Siliconrepublic.com talked to Richard Lemarchand, lead game designer at Naughty Dog, about upcoming PS3 game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and how to make storytelling work in video games.
The Uncharted series has proved to be a smash hit, drawing critical acclaim and commercial success globally.
The first game released in 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, was developed as a brand new IP for the PS3, taking advantage of the newer hardware.
It was a third-person action adventure, letting players take the role of treasure hunter Nathan Drake – the supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake – in his journey across the Amazon in search of the lost treasure of El Dorado. The game sold millions and became one of the must-have titles for the console.
Anticipation was high for its sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which managed to surpass expectations, earning near perfect reviews and winning several game of the year awards for 2009.
It’s no wonder many are looking forward to the release of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, which will arrive in Europe in November. This time, Nathan Drake and his mentor Victor Sullivan are up against a shadowy clandestine organisation in the search for the ‘Atlantis of the Sands.’
“We thought Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was a good game but we were really blown away by the warmth of the reception we’d received and it had let us take huge steps forward in creating what we call an ‘interactive cinematic experience,’” said Lemarchand.
“Something that has all of the feel of a fantastic blockbuster action movie but that puts the player in the heart of the action, controlling the unfolding destiny of our hero Nathan Drake moment by moment with lots of richness and drama.
“So we’ve really upped the ante with Uncharted 3 – we like to try and outdo ourselves every time. We went back to the drawing board and brainstormed lots of cool new ideas and I think people are going to be excited by what they see in the game,” he said.
The new game will offer hand-to-hand combat with multiple opponents, new stealth and gunplay options, the return of multiplayer with added cinematic elements and lots of new locations to explore.
Critics particularly praised the Uncharted series for its compelling story and characters, which drew inspiration from pulp magazines, adventure movie serials and blockbuster films, such as Indiana Jones.
Creating a good video game with a well-told story can be a difficult task without making sacrifices on either side. I asked Lemarchand how Naughty Dog tackled this.
“I’ve been making video games for very nearly 20 years now and one of my interests has always been the ways that you could potentially marry the kinds of gameplay that we saw in the action games in the ’80s – simple games like Space Invaders or Pacman – with a really interesting story,” said Lemarchand.
“I’ve always loved storytelling. We’re big film buffs at Naughty Dog and we have kind of informally made ourselves students of cinema studies in the course of our professional lives. And making a really good storytelling game is extremely hard – I think we’ve learned how hard it is to make a film in the process in making these Uncharted games.
“It’s also very hard to make a really good video game that’s fun in the right way – that holds the player’s attention and that doesn’t get too repetitive and delivers surprises and developments at just the right time.
“The way that we’ve achieved this is to study hard, to learn as much as we could about these various disciplines and to communicate a lot with each other about what kinds of things we thought were and weren’t working in the games,” he said.
Lemarchand also emphasised the importance of play testing when designing games, pointing out how much you can learn by letting members of the public try it out.
“We have people in the studio that we recruited just from regular members of the public and we watch them very carefully as they play through our games,” he said.
“We record information about what they’re doing into databases on our servers so we can study it later and see where they may be having some difficulty with some aspect of the game and where they may not be understanding something.
“So all of these things combine into a really quite scientific approach to video-game development and that’s let us achieve what we wanted to achieve with the Uncharted franchise,” he said.
Indeed, the fusion of story and gameplay can sometimes help the creative process rather than hinder it.
“The way that we develop the game and the story is a bit of the chicken-and-the-egg process. When we look back, we’re never quite sure which came first, the idea for the piece of gameplay or a story idea.” said Lemarchand.
“A great story idea will sometimes give us an idea for a piece of technology or vice versa.”
Lemarchand said making a game such as Uncharted is a very organic process – much more evolutionary than a feature film, where the script is written before it goes into production.
“Through our process of play testing we’ll often change things quite late into production to really make the gameplay as great as it can be.
“It’s great working in the digital medium – it’s a very plastic medium. Because everything is made of 1s and 0s, you can change it with a great degree of freedom. Because code is very modular, you can propagate the changes that you make throughout the whole game sometimes very quickly.
“I love working on video games. It’s like game designer Eric Zimmerman says, that games are really the ascended art form of the 21st century,” he said.
Things have come full circle for the Uncharted series, as it will soon see a movie adaptation directed by Neil Burger, who previously worked on Limitless and The Illusionist. Lemarchand said they were working with the filmmakers to convey their ideas about the world of Uncharted, though it will be a while until we hear anything more solid on the movie.
For now, fans can look forward to the imminent release of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Considering the high accolades Uncharted 2 received, is it intimidating to try and better it again with the third instalment?
“To be honest, it is a little bit scary, but I think that we have always driven ourselves to reach new heights with every game that everyone in Naughty Dog has ever made in their career,” said Lemarchand.
“So we figured that we’d made this great game, Uncharted 2, by applying ourselves as hard as we could and not resting on our laurels. We felt that if we just did that again and tried really hard to make the most fun, interesting game that we could then things would go well.
“I’m happy to say, having played lots of our multiplayer games and having played through the single-player game many times, that fans of Uncharted won’t be disappointed,” he said.