Video games have been synonymous with a series of unlikely frontmen over the past 40 years, including a fireball-hurling plumber with probable furry tendencies. In the public mind – meaning, inside the empty noggin of whoever puts together your local TV news report – video games have equaled Mario, Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto or Halo. Is it finally Nathan Drake's turn?
Uncharted 4's charming scoundrel moved almost 3 million copies of Naughty Dog's newest game in its first week, according to Sony. He's a mashup of obvious influences (one part Lara Croft, two parts Indiana Jones) who transcends genre cliches, thanks to strong acting, impeccable animation, and smart writing.
Much of that – especially the smart writing – is owed to Neil Druckmann, the game's co-director and co-writer. Glixel sat down for a spoiler-filled talk with Druckmann about what it was like to take over his studio's biggest franchise, whether he's bummed about anything he had to cut from the game, and why it's wrong to think of Uncharted 4 as "fun." (Warning: Uncharted 4 spoilers ahead.)
Even though you worked on the first two Uncharted games, with Uncharted 4 you were taking over a series that was started by Amy Hennig, versus The Last of Us, which is something you and your co-director, Bruce Straley, created. When Naughty Dog asked you and Bruce to direct this game, where did you start?
I knew we didn't want to kill Nathan Drake, or kill any of the main characters, because tonally that felt wrong. Even though I knew in marketing we wanted to do everything we can to make people feel like we might.
The way in for me was creating his home life. We know between each game that at the end of the previous adventure he gets together with Elena. At the beginning of the next one, their relationship has fallen apart. What happened? It's kind of hinted at but never quite answered.
Our interpretation is that, in order to make his marriage work, Nate oversteered and decided to give up the life of adventure.
What did you want this game to say?
I want it to ask interesting questions, or at least have people ask those questions of themselves. Can you balance passion versus settling down? That, to me, is the heart of this thing, which mirrors a lot of our lives as game developers. I'm sure you've read about "crunch," and how difficult that can be on personal lives. We've all joined this industry with the hope of affecting people, touching them in some way. Which is why we work so hard, sometimes to destructive outcomes. So in this game, I really wanted to explore that. To kind of use the pulp action-adventure story as a backdrop, but it's all kind of a metaphor for our life's pursuit.
You're 37, you're a father, and you made a game about growing up and letting go of your past – about whether you've been ignoring the damage you've wreaked on your family while you wander the world in search of fame and fortune and adventure and cheap thrills.
I find that the more personal it is, the more you follow your gut, the more successful it's been.
But it sounds like you're not Nathan Drake. It sounds like Nathan Drake is the video game industry.
Or is the world of treasure hunters the video game industry? A passion can veer and devolve into addiction.
How much does the game resemble your original pitch for it?
The biggest thing that changed was probably the flashbacks. It used to be just one cut scene in the beginning of Nathan and his brother Sam entering the orphanage, and his brother saying, "I'm going to take care of you."
The game didn't have any interactive flashbacks?
No, not initially.
Did those come about because of your interest in so-called walking simulators? You once told me that Tacoma, Fullbright's follow-up to Gone Home, is your most-anticipated game of 2016.
Maybe subconsciously. It's not like we played Gone Home or Firewatch and said, Oh, we've got to get more of this in our game. Usually when something is just a cut scene, there's going to be someone who says, "Should we make this playable?" That's always a motivation: How can we put more of it "on the stick," as we say?
And it felt like, as the story was evolving, that we needed to spend more time with the kids. We're not going to have them run around and shoot and take cover and all that. So what are some interesting things we can do with them?
That led to the whole mansion sequence, and breaking into someone's house. We needed to show that Nate, even at a young age, was intrigued by all this stuff. And it was important to show how much Sam cares for Nate.
Dark Souls III came out right before Uncharted 4. A lot of people love how enigmatic and opaque the Souls games are. But Uncharted is sort of the un-Dark Souls.
I love Dark Souls. Bloodborne was my favorite game last year. Maybe because it's so different from the kind of stuff that we make. To me, those games are less about story and more about mood. It's just about this constant tension that the world gives you, which is so unique to video games.
That tension is what players describe as "fun."
"Fun" is such an interesting word. We took it off our focus tests. It was just a weird word that people were getting hung up on. How do you rate the dive sequence at the beginning of Uncharted 4? Is that fun? There's no real challenge. There is a perceived threat, where they talk about oxygen, but that's just weird narrative fluff. You can't really run out of oxygen.
But that level is important, to set up how mundane Nate's life is. Just rating it on its own, one through five, that was constantly the lowest-rated level. But it kind of had to be. We're not going to change that.
What word did you start using instead of "fun"?
It used to be, "How fun did you find this level?" Now it says, "Overall, how would you rate this level?" And one is "did not like" and five is "liked a lot."
It becomes less about, "Did I have fun? Did I have an interesting challenge?" and more about, "Did I like it?" And I hope people interpret that as, "Was I engaged? Would I recommend it?"
All of a sudden the focus-test scores improved dramatically.
You've said in the past that you've been influenced by Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency videos and the larger conversation about diversity and representation in games. How did that affect Uncharted 4?
When I'm introducing and describing a new character to our lead character concept artist, constantly she will ask, "What if it was a girl?" And I'm like, "Oh, I didn't think about that. Let me think, does that affect or change anything? No? Cool, that's different. Yeah, let's do it."
Initially, in the epilogue, it was Nate's son. Something similar happened with the mansion they go into. That was an old English guy's house. She asked, "Well, what if it was a woman?"
You have some sexist focus testers who were really upset by Nadine beating up Nate, and really upset at the end when it was Nate's daughter. To the point where we had to ask one guy to leave. In his core, it just affected him. He was cursing, "Not you, too, Naughty Dog! Goddammit. I guess I'm done with Uncharted if you guys ever make another one, with his daughter. This fucking bullshit." And I was like, Wow, why does that matter?
That's amazing. He played an entire game that's about Nate, Sully, and Sam. I mean, it's about Elena, too, but not really. And you're going to go bonkers because Nate has a daughter?
It's interesting that you say it isn't about Elena. I haven't timed it, but I think she's in the game more than Sullivan.
She definitely is. And the game is certainly about their marriage. But is Rocky about Adrian?
The Feminist Frequency review that I just watched, which I actually really enjoyed, talked about this. I disagree with them. They said they didn't like how Elena was handled in the story. That she becomes an obstacle to Nathan, that's she's this wet blanket, and she's the thing that's holding him back.
My interpretation, or at least our intention, is that she's not. The only thing holding Nate back is Nate.
If anything, Elena is trying to urge him to take this Malaysia job, even though it's illegal. The thing that makes Elena the most upset is that he doesn't include her. That's his biggest flaw in the story, that he ends up lying to her.
In some ways, those sequences – the stuff at Nathan's house, and the flashbacks – make the game feel like a sequel to The Last of Us. The last third of this game feels more quintessentially Uncharted, with the car chases and escapes from collapsing buildings.
To us, it's an evolution of the studio. The village sequence in Uncharted 2, nothing like that existed in the first Uncharted. When you watch a movie like Star Wars, the lightsaber fights are important, but so are the character moments. I guess it's getting more and more confident in using our medium to have these downbeat moments.
The whole construction of The Last of Us was a relationship. And we learned a bunch of lessons making that and The Last of Us: Left Behind. We were conscious to bring that to Uncharted, while being mindful that there is a lightheartedness that we didn't want to lose. Hopefully we hit that balance, where it feels like an evolution without having lost its DNA.
And then when you get to the action, it's more meaningful than just seeing cool graphics and spectacle. There's some character investment going on as well.
You once said you weren't nervous about losing players who just want wall-to-wall action from Uncharted, because you don't make games for them. What if I said I don't believe you?
Which part of it?
I don't believe that you weren't nervous. I do believe that you don't make games for them.
I'm always nervous how a game will be received, how successful we'll be, is it going to make its money back. I guess what I meant is that I know we're going to lose some people. I know there are people on NeoGAF right now complaining about the beginning of this game. Because I read some. They hate how slow it is. They don't believe it's really a game until you get to the end of the auction and you get your gun and you start shooting at people. That, to them, is the game. I'm OK if we lose some of those people. Hopefully they're replaced with other people who are intrigued by the more conscious pacing.
You're surfing the comment forums at NeoGAF right now?
That's my sick obsession. You listen to movie directors in interviews, and they can go sit in a theater and get the reaction of people to their movie. We don't have that experience. Sure, I can invite someone over who hasn't played the game and watch them play, but it's not quite the same. Going on NeoGAF or watching Let's Play videos is how I get to experience the game now, and see what works, what doesn't work, how people interpret the material. That, to me, is part of the payoff of making this game. You have to have thick skin. But it can be quite enjoyable.
I've heard that the game was not always a cover shooter.
For most of its development cycle, the first Uncharted was a brawler slash lock-on shooter. There was no aiming. You had a gun, and you could lock on to enemies and shoot at them. But we thought we could create a game that had that kind of pulp-action feel, where you would just run around without having to worry about moving a second analog stick and aiming.
We tried all these minigames – if I have a lock-on, how do I make aiming challenging? Is it timing based? None of those ideas were fun. And we tried them for many, many, many months.
The first iteration was, OK, only when you take cover, we can let you aim. As soon as we put that in, all of a sudden combat became even more engaging. There was an interesting challenge that wasn't there before.
We built a lot of the game, and a lot of story, and then we were like, "Oh my God, we built a really short game. Let's throw a bunch of combat into every environment." To me, playing it back, I still think it's an awesome achievement, but it's a little overstuffed with combat in waves. I think it kind of ruins what has a really beautiful story underneath it. Maybe "ruins" is a bit harsh. But hampers, a little bit.
Uncharted 4 has a trophy called "Ludonarrative Dissonance" for killing 1,000 people. That's a reference to the criticism that Nathan Drake doesn't respond emotionally to all the killing he does.
I told all the people on the team, "This is my proudest moment, the fact that I came up with this trophy on this project." We were conscious to have fewer fights, but it came more from a desire to have a different kind of pacing than to answer the "ludonarrative dissonance" argument.
Because we don't buy into it. I've been trying to dissect it. Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn't? Is it the number? It can't be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies. What about Star Wars? Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, are they some sort of serial killers? They laugh off having killed some stormtroopers. And in The Force Awakens, we see that a stormtrooper can actually repent for the person he is and come around, and there are actually real people under those helmets.
It's a stylized reality where the conflicts are lighter, where death doesn't have the same weight.
We're not trying to make a statement about Third World mercenaries, or the toll of having killed hundreds of people in your life.
Why all the ladders and crates?
Pacing, and trying to get you to work with your ally. How can I work with my ally to get through a space? Is it through a boost? Is it through a crate? I know where you're going with this.
Where am I going with it?
I hear the criticism. Sometimes people say it's still too much. "How did these crates with wheels get over here?"
But you think it helps bind you to the characters.
I do. It's the same reason we couldn't make combat work in The Last of Us without Ellie shooting. For the longest time, the story was that Ellie would never kill anybody, until the end of the game when she had to kill someone to save Joel.
And we realized, you're just forgetting about your ally. You're like, "Oh wait, what are they doing again? I have this thing that's following me around, but they're not engaging in the actions I'm taking."
Believe it or not, we had way more boxes and ladder boosts than what the game actually ended up with. This is a much-reduced version of that.
I have a list of things that we cut from the game that I've been keeping. Do you want me to go through that?
I don't think I've discussed this list with anybody. There used to be a cooking sequence, where you were actually mixing in ingredients. You could make the food too spicy, and they would have different dialogue, depending on how spicy you made it. That got cut.
There was a whole sequence where you were walking around the prison yard, talking to people, and you're looking for Sam. It just felt like we needed to get on with it.
In Scotland, you could do a snowball fight. This was actually fully working. You could pick up snow anywhere and throw it at Sam, and he would throw snowballs at you. But tonally, that just felt wrong.
And when the map room starts collapsing, we had this whole sequence where the crane is collapsing into the cave, and you're climbing through the cabin in the crane, and holding as it's rotating and flipping. With production winding down, that was probably the toughest cut, because it was so far along.
You could play fetch with the dog in the epilogue. There was a ball when you walked outside, and you could pick it up and throw it, and the dog had A.I. to actually pick it up and run back to you. But the animation looked kind of janky.
The other mechanic that was pretty cool was shootable handholds. There were certain surfaces that if you shot at them, it would create holes, and you could use them to climb. And it just felt like it was hard to create the right language for that, and make sure you always had ammo for those places. But as a prototype, it was a really fun mechanic.
The opening of the game, in the boat, that used to not be the opening of the game until very late in production. You got thrown from the boat, you got separated from Sam, and you had to swim to shore. You spent several minutes swimming to shore and being lost at sea. It just felt really long and unnecessary.
This one I was kind of bummed about. In the manor, when you're playing with the two kids, they picked up swords off the wall and they pretended to sword fight. And we wanted to use the same mechanic you would then use at the boss fight at the end. We cut that.
Did the game start with the flashback, when you didn't start with the boat chase?
It started on Nate. You heard the nun say his name, and then we cut to him.
I was wondering if that was true. I think that boat chase is good, but it doesn't feel like the opening of an Uncharted game.
Adding that boat chase just created some interesting questions. There's a bit more tension in the orphanage, knowing where these two brothers end up. How did they get there? The more questions you're carrying, the more engaged you are with the story.
That boat gave you a little bit of action, a little bit of adrenaline. Now we can slow things down and really take our time. Because we gave you just that little taste of it.
If you made the director's cut of Uncharted 4, would any of those cuts be put back in?
The only one I'm wistful for is the sword fight. That's the only one I feel wouldn't hurt the pacing, or the tone, or something else. We were just coming up against the end of production and looking at everything that had to go in to make the story work, versus something that would just add to it, and be a really cool callback. Sometimes you have to make those difficult choices.
This interview has been edited and condensed.