I want to be Nathan Drake, a sniper on a tightrope, fingertips that grip better than steel claws, a modern swashbuckler who’s parlayed the half-tuck from design band-aid to video game vogue. He’s wittier than I’ll ever be, far better looking without a shave, and the playable linchpin in Naughty Dog‘s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the PS3-exclusive sequel to acclaimed 2007 action-adventure Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
Uncharted 2’s out on October 13th and the multiplayer demo launches this week, so we caught up with Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells and creative director Amy Hennig for an over-the-shoulder peek at the design process.
Game On: Talk about the game as interactive cinema, the sort of thing gamers and non-gamers alike can engage simultaneously.
Evan Wells: I think this is what makes it such a great spectator game. We hear time and again people saying that they really enjoy playing it with their partner or spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend because the person sitting on the couch next to them, even if they’re not playing, they’re still completely engaged because the characters and the story draw them in. Also, the way the story continues even while you’re playing through the action sequences. It doesn’t stop when the cut scenes stop. Even though we have an hour and a half of cinematics, as you’re playing through the game, you’re still getting the constant updates and in-game dialogue between the characters, the banter and such, which continue not only the story, but the character development as well.
GO: My wife was watching me play Uncharted 2 last night, and she kept interrupting to ask questions, slowly tuning in the game. Is gaming becoming collaborative performance art? The game’s the stage, we’re piloting the actors within certain design parameters, and a third entity–not necessarily a gamer–watching what we’re doing like a movie, maybe even interacting by saying “go over there” or “see what that does” or asking “why is that person doing that?”
Amy Hennig: It’s interesting the way you put that, I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. I think maybe that’s our challenge. People always talk about “What’s the right way to tell stories in an interactive medium?” and I actually bristle a little when people start getting too pedantic, because as I said earlier, I don’t think there is a right way. I think it’s very cool what different people are doing, whether you’re looking at BioShock or Portal or Half-Life or Flower, I mean there’s just so many ways to tell stories.
Our genre almost requires that we rely on traditional cinematics and storytelling methods, so the challenge for us is, how do we make that not too passive an experience? It’s an interactive medium, and you want people to feel like they own the experience. Sometimes with the exposition in games you have to lay things out because you don’t want people to miss the detail.
That said, a lot of it I intentionally leave to inference, because I think that makes it a little bit more interactive and a little bit more challenging than if you came right out and said exactly what these characters’ relationship were.
I can’t wait to start reading the message boards and see that people are playing the game in earnest, because there’s so much I’m curious to see how people react to. They may be expecting in some cases more heavy-handed exposition. “Tell me what happened between these two characters,” that sort of thing. But you know what, I’d rather just have the characters say a couple of lines and let you imagine what might have happened between them in the past. Then it’s your game too.
It’s important to do that in any medium. It’s why I think so many people are engaged with Lost. It’s because they’re actively solving the puzzle along with the creators. In our medium it’s that much more important, that you’re not just being spoon-fed information, that you’re being challenged to fill in the blanks. That’s where I think people love games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.
GO: It’s what I find most attractive about David Lynch, which I realize is getting a little outré for gaming. But then again, we had The Dark Eye, the William S. Burroughs narrated game with Brian Froud-ian puppets sort of “through a glass darkly,” reenacting Edgar Allen Poe stories with pretty surreal backdrops. It came out of nowhere, though we haven’t really seen anything like it since.
AH: Yeah, those are more extreme versions of what I’m talking about, but we’re all in the same category there, which is choosing, based on your genre, how much you leave to the player’s active imagination. Obviously in a game like ICO or Shadow or even something like Flower where you leave almost everything to the player’s imagination, that’s one direction to go. With our genre we can’t go quite that far because there are certain tropes and conventions we’re following to make you feel like you’re playing a classic adventure movie. In that context, I want the player to feel like they’re actively, imaginatively engaged. Part of that’s in the literal activity, saying “How am I going to solve this puzzle?” Or “Maybe if I go over here the characters will say something.” And I want to explore that further as we make more games, because I think we’re only scratching the surface of what we can do. It’s even the way we do cut scenes, just the fact that we don’t say “Now let’s have a seven minute cut scene that describes exactly what these characters’ relationships are.” No way. One line will do, and I’ll let you fill in the blanks.
GO: Mystery is more inviting and exciting, fiddling the line between author and reader–it’s a fluid line, after all–is how you get the imagination firing.
GO: There’s been some debate over whether games should or shouldn’t be narrative beholden. I say they should be, or rather that they are, but more importantly, that they were never anything but. Instead of this adolescent “rebel yell” about how games need to carve out their own space, don’t gamers need to be mindful they’re not asking for the baby out with the bath water?
AH: I hate dogmatic anything, and so I don’t think there’s a “should” in there anywhere. I think there’s room for games that completely break the mold and challenge what our expectations are about narrative, because it’s interactive and unlike any other medium.
What I hate is when people say “we must,” as in “we must break away from any forms of traditional narrative,” and that if you’re drawing at all from that established tradition of narrative, you’re somehow this philistine that isn’t challenging yourself enough. I find that offensive.
The fact is, you can look at any form of storytelling, whether you go back to people repeating stories around the fire to early theater to radio to books to films. Every medium is built upon the previous one. So if you say somehow games are completely separate from that, that they should be breaking away from forms of traditional narrative, you’re almost saying that so should have theater, and so should have film. There’s certain commonalities and patterns to human nature and storytelling that transcend medium. You’re just being silly if you think our minds don’t work a certain way in terms of receiving narrative. Yes, it’s a different medium in the sense it’s interactive and these other mediums are more passive, but within a spectrum right? Reading a book is not a passive experience. Listening to a radio play and having to imagine the visuals is not a passive experience. I don’t see how we’re so separate from that tradition. The challenge is to say how do you take that interactivity and build on those traditions and not throw out the baby with the bath water.
This is what we’re trying to do with Uncharted. Every game that we make is an experiment, and then we see the results of the experiment and we adjust. It’s all an iterative process.