How Naughty Dog Made an Open World Uncharted

“Pacing is paramount in our games."

For as long as the franchise has existed, Uncharted has been known for rollicking action sequences full of Hollywood explosions and gunfire, but always on a generally linear path. After Uncharted 4 flirted with two semi-open-world levels (that still generally funneled you to a single point), its sequel Lost Legacy expanded much of its narrative to an actual open world in its sixth chapter “The Western Ghats.” For a series that relied on timely quips and constantly pointed players towards the action, a non-linear map full of ancient ruins to explore and secrets to discover could have easily turned Uncharted’s banter into boredom.

At this year’s annual Game Developers Conference, Uncharted: Lost Legacy co-writer Josh Scherr shared developer Naughty Dog’s process for figuring out how to bring Uncharted into an open-world environment, the tricks they utilized, and even some mistakes.

“Pacing is paramount in our games. With an open world, the player sets the pace. When the player doesn't feel the same urgency that your characters do, it can kind of throw things off,” Scherr said.

While Uncharted 4’s African plains and Indian Ocean levels were designed to draw players to a singular objective, the Western Ghats of Lost Legacy contained numerous paths, explorable ruins, and enemy outposts to discover. The challenge this presented for Lost Legacy’s writers resulted in a lot of uncertainty. There was simply no way to know how long character dialogue could go for when the player could potentially find the shortest path to the objective and leap out of their vehicle, cutting the dialogue off at an awkward point. To that end, Scherr enlisted the aid of Naughty Dog’s QA testers, giving them the unique mission of determining the shortest path from point to point.

At its lowest, they averaged 15 to 20 seconds between most points.

While constructing the open-world segments, Writers at Naughty Dog had to be careful not to include dialogue that was integral to the overall plot, but still helped illustrate the relationship between treasure hunter Chloe Frazer and former private military commander Nadine Ross.

“On top of all that, the player dialogue has to be similarly projected [over the sound of the vehicle], so it's probably not the best place for Nadine to ask ‘Chloe, why do you resent your father so much?’" Scherr said.

With the development of an open-world environment, Lost Legacy writers ended up writing three times as many lines for the Western Ghats chapter than any single chapter in all of Uncharted 4. While this resulted in numerous cuts later on as they refined the story, it also allowed Naughty Dog to create scenes that built up Chloe and Nadine’s relationship without sounding out of place. One key example comes from the sequences in which Chloe and Nadine activate several valves, eventually allowing them access to a hidden region. Because the player can approach these in any order, Naughty Dog designed the spaces to be completely flat, save for an identical turnstile. This meant that any of the three scenes could play out in any area and still achieve its goal of furthering the story.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Naughty Dog game without a million little wisecracks from its leading characters. Because the relationship between Chloe and Nadine slowly grows from coldly professional to warm and endearing, these quips had to be modified depending on how far along in the story players were. During a scene in which a bridge collapse separates the two, if the player is early on in the story, Nadine and Chloe take a second to contemplate the seemingly impossible gap. If the story is further along, Nadine will goad Chloe into doing a stereotypically action hero leap to rappel onto a hanging branch below.

For the more integral moments, Lost Legacy writers realized how important physicality is in depicting the relationship between their characters. During one early climbing sequence, Chloe will automatically disregard Nadine’s outstretched hand and climb up on her own, regardless of any player input. Later on, she’ll accept Nadine’s hand as her only option during a particularly far jump. The theme culminates in a final lifesaving grab in the game’s closing acts, where Nadine not only saves her partner from falling hundreds of feet, but also calls her by her first name for the first time in the entire game.

For a game so steeped in character interaction and a mostly open world, Naughty Dog was also forced to record its dialogue in only one series of sessions, with little time for pick-up sessions thanks to a tighter-than-usual schedule, according to Scherr. To add fuel to the fire, Naughty Dog’s original intent to develop roughly four hours of gameplay was eventually extended to eight hours.

For fans wondering if Lost Legacy’s open-world exploration will influence The Last of Us II, Scherr implied that Uncharted’s larger-than-life sensibilities and fantasy environments allowed them to get away with more deliberate game design than the city streets and suburban bedrooms of its undead thriller.

“With The Last of Us, it's set among recognizable places and objects from our modern lives, and it's much easier for a player to take it all in and interpret without comment,” Scherr said. “But with Uncharted, places are much more ancient, so we depend on our characters to comment on it so you understand its importance in the story."

As Scherr put it, the open-world nature of Lost Legacy forced Naughty Dog to reevaluate “tried and true” techniques of storytelling in an action adventure game. While The Last of Us II likely won’t feature giant statues of deities to climb or ancient cities to uncover, one imagines Naughty Dog will still be looking for new ways to keep players invested in their characters and on their toes.