Uncharted 2 & 4 Director Talks About "Solving" Ludonarrative Dissonance With The Last Of Us
"Can you create a game that's as interesting and character-driven and compelling as an Uncharted story or Last of Us story without shooting? I think you can."
Bruce Straley, the director of Uncharted 2, Uncharted 4, and The Last of Us, has worked on some of the most iconic action games of the last two console generations. There was a common criticism leveled against the Uncharted series, though--that Drake's personality was at odds with how easily he was able to kill people. The term for this, where the story or characters of a game do not sync up well with the action, is ludonarrative dissonance.
In an interview with Gamesindustry.biz, Straley has opened up about his work on these games, why they faced this issue, and how they "solved" it with The Last of Us. In Uncharted games, he says, "the threat is a video game threat," and the bad guys in these games need to be free to throw a lot of enemies at the player to keep the gameplay interesting. "You have to have interesting core mechanics to keep the player invested," Straley says.
"That's our problem as designers: in 2007, that's where the industry was, that's where we were. We didn't necessarily have the wherewithal, the clarity so to speak, that we do now."
As the article points out, Nathan Drake's personality was much rarer at the time than it is now--most shooters featured silent protagonists, or kept characterization to a minimum, especially when work began on the first game in the series in 2004.
"If you think about game design in that same way you think about your character arc, the character should have an ebb and flow of a roller coaster [matching] the pace of the game," Straley says. "As a game designer, you're thinking about the character and storytelling and how the character is feeling."
Straley says that this was less of an issue for The Last of Us because of the post-apocalyptic setting, which allowed them "to create a threat that applied stakes," as it made sense that characters in this world would be used to fighting to survive. "They had their own compass of values that they were driven by, or directed by, which meant they were capable of killing you for a bottle of water and a pair of shoes, because that meant another day of survival in that world that we created."
Straley says that although the games he created are shooters, he believes that it's possible to capture these emotional beats in other genres, or even non-combat games, citing PlayDead's Inside as an example. "Can you create a game that's as interesting and character-driven and compelling as an Uncharted story or Last of Us story without shooting? I think you can. Again the concept has to be... 'how can I create a rich enough world to allow for interesting core mechanics?'"
In a later Twitter thread, Straley talks more about how his games were designed, and points out that the term "ludonarrative dissonance" was much less common when he was working on Uncharted 2--in fact, he had not heard of it.
When I chose to make Uncharted 2 an “Action Adventure-Shooter” (and those ARE the words I used), I had never even heard of the words ludonarrative dissonance. WTF IS THAT?! I just wanted to make a fun romp. And it was for a lot of people. Success! But that was 2007. We evolve.— Bruce Straley (@bruce_straley) January 8, 2020
Straley left Naughty Dog in 2017, and thus has not been working on The Last of Us Part II. He has said that he left due to the stressful time he had on Uncharted 4. The Last of Us Part II will release for PS4 on May 29, 2020. [Update: The game has been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.]
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