The history of Uncharted according to Naughty Dog: from inception to Deception
Thanks to this collaboration, this unusual combination of performance, technology and storytelling, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a hit. It was released in December 2007, earning strong reviews (a standard-setting 9/10 in OPM, mirrored by an 88 on Metacritic) and selling over 3.5 million copies worldwide.
The effect for Naughty Dog was twofold. It meant that an Uncharted sequel would definitely be the studio’s next project, and it also meant that it suddenly had a lot to live up to. “It is a little scary, a bit intimidating,” admits Lemarchand. He points to the studio’s collective attitude as key to overcoming these nerves. “We just came to it with that same sense of adventure and exploration – and wanting to push beyond what we’d previously done in terms of technology, graphical fidelity and the production value of the thing.” The team were still hungry, as the spectacular game would eventually show.
As for Nolan, a coincidence of timing suddenly made him gaming’s everyman. Or at least its everywhere man. “It was unfortunate that a few games came out at the same time,” he says now. “Some people said, ‘Oh, he’s doing all of these voices, Prince Of Persia and Assassin’s and this.’ But those were already in development – Uncharted just blew up into this thing that everything was compared to.”
But while he continues to headline other games (he’s the lead in The Darkness II and Penguin in Batman: Arkham City) these are usually limited to recording-booth sessions lasting a few days, while his involvement with Uncharted became nearly a full-time job. Now clearly established as the series’ star, he was involved in the casting for Uncharted 2. “It’s a great thing for an actor to do, because you realise somebody can come in and give a brilliant performance, but they’re just not that person,” he explains. “A number of people came in, who were friends of mine, to read for Harry Flynn. And they were great – but then Steve Valentine walked in and he was Flynn.”
For Lemarchand, meanwhile, Uncharted 2 started in the Himalayas. “One of the first things that I worked on, and which turned out to be one of the biggest jobs that I shouldered throughout the course of the project, was the subterranean temple in our fictional Nepalese city.” He describes how it was initially conceived as a much larger area, which was then shaped and refined. “We do this quite a lot with our level layouts,” he explains. “They start very big, and then through a process of design by subtraction we pare them down to the essential elements.”
In particular, Lemarchand remembers that from very early on he wanted to force Drake and Chloe to wade through grimy water. His explanation highlights the mixture of emotional intelligence and technical brilliance that makes Uncharted so unique. “I thought it would set the right kind of tone, of discomfort and mystery. And of course I was excited at the idea of the caustics – the patterns of light playing across the ceiling of a space that has water obliquely illuminated by sunlight in it.”
Perhaps Uncharted 2’s signature piece of design, though, is the train level, which provides the crooked spine of the game’s folded narrative: in wrecked, cliff-hanging form it stars in the desperate opening, before a spectacular mid-game climax reveals how it came to dangle there in the first place. “That idea was deep down in the DNA of the project,” Lemarchand says, adding that it was one of the first things to be started and the last to be finished. Again, it’s a coming together of storytelling and technology.
The team “wanted to move away from the traditional linear timeline that most videogame stories have,” and the train was instrumental in doing that. But it also represented a significant development challenge. “I think I’m right in saying that it was an idea of my co-lead game designer, Jacob Minkoff, who is also one of the people behind [Uncharted 3’s] cruise ship level,” Lemarchand says. “He’s someone who dreams really big.”
Really big, in the case of the train level, with a new technology required to enable Drake and other characters to freely traverse objects. “He gets a lot of sideways looks when he first proposes ideas,” Lemarchand says of his colleague. “But it’s a tremendous tribute to the programmers who have to create this insane technology that they always go away and think about it, and very quickly come back proposing that we go for it.”