Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - the story behind the biggest game of the year

Everything was Uncharted. You’ll have seen the jokes, no doubt – the ones that pointed out how many games at E3 2012 seemed to be based on an external interpretation of the Naughty Dog design document. That show brought a host of linear games built on tightly scripted spectacle, sacrificing player agency for the whims of a stubborn author. The complaint was aimed at other developers, at an industry in thrall to the cookie cutter, but it stung Naughty Dog by extension as well. Many of those games have since turned out to be nothing like Uncharted. At December’s PlayStation Experience (PSX) event, filmed live in Vegas and streamed around the world, Naughty Dog suggested Uncharted 4 wasn’t, in the E3 2012 pejorative sense of the term, very Uncharted either. Over the course of a day inside the Santa Monica studio, we are shown the proof of it. Within half an hour, game director Bruce Straley has summed it up perfectly. “There’s no one golden path,” he tells us. “It’s not just as simple as pushing forward on the stick all the time.”

It’s a telling line. Straley is explaining Uncharted 4’s expanded traversal and climbing system, but it’s a valid summation of what we’ve seen of the game as a whole. More to the point, it shows the studio is keenly aware of the criticism – often overstated, but not entirely unfounded – of the way it has historically made its games. ‘Just pushing forward on the stick’? It’s what other people say about the Uncharteds, and the games that have followed in their wake. “I don’t really consider what other people are saying,” Straley says. “But when you do read it, in falls into alignment with what you’re already thinking as a player and developer. It reinforces what you’re already considering doing.”

Creative director Neil Druckmann backs Straley up: “We’re evolving as developers. We have different sensibilities in what we’re attracted to in games, and what we want to play. If we were making Uncharted 2 today, it would probably be a very different game.”

Druckmann was a mere lead designer on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the creative director’s chair instead filled by Amy Hennig, who left in still-unspecified, but seemingly acrimonious circumstances early last year. Any hope of getting clarification on that is shut down almost as soon as we walk into the studio, the prospect not so much taken off the table as set on fire and thrown out the window, and the table with it. But her departure, and that of series’ design lead Richard Lemarchand, has presented Straley and Druckmann with a fresh start. As has the move to a new generation of consoles, PS4’s power allowing perhaps the most technically capable studio on the planet today to stretch itself even further. Straley and Druckmann have matured as developers, and taken Naughty Dog as a whole along with them. The studio’s method of making games has evolved, and Drake has had to change in kind.

As Straley suggests early on in our visit, the climbing system was the logical starting point. Ever since Nathan Drake first reached for a glimmering handhold in 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, this series’ climbing systems have been exercises in linearity, in following a single, obvious path to the next combat scene or set-piece. The PSX demo, and the extended version we’re shown at the studio, do a poor job of conveying just how much that has changed. At a glance, Drake’s clambering seems to be the same as ever, a semi-automated journey between conveniently placed and similarly coloured ledges and handholds. There are new tools, but the 2014 Nathan Drake’s piton mimics the 2013 Lara Croft’s climbing axe right down to the look of the surfaces on which it can be used, while the grapple rope can only be attached to preordained points marked with a button prompt. When Drake misjudges a jump and nearly falls, saved only by the tips of his fingers, it is hard to resist a roll of the eyes.

At the studio, Straley plays through the sequence again, stopping periodically to explain exactly what we’re looking at. He takes a totally different route. Uncharted’s climbing has been drastically overhauled, its PS3-era animation system scrapped and rebuilt to allow full analogue movement through 360 degrees using real body physics. ‘Slip events’, as Straley calls them, are not mapped to individual parts of scenery but triggered by the angle and distance of Drake’s jump, as well as the type of handhold. Smaller, less stable ones will break more easily; if they do, you’ll need to take another route. Where Croft’s axe was little more than a different animation for the trip along the critical path, here the piton is designed to empower freedom. Those grapple points may be fixed, but they’re multipurpose – you can swing, as Straley did at PSX, but also abseil, climb, or run along and around cliff faces. Uncharted’s most linear system has become remarkably freeform. Instead of pushing up on the stick, you’re solving a puzzle. It’s not about finding the start of the path and sticking to it, but forging your own.

The same applies to combat. Here, too, are moments that whiff of the cinematics designer’s hand – though it’s hard to complain when you’ve just swung across a gap on a rope, let go, smacked a goon in the face on your way down, grabbed his rifle out of the air and started shooting at the next poor fool in your way – but the improvements are immediately apparent. There’s the enemy AI, which has been afforded a similar traversal moveset to Drake’s, enabling opponents to jump gaps and clamber up ledges in pursuit of their quarry, a true generational leap from the days when foes would spawn behind cover and stay there. Break line of sight – by crouching into the dense, reactive foliage, perhaps, or dropping yourself off a ledge – and enemies won’t return to their preset patrol routes, but stay in place or seek you out, communicating all the while. Uncharted 4’s combat isn’t just about shooting, but a blend of stealth, traversal, melee and gunplay set in a vast, vertical space full of opportunities. Suddenly, a series once famed for its linearity feels uncommonly like a sandbox.

Yet this has not been a sudden change. It is the evolution of a process that began in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, when Drake gained the ability to fire a gun from any traversal state. Straley says it’s about “building up mechanics that you can use again and again, that scale properly. For me, it’s all about systems, about boiling down the essence of the systems so you can properly layer them. It empowers the player to toy around.” He recalls a level from a former Naughty Dog game, 2003’s Jak II, in which the protagonist rode a rocket. Straley died a dozen times working out the mechanics, and many more times working his way through the level. “Then I never saw that rocket again for the rest of a 40-hour experience. I didn’t like the design process in Jak II; it didn’t feel like there were really systems. It was the first time I got angry about our own development internally.” It is sometimes easy to forget that Naughty Dog existed before Uncharted. It has been in business for 30 years, 25 under its current name, and has been learning all the while.

Yet Jak II isn’t quite the game that springs most readily to mind as we watch the new demo. Instead, thoughts turn to Naughty Dog’s most widely acclaimed title, the one that saw Druckmann and Straley become the studio’s creators in chief. There is a tremendous amount of The Last Of Us here, especially in the fluid, alternating switches between combat and stealth against enemies that communicate and move around freely. Drake closes out the demo by rope-swinging away from the final group of grunts, a callback to the lightbulb moment in TLOU when you first realised evasion was as valid a strategy as clearing out the entire room. “That’s been part of our evolution,” Straley says. “It’s us getting more comfortable with systemic approaches, with wider layouts, with how you integrate story with gameplay, with layout, with music. It’s been a constant evolution.”

The most transformative evolution of them all comes courtesy not of those within Naughty Dog’s walls, however, but those of its parent company. No other studio pushed PS3 quite as hard as this one, and you need only look at the demo’s vast expanse to see how Naughty Dog is enjoying the lofty headroom afforded by PS4’s processors. “The way we had to work with memory management inside of The Last Of Us just to get the width that we had there was crazy. It was insane,” Straley says. “The Duck tape and Scotch tape that we used to cobble those levels together just to get it to run properly… Now we can say, ‘Aah, we have some memory. Let’s play with this a little bit’. You can breathe, and let the player breathe a little bit as well.”

The result is the prettiest game the new generation has yet produced. Texture resolution has been at least quadrupled across the board from Uncharted 3, but that’s just the start. Drake comes to on the shore of an island off the coast of Madagascar, waking up to a backdrop of procedurally tessellated water. A new dynamic wind system makes trees, bushes and Drake’s hair – both on his head and his chest – sway in tandem. Up close, a system that was co-developed by Naughty Dog and Sony’s Advanced Technology Group delivers a more efficient way of making highly detailed surfaces without using performance-hungry adaptive tessellation; farther away, the studio is relying far more on background LOD algorithms than it ever has before. A new physically based shader more than two years in the making helps materials to look lifelike using their real-world properties. The improvements to Drake’s climbing skills are best shown on a wireframe climbing wall filled with perhaps 100 handholds. As he clambers, the shape of his body adapts to the changing shape of the wall; we’re told that there are unique animations for two-thirds of his transitions. On PS3, Drake’s entire skeleton was made up of 250 bones. Now, there are 800 in his face alone.

With all that going on, it’s little surprise that the demo runs at 30fps, despite Naughty Dog’s earlier claims that it was shooting for 60. “We’re actually above 30, but we locked it [for the demo],” Straley says (out on the floor, a debug station shows the game running at 37fps). “We’re going to do whatever it takes to make the game we want to make. If it means we could go for 60 but lose something that would really impact the player’s experience, then it’s our choice as developers to say, ‘Well, we’re going to go for the experience over the 60 frames.’”

Refresh rate aside, it’s a remarkable achievement, especially for a studio that, thanks to spending the previous generation working solely on PS3, had no PC version of its engine and thus had a more painful transition to PS4’s x86 architecture than most. Straley and Druckmann may take top billing, but you simply can’t create a game of this visual calibre without a tremendously skilled workforce. Modestly, Druckmann says it’s all about trust, that the scene he writes will pass through the hands of actors, cinematographers, artists, animators and so on, each interpreting it in their own way, before it makes it into the game. Nolan North, Drake’s voice actor, offers the outsider’s perspective.

“They’ve got amazing minds here,” he tells us. “Everyone does everything so well. I remember hearing one time that the test [applicants take] to work here… People have come in, ready to go, they take the test and they literally walk out crying. This is the MIT of the game world. There’s some amazing developers out there, but there’s something about this one that has made so many great games, and I think it’s the people. This couldn’t be done just anywhere. There’s something about the way they harness what the PlayStation can do that’s special.”

PlayStation 4 can do so much more, of course, but it also presents Naughty Dog with a problem. The console’s runaway success means the studio can reasonably expect its next game to be bought by players that have never played an Uncharted game. The goal of many sequels is to draw the old fans and grab new ones to create a bigger audience than before, of course, but here the gap is sure to be more pronounced. And three games of baggage is a heavy load, even for one of the best writing teams in the business.

“The story has to stand on its own, definitely,” says Druckmann. “And I think there should be enough hints and reveals to make you understand who Nathan Drake was in those previous adventures, even if you haven’t played them. If you have, then you’ll understand, on a much deeper level, the nuances both of Drake and his relationships.”

In fact, the ending of Uncharted 3 gives Naughty Dog a clean break of sorts. The new game kicks off four years later, with Drake settled down and retired from a life of adventure. He’s lured back into his old ways by his brother, Sam, another treasure hunter whom Nathan has believed to be dead since he last saw him some 15 years ago. All that time ago, the pair were obsessed with finding treasure plundered by Henry Every, a pirate who amassed the largest ever haul of booty in the space of two years in the late 17th century, mostly looted in his capture of the Persian ship Gunsway, and believed to be worth half a billion dollars by modern standards. While Nathan moved on, Sam continued the search, and comes back into his brother’s life with a dual incentive for getting back on the road. He’s got a new lead on the location of Libertalia, Every’s mythical pirate utopia. And he’s in trouble with the sort of people you really don’t want to be in trouble with. Sam, played by Troy Baker, is not just a handy device for getting Nathan out of retirement – he gives Naughty Dog that clean narrative break. Uncharted 3 wrapped up Nathan’s troubles in the present. Now, the series can dig into his past.

“Every time we add a character, it has to reflect some facet of the protagonist in an interesting way that the other characters don’t,” Druckmann tells us. “Bringing in a brother really lets us explore [the question of] ‘Who is Nathan Drake?’ How has he evolved over the series from the person he was before, and even as a kid? What led to the Nathan Drake you know?”

Yet Sam’s arrival means, at least on the face of it, that the new Uncharted will be missing something it has always done so well. While Straley and Druckmann shift awkwardly in their seats whenever we try to eke further story details out of them, and give coded references to Drake being with allies during some levels, currently our hero has no female foil. Elena, now Nathan’s wife, is seemingly back home, and none too pleased with him coming out of retirement at that. Nate and Chloe went their separate ways in Uncharted 3’s third act. It’s tempting to draw a line to Hennig’s departure, mirroring the lack of a female voice in studio and game alike, but Ellie and Tess in The Last Of Us weren’t her work either.

Currently, the only known female character in the game is Nadine Ross, the leader of the South African private army that patrols the Madagascan island in which the demo is set. She and her crew have been hired by Rafe Adler, another treasure hunter, who has a history with both Drake and his brother. They’re the enemy, but Druckmann doesn’t like to think of them in such terms. “When we’re writing for them, we’re thinking: ‘What’s their point of view?’ They don’t see themselves as antagonists. They see themselves as being righteous. It’s very important that we don’t see them as bad guys.” He takes a similar view to writing women. “You just write human beings. Don’t necessarily think of them as men or women, just write with a clear motivation and clear objectives. Be honest with those characters; don’t write them as clichés. That’s when they stop being human.”

Uncharted 4 takes many mechanical leaps forward, and Naughty Dog has smartly interwoven the game’s systems in a more fluid, dynamic way. But that alone does not a modern Naughty Dog game make. What defines this studio’s work is the way everything – mechanics, environments, characters – sits in service to a story. The demo begins with Nathan and Sam, a character sketched into existence to allow Druckmann and Straley to burrow into Drake’s past, pulled apart by a shipwreck. Sam signals to his brother from a high point far into the distance, the studio making a vast level and filling it with threats to properly convey the extent of their separation, and the importance of reuniting them. It’s set a few hours into the game, but the shipwreck has stripped Nathan of all his gear; he starts out with nothing, pulling the piton from a corpse early on, and scavenging weapons from enemies he puts down, another against-all-odds scramble to stay alive in a life that has been full of them. The whole scene is a metaphor for the brothers’ 15-year separation, a metaphor in which lots of people get punched in the face.

And scene is the word. “What we’re trying to do is look at everything, even the moments between cutscenes, as a scene,” Straley says. “There’s always something that’s happening with the character arc that’s important.” In the demo’s case, there’s a negative at the start in seeing how far away Sam is, and a positive at the end when you reach him; what happens in between is up to you. “We’re thinking in filmic terms, but what’s important for us is how much of that we can put on the [analogue] stick. That’s what we start with in the story discussions. Then, when we talk to the designers, it’s like, ‘This is where the characters are at, this is what we’re trying to do, and these are the mechanics we’re trying to exploit at this point. Let’s pull those things together and make the player feel what the characters are feeling’.”

For many studios, story is a secondary concern. Writers are brought on board late into development and tasked with fitting a narrative around a game that it is too far along to even consider changing. Yet for Naughty Dog, it is the first order of business. “I’m a big advocate of narrative structure, and that’s something we haven’t always done at the studio,” Druckmann says. “It’s very important that we know where we’re heading; even if it changes, you have to know the beginning, middle and end. Without that, I wouldn’t know how to direct a team. We have become more conscious of, more proficient at, storytelling. Whatever meeting we’re having – even if it’s background or character artists – we’re speaking the same language. We’re speaking as storytellers.”

Druckman and his team might be keeping quiet on the finer details, but while we naturally leave Naughty Dog hungry for more, we’ve already seen so much. The demo itself was smartly chosen, a fine showcase of the overhauled mechanics and how they work in concert; out on the studio floor we’ve seen how it has been made, with much of that best-in-class tech rebuilt from the ground up by some of the most talented developers in the world. Above all, we’ve seen an evolution: a studio moving onto new hardware, rethinking its approach to making games, learning from its successes and paying heed to criticism, while putting front and centre something that too many games leave to the end. “There’s something about the videogame as an artform that allows you to connect with a character in a way no other medium allows,” Druckmann says. “You’re directing someone’s actions, empathising with them in a way that’s unique to videogames. We’re just now starting to really understand how to capitalise on that.” No doubt Uncharted 4 will have its detractors, but if the studio holds to its new vision, no one will accuse it of repeating its past mistakes. In years to come, when crudely sketched webcomics say ‘Everything was Uncharted,’ the meaning will be very different.


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