much of a current-gen game right now as you’re going to get. Graphically, it hits upon all the expectations PS4 players have; functionally, it experiments with new ideas (the ‘buddy’ mechanic with Ellie, to illustrate); and narratively, it pushes the boundaries of what we’ve seen interactive fiction achieve. Scherr’s joke might not be so far from the truth.
“The life cycles of these consoles is incredible, to be fair, and it’s hard to say where they’re going to go and what trends are going to take off,” he continues, “and that’s for both fans and the industry. Just look at the first Uncharted compared to The Last Of Us – that’s amazing, that’s crazy.”
“We’re still early days with the new systems,” continues Cambier, Uncharted 4’s lead designer, “and obviously the first round of things that came out, a lot of that was cross-gen ports that just up-resolutioned their assets for the PS4.
“There were a few new titles – like Killzone: Shadow Fall, that were pretty damn impressive looking for a launch title. The Order: 1886 is one of the best looking games I’ve seen on any system ever, too. But what’s exciting is that we’re still early days [with the PS4]; if you look at the first Uncharted and how that looked versus how The Last Of Us looked… I have difficulty fathoming that we’ll have that kind of graphical leap in the next several years. The reality is, we probably will as we learn the systems better, so it’s all up from here, and that’s exciting.”
Cambier’s mention of The Order: 1886 intrigued us – we conducted this interview just after the game launched, and the blogosphere was still in the midst of its violent response to Sony Santa Monica’s experimental ‘short form’ game. We asked Cambier if Naughty Dog saw the gaming audience as a group that was becoming harder to please, and harder to target with specific games.
“We’re in this interesting space in the market where you’ve got these $60 games competing for space with these 99c – or even free – games, and then there’s the smaller, independent games, too,” Cambier explains. “So the important thing for us is that we make a quality entertainment experience throughout… we’d rather make a ten to twelve hour game that’s positively solid throughout than make a 40-hour game that’s padded out with filler that drags and gets boring. We don’t want to waste people’s time by artificially inflating things. I think, really, what people want is a good, quality experience with good pacing and great production values.”
Surely that was the vision Sony Santa Monica set out with – taking gaming’s obsession with cinema to its logical conclusion? The Order was a truly cinematic game, in the original sense of the word: it relied on mise-en-scène, constant action, a three-act structure. It even applied a thin layer of film grain over its lens. It moved away from this televisual idea of episodes – levels, if you will – and did its own thing. Yet, the gaming community rounded on The Order.
Uncharted is cut from the same cloth. A cinematic adventure, not one of the three games lasts longer than 12 hours, and they all feature Hollywood-inspired action sequences, traditional cinematographic framing techniques and even the standard overarching story arcs you’ll find in any successful filmic trilogy. So how did Naughty Dog react to The Order: 1886 – did it panic the studio, did it make the developers question the games they’re making? Of course it didn’t.
“On some level we pay attention to the industry, I guess, but when we’re making our story we never think ‘Well, how long should this be?’” explains Scherr. “We focus more on the character arc, where we need them to get to, what story beats we need to hit, what we need to hit them with, what small arc do our characters have to have right now, and what mechanics can we use to sustain these beats and make sure it all happens together.”
It’s a process that’s natural to any storyteller in any medium – let your characters do all the legwork, don’t cram them into boxes, don’t let the eight- or five- or three-point story arc dominate the story that’s unfolding in front of you. Games are more complicated; you need to take into account how your players are going to explore, how they’re going pace themselves. Traditional narrative boundaries go out of the window. Naughty Dog makes its own rules, and that’s why everyone else looks up to it. No-one tells stories like Naughty Dog, because no-one tries to – the studio is practically writing the rule book when it comes to interactive fiction.
“So we’ve got the major story arcs, and all the other arcs in between… for us it all comes down to pacing, and making sure every macro beat and micro beat works exactly when it’s supposed to,” continues Scherr. “We’re not trying to make anything last a certain time – we ask ‘Is it working?’, ‘Are we getting everything we can out of it?’, ‘Can we expand it?’, ‘Can we explore this more – or better – later on in the game?’ For the narrative side, I can’t say it enough; it’s always about how these narrative beats scale. You have to make sure they’re on point because that’s how you get your players to keep playing your game – to make them care.”
It seems like a pattern of development the studio got into back when it was under the direction of Amy Hennig and Richard Lemarchand with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The writer and design lead, respectively, departed during The Last Of Us’ production, but the development ethics established during their tenure seem deeply ingrained into Naughty Dog’s DNA, kept alive by creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Straley through Uncharted 3 and TLOU.
“Every Uncharted game continues to push for this sense of adventure and wonder – it’s about exploring places, right? Literally going off the map, going uncharted, but keeping you on the stick,” Cambier tells us when we ask about what the driving philosophy is behind the game, and if Naughty Dog’s work on The Last Of Us altered their goals for the project. “We know [staying in control] creates a sense of adventure in the player – you think of some of the biggest moments in the franchise’s history, like the train scene in Uncharted 2, the airplane sequence [in Uncharted 3]. The player gets to be hands-on with those all the way through; that’s something that’s fairly unique. So now, after three games, we’ve got a taste for that, especially after exploring the more intimate side of adventure as a studio with The Last Of Us. We want to get those big moments and make them a little bit more emotional, connected. More personable.”
It’s a trend we’re seeing more and more of now, in games that are driven to committing the player to their worlds over anything else – Half-Life 2 planted the seeds of player-reliant agency in the minds of consumers and developers alike, and now we’re seeing game-makers really take advantage of how they can give the end-user a narrative experience that feels shaped by them, the whole way through – and not just in the setpieces, and not just with QTEs and button prompts, either. Remember how cathartic it was to just play football with some kids in a Tibetan village after all the close calls and near-death escapes in Uncharted 2? Expect to see more of that kind of emergent contrast.
“Ideally, you take control away from the player as little as possible so they feel as engaged as they can with what’s going on,” reveals Scherr. “That makes us look really closely at our story beats and think about how we can make as much of each individual section playable, rather than just have these scenes be a passive experience. That’s something we’ve gotten progressively better with as we’ve gone on – the first Uncharted had some lovely moments, but you weren’t really in control of them, so for Uncharted 2 making them available was a big goal.
“Likewise, we took that even further with The Last Of Us; the whole sequence at the end with the hospital was intended to be a cutscene, but we realised it would be much more powerful if it was on the stick, so we made that change near the end of production, and it improved the scene so much more. We’re always looking to do stuff like that that merges story with actual gameplay.”
The standard discourse tends to revolve around the new generation of hardware increasing visual fidelity, leading to games that pick away at the borders of the uncanny valley, trying to push into the realms of photorealism. But Naughty Dog isn’t interested in that, no – it’d rather innovate in areas closer to its heart: storytelling. Cutting edge graphics will only get usurped by some other shinier, newer title in a couple of years anyway, right? So why aim for photorealism when you could instead wrap your game’s visuals around your story instead?
Scherr explains how graphics and narrative can be married, beyond the superficial: “In the Uncharted games, we’ve always strived for something that’s more along the lines of a ‘stylised realism’,” he reveals. “Trying to keep in line with reality just isn’t all that interesting to us, so what we use that stylistic approach for is, really, storytelling – rather than trying to keep everything consistent to the real world’s rules. ‘What is the mood of the story at this point in time?’, ‘What is the mood we want the player to experience here?’ That’s what we ask ourselves, that’s how we decide [how to create the levels]. The nice thing about being on PS4, too, is that we can push that [stylisation] further than we could on the older system.”
Cambier – more versed in the design side of the game – chimes in. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we can do with [the PS4]” he admits. “From a design perspective, it’s given us the opportunity to push the scale of the environment so you’ve got choices in the combat setups that are incredibly vast. So we can put that in when we want to. Like Josh points out, on the design side, as well, we can really get the player into a mood: so yeah, there’s still times we’ll push the player into a very intimate combat space – if we want to layer on extra pressure for an escape sequence or something – it just gives us a wider variety of trees, density, variety, foliage, background environments and how vivid and detailed they are… it gives us all that to play with.”
But the PS4 doesn’t just open doors to the level designers; cinematic directors and character artists are also creatively empowered. It’s been the centre of Naughty Dog’s campaign for the game so far – we’ve seen high-resolution renders of Nate’s face bordering YouTube videos, on magazine covers, being passed around on social media – but that’s because Naughty Dog is proud of this cutting edge work it’s been doing… after all, what’s the point in creating a character-driven story without a character you can empathise with?
“[The new tech] lets us emote more, with all the ‘bones’ we can put onto [character’s faces] – you pan round the camera to look at Nate’s face when he’s climbing and you see him grimacing and all this kind of stuff… we’re pushing the detail on a macro and a micro level that I think people are really going to respond to,” Cabier explains.
“We still do all the same sort of things we did with our previous games. But now, we can just have more of it,” Scherr continues. “For example, on older games, some of the animations might have been sampled at 10 or 15 frames per second to save memory. That would have just been interpolated by our code [to run at 30 in-game]. While that looked fine, we can now afford to record it at 30 frames per second so that the animation looks that much smoother.
“And, as Ricky was pointing out before, we’ve completely revamped our facial animation systems – the best way to explain is to say, well… the previous Uncharted games, and in The Last Of Us, the characters all had about 90 to 100 ‘bones’ in their faces which we used to moved the meshes around” – think about that, about how detailed Joel and Ellie’s pained facial expressions were, how well the game captured the respective actors’ – Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson – seminal roles. All that was achieved on the old tech.
“Now, the faces have anywhere between 300 and 500 bones,” Scherr continues. “This lets us get much, much more detail and fidelity in there, so you can really empathise with what [the characters] are saying, and it allows us to hit certain poses that we couldn’t quite hit before… it all allows us to tell our stories better, to animate our characters better – we hope it’s going to be something you all notice, rather than just be a technical marvel; something that really ties into the characters and emotion in the game.”
Another way the developer plays with the presentation of story and the game’s inherent action is with camera – the way Nate is framed by the semi-dynamic camera is very telling of the type of story Naughty Dog wants to tell. Especially since The Last Of Us defined the studio in a certain light – in some ways, Uncharted 4’s more gung-ho action-oriented approach to setpieces will be the developer’s way of avoiding cliché, of not becoming a victim of its own tropes.
“The difference between The Last Of Us camera versus the Uncharted camera is basically… well, in the Uncharted camera you’re further back, you can see all of Nate,’ Cambier outlines. “The Uncharted games are all about Drake’s mobility, and he’s put in dangerous situations – whether he’s hanging from something or falling from something, you get that sense of scale, and you need to see that.
“In The Last Of Us, though, you’re tight, the camera is brought way in on Joel. You’re up close, there’s the sense that there’s danger all around you. A whole setpiece can just take place around fighting in an old [supermarket]. It’s intimate. Dangerous. Every bullet counts. In Uncharted, you’ve got the island we showed you in the demo and its sense of scale, so you’ve got this island and its pillars and its rope swings and you need to see some of that, but you still get the sense that there’s danger.”
“We go with the wider camera for basic gameplay because the [series] is about exploration and wide-open spaces,” Scherr continues. “You want to feel the grandeur of these environments and have them pull you in, versus The Last Of Us, which is about danger lurking around every corner. By restricting your view a little bit, we forced the player to constantly look over their shoulder, scouting for threats. The camera choices alone add to the tone of any game.”
We ask the developers why they choose the third-person approach to their games; we’ve read (and written) enough about why the first-person perspective is typically associated more with making a player feel agency for their character – seeing the world through their eyes, living out their actions and so on. So in a story that’s driven by its protagonist’s arc, why does Naughty Dog always want to go third-person?
“For me personally,” muses Cambier, “if I can’t see the character… well, I want to know what they’re going through, you know? I’ve always felt more connected to the protagonist in third-person games because of that. If I’m playing a first-person game, I get to a cutscene and the camera comes out and I see my self and I think ‘Oh yeah! That’s what I look like!’ [laughs] For me, that comes with a bit of a disconnect. I think third-person is a stronger medium for getting you to relate to the character as a protagonist.”
And isn’t that what Uncharted is all about? Remember back to the Uncharted 2 reveal, how Nate suddenly became the face of the PS3. We saw a demo of him, up on that E3 stage, and where before people had seen Uncharted as a smaller addition to the PS3 exclusives line-up, with that showcase, with Drake leaping around, his handsome adventurer’s face scorched by the sun, cut with shrapnel, we saw Drake transform into this new action hero, the saviour of the PS3.
‘Sic Parvis Magna’ reads the inscription in Drake’s ring – or ‘greatness from small beginnings’. Looking back to the reveal of that motto in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it really feels like Naughty Dog knew what it was doing way back in 2007. It took the studio two games to really carve out a place on the PS3, but – from what we learned from Cambier and Scherr – it looks like the studio has figured out how to do it in just one game this time around.