As the copious amounts of Game of the Year awards and each subsequent release in its acclaimed Uncharted series demonstrate, Naughty Dog is on to something. The studio has become synonymous with a level of polish, presentation, and performance that is practically unmatched, and as a result, the highly cinematic experiences they craft bristle with energy and personality that truly sets them apart. A fair bit of this success can be attributed to the efforts of Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig, who has taken how game narratives are not only told but created to an entirely new level. We spoke with Hennig via email about Naughty Dog’s creative process and what awaits Nathan Drake on his latest epic adventure, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
There's no doubt Naughty Dog has raised the bar for interactive storytelling. What is your overarching philosophy when it comes to bringing the world and characters of Uncharted to life?
Amy Hennig: Well, our overarching philosophy has always been to create a story-driven game, and tell a character-driven story. This principle would be common sense in any other medium, but in games we’ve frequently told plot-driven stories, with character as an afterthought. We’ve often said that we’re trying to engage the player in three different ways: guts, head, and heart. Especially in the pulp action/adventure genre, the experience needs to be somewhat visceral – that’s where the gunplay, two-fisted combat, and big action set-pieces come in. But we also want the player to think – which is why the catalyst for our stories is always some sort of historical mystery. And most of all we want to engage the player emotionally, and that’s where the characters come in. All the epic spectacle in the world doesn’t matter, if you don’t care about the characters.
What's your approach to telling each new Nathan Drake story? Are you able to focus solely on story/characters (i.e. development, dialogue, conflicts, etc.), or is one eye always on gameplay, direction, and mechanics as you’re crafting the narrative?
AH: Our approach to story has to be fairly pragmatic, because the game has to work as a game first and foremost. People are surprised to hear this, but our initial ideas usually come from a technical challenge we want to tackle, or an idea for a cool set-piece or level, even before we’ve got the story fleshed out. In Uncharted 3, for instance, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to tackle the desert as an environment, and a couple of the designers had proposals for the capsizing cruise ship and cargo-plane sequences. There was enough enthusiasm for these ideas that we stuck pins in them and set the team off and running – and then we started to dig into the story in earnest. What desert locations would be the most interesting? Were there any cool mythological MacGuffins we could adopt, based on a desert setting? What historical figures, and historical mysteries, might be associated with the desert locale?
I’ve often said that story has to be the most flexible aspect of the game design. We don’t have the luxury of a long pre-production and script-development process, like the film industry does. The game industry is an employee-based business, so from day one we have a hundred employees burning salary and ready to work. You have to make a few creative guesses and set people off in a direction, and then make it work in the story.
Also, making a game isn’t like making a movie – it’s software engineering, which by definition is exploratory and iterative. You don’t create a plan and then implement on it, you experiment and refine. Which means your roadmap is changing as you try out ideas, embracing some and abandoning others. So by definition the story has to be built the same way; we write as we go.
Your dialogue has a very natural and almost off-the-cuff feel to it. How much of that is in the writing itself vs. an organic result of having actors live on stage with one another?
AH: It’s a combination of things. I’m always trying to get the dialogue to sound as natural as possible on the page, and I find the only way to do that is to say it out loud as I’m writing it. That’s the only way to know if it’s going to sound natural. I often have to write on my feet, too, and kind of walk through the scene in my head – which is why I have to write when no one else is around, otherwise I look like a fool.
I also have the benefit of having worked with this cast for over five years now, so the rhythm, cadence and idiosyncrasies of their speech are almost second-nature for me now. Ultimately, though, I think the immediacy and authenticity of the dialogue comes from our process on the stage. The fact that we table-read, rehearse and block the scenes together, and have the actors performing together both on the mocap stage and in the voice-recording booth – and the fact that we encourage ad-libbing and improvisation – all contribute to the organic feel of the performance.
How much does a scene change from when it is first put down on paper to when it’s performed to when it appears in the final game?
AH: It varies – sometimes the scenes change pretty dramatically, sometimes not at all. The scenes are always improved by the rehearsal and revision process with the actors, though, and then further refined when the animators get their hands on it. We walk in on rehearsal days with drafts of the scripts, and then we sit down with the cast, pencils in hand, and start reading and revising. Then we get it up on its feet and block the scene on the stage, and discover further changes and ideas there.
We don’t storyboard the scenes – the effort would be wasted, because so much changes once we’ve rehearsed and blocked the scenes with the actors. But we do some rough camera blocking when we stage the scenes on rehearsal day, just so we don’t paint ourselves into any corners, cinematically.
Once we’ve mocapped the scenes, we leave the stage with the animation data, video reference, and recorded dialogue. But the scene is further shaped by our dialogue editor, and by the animators who refine the body animation, and do all the finger- and facial-animation by hand (using the videos from the stage as reference). The performance that results is really the combined effort of everyone down the line – from me as the writer, to the actors, and to the dialogue editor and animators.
How does Uncharted 3 define itself in relation to the previous two titles as far as story, tone, character arcs, conflicts, and pacing?
AH: Since we were going to be three games into the franchise, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the relationships between the characters, particularly between Drake and Sully, and to explore more of Nate’s past. Overall, it’s a more intimate and personal story than in Uncharted 2 – and while the pace of the story and gameplay still requires gunfights, brawls, chase sequences and the like, the threat is often just as much psychological as it is physical.
Were there any areas story-wise that you knew you wanted to focus on this time around because you might not have been able to in the first two games?
AH: Absolutely, especially with the feedback after Uncharted 2. We got two clear messages from the fans – they wanted Sullivan to play more of a role than he did in U2, and they wanted to see us dig more into Drake’s backstory. Not that we steer the franchise according to fan feedback, but these were pretty unanimous sentiments, and it was stuff we wanted to explore, too.
So right off the bat, we knew that Uncharted 3 would be centered more on the relationship between Drake and Sully, and would peel back some layers in Nate’s history. That was one of our motivations behind introducing Katherine Marlowe as our new antagonist – her threat is more psychological, more personal, which enabled us to dig into Nate’s psyche more. And because we’re always trying to tell a character-driven story, it was important to bring back core franchise characters like Chloe and Elena – as well as introducing new characters to the ensemble – in order to bring out different facets of Drake.
To find out how Naughty Dog's tireless efforts paid off in its latest release, be sure to check out our Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception review.