Uncharted 2: Among Thieves developer Q&A

Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells and creative director Amy Hennig spill the beans on Sony PS3-exclusive Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2

PCW: Yeah, the sense that I had in the first game was that despite the relationship exposition and development between Nathan and Elena and Sully, it was a little more Allan Quartermain, a little more lighthearted romp. Uncharted 2 on the other hand has this curious marketing point, which reads "An expanded cast of characters who reflect different facets of Drake’s character." That's an unusually insightful thing to say in a marketing bullet point, the notion that the game's dramatis personae really shape who Drake is, sort of like the characters in Shakespeare's King Lear, or at the extreme end, the characters in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

AH: I've talked to other people about this, about storytelling in games and how we go about it, or how we ought to. I don't think there's one right way of course, but the thing I'm always surprised about is, there's certain things that are obvious about telling stories in other media, like if you're writing a screenplay or film or whatever, and yet these things get ignored in games all the time.

It's pretty darned hard to tell a story about a character when there aren't any other characters surrounding them. That's how we're challenged. That's where the conflict comes from. Otherwise the conflict's completely externalized, and of course that's what video games are about, right? A lot of it's the externalized conflict. But that's equally why they're so shallow. And that's fine, I mean you're defeating obstacles and such, but there's no why for the what. There's no emotional challenge, no emotional conflict, because you don't get that when you're this lone protagonist.

We immediately knew that if were going to make a game that felt more like playing a movie, we needed to surround the protagonist with a cast of characters. We did that in the first one as well, but we wanted to up the ante in Uncharted 2, so that it felt like--not only having a cast of characters you cared about, or got to see some reaction to, but having characters that challenge you more, or pull you in different directions. So yes, the story's absolutely about Nathan Drake, but there's all these satellites around him now. The fact that he has relationships with all these different people says different things about him, and then when they come into his life and there's conflict and crises, the way he reacts and the way they react in terms of which directions he's pulled says even more about him and creates the tension that makes the game interesting.

I think that's what's missing from games. You don't really care what's going on as long as it's viscerally exciting, but there's no emotional reason behind what you're doing. You have to have both, as far as I'm concerned.

PCW: Where did the concept for Uncharted come from? I mean aside from the obvious sorts of genre things like H. R. Haggard or Treasure of the Sierra Madre?

Amy Hennig: I think it was a couple of steps. We knew certain things going in. We knew we wanted to stay in the third-person action-adventure genre because it's one we love and know how to do well and wanted to explore even further. We kicked around different ideas of what kind of play space that meant. I think it just came out of some conversations that we had, where as we were thinking about some of these different iterative possibilities, we latched onto the idea that this was really an untapped genre. That traditional action-adventure genre, going back to all of the old adventure comics. Your Tintins and your old adventure serials and your old movies like Gunga Din and stuff inspired by H. Rider Haggard.

There's this huge tradition that games really, ironically haven't drawn on. They've drawn a lot on space opera, they've drawn a lot on Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons tropes. Once we started doing a bunch of research, we watched lots of movies, and I actually deconstructed the genre down into a bunch of bullet points, saying here's the thing we see over and over and over again, and here's how it would translate into a game. For me it was like a light bulb going on, like "Yeah, we can do this," and it was funny how it gave us our path from then on. We were saying "Now we know exactly what we need to do, we need to figure out how to make a relatable hero, how he's going to seem human and not like just another game avatar."

Evan Wells: One of the things that steered us in that direction was that we spent, I don't know, six or nine months coming up with different ideas, but the actual PlayStation 3 hardware was a major factor. We said okay, for the first time we've got the power to do something that's completely real. We wanted to do something that was modern day and current, and so that weeded out some of the other ideas we were considering, and steered us towards the action-adventure genre.

AH: I think it was also subtracting a lot of things that we knew other people were doing. You know, we're not going to do space, we're not going to do post-apocalyptic...

EW: We wanted something that was colorful and vibrant and humorous. We'd seen all these things that were in development for the next-gen consoles that were dark and gritty and post-apocalyptic, so...

AH: And humor's hard to do. That's kind of scary to launch into and say okay, we're going to pull this off. It's so subjective and it can fall so flat if you do it wrong. It was trying to make the guy a relatable hero that wasn't going to animate the same way every time. Just picking the genre ended up requiring that we create this whole proprietary animation system for Drake and the other characters, primarily where we could see him flinch, and stumble, and curse under his breath, and be able to run through a clearing under gunfire, and be loading his gun as he's tripping over the terrain and trying to dive into cover, and to not see the same animations play out again and again and again. We knew it had to be this complex rugged animation system that made him seem like a real guy.

EW: We're very driven by technology here. We sort of pride ourselves on taking full advantage of the hardware that we're working with. We wanted to pick something that would challenge us and put forth something that wasn't commonly done in games. We literally stripped our character down to a t-shirt and jeans, which is technically the hardest thing to do because your character is more or less naked when you're comparing him to these guys that are running around in rigid armor. The latter's much easier to render and much easier for the artists and programmers to create. When you're actually dealing with skin and cloth and hair though, it's a much greater challenge.

AH: It's the subtlety of what Drake expresses on his face, all the emotions and things like that. Again, it goes back to the storytelling. We knew we didn't want to tell a story that had to be told through explicit exposition just because we couldn't rely on subtlety and nuance in the characters' expressions. So we had to develop this very complex facial rig so that you could infer something from the cut of a character's eyes and no dialogue. It's something of course you count on when making a film with flesh and blood actors, but in games we haven't been able to rely on that, so we tend to be very heavy handed. We actually tended in the past to write games more like they were radio plays because we couldn't count on the visuals to convey nuance. Now we can, and that's one of the things that's exciting about Uncharted 2, even more so than the original. There's lots of cases where you can infer things about the characters when they're not even speaking.

PCW: I've already seen some of that in the interaction between Drake and Harry Flynn early on.

AH: One of the things people aren't even that aware of is, we get a lot of reactions from people who say "I can't believe the game predicted how I was reacting to something, how Drake might say something right when I was thinking it." One of the things we do, and we did it more in Uncharted 2 than in the last game, is, we always have the actors performing together, whether it's on a motion capture stage where we're recording their entire performance, dialogue included, or whether it's in the voice studio, we get them in there together if their scenes are together. I take gameplay footage and put it up on the screen and they basically watch the entire game. So they're watching the gameplay footage, and talking over it back and forth. There's a huge amount of improvisation in the game. I mean obviously it's written too, I don't want to take credit away from ourselves, but a lot of it's improvisation on the actors' part. They're reacting to what's happening to their characters, and a lot of that banter between them is just them riffing together cold. That's why it seems so natural.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)
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