But according to “Uncharted”’s Game Director Amy Hennig, it could’ve been “BioShock” or “Resistance: Fall of Man.”
I caught up with Hennig on the phone earlier this week to talk about Naughty Dog’s first release for the PlayStation 3 (in stores next week), and we discussed how they came up with the premise for “Uncharted.” When the Sony-owned, Santa Monica-based developer of the “Jak and Daxter” series was tossing around ideas for their first next-gen game, a slew of concepts came up — including ones that may have been similar to “BioShock” and “Resistance: Fall of Man.” So what happened?
“I think we went through about a year’s worth of failed ideas… we tossed everything around,” Hennig said with a laugh. Right after she finished her stint as Game Director on “Jak III” in 2004, Hennig was pulled onto a small team to think about ideas for the PlayStation 3, and they ran the gamut of ideas — even considering alien and war shooters. “Some ideas were shockingly similar to things that came out since… we had ideas that were really close to ’BioShock,’ we had ideas that were really close to ’Resistance,'” she said. I asked for specifics, but she declined.
“It’s sort of a weird industry in that we’re all similar ages, and we’re all sort of driven by some of the same influences,” she explained. “Because of that, we tend to like the same kind of things, so there’s this sort of little zeitgeist within the game industry where the same ideas can crop up in different companies. It’s almost like you have to second guess yourself and say, ’Was that too obvious of a choice?'” Hennig also mentioned the fact that “Uncharted”’s main character is named Nathan, just like the leading man in Insomniac Games’ “Resistance.” “Talk about the zeitgeist. We’re almost on the same wavelength!” she exclaimed.
And while they could’ve easily gone with another “Jak and Daxter,” Naughty Dog wanted to follow its tradition of introducing a new franchise for each generation (“Crash Bandicoot” for PS1, “Jak and Daxter” for PS2). “And after you’ve been working on something for like four iterations of a sequel, [Naughty Dog] was kind of ready to do something new,” Hennig said. “Which isn’t to say that we get sick of the old franchises or want to put them to bed completely, it’s just that you really want something to kind of cleanse your palette almost.”
In fact, Naughty Dog had very specific criteria in mind for their first next-gen game. They wanted to make a realistic yet stylized third-person game with sprawling environments and a combination of different gameplay mechanics. The classic ’30s pulp-inspired, “Indiana Jones“-type action-adventure seemed to fit the best for what the development studio wanted to do. “We’ve got a tradition of doing really strong character-based, third-person games with colorful worlds and humor,” she said. “We didn’t want to do some grim, post-apocalyptic game. That would’ve been completely out of character for us. When we thought of that vibrant, romantic, not-taking-itself-too-seriously vibe of the old pulps, a lot of ideas started flowing, and we knew we were headed off in the right direction.”
However, “BioShock” and “Resistance” are first-person. Did Naughty Dog ever consider changing up the perspective? “No, we had never even considered it, at least not when I was in the room!” Hennig responded. “We always knew we were going to be third-person, and if you’ve made a mark in that game genre you really should keep building on that because it’s not easy to do a good third-person game. It’s not just the characterization, but the technical aspects of trying to make [the characters] interact with the environment believably and all that stuff. Was it going to be sci-fi? Was it going to be fantasy? Was it going to be action-adventure? That was kind of the debate we went through more than anything. We never thought about shifting genres in that way.”
Once Naughty Dog settled on the archaeological theme for their third-person title, it seemed inevitable that “Uncharted” would be compared to another third-person, trigger-happy treasure seeker who travels to exotic places. Not to mention the fact that Hennig’s former employer was Crystal Dynamics, the development studio currently working on the “Tomb Raider” series (though she had only worked on the “Legacy of Kain” horror franchise). The game director still has many friends on the “Tomb Raider” team as well as her nephew, who’s an effects artist there. At best, she found the comparison flattering because “Tomb Raider” is one of her favorite games. “But hell, if we’re going to talk about games, it’s ’Prince of Persia,'” she added.
To the critics ready to dismiss “Uncharted” simply as a “male Lara Croft,” Hennig insisted that the two games are very different. “On the one hand you’ve got Lara Croft, who’s sort of perfect and idealized, and then you’ve got [Nathan Drake], who is the more classic, pulp adventure guy that’s dirty and fights dirty,” she said. “And the gameplay’s not even similar… the hand-to-hand combat and gunplay is nothing like ’Tomb Raider,’ so the comparison already falls apart there.”
She did acknowledge a few over-arching similarities to “Tomb Raider — the treasure, the exotic locations, what she calls the “Prince of Persia”-style platforming — but thinks of them as necessary genre staples. Besides, according to Hennig, “There’s plenty of room for more than one third-person, action-adventure game out there, and nobody says anything when one more war or sci-fi shooter comes out… all games are inspired by the games that came before them, and we hopefully build on them so that we’re constantly making better stuff. But if we’re inspired by anything, it’s the all the same stuff that [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg were inspired by.”
“Uncharted” was bound to have a movie quality to it. Henning cited movies from “Gunga Din” to “Secret of the Incas” to “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” to even “National Treasure” and “The Da Vinci Code” as part of Naughty Dog’s visual research. “If 80 percent of your inspirations are movies of some kind, then of course your game is going to start having that cinematic feel,” she said. “If you watch all of [these movies], you’ll see certain themes and ideas and conventions popping up over and over again, and not in a way that’s cliched in a negative way, but cliched in a way that’s sort of celebrating the genre. That’s what I thought was so fun [about making the game].”
To boot, as much as “Uncharted” was influenced by movies, it was also made like a movie — at least in part. The game had a budget of over $20 million and had professional actors not only playing the voices of the lead characters, but also doing table reads and motion-capturing every move for all the cut scenes (Hennig explained that most other games have the voice-over and the motion-capturing done by different people, which is why a lot of cinematics are just “bad”). “Our process for making the cinematics was way more like making a movie than ever before because we did the whole mo-cap thing and worked with the actors all together on the stage,” she said. “From a production standpoint alone, it was much more like planning to shoot a film than it was doing a standard video game story. But we wanted it from the very beginning to have it be one sort of unified performance with the actors working together.”
So for about 12 months, the actors came in, rehearsed, memorized lines and performed together. They got to know their characters so well, they began to improvise lines to give the scenes a more natural flow. “What you don’t normally get in video games at all is spontaneity and the improvisation that you get [from this process],” Hennig said. “I’m really proud of the way that stuff came out. That sense of believablity was exactly what we were shooting for. I mean, if we didn’t get that right, I think the whole thing would’ve collapsed.” But as movie-like as the game is, Hennig doesn’t want anyone thinking that it’s an “interactive movie,” like a modern-day version of “Dragon’s Lair“: “What we wanted to do is to come up with technology in the game that actually let us emulate the reality of a movie-like experience, but never take control away from the player.”
With the game in stores next week, Naughty Dog is already thinking about a sequel. “Fingers crossed, this game goes out there, people fall in love with it and they want to see more because we’re ready and willing to make more,” Hennig said. “What’s beautiful about the genre we picked is that it’s meant to be serialized, so it should be fairly natural for us to make more adventures in the same vein with the same characters and introduce new elements and new places to explore. There’s always that sense of relief and excitement when you’ve finished a game and you’re happy with it and proud of it; you immediately want to start thinking about the next one. Assuming all’s well and everybody likes the game, we’ll be ahead because we’re already working on it.”
“Uncharted 2” may already be in brainstorming sessions, but what’s really next for Naughty Dog? Can “Jak and Daxter” fans hope for their first PS3 game? “I don’t think we even know what’s next, other than naps and getting to our families again,” Hennig said ominously. “Honestly, there’s not even an answer to that question yet because we’re just looking at all of it right now. But certainly ’Jak and Daxter’ is not off the table because it’s something we all love.”