Uncharted 3: 'Almost everyone at Naughty Dog is a game designer'
26th Dec 2011 | 14:00
Uncharted is one of this generations standout franchises, with each new entry in the series bettering its predecessor in writing, acting performance, technical prowess and gameplay.
With the critically acclaimed third entry currently storming the sales charts and making waves in the gaming world, we caugt up with Uncharted's co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand to talk about deleted scenes, his influences on Lara Croft and how it feels to have Indiana Jones play your game.
You left Crystal Dynamics for Naughty Dog back in 2004. How has your role evolved over three Uncharted games?
I started work on Uncharted back in 2006, soon after we shipped Jak X: Combat Racing. A lot has happened in that time. In some ways things haven't changed much, but maybe that's because the change has been gradual.
The way that we work at Naughty Dog is kind of idiosyncratic and has contributed in a major way to the success of the games. We're quite famous for not having anyone with the formal job title of producer - the team produce themselves, and we're all responsible for organising our own work. We pick up jobs we care about and then run around and coordinate with each other.
I divide my time between working on the parts I've been given responsibility for and working with [creative director] Amy Hennig, [game director] Justin Richmond and [co-lead game designer] Jacob Meacock to make sure we're staying on top of the game design.
It can be challenging to be responsible for your own stuff and to give people notes on their own stuff.
Fortunately, because everybody at Naughty Dog is empowered to give each other notes that kind of spreads the responsibility a bit. I've often felt everyone at Naughty Dog, irrespective of their job title, is a game designer. We constantly have discussions across all of the different departments about what makes a game good or bad, better or worse.
We all go to great lengths to take each other's input very seriously about what's working and what's not. It's often pretty crazy and chaotic, it's very organic, but it's really good fun and really satisfying creative work.
What lessons have you taken from making the Uncharted games?
I think the single biggest lesson is that while it's good to have a solid plan, you shouldn't do too much planning. We kind of got into trouble in the pre-production phase of the first Uncharted by making plans that were too elaborate. That was partly a practical problem - we were building a game engine and working on a console that didn't yet exist.
It's best to do just enough planning and then start building. If you're doing a painting, start drawing, get some marks on the page; if you're writing a novel just write fragments even if they don't end up in the finished novel. It's the practical process that allows you to learn the lessons you need.
You started work before there was a PS3 to develop for. Does developing for a console that doesn't exist cause problems?
We [weren't] realistic in our expectations about it, I can say that . We were planning to have all kinds of motion blur and crazy lighting schemes. The PS3 is an immensely powerful piece of computing equipment so I think it was less the performance of the hardware that hung us up and more the approach to our tools.
We tried to invent a set of tools that did everything - solving every problem every game developer had ever faced. We'd gone down a dead end, so we scaled everything back and started working.
Was there much from your early ideas that didn't make it in?
There was going to be a vehicle crash on a bridge - the vehicles had fallen off the edge but got tangled up in the ropes and the struts. There would have been a mess of machinery hanging down and live enemies. Drake and Elena were right at the bottom, having to climb and shoot their way back to the top. I think we were planning to have it be partly a traversal sequence, partly a combat sequence . There were going to be pirates on the bridge and in other vehicles.
I think we hadn't yet learnt enough about putting together that kind of sequence to pull it off. We didn't bin it; we maybe did a tiny bit of work on it but we just never built it out. The idea kind of made it into Uncharted 2 as the opening train crash sequence.
What's the one thing you've never been happy with in Uncharted?
I wouldn't say there are any big things, because overall I'm very satisfied. Oh, but there's one thing that always bothered me about Uncharted 2... I worked in collaboration with lots of different colleagues on the tank battle in the formerly-peaceful village, and there's one little place where it's confusing where to go next.
The tank is ahead and you have to run across the path and I wish I'd put more effort into fixing that up. I should have made it more interesting from a gameplay point of view, so there was some kind of strategic challenge to crossing that little courtyard.
The criticisms of Uncharted 3 have come from people who would prefer more control over the action. Is your way really the best way to tell a story?
I've been thinking about storytelling action games for a long time, as has Amy, as has Evan, and the other people at Naughty Dog. I like to think we've helped discover one good way of making storytelling action games. That's not to say we believe it's the only way.
I think Rockstar's games are absolutely magnificent in the way they embrace openness and interactivity. They've done so much to advance games as a narrative form, with great performances and great writing while honouring the systemic nature of videogames. Theirs are so interesting in so many different ways - Red Dead Redemption is a different game from L.A. Noire, but they're both interesting .
Every approach has its own strengths, weakness. Overall I'm really satisfied with the way the Uncharted games have come out. It's a deliberate creative choice on our part. It lets us deliver these emotional performances in a way that meshes really well with second-to-second action. I think the response from audiences to U2 and U3 is proof that for a lot of people, it does work really well.
Have you thought about ways to get more choice into scripted action?
We work towards that all the time. We love to put in little moments for the player who is looking for them - kicking the ball in the peaceful village, for instance. Even though it's a very simple thing and we don't pretend it's rich gameplay, it's just a little interactive moment that helps flesh out the reality of the world.
Uncharted has shaped what other devs are doing - the influence is clear on the new Tomb Raider. Are you pleased?
I am very satisfied with the way games are going. In fact, I'm tremendously excited about it. There are so many brilliant games in such diverse styles.
Then there's the world of indie games - things like [iPad adventure] Sword & Sworcery EP, which takes a radically different approach to storytelling, does some unique things with atmosphere and mood and some interesting things in terms of gameplay as well . I love indie games for their ability to be experimental, to be part of an avant-garde.
If we've had an impact that would be incredibly flattering, and it's great to hear you feel we've had an impact. I do hear from developer friends that they feel we've set a big challenge for in terms of melding storytelling and gameplay, and that's very flattering.
What do videogame designers talk about when they get together?
Usually about philosophy of one kind or another - what approaches are best and the advantages or disadvantages. We talk a lot about games in a formal sense these days. Games are probably as old as language itself - for as long as we've been able to talk to each other and make agreements about, well that's a tree, that's a rock, we've been able to say, 'I'll race you down to the rock and the last one there skins the rabbits.'
When I first became a game designer, there wasn't really much written in an academic sense to help you understand what a game was or what the difference is between a game and a toy. 20 years down the line and thanks to years of Games Developer Conferences, and so much great writing, we understand much better the differences between the various things we lump together as videogames.
The range of possible subjects is stretching out to the horizon at the moment, and part of what we talk about is what kinds of things are possible for the future and the most interesting avenues we can explore next.
What do you this is the most important game of all time?
Oh, wow... my first answer is a bit cheeky and might also be wrong. I would want to say senet. It's an Egyptian game and I think it's the first game of all time, although that might be the royal game of Ur . I think senet is the first game we have the rules for. We know both are races like ludo or backgammon, and they're the first examples where humans invented a physical artefact to help play.
The videogame I would choose [is] Ico, and we could argue about this all day, but for me it's emblematic of a group of games - that also include Shadow of the Colossus - where games clearly became a transcendent form of art.
Sony Japan got Indiana Jones himself - Harrison Ford - to play Uncharted...
It blew our minds, absolutely blew our minds. It came completely out of left field. To see an actor who is such a big hero... I was a Han Solo kid when I was little and my brother Jeremy loved Luke Skywalker; it kind of reflects our characters, I think.
Of course I loved the Indiana Jones films growing up. To see an actor we admire so much, and who inspired us so much not just in Uncharted but in the whole of our careers was really mind-blowing.
What's your favourite Indiana Jones?
I think I'd have to say Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Last Crusade is my second favourite and then Temple of Doom. And then the Crystal whatever-it-was-called was my fourth favourite .
Indiana Jones didn't kill nearly as many Nazis as Drake kills mercenaries. Does Drake kill too much?
We discuss this a lot at the studio - in fact, Amy Hennig even has a phrase for it. She calls it the Uncanny Valley of Narrative. As the quality of the performances has risen it draws people's attention even more to the gamey aspects of our games.
We know sometimes it's jarring; we go to great lengths not to make it any more jarring than it has to be. We worked very hard to make sure enemies always attack first, for example, so if he doesn't fight back then the enemies would kill Drake. He has no choice.
There's an innocent guard in Uncharted 2 who Drake tosses from a roof. He appears to die, but the observant will spot him swimming to a rock far below. Who flagged that detail as a priority?
[Raises hand] I'm glad you brought it up, because I was involved in that! It could've been any of us, but I happened to see it, and then of course everyone jumped to it and said, "Yeah, it was an unprovoked attack, it would be unfair if he didn't swim to safety." What we could've done better is make it clearer he survived; maybe with a sound effect. Perhaps we could've heard a splash and then had him say, "Why did you do that?"
Is there any room for innovation in Uncharted's model?
We tried a lot of new stuff in U3 and we have many years left in us, I think. We're trying, both in Uncharted and any other game we might make (note: rumours suggest Naughty Dog have a new PS3 game to be unveiled soon...).
Most will never know U3's sinking ship is a giant physics object. Is it w1orth the effort to communicate that kind of cleverness?
It's always worth trying to communicate with the player. That's a clear sign we're at the beginning of something, not the end. The next challenge is to make that cleverness meaningful to the gameplay. Perhaps if Drake had to load cargo on one side to try and steer it so you could get to another place..? There's one idea for a future game for you. It's exciting; there's so much stuff we can do. n