UN­CHARTED 4 A THIEF’S END

THE STORY BEH I ND THE B I GGEST GAME OF THE YEAR

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY NATHAN BROWN

Ev­ery­thing was Un­charted. You’ll have seen the jokes, no doubt – the ones that pointed out how many games at E3 2012 seemed to be based on an ex­ter­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Naughty Dog de­sign doc­u­ment. That show brought a host of lin­ear games built on tightly scripted spec­ta­cle, sac­ri­fic­ing player agency for the whims of a stub­born au­thor. The com­plaint was aimed at other de­vel­op­ers, at an in­dus­try in thrall to the cookie cut­ter, but it stung Naughty Dog by ex­ten­sion as well. Many of those games have since turned out to be noth­ing like Un­charted. At De­cem­ber’s PlaySta­tion Ex­pe­ri­ence (PSX) event, filmed live in Ve­gas and streamed around the world, Naughty Dog sug­gested Un­charted 4 wasn’t, in the E3 2012 pe­jo­ra­tive sense of the term, very

Un­charted ei­ther. Over the course of a day inside the Santa Mon­ica stu­dio, we are shown the proof of it. Within half an hour, game di­rec­tor Bruce Stra­ley has summed it up per­fectly. “There’s no one golden path,” he tells us. “It’s not just as sim­ple as push­ing for­ward on the stick all the time.”

It’s a telling line. Stra­ley is ex­plain­ing Un­charted 4’ s ex­panded tra­ver­sal and climb­ing sys­tem, but it’s a valid sum­ma­tion of what we’ve seen of the game as a whole. More to the point, it shows the stu­dio is keenly aware of

the crit­i­cism – of­ten over­stated, but not en­tirely un­founded – of the way it has his­tor­i­cally made its games. ‘Just push­ing for­ward on the stick’? It’s what other peo­ple say about the

Un­chart­eds, and the games that have fol­lowed in their wake. “I don’t re­ally con­sider what other peo­ple are say­ing,” Stra­ley says. “But when you do read it, in falls into align­ment with what you’re al­ready think­ing as a player and de­vel­oper. It re­in­forces what you’re al­ready con­sid­er­ing do­ing.”

Cre­ative di­rec­tor Neil Druck­mann backs Stra­ley up: “We’re evolv­ing as de­vel­op­ers. We have dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties in what we’re at­tracted to in games, and what we want to play. If we were mak­ing Un­charted 2 to­day, it would prob­a­bly be a very dif­fer­ent game.” Druck­mann was a mere lead de­signer on Un­charted 2:

Among Thieves, the cre­ative di­rec­tor’s chair in­stead filled by Amy Hen­nig, who left in still-un­spec­i­fied, but seem­ingly ac­ri­mo­nious cir­cum­stances early last year. Any hope of get­ting clar­i­fi­ca­tion on that is shut down almost as soon as we walk into the stu­dio, the prospect not so much taken off the ta­ble as set on fire and thrown out the win­dow, and the ta­ble with it. But her de­par­ture, and that of se­ries’ de­sign lead Richard Le­marc­hand, has pre­sented Stra­ley and Druck­mann with a fresh start. As has the move to a new gen­er­a­tion of con­soles, PS4’s power al­low­ing per­haps the most tech­ni­cally ca­pa­ble stu­dio on the planet to­day to stretch it­self even fur­ther. Stra­ley and Druck­mann have ma­tured as de­vel­op­ers, and taken Naughty Dog as a whole along with them. The stu­dio’s method of mak­ing games has evolved, and Drake has had to change in kind.

As Stra­ley sug­gests early on in our visit, the climb­ing sys­tem was the log­i­cal start­ing point. Ever since Nathan Drake first reached for a glim­mer­ing hand­hold in 2007’s

Un­charted: Drake’s For­tune, this se­ries’ climb­ing sys­tems have been ex­er­cises in lin­ear­ity, in fol­low­ing a sin­gle, ob­vi­ous path to the next com­bat scene or set-piece. The PSX demo, and the ex­tended ver­sion we’re shown at the stu­dio, do a poor job of con­vey­ing just how much that has changed. At a glance, Drake’s clam­ber­ing seems to be the same as ever, a semi­au­to­mated jour­ney be­tween con­ve­niently placed and sim­i­larly coloured ledges and hand­holds. There are new tools, but the 2014 Nathan Drake’s pi­ton mim­ics the 2013 Lara Croft’s climb­ing axe right down to the look of the sur­faces on which it can be used, while the grap­ple rope can only be at­tached to pre­or­dained points marked with a but­ton prompt. When Drake mis­judges a jump and nearly falls, saved only by the tips of his fin­gers, it is hard to re­sist a roll of the eyes.

At the stu­dio, Stra­ley plays through the se­quence again, stop­ping pe­ri­od­i­cally to ex­plain ex­actly what we’re look­ing at. He takes a to­tally dif­fer­ent route. Un­charted’s climb­ing has been dras­ti­cally over­hauled, its PS3-era an­i­ma­tion sys­tem scrapped and re­built to al­low full ana­logue move­ment through 360 de­grees us­ing real body physics. ‘Slip events’, as Stra­ley calls them, are not mapped to in­di­vid­ual parts of scenery but trig­gered by the an­gle and dis­tance of Drake’s jump, as well as the type of hand­hold. Smaller, less sta­ble ones will break more eas­ily; if they do, you’ll need to take another route. Where Croft’s axe was lit­tle more than a dif­fer­ent an­i­ma­tion for the trip along the crit­i­cal path, here the pi­ton is de­signed to em­power free­dom. Those grap­ple points may be fixed, but they’re mul­ti­pur­pose – you can swing, as Stra­ley did at PSX, but also ab­seil, climb, or run along and around cliff faces. Un­charted’s most lin­ear sys­tem has be­come re­mark­ably freeform. In­stead of push­ing up on the stick, you’re solv­ing a puz­zle. It’s not about find­ing the start of the path and stick­ing to it, but forg­ing your own.

The same ap­plies to com­bat. Here, too, are mo­ments that whiff of the cin­e­mat­ics de­signer’s hand – though it’s hard to com­plain when you’ve just swung across a gap on a rope, let go, smacked a goon in the face on your way down, grabbed his ri­fle out of the air and started shoot­ing at the next poor fool in your way – but the im­prove­ments are im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent. There’s the en­emy AI, which has been af­forded a sim­i­lar tra­ver­sal moveset to Drake’s, en­abling op­po­nents to jump gaps and clam­ber up ledges in pur­suit of their quarry, a true gen­er­a­tional leap from the days when foes would spawn be­hind cover and stay there. Break line of sight – by crouch­ing into the dense, re­ac­tive fo­liage, per­haps, or drop­ping your­self off a ledge – and en­e­mies won’t re­turn to their pre­set pa­trol routes, but stay in place or seek you out, com­mu­ni­cat­ing all the while.

Un­charted 4’ s com­bat isn’t just about shoot­ing, but a blend of stealth, tra­ver­sal, melee and gun­play set in a vast, ver­ti­cal space full of op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sud­denly, a se­ries once famed for its lin­ear­ity feels un­com­monly like a sand­box.

Yet this has not been a sud­den change. It is the evo­lu­tion of a process that be­gan in Un­charted 2: Among Thieves, when Drake gained the abil­ity to fire a gun from any tra­ver­sal

state. Stra­ley says it’s about “build­ing up me­chan­ics that you can use again and again, that scale prop­erly. For me, it’s all about sys­tems, about boil­ing down the essence of the sys­tems so you can prop­erly layer them. It em­pow­ers the player to toy around.” He re­calls a level from a for­mer Naughty Dog game, 2003’s Jak II, in which the pro­tag­o­nist rode a rocket. Stra­ley died a dozen times work­ing out the me­chan­ics, and many more times work­ing his way through the level. “Then I never saw that rocket again for the rest of a 40-hour ex­pe­ri­ence. I didn’t like the de­sign process in Jak II; it didn’t feel like there were re­ally sys­tems. It was the first time I got angry about our own de­vel­op­ment in­ter­nally.” It is some­times easy to for­get that Naughty Dog ex­isted be­fore

Un­charted. It has been in business for 30 years, 25 un­der its cur­rent name, and has been learn­ing all the while.

Yet Jak II isn’t quite the game that springs most read­ily to mind as we watch the new demo. In­stead, thoughts turn to Naughty Dog’s most widely ac­claimed ti­tle, the one that saw Druck­mann and Stra­ley be­come the stu­dio’s cre­ators in chief. There is a tremen­dous amount of The Last Of Us here, es­pe­cially in the fluid, al­ter­nat­ing switches be­tween com­bat and stealth against en­e­mies that com­mu­ni­cate and move around freely. Drake closes out the demo by rope-swing­ing away from the fi­nal group of grunts, a call­back to the lightbulb mo­ment in TLOU when you first re­alised eva­sion was as valid a strat­egy as clear­ing out the en­tire room. “That’s been part of our evo­lu­tion,” Stra­ley says. “It’s us get­ting more com­fort­able with sys­temic ap­proaches, with wider lay­outs, with how you in­te­grate story with game­play, with lay­out, with mu­sic. It’s been a con­stant evo­lu­tion.”

The most trans­for­ma­tive evo­lu­tion of them all comes cour­tesy not of those within Naughty Dog’s walls, how­ever, but those of its par­ent company. No other stu­dio pushed PS3 quite as hard as this one, and you need only look at the demo’s vast ex­panse to see how Naughty Dog is en­joy­ing the lofty head­room af­forded by PS4’s pro­ces­sors. “The way we had to work with mem­ory man­age­ment inside of The Last Of Us just to get the width that we had there was crazy. It was in­sane,” Stra­ley says. “The Duck tape and Scotch tape that we used to cob­ble those lev­els to­gether just to get it to run prop­erly… Now we can say, ‘Aah, we have some mem­ory. Let’s play with this a lit­tle bit’. You can breathe, and let the player breathe a lit­tle bit as well.”

The re­sult is the pret­ti­est game the new gen­er­a­tion has yet pro­duced. Tex­ture res­o­lu­tion has been at least quadru­pled across the board from Un­charted 3, but that’s just the start. Drake comes to on the shore of an is­land off the coast of Mada­gas­car, wak­ing up to a back­drop of pro­ce­du­rally tes­sel­lated wa­ter. A new dy­namic wind sys­tem makes trees, bushes and Drake’s hair – both on his head and his chest – sway in tan­dem. Up close, a sys­tem that was co-de­vel­oped by Naughty Dog and Sony’s Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy Group de­liv­ers a more ef­fi­cient way of mak­ing highly de­tailed sur­faces with­out us­ing per­for­mance-hun­gry adap­tive tes­sel­la­tion; far­ther away, the stu­dio is re­ly­ing far more on back­ground LOD al­go­rithms than it ever has be­fore. A new phys­i­cally based shader more than two years in the mak­ing helps ma­te­ri­als to look life­like us­ing their real-world prop­er­ties. The im­prove­ments to Drake’s climb­ing skills are best shown on a wire­frame climb­ing wall filled with per­haps 100 hand­holds. As he clam­bers, the shape of his body adapts to the chang­ing shape of the wall; we’re told that there are unique an­i­ma­tions for two-thirds of his tran­si­tions. On PS3, Drake’s en­tire skele­ton was made up of 250 bones. Now, there are 800 in his face alone.

With all that go­ing on, it’s lit­tle sur­prise that the demo runs at 30fps, de­spite Naughty Dog’s ear­lier claims that it was shoot­ing for 60. “We’re ac­tu­ally above 30, but we locked it [for the demo],” Stra­ley says (out on the floor, a de­bug

“WHO IS NATHAN DRAKE? HOW HAS HE EVOLVED OVER THE SE­RIES FROM THE PER­SON HE WAS BE­FORE?”

sta­tion shows the game run­ning at 37fps). “We’re go­ing to do what­ever it takes to make the game we want to make. If it means we could go for 60 but lose some­thing that would re­ally im­pact the player’s ex­pe­ri­ence, then it’s our choice as de­vel­op­ers to say, ‘Well, we’re go­ing to go for the ex­pe­ri­ence over the 60 frames.’”

Re­fresh rate aside, it’s a re­mark­able achieve­ment, es­pe­cially for a stu­dio that, thanks to spend­ing the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion work­ing solely on PS3, had no PC ver­sion of its en­gine and thus had a more painful tran­si­tion to PS4’s x86 ar­chi­tec­ture than most. Stra­ley and Druck­mann may take top billing, but you sim­ply can’t cre­ate a game of this visual cal­i­bre with­out a tremen­dously skilled work­force. Mod­estly, Druck­mann says it’s all about trust, that the scene he writes will pass through the hands of ac­tors, cin­e­matog­ra­phers, artists, an­i­ma­tors and so on, each in­ter­pret­ing it in their own way, be­fore it makes it into the game. Nolan North, Drake’s voice ac­tor, of­fers the out­sider’s per­spec­tive.

“They’ve got amaz­ing minds here,” he tells us. “Ev­ery­one does ev­ery­thing so well. I re­mem­ber hear­ing one time that the test [ap­pli­cants take] to work here… Peo­ple have come in, ready to go, they take the test and they lit­er­ally walk out cry­ing. This is the MIT of the game world. There’s some amaz­ing de­vel­op­ers out there, but there’s some­thing about this one that has made so many great games, and I think it’s the peo­ple. This couldn’t be done just any­where. There’s some­thing about the way they har­ness what the PlaySta­tion can do that’s spe­cial.”

PlaySta­tion 4 can do so much more, of course, but it also presents Naughty Dog with a prob­lem. The con­sole’s run­away suc­cess means the stu­dio can rea­son­ably ex­pect its next game to be bought by play­ers that have never played an Un­charted game. The goal of many se­quels is to draw the old fans and grab new ones to cre­ate a big­ger au­di­ence than be­fore, of course, but here the gap is sure to be more pro­nounced. And three games of bag­gage is a heavy load, even for one of the best writ­ing teams in the business.

“The story has to stand on its own, def­i­nitely,” says Druck­mann. “And I think there should be enough hints and re­veals to make you un­der­stand who Nathan Drake was in those pre­vi­ous ad­ven­tures, even if you haven’t played them. If you have, then you’ll un­der­stand, on a much deeper level, the nu­ances both of Drake and his re­la­tion­ships.”

In fact, the end­ing of Un­charted 3 gives Naughty Dog a clean break of sorts. The new game kicks off four years later, with Drake set­tled down and re­tired from a life of ad­ven­ture. He’s lured back into his old ways by his brother, Sam, another trea­sure hunter whom Nathan has be­lieved to be dead since he last saw him some 15 years ago. All that time ago, the pair were ob­sessed with find­ing trea­sure plun­dered by Henry Ev­ery, a pi­rate who amassed the largest ever haul of booty in the space of two years in the late 17th cen­tury, mostly looted in his cap­ture of the Per­sian ship Gunsway, and be­lieved to be worth half a bil­lion dol­lars by mod­ern stan­dards. While Nathan moved on, Sam con­tin­ued the search, and comes back into his brother’s life with a dual in­cen­tive for get­ting back on the road. He’s got a new lead on the lo­ca­tion of Lib­er­talia, Ev­ery’s myth­i­cal pi­rate utopia. And he’s in trou­ble with the sort of peo­ple you re­ally don’t want to be in trou­ble with. Sam, played by Troy Baker, is not just a handy de­vice for get­ting Nathan out of re­tire­ment – he gives Naughty Dog that clean nar­ra­tive break. Un­charted 3 wrapped up Nathan’s trou­bles in the present. Now, the se­ries can dig into his past.

“Ev­ery time we add a character, it has to re­flect some facet of the pro­tag­o­nist in an in­ter­est­ing way that the other char­ac­ters don’t,” Druck­mann tells us. “Bring­ing in a brother re­ally lets us ex­plore [the ques­tion of] ‘Who is Nathan Drake?’ How has he evolved over the se­ries from the per­son he was be­fore, and even as a kid? What led to the Nathan Drake you know?”

Yet Sam’s ar­rival means, at least on the face of it, that the new Un­charted will be miss­ing some­thing it has al­ways done so well. While Stra­ley and Druck­mann shift awk­wardly in their seats when­ever we try to eke fur­ther story de­tails out of them, and give coded ref­er­ences to Drake be­ing with al­lies dur­ing some lev­els, cur­rently our hero has no fe­male foil. Elena, now Nathan’s wife, is seem­ingly back home, and none too pleased with him com­ing out of re­tire­ment at that. Nate and Chloe went their sep­a­rate ways in Un­charted 3’ s third act. It’s tempt­ing to draw a line to Hen­nig’s de­par­ture, mir­ror­ing the lack of a fe­male voice in stu­dio and game alike, but El­lie and Tess in The Last Of Us weren’t her work ei­ther.

Cur­rently, the only known fe­male character in the game is Nadine Ross, the leader of the South African pri­vate army that pa­trols the Mada­gas­can is­land in which the demo is set. She and her crew have been hired by Rafe Adler, another trea­sure hunter, who has a his­tory with both Drake and his brother. They’re the en­emy, but Druck­mann doesn’t like to think of them in such terms. “When we’re writ­ing for them, we’re think­ing: ‘What’s their point of view?’ They don’t see them­selves as an­tag­o­nists. They see them­selves as be­ing right­eous. It’s very im­por­tant that we don’t see them as bad guys.” He takes a sim­i­lar view to writ­ing women. “You just write hu­man be­ings. Don’t nec­es­sar­ily think of them as men or women, just write with a clear mo­ti­va­tion and clear ob­jec­tives. Be hon­est with those char­ac­ters; don’t write them as clichés. That’s when they stop be­ing hu­man.”

Game Un­charted4:AThief’sEnd Pub­lisher SCE De­vel­oper Naughty Dog For­mat PS4 Ori­gin US

Re­lease 2015

Game di­rec­tor Bruce Stra­ley (left) and cre­ative di­rec­tor Neil Druck­mann are lead­ing de­vel­op­ment of Un­charted4 after the suc­cess of The­LastO­fUs

The grap­ple rope’s us­age may have felt a lit­tle pre­scribed in the PSX demo, but it’s more ver­sa­tile than it looks, de­spite only be­ing us­able at pre­or­dained points

The dif­fer­ence PS4 has made to Drake’s ap­pear­ance is made star­tlingly ap­par­ent in this com­par­i­son, show­ing the new ver­sion along­side that of Un­charted3

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