The Uncharted series is beloved for a lot of reasons, chief among them the games’ playful, well-written dialogue and stories. So I was happy to get to sit down with Uncharted 4 writer Josh Scherr at a preview event for the new Uncharted game.
This event was the first time the press had been invited to play the game’s single-player campaign story mode—the actual game, in other words. (Yes, lots and lots of people enjoy the series’ competitive multiplayer modes, but for most that’s not the main attraction.) And Uncharted 4 is the biggest evolution I’ve seen so far in the series—from its wide open levels to the clever ways the story’s been adapted to wrap itself around the new freedoms players have as they control Nathan Drake on another globetrotting adventure.
“Well, god, I mean, as soon as you finish one game you talk about all the blue sky stuff that you always wanted to do in the next one, right?” Scherr told me after my demo. “And when we decided that we were going to be making a new Uncharted game—and obviously we’re switching to new hardware [Sony’s PlayStation 4]—we knew we were going to have a lot more memory and a lot more computing power to play with. So we were like, ‘What can we do now in an Uncharted game that we’ve never been able to really take advantage of before?’ And one of the biggest obvious answers was larger levels and better draw distances so you can see across these larger levels.”
The level that developer Naughty Dog showed at this event took place in the wide open plains of Madagascar. I controlled Drake as he explored ruins and hidden waterfall caves, shot (and got shot by) apparently bloodthirsty mercenaries, and deftly (OK, sometimes not so deftly) maneuvered a coughing jeep up hillsides paved with slippery red mud. It looks, sounds and feels a lot like past Uncharted games, but there’s clearly a lot that’s different as well. In this demo the thing that was most evident is the size of the game’s levels.
As far as I could tell from this demo, you’ll still ultimately be guided to the same point—wherever the game wants you to go to progress. But there’s a lot more to see along the way, like optional detours to find a little extra treasure and hear some unique dialogue.
Scherr said the developers asked themselves: “Just how big can we go and still keep the focus on the pacing that Uncharted is known for?”
The answer: well, the game is out May 10. We’ll know then. Keep reading for the full transcript from my chat with Uncharted 4 writer Josh Scherr.
This is the first single player hands-on even for Uncharted 4. Is that exciting?
A little nerve-wracking! But yeah, it’s pretty exciting.
You guys must be pretty confident though right?
It turned out pretty good. [laughing] The last several months are always a mad dash to the finish, and you’re always wondering, you’re looking at levels that are still like, not quite as finished, and you’re sort of like, “Oh my god how are we going to get this done?” And then somehow the team comes together and busts their ass and does amazing work and then it gets done.
It’s been about four years since Uncharted 3—how long has 4 been in development?
Pretty much since we wrapped Uncharted 3—so since the beginning of 2012.
It’s the biggest evolution that’s ever taken place in the series I think—why change the formula so much?
Well, god, I mean, as soon as you finish one game you talk about all the blue sky stuff that you always wanted to do in the next one, right? And that was partly how a lot of the shifts from Uncharted 1 to Uncharted 2 came about, where Uncharted 1 we were just trying to get the damn thing out the door in a working state, to a certain point—and then you’re like OK, so what are all the things that we didn’t have time to do and that we wanted to do? And when we decided that we were going to be making a new Uncharted game—and obviously we’re switching to new hardware—we knew we were going to have a lot more memory and a lot more computing power to play with. So we were like, “What can we do now in an Uncharted game that we’ve never been able to really take advantage of before?” And one of the biggest obvious answers was larger levels and better draw distances so you can see across these larger levels.
Like, with the other Uncharted games we were always very careful and clever to sort of make it look like you’re seeing a long distance when in fact we’re hiding a lot of stuff behind rocks, or you know, you go through carefully placed tunnels to hide loads and all these kinds of things. So now the question is, now that we have this technology can we make these more open levels? That was one of the first things that came about: just how big can we go and still keep the focus on the pacing that Uncharted is known for?
Uncharted 4 looks ridiculously beautiful and the graphics must be a big part of that computing power. This series has always pushed the boundaries for graphics.
I mean obviously there’s that limitation. For us it’s not just the graphics and things like that—it also comes down to the pacing and the storytelling. We didn’t want to turn into this big, sprawling, open thing where you could literally go anywhere at any time because then we don’t have as much control over the pacing of the story, right? And there are plenty of games that do that and do that well, but that’s not what we were striving for. So then the next question is OK, so we have these bigger levels—so are we going to be walking across these bigger levels? Or are we going to try to do some vehicle stuff? And so a lot of the early experimentation was working on vehicles and seeing how those feel and seeing how we could fit those into the Uncharted universe.
The jeep is so much fun.
Oh cool, glad you like it. It took a lot of tuning.
It feels a lot like Halo’s Warthog. There haven’t really been vehicles in Naughty Dog games before now; what other vehicles in games did you guys look to?
Obviously we play other games to see—Grand Theft Auto being an obvious answer and just other vehicle stuff. The question for us, though, is how do we make the jeep kind of an extension of Nathan Drake and how do we make it an extension of the gameplay? Because, you know, if it was just like simple drive from point A to point B then it’s not going to be particularly interesting.
So we’re like OK, Drake is always doing these like, traversal problem-solving things, whether it’s just like finding the next hand-hold or like, you know, pushing things into place to allow him to pass a particularly dangerous section of a cliff, and all these kinds of things. So we were like how can we do the exact same kind of thing with the jeep? And that’s where the winch comes into play—how can we use the winch to solve problems in the environment? That’s where the muddy roads come into play—you know, instead of “find the next handhold” it’s “find the next good point of traction so you can make your way up a hill.”
So we’re in these big open levels, and there are some points of interest like caves and ruins in this particular environment we played in, and it feels really good that there are conversations that happen all along the way between the characters—like storytelling is still central, even though the world is bigger and we’re exploring more.
Yeah, it’s important to us. And again from a pacing standpoint, if you just left people to their own devices in big sprawling levels they would never actually get to where they’re going. That’s why we do limit the points of interest and we try to draw your eyes to it one way or another so you can see things. And there’s little things tucked away in nooks and crannies—like did you find the hidden cave under the waterfall?
Yeah, of course—if there’s a waterfall in a video game I’m going to check behind it.
Well of course. Of course! And I believe the characters even comment on that—they’re sort of like “what are you, seven?”
Yes we are! Thank you very much. But yeah, that’s kind of the fun part. One thing that previous Uncharteds got dinged for a little bit is the fact that we keep things fairly linear. We call [Uncharted 4] “wide linear.” Like obviously we are telling a very specific story. We want you to go from point A to point B. But we try to give you as much choice as possible. And one of the things that the new tech has afforded us is the fact that we can give you more choices and have these big sprawling levels with a jeep, or like in the [PlayStation Experience] demo from a couple of years ago the climbing up the cliffs—there’s more than one way to get up those cliffs. You’re not stuck to a particular path.
And so for things like that, yeah, we have to account for it in the story, you have to account for it in the writing, but we also have—you know, we have our little hidden treasures like we always had, an Uncharted tradition. If you went into the cave you may have noticed that there is also a letter that you could find. We’ve sort of brought that over from The Last Of Us. There are dozens of documents that you can find throughout the game that help flesh out the backstory not only of Henry Avery and the pirates, but also of Nathan Drake. There’s also the journal—when you discover the pirate sigils in the towers, Drake actually draws them in his journal.
He did that in Uncharted 3 as well right?
Yes! But the difference here is that you don’t necessarily have to get all the journal entries. You could actually go right past that tower and never look at the sigil inside it, and that page is not going to be in your journal.
Will that stuff crop up later? Like there’s a puzzle you can solve if you collected all the sigils in your journal?
That stuff’s more like fleshing out the backstory stuff. You know, we don’t want to penalize people for missing something—anything that is important, you’re going to get one way or the other, particularly if it relates to a puzzle or things like that. But for the people who like to explore—for the people who like to discover the backstory—there’s a lot of discoverable journal entries that can be added to the journal. So your journal at the end of the game might look different than somebody else’s depending on how much time you spent exploring.
All the new stealth gameplay mechanics—awareness indicators floating over enemies, the ability to hide in tall grass, the ability to mark enemies so you can track them more easily—is another big change in Uncharted 4. That’s a thing you learned how to do well in The Last Of Us I imagine?
Yeah, I mean, we had that in 2 and 3 obviously, but the big difference here is that most of the combat encounters in U4 can be approached by stealth initially. I mean obviously there are going to be times that they’re just going to come at you guns blazing and you don’t really have much of a choice, but a lot of the encounters can be stealthed through at least partially, if not entirely. And we wanted to give as many choices there as possible, within those spaces.
So there’s areas where you’re able to like, climb around walls and get behind people and take them out, or you have the tall grass that you can use to sneak through, or you can use combinations or like swinging on a rope, and also the little stealth indicators that can help you plan your attack and let you know if they’re spotting you, and we also do the marking. And one thing that I should point out is that the stealth indicators and the marking stuff, if you want to, you can just turn that stuff off, if you want to have a little bit more of a hardcore experience. And in fact if you play on the hardest difficulty level that stuff is turned off by default.
But again, for us, accessibility is really important. We like to tell our stories. We like to have people actually finish our games and not get bored. So if they’re having trouble and if this will help them get through, by all means go for it—or you can have bragging rights and say “I beat the game without using that stuff!”
The stealth stuff is fun, although it’s basically become a meme that Nathan Drake is a psycho with a smile—I kind of wish you could stealth your way through entirely and not kill anyone at all optionally.
Self defense! Self defense—it’s all self defense. There are encounters that you can do that with—not all the time, but there are definitely a lot of encounters that you can actually sneak past without murdering everybody if you so choose. But, you know, at this point it’s just—it is what the game is. Obviously there’s a little bit of a disconnect with that, but you know, hopefully—
There’s a little bit of a disconnect with most video games.
When you’re approaching the ruins at the end of this demo we just played the characters note that it’s the only path that goes to their destination, so it seems like there’s a bit more justification for why they have to fight so many people, at least there.
Yeah, and again, we always try to do that. It’s always like, it’s either a self defense thing, or there’s no other way past this, so let’s see if we can sneak by without alerting them, and if they do, it becomes self defense. It is what it is. It’s a video game. It’s an adventure gameplay video game. People are going to be shooting at you. That’s what it is. But again, yeah. We try very hard to make the antagonists compelling and interesting, and also very, very deadly.
I want to know more about the character Nadine.
She’s very formidable. That’s a fun point.
I like that the villains always have some history with the characters.
Well that’s kind of what’s fun, I mean, just playing with it in this shadowy world of treasure hunters and antiquity smugglers and things like that, you know? It’s kind of like any business—like everybody kind of knows everybody at some point or another, everybody’s going to screw somebody over at some point or get into a kerfuffle with somebody, but at the end of the day it’s just kind of like, it’s just business in its weird sort of way. So we play with that and have a lot of fun with it.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He wishes every car controlled like a Warthog. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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