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Uncharted 4 Interview: Naughty Dog on Crafting a Legendary Ending

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The Last of Him.

Naughty Dog has repeatedly said Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is the final chapter in the story of Nathan Drake. It's a bold and brave statement that places an immense weight of expectation on the game and its developer. The task is even more daunting when you consider it's also the follow-up to The Last of Us, a game that was heralded as a remarkable leap in storytelling.

The magnitude of the task would cripple most, but there isn't a hint of nervousness in Naughty Dog's developers. They speak about the game with an assuring confidence. Their vision for putting a full stop on the tale of a bonafide gaming icon is clear and defined. It leverages important learnings from The Last of Us, hoping to create a deeper connection to characters, while also introducing an interesting new layer of stealth to the series' tried and true gameplay.

At recent Uncharted 4 hands-on events in London and LA, GameSpot spoke to creative director Neil Druckmann, writer Josh Scherr, and lead designer Ricky Cambier to discuss the game.

For more on the game, read GameSpot's most recent hands-on preview: How The Last of Us Made Uncharted 4 a Better Game.

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Have ideas and lessons learned from The Last of Us carried over into Uncharted 4?

Neil Druckmann: Absolutely. It's hard to explain to people who don't make games how much of yourself you put into [developing games] and how it becomes all-encompassing. When you work on something like The Last of Us for three and a half years, the person you start out as and the person you end as are completely different. So of course, when you go on to the next project, those years of learning, studying, and evolving as a developer are applied. [For Uncharted 4] specifically, there are lessons on how we combine story and gameplay and how we create bonds with characters. Obviously, Uncharted is a very different tone than The Last of Us, but I think telling a human story can transcend story genres and gameplay genres.

Josh Scherr: We also borrowed optional conversations. In The Last of Us, every now and then, a little bubble would appear and you could choose to engage with characters or not. We're using some of that in Uncharted 4, either to flesh out a conversation or for one of the non-player characters to comment on something. For people who want to engage with the story more, it's there. For people who want to just plough on ahead, they can do that.

One thing that’s unique to Uncharted is Nate's journal. We've carried that over from previous games, so when you get to puzzles, you can use it to find clues and solve puzzles. But there are moments when you can examine symbols on the floor and Nate will pull the journal out to do a little sketch. A lot of that stuff is actually optional, but if you scour the world you can find these places that you can make sketches. So your journal might look different to someone who did a speedrun through the game. It all helps flesh out the backstory and bring the world together.

I think it can make you cry. I've seen focus testers cry during Uncharted 4.

Neil Druckmann

The Last of Us was, in many ways, a dramatic, emotional, and human game. How does that translate to an action-adventure game? Is Uncharted 4 going to make us cry, or are you going for a different approach entirely?

Druckmann: I think it can make you cry. I've seen focus testers cry during Uncharted 4. I've seen people not cry during it, but then I've seen people not cry during The Last of Us too. That's never the goal; the goal is to tell a story that the player can empathise with. When you tell a human story, it doesn't matter whether it's dark and people are dying and it's grounded in our reality, or if it's a more stylised reality. I'm sure there's a ton of people that cried during the last Star Wars and, to me, that's pulpy action-adventure. It has a similar tone to what we do in Uncharted. For us it was about how we get deeper into Nathan Drake and tell a more personal story.

For us, with Uncharted 4, we thought about how to bring that to the forefront, and then how do you play them in an action game? How do you build a bond with a brother you haven't seen for so long? How do you make people care about a character that isn't mentioned in the previous three games? How do you make people believe this character has always been there? These are hard challenges, but we felt like if we could pull it off, we could have a certain heart and emotional underpinning to this game, without losing the fun, lighthearted tone.

Video game series have a bad habit of pretending they're going to end, but then not doing so. Is this definitively the last Nathan Drake adventure, or is there the possibility of a prequel or something?

Druckmann: You can never guarantee that it'll be truly over, right? At the end of the day, someone might come with an amazing pitch for a prequel, and we say, “Oh yeah, that's awesome.” But there's no story left for us to tell. Looking at the three games as setup, Uncharted 4 is the payoff. If we're telling these stories honestly, and we're being honest with who these characters are, then we have to say, “This is it, there's nothing else left to tell with this character. This is how it ends, and there's nothing to go on after that.”

Scherr: Part of the decision to do this game was we wanted to see what we could do with the new hardware, and this was a series we're all intimately familiar with. Also we felt like there was a little bit more of Nathan Drake's story to tell. In Uncharted 3, we delved a lot more into Nate's backstory than we have before. You see him as an orphan, seemingly, and so that raised a whole lot of interesting questions about his character. We were wondering if there was more of his story that we wanted to own, and it turned out to be yes.

In terms of the tone of the game, some of the early stuff showed it to be a little darker than people were used to seeing. But as with any Uncharted game, there's going to be moments of darkness and humour and shit blowing up all around you. It's the same kind of rollercoaster ride that we've always provided. I think the biggest difference in the way that we're telling the story this time is that we're allowing for a lot more quiet and introspective moments than we've had in previous games.

That's a lesson we've learned from The Last of Us, where we had Joel and Ellie walking through these abandoned places and just letting the atmosphere sink in. That's something else we're striving to do here in Uncharted 4. Obviously there's the big chase scene that we showed at E3, which is more indicative of our classic set-piece moments, but we don't want to stay at 11 the whole time, because it's exhausting and also where do you go from there?

Uncharted 4 also adds more robust stealth mechanics. Why did you decide to double down on stealth?

Druckmann: It comes back to player choice. We kind of had it working in the first Uncharted, and we found that so many players were drawn to that. We expanded on that in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3, so you could stealth on the front end, but as soon as you're spotted you're in combat and it will persist until you win the fight. The Last of Us was a very different game; it was about survival and a slower pace, so it required stealth to be a main component. We learned a lot about building a stealth game there, developing a sophisticated AI system. Then going back to Uncharted and having these more lighthearted action sequences where you're throwing haymakers and blind-firing AK-47s as you're running around corners, we had to figure out how stealth fits into that.

We didn't want it to be so bogged down in stealth that it's frustrating when you fail and have to restart the encounters, because that's not Uncharted. It was really about how we can easily get in and out of stealth, how do we create layouts that easily allow you to break line of sight. If you want to be hardcore about it and just stealth the whole thing, that option is available. It's pretty hard to do, but it's there. If you ever get spotted and fail, your rope is available: you can swing around, drop on enemies, take their guns, go around a corner to break line of sight, then resume stealth. It's about getting you more immersed in those moments, and stealth gave us that extra dimension.

We don't want to stay at 11 the whole time, because it's exhausting and also where do you go from there?

Josh Scherr

It actually reminded me in certain ways of Metal Gear Solid V. What games did you look to when building out the stealth?

Druckmann: I think you would look through all the best examples; obviously Metal Gear is maybe the best example that I can think of. I love that game. Also the Far Cry series as far as open spaces and how you keep track of enemies moving around was another touchstone for us. We looked a lot at The Last of Us and had long conversations about how we port these systems over. Then how much UI we put on the screen, because Uncharted is known for having very limited UI. We found that the AI is so sophisticated that we needed to give the player some extra help, but for hardcore gamers that don't like that, you can go into the options and turn it all off.

Could you talk about the extent to which we see dialogue trees in the game and the impact they have?

Scherr: Simply stated, it's not a core mechanic in the game. It is something much like we experimented with in The Last of Us: Left Behind as a way to enhance or augment certain emotional moments, or in some cases comic moments. We are not turning into Mass Effect. You are not going to be able to affect the outcome of the game based on something that you say. They are sprinkled here and there, not something you're going to see all over the place.

Druckmann: There's no branching narrative. There's a very specific story we want to tell. At times we felt there were certain conversations taking place that, it's not obvious what Nate would say. It won't necessarily change the relationship between characters, but in throwing up the option up on the screen, we get you to think about what they mean and why they're there. Even if it gives you that moment of pause to think about what you're going to say, it puts you in the same mindset as Nate. We find that people react to it, as a cutscene, very differently. They're more in line with Nate. The specific example we showed at PSX was to show a brother that Nate hasn't seen in many years, and you as a player would hopefully reflect and think about each Uncharted game as Nate is doing it in his mind. It almost doesn't matter which one you pick, it'll only change the next few seconds of the cutscene between Nate and Sam, but for that moment you're in the same mindset with Nate.

In our playthrough it seemed like chatter between characters flowed very naturally, even when interrupted. How did you manage that, given it's something many games struggle with?

Cambier: We knew that would be important to us. When we talk about “wide linear” and exploration, we also don't want you to miss these conversations. They're critical to character development, and getting them to happen within gameplay helps make it feel more natural.

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I actually don't know how many versions of conversations there are. I think there's just conversations we know that have the potential to get interrupted, and those can kind of just resume naturally. I don't think there's lots of alternates in between, but we still keep track of it and know which conversations to pick back up and what can be interrupted.

You can never guarantee that Uncharted will be truly over, right?

Neil Druckmann

You've delayed the game a few times and said you didn't want to cut corners. What corners did you feel you would have been cutting had you not postponed the release?

Druckmann: When we realised we weren't going to hit 2015, it was sequences that were just coming online. There's an option on the table to cut that sequence out and see if you can stitch the game together without it, but you risk hurting pacing and story when you do that. Everything we put in there we felt was necessary to tell the story. It's very ambitious, it's the longest Uncharted in the series, and the most varied as far as locations.

I don't know if it'd be any different with another game, but this being the last one, we don't want feel like there was a missed opportunity here. We want to know we went out on top with a bang and do everything we intended to do, realise our vision. Like it or not, who knows, but for us, this is the game we wanted to make.

What are the chances of a Tenzin spinoff game?

Cambier: [Laughs] First we're going to do some multiplayer DLC, then we're going to do a little single-player DLC…and who knows what that's going to be, we haven't announced that yet.

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