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: Well it's early days for me in Uncharted 2, but I haven't cringed yet, and a lot of it's just the delivery mechanism, the attention to tone and inflection and the rhythms of spontaneous exchange. There's one my wife and I particularly enjoyed, something about a sweaty prostitute...

AH: [Laughs] That's a great example. Now obviously I write everything first, but when we go into the studio, we work together for over an entire year, so our voice actors are as invested in the characters as we are and know them as well as we do, so it's like working on a TV series rather than a game. What usually happens in games is the voice actors come in, they have no idea what's going on in the script, they come to the studio for a couple of weeks if they're the main character and read a whole bunch of stuff off the copy stand in the voice studio and that's it.

Here, we work with them as collaborators, so when we go in to record any of the things that require mo-cap, we have a rehearsal first. We rewrite the scripts together, we revise them, we block it out on the stage as if we were doing a stage play or a film, and then we revise again. We play with different ideas that come up right then and there, and then on the day we shoot, we even improvise some more and try things different ways. A lot of that immediacy and the organic nature of the dialogue comes out of that process.

When we're in the voice studio together, when they're playing off each other like that, a lot of the stuff in the game is purely, truly improvised. So for instance, the guy who plays Victor Sullivan is pretty much Victor Sullivan. The actor I mean. They're all pretty much their characters in fact. And there was one day on the mo-cap stage that the air-conditioning wasn't working and Richard McGonagle, who plays Sullivan was standing there in his mo-cap suit going "Gawd, I'm sweatin' like a whore in church." And I said, "Dude, I am so using that line." So when they sat down, I said "Okay, that's your kickoff line as you're going through the jungle." We had about five or six variations, most of them unusuable, and I think one of Nolan's [Drake] responses was "How is your sister?" [Laughs]

PCW: I'd give that design anecdote of the year.

AH: You have to be open to the fact that it's a collaborative process, and that's one of the things that defines Naughty Dog in general. We're a studio, completely non-hierarchical and collaborative. One of the reasons a lot of the stuff in the game is such high quality is that we're very non-compromising. We're very honest with each other. If somebody's work is subpar, we say "You know what, that joke wasn't funny, can we take it out," or "The background doesn't look very good, we need to improve it," or "This mechanic isn't entertaining, we have to fix it." And the same thing applies to what we do with the actors on stage. I'll take a script in and we'll tear the whole thing apart, change it, fix it, if we don't feel collectively that it's up to snuff. The actors know they can contribute and say "What if we did this instead?" without any sort of egos. You know, check your egos at the door. I think that's really rare, unfortunately, in game development.

PCW: You've developed Nathan Drake's acrobatic repertoire in Uncharted 2 substantially. He's much more procedural now, much less robotic or spasmodic when you maneuver him. You look at EA's Madden series, and they've grappled with this issue for years and years...that juncture where your ability to control the character leaves off and motion capture for the sake of realism or visual ballet takes over. Having the visual satisfaction of seeing a tackle or lunge or spin execute realistically often comes at the expense of perfect control of the character. You seem to have the balance just about right here. How'd you pull it off?

Amy Hennig: It's a constant challenge, and I think you expressed it beautifully in that you have to be constantly aware that there's this line between the sort of non-interactive parts of the animation, which are there for beauty and responsiveness, and there's a lot of games that fail at either one aspect or the other. Part of it is they may not have the complex procedural blended animation system that we developed, which is really our saving grace in this case. There are games where the animation is beautiful but you don't actually feel like you're controlling them because you can't tell that your inputs are being respected. Or there's such a delay that it doesn't feel like you're really playing the game.

For us, gameplay always has to come first. If there was something we really wanted to see Nate do, but it was going to feel sluggish or unresponsive, we killed it and came up with a different way to do it. So there are certain cases where we'd love his animation to be even smoother, but it would have sacrificed responsiveness, and that's got to be number one. That's why coming up with this blended animation system was such a priority, and actually an absolute necessity. We couldn't have done the game without it. It's the basis of everything, to be able to say I can be running along and still be loading my gun and still be reacting to the gunfire around me and still sort of launching into my next move. Because some of Nate's moves...you're not aware of it playing the game, but there may be literally 30 animations blended up on top of the one motion he's going through right then and there.

Evan Wells: Yeah, and it was already our number one priority in original Uncharted. To create this animation system that would allow us to blend dozens of animations all at once. We've got these extensive debug options and you can bring up the animation tree on the screen and sometimes you literally can't fit all the animations on one screen. And that's just Drake. All of our characters have the same abilities, so any single frame that you take from the game might have about 100 animations in play. And it's all to honor the gameplay, to make sure the player feels in control the entire time.

One of our imperatives in Uncharted 2 was to create these big over-the-top set piece moments, these action sequences pulled out of a summer blockbuster, like Drake being caught in a building as it's being bombarded by helicopter missiles, and it starts to collapse and fall. We wanted that not to be a cut scene. We wanted you to be in control and playing that moment, and so that required Drake be able to, as he's running, be stumbling, because the building's been rocked by a missile, and yet while you're doing that, you might be diving into cover and reloading your gun and flinching from a gunshot all at once. Our programmers are just out of this world. We're really spoiled by having the best in the industry. Ordinarily a game designer's coming to them asking for a feature or a request to do something crazy in the game, and the programmers cringe and say "No, that's technically impossible." Our programmers love the challenge. They'll dive in and say "Okay, let's do it--it's crazy, but let's do it."

PCW: Uncharted 2 has this sense of visual proportionality to it that graphically advanced games like Crysis don't. You can chop down trees in Crysis with bullets, but it doesn't service the gameplay, it's just there to show off the physics. In Uncharted and Uncharted 2, you don't have ridiculously hyper-reflective floors or walls or ground that looks like someone poured lacquer over it. You have realism, but it's obviously stylized.

EW: I think a lot of people would be pretty surprised at the level of research and detail that goes into creating our own authentic look. Our artists conduct tons of research online, looking at real locales and such, and our concept artists take that and build on it, even try to exaggerate a little bit, to make it larger than life, because this is an action-adventure. The meticulous work that goes into recreating those environments is staggering. I'm sometimes shocked at how much detail they put into the levels, and it's the subtle detail, as you're pointing out, it's not the over the top, in-your-face specularity, just to push the graphics chip as far as it can go. It's the subtle stuff, the nuances, and really recreating that authentic look of the environment.

AH: Not only that, it's trying to find the sweet spot that your own particular look. I think you could probably flip through a magazine and spot an Uncharted screenshot, even if it was unmarked. I think there's a look to our games, without being overly stylized, that's distinctively its own. And I think it's because we're starting from a realistic base, then giving the game a slight stylized approach, and I mean the characters as well as the environments.

Some of that's in the way we use color, something that's recently seemed unusual in games, because everybody's been de-saturating for some reason. It's just like a little bit of exaggeration in our game, and I think that in the case of our characters, that's part of what helps us avoid the uncanny valley everybody likes to talk about. If you try to make something too much a simulation of reality, whether it's your characters or the environment itself, there's something about it that's dead. Something that sort of falls flat. You just have to pump it up a bit.

So for instance, I don't know if everybody realizes this, but if you look at our cinematics, yes, everything's performance-capture or motion-capture. But we don't capture face. We have four cameras on the stage when we do our cinematics, one master shot and then a close-up on each of the actors so that we have it for reference, and then the animators do all of that facial animation by hand. The reason is, not only is it letting them use some of their traditional skills, as opposed to just processing motion-capture data, but the effect is better than facial capture. I think you have a lot of people in this industry that are so seduced by the idea that they could literally simulate reality by either a facial capture or scan or something, that they don't realize they're not actually getting an attractive result.

It's like what you were saying, Matt. It's like yeah, it's technically efficient and impressive, but it leaves you feeling cold. I think you need that little bit of exaggeration which the characters or the animation or the artwork or the colors or something that says "That's of this world," which is slightly more fantastical than our world.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)
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