GamesBeat: So is this why she does come around, maybe? She understands that this is something he has to do?
Druckmann: She comes around because she loves him. She even says, for better or worse, she made a certain vow. Sometimes in a relationship you don’t agree with your partner, or your partner does something to betray your trust, and that’s where you see how strong that bond is. She’s a very strong person who loves him very much.
She doesn’t know if she’s going to stay in the relationship with him or not when she comes to the island. That’s not her intention. But she knows she can’t leave him in the lurch. There’s a conversation she has with Sullivan off camera, and because of that she comes back to help him out. It’s not until the scene at the table, where they see all the dead pirates and she sees him in this different light—she realizes, “Oh my God, he has to have this in his life. This is what was missing for him and for myself and for us as a couple.”
Straley: There’s something also, going back to the human relationship and what creates a lasting and loving relationship—it’s exposing ourselves to one another. Vulnerability. Building a trust. That’s what Nate has never done in the previous games, and we allow him to do it in this game. He’s able to find out for himself what’s driving him and what’s motivating him, and why maybe that’s a defect. But it’s okay to let down the veil and let someone else in. You’re not perfect. Your quips and your amazing abilities and all this aren’t necessarily making yourself a complete human. To be honest and vulnerable and trusting makes the relationship work. That’s the first time we were able to do that with Nate.
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Druckmann: You think about him as a character. His mom committed suicide. His dad abandoned him. His brother was in and out of his life. There’s a reason why he’s so sarcastic all the time, why he pushes people away and never lets him into his vulnerable side. It takes all this time and so much love from Elena to shed that defense mechanism.
Straley: And it took Sam, the willingness and his love for Sam, to pull him into the adventure and get him into the predicament. It took the pressure and the conflict between Sam and Elena to pull out the truth of what he’s been hiding for so long. That’s what we like about this story. That’s the stuff that makes us excited. We’re talking about humans and we’re talking about stuff that we have trouble with in our relationships. We have trouble with finding the balance between work—
Druckmann: With each other. [Laughs]
Straley: With our partners and how we work our asses off to make these crazy perfectionist dreams. We’re driven by something uncanny to make these games what they are, which ends up sacrificing a lot of things in our own lives.
Druckmann: We always look for that balance. Sometimes we strike it and sometimes we don’t.
GamesBeat: They get this chance, maybe, to open up to their daughter now and tell her about their lives. They’ve kept this secret as well, maybe?
Straley: It’s a better foundation for the daughter, certainly, rather than a life of secrets with your parents not necessarily being honest. They’ve gone through it now and they’re willing to expose themselves to their daughter. That’s a better family unit.
Druckmann: It’s a reflection of where Nate was, when he didn’t have his parents and they weren’t there for him. Through everything, he’s ended up building a strong family.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that we’re spending all this time talking about story compared to gameplay.
Straley: You started it. You’ve only asked one gameplay question this whole time.
GamesBeat: The Uncharted film is out there, right? I wonder if you almost feel more like filmmakers now, as opposed to gamemakers.
Straley: I don’t think you could do what we’ve done with this game in a film. I don’t think that we could draw out the emotions that we do, that conflict. To understand both sides—you spend the time with Elena at home playing Crash Bandicoot. You understand that there’s a love there and a bond there. As a player you have a relationship there. And then you feel the sense of the lie, and that guilt, but you still love the adventure and understand Nate’s side. To understand both sides of the coin over the course of hours and hours of relationship-building and adventuring—it would be very difficult to do that in 90 minutes of a passive medium.
Druckmann: Even in a TV show. It’s not just the time. It’s something about the interactivity. I’m there with Sam and he’s helping me through combat. I form this relationship with him through these tense moments.
Straley: When Elena reaches out her hand—when the vehicle goes over the waterfall and you’re hanging by a rope and the tree is cracking and falling, and Elena’s extending her hand, it’s meaningful to you as a player. It’s symbolic to them and their relationship. As players we might not understand that, but we feel that.
GamesBeat: I did feel like, during a lot of the moments when the two of them are moving alongside each other, there was more story being conveyed in those little conversations that would happen. Other games, maybe there’s just a cinematic that tells all the story, then gameplay, then cinematic to tell the story again.
Druckmann: When we talk about levels, we talk about where the characters are at. What are we trying to convey here in the story? The writing, the mechanics, the art, the music, everything supports that.
Straley: When you have a silent drive after an elevator lift with Elena, hopefully that feels poignant. You understand there’s a weird stiffness. There’s something between them. When you get rid of the vehicle and you’re on foot and you’re able to free up and start talking a little more and build into the adventure, build up to that table scene where Elena gets to see Nate as the adventurer she loves—
Druckmann: We’re bringing them closer and closer together. They have to interact more with each other. By the end they’re in a net together and now they have to cooperatively move and get the sword. Finally she can have a laugh at his expense, pretending to be dead, and then they’re finally back together. It took all that to bring the magic back out.
Straley: But that is funny, because the net—we talked about that as a metaphor. How can we draw them as close together and try to make them—what are ways we can have them cooperating?
GamesBeat: Maybe if you had a 20-hour miniseries to do it.
Straley: Like we said, none of those things—me moving the net and her suggesting I do that, only an interactive medium can create that. You’re not a viewer. You’re a participant.
GamesBeat: On the choice issue, when Amy gave her talk in Montreal, Warren Spector was there. He was one of the guys advocating player agency to determine how the game progresses or turns out, how the story goes. He always felt Uncharted was the ultimate in not giving the player a choice in where the story goes. How do you feel, philosophically, on this point? You have a story to tell, and the story gets told.
Druckmann: You hear this argument from both sides. “No, games are meant to have interactivity, therefore you must have agency.” Or, “No, it has to be mechanics.” I think it’s pretty ignorant to say any one thing defines gaming, when gaming is so broad. Some games give you so much narrative choice and they’re beautiful in that way. And there are games like Uncharted 4 and Last of Us, where in removing that choice and getting you to see the world through a specific point of view, you see the world differently. You question the choices in the game because you are connected through these other parts that are interactive. To us, what’s beautiful about games is that spectrum, that they can occupy all these different spaces.
Straley: To put your foot down and say it must be this way is limiting possibilities of creativity. As well as everything Neil said. I don’t understand the argument. I don’t understand why it has to be so dogmatic.
Druckmann: Think of Her Story. I don’t know if you’ve played it, but it’s this beautifully told game that, when you think back on it, is completely linear. You’re just uncovering chunks. You can’t affect the story in any way. But how you’re unraveling it, because of its simple interactivity—you feel much more engaged with it.
Straley: There’s no right or wrong. That’s our biggest thing. Even when we’re trying to think of story ideas, mechanics, interweaving the two and so on—we have to free ourselves up and ask, “What if?” Anything is possible. We always have the limitation of, we have a joystick in our hands. But to limit yourself is—
Druckmann: I’ll give an example that goes back to what you were saying earlier about filmmakers. Working on the film adaptation of Last of Us, writing that script and looking at that version—it has strengths to it, for sure. But there’s the moment in the game where you’re playing as Ellie. It’s going to happen the same way every time. People will take control of her at that point the same way every time. Whenever they get to it, though—we watch focus tests and they say, “Oh my God, I’m Ellie.”
That’s such a magical moment. It’s hard to articulate why that works. Just moving that character. I’m not really affecting the story. You’ll progress the same way every time. But people connect to that on such a deeper level than they would in a passive medium, even though the narrative beats are the same. Again, I don’t know how to articulate, but there’s something magical about it.
GamesBeat: How do you talk about some of this in the context of advice for developers, people who are maybe starting out making games?
Straley: It depends on if they want to tell a story or not. Even if you don’t use narrative, dialogue, cutscenes, cameras, the tools of cinematography from film—even if you don’t do that, still understanding at least what makes a good story, and trying to then think about what your mechanics are and what you’re trying to do with the story, having a setup and a payoff, a completion to the story—setting up the boundaries for your world and obeying those boundaries.
There are certain rules of storytelling that we constantly have to obey around the world we’ve created so that there can be an investment and a belief in that world and the characters in it. You as a creator can come up with those boundaries and rules for yourself, but then you have to adhere to them.
Druckmann: This is something I learned working with Bruce. Be thoughtful. Some games are made just to be fun. “This is a cool mechanic. How do we tie a couple of fun things together?” Our approach, though, is always, “On the highest level, what are we trying to say with this thing?” Everything has to get filtered through that. Each segment, it’s building toward this higher-level argument, something we’re trying to say. And underneath that each bit has to get filtered back to that higher-level message. I think that’s what makes our games stand out.
GamesBeat: And also how you carry this across games. You’ve made four of these now.
Straley: To what Neil said, it’s interesting how many things we end up having to throw away. We can come up with a million ideas. Ideas are cheap. Words are easy. But to find the ones that resonate within the world that we’re creating, or that pay off something else we set up inside the story, but also scale into the mechanics we’re building in the game—all of that is where the difficulty comes in. But that’s the goal, to stay true to the experience we’re trying to make. Like Neil said, what are we trying to say?
We can come up, right now at this table, with a fucking awesome 12 ideas and slam them together and they might make a game that’s playable. It might even be fun. But would it have the same resonance as something that makes you feel like you got something out of it? It’s like Dada video games or something. Having a thoughtfulness as far as the through lines of execution.