It is safe to say that the new Uncharted game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one the most highly anticipated games for any current-gen console. The previous entries in the series have rivaled big-budget theatrical productions in scope and action set-pieces, but according to director Neil Druckman, Naughty Dog is trying something a little different to bring the gameplay back into the mix.
“When we sat down and looked at the game we were planning we all realized something…we’re not making a game anymore. We’re making a movie, which was fine before there was a real movie in production. Now that that is happening, we all thought ‘Wait, why are we doing this anymore?’. Because, Uncharted started as a movie. Well, actually Uncharted started way, way back as a CBS made-for-TV movie starring Patrick Duffy and that one obnoxious teen from Step by Step who was homeless or something, I can’t remember. That was canned, and it moved into development hell for a while, then it became a movie when Viacom moved the rights from it’s CBS television division to the film division at Paramount. That was probably ’97. Matthew Broderick was attached because we were just coming off a time when Matthew Broderick was attached to everything. Garry Marshall was set to write and direct. That script became New Year’s Eve. Then, Naughty Dog snatched it up to make a game out of it. We figured it would work best in that context. So, as you can see Uncharted has a long history in the storytelling area, but this is something brand new we’re trying and I’ve got to say, we’re pretty pumped about it.”
Druckman goes on to tell us about how the game was reconfigured from the ground up. “All of us working on this game are old-school gamers. We all lived through the 2D-3D transition, and what we really wanted to bring to this game was that old-school challenge of a game just absolutely falling apart at the seams. That’s why we decided to rebuild the entire game from scratch using the Sonic Adventure 1 engine.
The transition wasn’t easy, Druckman tells us. “We had developed nearly 40% of the game in the Uncharted 3 engine, so throwing nearly all of that out was tough. But the challenge it brought to the team was worth it. You could tell that the creativity was flowing freely now. Our roundtable discussions went from boring conversations like “Should this be a quicktime event or a cut scene?” to “How many surfaces can Nathan Drake’s model merge with at once? What sand texture will completely break the game in this beach level? How stuck in the wall can this camera get before it jitters into a epileptic fit and launches Nathan out into the ether?”. You can sense the excitement in my voice just talking about it.”.
The programming team was incorporated into the storytelling in a way that had never been done before. “Usually, the direction and storytelling would inform the programming. We figure out the type of story we want to tell and the gameplay evolves out of this. Now, it’s the opposite. We wanted the absolute garbage engine that Sonic Team developed to inform the storytelling. Programming would come in with issues like ‘Hey, the engine doesn’t like Sully’s beard in the flashback sequence and it’s destroying the sky and turning all guns into belts. What should we do?’. We as the storytellers and directors have to sit there and look at this as an storytelling opportunity. “Okay, why would Sully’s beard WANT to destroy the sky? What effect did Sully’s death in Uncharted 3 have on Nathan that would change the physical form of a gun into a woven leather belt?’ After a few of these games, that’s an exhilarating conversation to have.”
The engine wasn’t just used to recreate an Uncharted experience, but rather, Sonic Adventure gameplay elements are finding their way into this game. “I would say this game is more Sonic Adventure than Uncharted. Nathan has a spin-dash attack now because the SA game design requires that advance through the game. To achieve this, we combine a strangling animation for his upper torso, and everything past his waist becomes an twisted mess of flesh and khakis. We wanted to be true to both series and meet in the middle.”
Druckman has confidence that the game will please the core audience, while also proving that Naughty Dog isn’t ready to rest on the laurels and not innovate. “There’s a wave of nostalgia for those early 3D-platformers sweeping through the indie circuit right now. We know the Uncharted fans are on board, if we can get those other guys in too, we would be thrilled. We’re hoping that the moment Nathan Drake’s model reaches top speed and runs straight through the floor for the 45th time, you’ll feel that tickle of nostalgia and those warm fuzzies. I know I did.”