Ahoy, me hearties, etc. A major upcoming titles for PlayStation, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune from the Naughty Dog team is set to pitch the player as an offspring of Sir Francis Drake, battling it out with the Spanish Armada and possible finding time for a quick game of bowls along the way.
The news is that this one’s going to be cinematic in gthe extreme and a big title to look out for at E3. Here’s a Q&A interview with Evan Wells (Co-President, Naughty Dog), Amy Hennig (Game Director, Naughty Dog) and Rich Diamant (Character Artist, Naughty Dog)
Q: Uncharted is a new departure for Naughty Dog - what happened?
We do have a distinctive style starting with Crash Bandicoot in 96 and, five years later, the birth of Jak and Daxter. But our ambition is always to use technology in the best way possible. On PlayStation1 that meant being iconic – it was about oversized heads and it was very cartoony. On PlayStation2 there was more technology, and we were able to go to something not quite human, but not an animal – it’s an elf, very stylised, but with more human movements, and we were able to start adding in more story and character. When we looked at the technology of PlayStation3 we realised we could go full-on human and still capture all that great gameplay. This is our first full cinematic experience with ‘real-world’ characters.
Q: So where does the story come from?
Sir Francis Drake’s career came to an end when his body was tipped over the side of his ship off the coast of Panama over 400 years ago. But, we asked - what if the lead coffin held no body? What if it contained a mysterious book that hinted at his last great adventure? Our modern-day treasure-hunting hero Nathan Drake believes that he is the descendant of Sir Francis himself and sets out to prove that this is the case, starting from a clue engraved on a ring passed down through generations of his family.
Q. And in case people don’t know who Sir Francis Drake was…
Drake is one of those great historical characters. To his English countrymen he was a hero – an explorer who circumnavigated the globe, a sea captain who sunk dozens of ships from the Spanish Armada, and a knight of Queen Elizabeth’s own making. To his enemies, he was the worst sort of villain – a marauder who heartlessly destroyed their ports and colonies, a pirate that ceaselessly stole their gold, spices, and jewels. And to his descendants he was a figure of inspiration.
Q: You talk earlier about a cinematic experience - what do you mean?
Uncharted brings together the stunning visuals you would expect on PS3 with a great storyline worthy of a feature film. We wanted a game character that would emulate the greatest cinematic action heroes and we’ve drawn from the long history of the classic action/adventure genre to make it happen.
We went back as far back as the adventure pulp novels, to the Saturday morning movie serials, to Indiana Jones and right up to contemporary historical detective stories like The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.
Q: Okay, so who is the main character?
Nathan Drake, who moves in the shady world of treasure hunting, shoulder-to-shoulder with arms dealers and smugglers. Self-educated, Nathan has a knack for figuring out the puzzles left behind by history. And for once our hero is not a stereotypical badass mercenary. He’s tenacious and resourceful, not a man in a hundred pounds of armour. He’s tough as nails, and he’s usually got a weapon strapped to his back. But our ambition was to make sure that his human quality comes through.
Q: Is he the perfect hero?
Like most of the great heroes of cinema, Nathan is fallible and sometimes even clumsy. In a gunfight, he’s likely to blindly fire back over his shoulder as he dives for cover rather than calmly line up a long distance sniper shot. Throw him into a brawl and he has no fancy martial arts training to fall back on - but a wild haymaker might just do the trick.
Q: Is it all about the character?
A big goal for us has been to avoid the dry and emotionless stories that have typified action games for years. The few games that really move us do so because we’ve got a real person to play through. Welcome to Nathan.
Q: What about support characters?
The supporting cast plays a big role in Uncharted. Elena Fisher plays the role of spunky female lead as a documentary film maker who attaches herself to Drake’s hunt. We also meet Victor Sullivan, an older version of Nathan in many ways. He’s an adventurer who’s been treasure-hunting for years, and he has the enemies and unpaid debts to show for it. Despite Sullivan’s chequered past, Drake looks to him as a mentor of sorts – a friendship that plays a big part in the story.
Q: And the storyline…
The game opens with Nathan and Elena having discovered the object of their search: the coffin of Sir Francis Drake. But, instead of a body, the coffin holds a diary which hints that the great explorer might have headed into the Amazon on one last quest. Before they’re able to learn more, their salvage ship is attacked by modern day pirates, and you get your first taste of action. The whirlwind of locations and situations ranging from the Amazon to the mid Pacific are in keeping with that same theme of surprises that just never seem to add up.
Q: How do you create the various locations?
We decided to go down a route that brings emotion to photorealism – it is not about being overly exact but about creating an experience. We are not looking to the games industry for inspiration; we’re looking to film and to the very latest techniques being employed there. And we’ve revisited the creative process - for example, all characters and environments have been modelled from scratch rather than acquired through scanning – allowing total artistic freedom.
Shaders dictate the way light interacts with objects. For example, sub-surface lighting allows us to capture the light of a torch shining through the skin of a hand, or sunlight shining around and through the thin leaves on a tree. And we haven’t used tile-sets, so every element of the background environment is unique. We’ve layered different textures together to create truly individual objects.
And high-dynamic range lighting means, for example, that your character’s eye must adjust to different light – stare at the sun then stare into a dark area and you will have to wait for your pupils to dilate!
Q: We hear you also spent a significant amount of time on animation.
Yes - this is all about bringing characters to life and we have some of the best programmers and technicians on board working on movement and combat. We wanted Nathan to have realistic movement and believable weight and physics – we wanted him to feel like a 190-pound guy moving around. And we wanted him to move fluidly without popping from state to state or from one animation to the next.
But we also wanted him to feel very responsive to the player. The answer has been hard work with Nathan already having more than 1,200 unique animations to his name, with more being added daily. In comparison, Jak only had around 200!
Q: What does this mean for the player?
Well, the animations themselves are all about creating the equivalent of a film where you never see your character repeat itself. We can layer many of the animations on top of each other using the power of the PS3 CPU, which allows our hero to display any number of poses, emotions and movements all at the same time – from jumping, to breathing to facial expressions to hand actions!
Q: Did you use cinematics?
Yes! We’ve fed in more than 50 minutes of cinematics to give us space for character growth, for humour to come through, for charm, and for romance. The game’s action is punctuated by close calls, impossible escapes, near misses, and seemingly insurmountable odds that make for an edge-of-seat blockbuster in which you are the hero!
Our live action director worked with a series of actors and stage sets to capture the movement and interaction. One example is a motion-captured scene that was enacted by actors Nolan North and Emily Rose in a real-life set built to look like the cockpit of a seaplane. We didn’t want pantomimed actions – we wanted realism.
Uncharted: Drake’s Adventure is due out later this year.