Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one of the greatest video games of all time. It wraps up the four-part adventures of Nathan Drake, the light-hearted adventurer who started as a Lara Croft clone and became something much bigger. Naughty Dog, the game’s developer, gave Sony’s its biggest exclusive on the PlayStation 4 and a huge stick against rivals in the console wars. Like the inscription on Drake’s ring says, “Sic Parvis Magna: greatness, from small beginnings.”
Uncharted 4 gave us so many spectacular scenes, or Hollywood-style set pieces, like Nathan Drake hanging by a rope attached to a truck that is speeding over a bridge. It also gave us some of the most memorable characters in game history, including Nathan; his on-again, off-again love Elena; elder thief Victor “Sully” Sullivan; and the new character in Uncharted 4, Nathan’s lost older brother Sam. A very large chunk of the Sony PlayStation 4 player base is enjoying this exclusive Sony game as the title sold more than 2.7 million units in its first week alone, starting on May 10. The whole Uncharted series has sold more than 23 million copies to date.
This interview has spoilers about many different scenes in Uncharted 4, including the ending –Ed.
We had so many questions after playing the full game, and we were able to get them answered in a rare, hour-long interview with the game’s co-directors, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, at developer Naughty Dog’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. And they didn’t hold anything back. This was, after all, their last chance to make a full Uncharted game and to talk about why they made the decisions they did in shaping the story and the gameplay.
We have to warn you again that this interview dwells on spoilers. We learned a lot of things from Straley and Druckmann, who were also the co-creators of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
If you’d prefer to read it in parts, here’s the links on saying goodbye to Uncharted, advice for game developers, making games over movies, Naughty Dog’s headquarters, the ending discussion, and the Monkey Island Easter egg.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How do you recharge your batteries to be creative again?
Neil Druckmann: I travel. But then I’m needing more time to have a vacation from my vacation, so I’m going to stay at home and paint. Bake bread.
GamesBeat: Paint the house or paint art?
Druckmann: Art. Things to take me away, keep me focused on something other than me.
Bruce Straley: Spend time with the kids, family. Build Legos. I picked that hobby back up. Watch a lot of My Little Pony. And then just read books, watch movies, go hiking.
GamesBeat: It’s always an interesting subject. How do people who are very creative stay creative? Mike Minotti wanted to ask you, first, how did you come up with the Monkey Island reference?
Druckmann: That’s me. I’m a big Monkey Island fan. When there was an opportunity to do it, I asked one of the concept artists to do it. I thought I would just sneak it in there, and then word got out that it was in the game. Then HR came up to me and said we had to get permission for it. We couldn’t leave it in the game. So I thought, dammit, Disney will make us take it out. But we reached out to Disney and they actually said they were flattered, so we could go for it. That was pretty cool.
GamesBeat: That’s lucky. Crash Bandicoot I’m sure was easier.
Straley: No! Same thing, just pure luck of the draw. The right people and the right timing.
Druckmann: Initially we got a no. We were working on a different old-school game of our own. Crash is kind of our own, but—then, somehow, negotiations went on up high and we got the yes.
GamesBeat: It turned out to be a nice scene, I thought. It was fun to come back to it. I like how you guys have these things you throw back to. Is that often part of the storytelling you like to do?
Druckmann: Last of Us and Uncharted 4, there are lots of parallels and imagery about starting and ending. It helps to reflect back on where you were and see things in a similar setting. Now they’re different. Now they’ve changed.
GamesBeat: I thought about Last of Us that way. There’s the very beginning and the very end, and they resonate together.
Druckmann: Yeah. They had that mirror structure.
GamesBeat: The ending was interesting. I have a three-paragraph question here, but I’ll read the first part first and give you a moment to start with it.
I thought, given the path you chose, the ending was good, but it was entirely different from what I thought it was going to be. I took my clues from the title. The way Uncharted 3 also started out with Nathan and Sully getting shot and thinking about, okay, there’s some kind of loss that may happen here. I felt like I was set up for that story. But was I, really?
Druckmann: A Thief’s End can mean a lot of things. I guess there’s something possibly misleading there. In interviews and the way we constructed trailers and the tone of it, we were definitely trying to throw people off. It was important that you felt like that was at stake as you played the game. It’s possible someone could lose their life, even if ultimately they don’t. So hopefully it was subverted in an interesting way and you were intrigued that it didn’t happen. But we still wanted you to think that it could happen.
GamesBeat: Do you think that also not having a loss at the end is sort of consistent with this franchise? That this is the way, from beginning to end — this has always been just more fun and adventurous, maybe not as serious? That was some of my thinking as to why it turned out this way. Compared to The Last of Us, again, there’s the powerful scene in the beginning with the loss of a character, and it resonates with the emotionally lasting ending.
I was very fearful while I was playing the game. I had this overwhelming fear that somebody’s going to die here. I put my logical money on Sam, I guess, because he was not constructed as a crowd-pleasing character. He has so many flaws that you just have to wonder about him. Anyway, that was some of my reaction. I wonder if a tragic ending was ever something you considered? Or were you aiming for this ending from the very beginning?
Druckmann: From the very beginning, this was the ending we constructed. It was about the conflict between a man and the passion that becomes a sort of obsession in his life. The woman he loves, the family that he’s formed and that he loves, and the fact that he can’t reconcile those two things. A relationship is about compromise sometimes. He’s given up a part of himself. Elena has given up a part of herself. But what they’ve constructed at the end is greater than what they’ve given up.
Straley: I also feel like a death of a main character in video games or any kind of media right now is, for me personally, almost cheap. It’s not that we’re trying to stay true to something in the franchise as much as it didn’t feel right for us. There was some other resolution we were getting at. I liked when A Thief’s End, the title, came up as a proposal. It was perfect because of the multiple meanings that people could read into it.
Druckmann: This doesn’t just apply to Nate. It applies to Henry, to Thomas, to Rafe.
Straley: It’s also a metaphor. It’s the end of a thief’s lifestyle. A thief in his behavior, Nathan Drake’s behavior. I like the fact that it still has absolute meaning for the game. It’s just misleading in a fun way.
I also liked, when we were watching playtests—we have cameras and a little picture-in-picture of the players. When they would go into Henry Avery’s ship to fight Rafe, as soon as the fight starts there’s a fire going and gold all around. You’d hear people say, “Oh, shit, is this when it’s going to happen?” You’d see them double down on wanting to win the fight. They’re more engaged in not letting that happen. I liked that. I liked the fact that there was that possibility hanging out there, that we are proposing some thief’s end. It added a bit more investment, honestly, near the end of the game.
Druckmann: In regards to Sam, ultimately his love for his brother is what saves him. That’s the thing that Rafe, who’s a sort of reflection of Nate – representing Nate’s ego – he doesn’t have that. What he does to Nadine, he doesn’t have that person that’s going to save him at the end. That’s his undoing.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like, in this way, this is a contrast to The Last of Us? You can have a story that’s darker in The Last of Us, whereas in Uncharted there’s more brightness to it.
Druckmann: It’s a different challenge. The world of Last of Us affords more drama and tragedy, things that are more easily seen as weighty. This is a more lighthearted pulp action-adventure. The challenge we gave ourselves was, how do we tell a meaningful human story with complex relationships, complex characters, in this more lighthearted drama?
GamesBeat: I saw Amy Hennig’s talk in Montreal where she brought up a reference to Sullivan’s Travels, the movie. I thought her explanation of that was very interesting. It was a movie about a moviemaker who had a choice between doing fun movies or doing movies with a message, something meaningful. She said that sometimes you just want to have fun.
It almost seemed like this series was an answer to the question that movie proposes. This is about fun. It’s not necessarily about a message. I wonder if that carries through for the whole franchise or not.
Straley: There’s always been a message, though, quite honestly. Even in Uncharted 2, when we were working out the story, it was about working out the character, working out what kind of cloth Nathan Drake is cut from. He’s the type of guy who, despite the treasure and adventure and everything, all the highs, is still willing to sacrifice himself and stick his neck out for the people he loves and cares for. It’s getting to the root of what kind of person he is.
With this game, the relationship that’s been built between Elena and Nate and what Nate struggles with is something very human. It’s something I hope people can walk away with, that resonates on a different level than just fun. Fun is such an interesting word. It’s general and all-encompassing, but what we’re trying to do is create experiences. We’re trying to create something that touches the player on a deeper level than just the actions, the verbs we’re participating in in the moment. The shooting, the jumping.
Any good story, I hope, reveals something about your protagonist. If your protagonist is well-drawn, which we try to do, it’s touching on something human you can relate to.
Druckmann: Any time you have a story, people try to find meaning in it. Stories are a kind of blueprint to life. You might as well be deliberate with that message. Otherwise people might find some other message or meaning in it.
GamesBeat: Was Sam always part of this story? Was he conceived way back in the early days of the franchise?
Druckmann: No. There was a lot of discussion, around the time of Uncharted one, about who Nathan Drake is. Is Drake his real name? Where did he get the ring from? We would brainstorm ideas. A brother might come up in those brainstorms. Or his dad. His dad took different permutations. But that was never pinned down. Nothing like that was pinned down until Uncharted 4.
GamesBeat: In some ways, I think of an angel on Nathan’s shoulder and a devil on the other side. Elena is one of those, and Sully the other for a while. Then Sam appears, and he’s sort of this third thing. It’s a simple way of looking at it, but they tug Nathan in different directions.
Druckmann: Sam plays an interesting role. He’s where Nate used to be. Over those 15 years, he hasn’t matured in the way Nate has matured over these adventures, settled down and found Elena. It’s a way for him to reflect and see what he was and why it’s so important to mature and change, and how if you don’t it could lead to something very destructive.
GamesBeat: Nadine was another interesting character. Her role almost seemed too small. Did she have a purpose for you guys?
Straley: In the past, we always had trouble in stories trying to fully flesh out our antagonists. Nadine helped us have scenes where instead of it being about the treasure or about a personal conflict with the protagonist and antagonist, Lazarovich and Nate—you can’t necessarily get to the bottom of what motivates Lazarovich because he just has one goal. They’re both in pursuit of the Macguffin. That’s what that conversation is about. Having Nadine allows us to pull out different dimensions of Rafe, have a more personal story and a more personal, drawn-out antagonist story.
Druckmann: She has a different viewpoint on the treasure. She can step back and say, “You’re obsessed with this treasure. I came into this to save my company. I can walk away and be fine.” Which is then the final straw for Rafe and snaps him. Nadine was someone he respected and he was bringing her along, even against her will, because he wanted this witness, someone who will see him get the treasure and become the great person he always wanted to be. Once she exits, that drives him over the edge to pull out the sword and try to kill Nate.
GamesBeat: I liked the variety of gameplay here, especially compared to Uncharted 3. There were more different kinds of things to do. That seemed pretty deliberate, that you wanted the player to have more options and activities.
Straley: We’re always learning from the last game. We’re realizing, in hindsight, what we’ve made and how we can improve on it. It was interesting to not throw the baby out with the bath water when creating Uncharted 4, because it’s easy to slip into that thinking of, we need to reboot and change everything, we need a more in-depth climbing system. Everything had to go into a completely different dimension, which then breaks the structure of what makes Uncharted Uncharted.
It was interesting to try to add dimension and complexity to the climbing and create more problem-solving inside of the play space, the traversal space. But not bog down the pacing. It was trying to create more systems, also, which over the course of Uncharted 2 through Last of us and into Uncharted 4—if we explore what systems can give us, it allows us to play more with the chemistry set. Then we can incorporate systems into not only traversal, but also the puzzles. They don’t have to be so one-off-ish and quick-time-ey.
Likewise, with the systems of something like the vehicles, we can expand those systems into action set-pieces like chases and escapes. The rope allowed us to get into dragging behind vehicles. It scales from the mundane, just trying to ascend a cliffside, to the epic. Which, to me, is what we’re always trying to do. We’re creating a language with the player and the world. Those systems allow us to do that.
GamesBeat: There was a cruel joke in there, I thought, in the Jeep. You spend all the time getting the Jeep up the cliff, driving up the hill. I was looking forward to speeding downhill again. And then it goes over the falls. Such cruel game developers. They killed our Jeep for sport.
Druckmann: We do have the one big chase as the truck is chasing you downhill, at least.
Straley: We try to build everything in the game as a character. Everything has a setup and a payoff. We like the idea of investing so much time in the vehicle, the 4×4, in Madagascar, and really building a relationship. It has its own character, what it can and can’t do, where it struggles. The player hopefully builds an attachment to it, so that then, in an epic set-piece of a bridge collapsing, a river, shooting you down, about to go over a waterfall as you’re separated from Elena—this is a moment in the story where we wanted to make sure there was a bond being built between the two of them.
Despite what she feels for Nate at the time, there’s still clearly a love. She’s willing to still be there for them. This Jeep is going for the hills. She’s separated. You do the rope swing to the tree and she has her hand extended. This is kind of a metaphor for the extension of the relationship. The vehicle dying is the poignant—all right, that’s the end of that character.
GamesBeat: I was mourning the loss of my Jeep. I was looking forward to the gameplay there. I guess I was supposed to pay attention to the story.
Druckmann: There is a dark death in Uncharted 4.
Straley: A Jeep’s End. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: You had delays and twists and turns with the team. Did any of this change the game?
Straley: Back to the vehicle, we had to get rid of the vehicle so we could be on foot and closer to Elena. Being in the vehicle, there’s a certain character development that happens there, but it’s different when you’re on foot with the person, trying to trudge through traversal and combat scenarios. It’s very different. We felt that was necessary to create a closer bond between the two of them. Sorry, back to your other question?
Druckmann: When we came on, one of the first decisions we committed was that this would be the end. Without doing that, there was nowhere else to take Nate’s character. That felt like the only place left for his character to go. And then as far as twists and turns, every game development has a ton of those. We work very organically. We had an outline pretty early on, but that was loose. As you’re building the game and developing levels and mechanics and characters and set pieces, that macro outline changes shape and evolves.
I guess it just felt more rushed because our schedule was pretty compressed, from when we came on to the release date. We’re fortunate that Sony gave us a few extensions, because we really wanted this to be the best Uncharted, being the last one for us.
Straley: It was a hard project. I think that’s what Neil is trying to say.
Druckmann: It was the hardest project.
GamesBeat: The internet chatter is interesting, about Uncharted 2 versus Uncharted 4. Which one is better, which one’s the masterpiece.
Druckmann: Can’t they all be masterpieces?
Straley: They’re friends. They’re all friends.
Druckmann: They’re all beautiful children.
Straley: What’s your thought?
GamesBeat: Two was important for just taking it up so many levels, making everything so much better. The contrast between one and two, to me, was huge. Three was very good as well. This seems like a very fitting ending. I thought it was better than three. The graphics are absolutely amazing. I’ve seen some other games this week that are coming out later, or much later, and they don’t look anywhere nearly as good as Uncharted 4. People are going to get used to Uncharted 4 graphics, and the expectations for other games are much higher.
Anyway, I haven’t quite decided between two and four.
GamesBeat: Yeah. But I will say that The Last of Us is still my favorite game of all time.
Druckmann: That’s big. Thank you.
GamesBeat: I think it has something to do with the way the ending felt. Being so surprised by that ending was — I wasn’t sure whether you guys had set something up and changed your minds at the end.
Druckmann: No, the ending, all the way until the dock, that was always the plan, of them coming to a compromise. Nate has changed now. It’s always Elena to some degree. And then through production, I had lunch with one of the designers, and he was poking at the ending and saying, “Yeah, something’s missing.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “How do we know he changed this time? We know it, because he made that choice. But as players we’ve seen Nate get together with Elena at the end of every game. Something always comes along to drag him back in.”
I totally saw his point. We needed something else that was going to definitively tell you that this time it was different. That’s where the epilogue came in.
GamesBeat: The presence of the kids tends to cause people to settle down. I think maybe that, for me, plus the passage of so much time – because his child is so old – tells me that they’ve been in this life for quite a while now.
Druckmann: It stuck this time.
GamesBeat: I guess that’s the way you learn that this is really the end of the story.
Straley: We also talked about how we wanted to end on a high note. There was something in the resolution that felt satisfying. It was a positive ending. That felt right for the franchise as well. There’s no irony, no questions. There was closure and it was complete.
GamesBeat: Without the epilogue there is no ending, I think.
Druckmann: It’s not as definitive. You could question it. People will question it on forums and so on. They are, in fact.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you guys wanted to talk about? Your next game? Hard at work on it already?
Druckmann: Hard at work on the single-player DLC. We’re trying to figure that out. But we’re not ready to say what it is just yet.
GamesBeat: I wonder, if you have an ending like that, how do you do DLC? Maybe you can put it earlier in time?
Bruce Straley: From your perspective, I wonder—there’s this thing we see online. We were chatting about it for a second the other day, about how people feel like there’s a—in this story, it’s got a Last of Us influence. Do you, knowing so much about Last of Us, feel that?
GamesBeat: This has a lot more stealth in the gameplay. That reminded me of The Last of Us. Because I was expecting more of The Last of Us in this story, I think I was, again, thrown off at the end.
Straley: What do you mean by that? What were you expecting?
GamesBeat: I expected a darker story, maybe. I really expected Sam to die. Somehow that fits more in a universe like The Last of Us, as you said. I’m not sure what else I would say. It does seem consistent, at least. What would be your answer to that part? Was there anything you learned from The Last of Us that went into making this game?
Straley: For me it was about how to tell a more personal story. It’s what Neil said earlier. How do you still keep the tropes and the lightheartedness and the sense of adventure and the faster pace, but still take time to invest in character relationships and add that level of—one of the most interesting things when we were first laying out the outline of the story that I got excited by was the conflict in the player’s heart. You know Nate’s lying to Elena. We have scenes where he deliberately lies to her. But at the same time, I want to go on adventure. I have the joystick in my hand and I’m actively engaging in the adventure. I’m hooked like Nathan Drake is hooked.
To have that conflict of not necessarily agreeing with what this strong-willed person is doing as a character, yet still playing how I want to play as the high-adventure Nathan Drake character, was interesting. To then have the highest, most epic set piece we could ever create—at this time, in Naughty Dog’s path, that was the chase sequence cascading into the drag sequence cascading into the convoy. That’s the most epic thing we could produce.
GamesBeat: For that one, I almost had a problem with the trailer strategy. What do you reveal in a trailer? Certainly a trailer entices people to play the game. But if it’s the best scene in the game, maybe you want to hold it back a little to surprise players with it? I felt the same way with Elena’s line about, “Maybe you should stop lying to yourself.”
I was surprised by some of the scenes like the one where they play Crash Bandicoot together, and the conversation they have there.
Neil Druckmann: Marketing is always tricky about what you show. You have to sell the game so you can make more games. We have to hint at the themes, like the Elena line, which speaks so much to what Nate is struggling with. But we were very conscious about never showing Elena on the island, never showing anything that happens past a certain point. To us, that’s the most important part, the best part of this adventure, them coming back together in almost this Uncharted one sort of way and reliving those adventures as much more mature characters.
GamesBeat: I wasn’t sure how much was deliberateness here, but the parallel between what happened with Tew and Henry Avery and what was going to happen with this trio of characters here, adventurers, pirates — were they going to end up the same way? I don’t know if you were dropping the hint, or if it’s just a parallel story.
Druckmann: It’s very deliberate. We’re trying to say that this greed, this obsession, will ultimately destroy you. There’s another story in parallel, in the flashback chapter, with Evelyn, the old woman. If you pick up her notes, you see that she was married to a guy she loved. They had a kid. But she was so obsessed with the traveling and the treasure that her family life fell apart. By the time she wanted to be a part of her kid’s life, he rejected her. She dies alone and unhappy.
That also parallels—this is what could happen to your relationship if you keep pursuing these things. But ultimately what saves these characters is the love they have for one another. That’s the thing that Avery didn’t have, that Rafe didn’t have.
GamesBeat: That old memory, I thought, might come back in some way, too. Nathan would maybe tell Elena, finally, “This is what happened when we were young. This is my explanation for why I have to do this with Sam.” That almost seemed like it was the answer he should have given. But he never has that moment to tell her.
Druckmann: It’s hinted at when he gets knocked on the head and she saves him. We play this flashback and come up on the tail end of it. He’s like, “…and then we were adventurers, explorers, mostly thieves.” You get the sense that he just finished telling her the story for the first time. He’s coming clean.
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.
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.
GamesBeat: Lots of studios have made two, three, four games, and their first one is still the best one. It’s hard to do consistent hits. I wonder what your thoughts are about that. You’re able to work on something for three or four years and commit to a huge project with all these commercial pressures that come up. How do you still manage to succeed on this higher level?
Druckmann: The easy answer is “lots of hard work.” [Laughter]
Straley: Good answer.
Druckmann: We’re in a fortunate position where, because of the track record we’ve had and the games we’ve done previously–we’ve drawn so much talent from all over the world and all across the industry. We have some of the most talented programmers, designers, writers, artists. We have an amazing team. I honestly believe no other team in the industry could have pulled off Uncharted 4, this version of Uncharted 4.
Straley: I agree.
Druckmann: Maybe a different version, sure, but this version that looks like this, plays like this, resonates like this, I don’t think that would have been possible. And then the pressure is honoring that, knowing that the people around you are super talented, super passionate, and want to make the best game possible.
That makes everybody step up in a way that, from stories I hear, can be rare. Sometimes people can be checked out. “Oh, man, we’re doing another sequel. Here we go.” We’re in a fortunate position where, despite how successful our past games have been, this is the last one. We’re going to move on. That’s rare, to be in that position.
Straley: That really drove us, though. Saying it was the final one, knowing that it’s our last chance to make Uncharted great—it’s our last great Uncharted, our last opportunity to make a great Uncharted.
Druckmann: If we don’t get it in this one, that’s it.
Straley: Knowing that, with everybody in the studio and the talent there—I don’t know what drives all of us, what kind of crazy defect we have, what baggage we carry around that makes us do what we do. But collectively, in this studio, we’re all driven to make this the best we possibly can. Knowing it was the last upped the ante even more. This is our last chance. We have to make this amazing.
We all kinda killed ourselves a little bit in the process, but I think we’re all satisfied, because ultimately we can walk away knowing we created something collectively that resonates, and that we’re very proud of. We’re very proud of the team. I’m very proud of the work I put in so the team can be proud, and I know Neil feels the same way.
As far as success, the key is, one, we tried really hard to learn about story and apply that to games. But when we come up with something, a story, already there’s something there where we’re thinking about gameplay. We know that the experience can be interesting. We’re already invested in it. We already know, in our gut, that it feels great. There’s a feeling that we’re then in pursuit of for the next however long it takes to make the game. And all we can do is try to hang on to that feeling and go back to it. ”What are we doing? What are we after?”
Because the initial idea resonated, that’s all we can do. Just trust that and go with that. You can’t think about the industry. You can’t think about what else is out there. I know that sometimes – a lot of times – Neil and I will say to each other, when we talk about an idea, “I’ve never played that in a game before. That’s awesome. That sounds cool because I’ve never seen that, never played that, never done that.”
That feeling is also exciting. Not only are we invested in what we’re doing experientially and what we’re telling in the story, but we’re also creating these moments that we feel, as players, we would be excited to play, because we’ve never played anything like that before.
GamesBeat: Because you have The Last of Us, because you have this new thing you could do now, was it easier to let go of Uncharted?
Straley: For me, no.
Druckmann: Maybe for people thinking about business, or money. But no.
Straley: It’s a cool world. It’s a cool set of characters, cool opportunities for gameplay. We have a relationship with those characters and that world. I’m glad there’s closure. But there is something in the back of my mind—there are still more ideas that could be generated for a type of set piece or a combat scenario or a moment in those characters’ adventures. But just like when we’re creating things, not every idea makes it. You use that energy for something else.
Druckmann: That’s why, in a lot of ways, Uncharted 4 was a love letter to the franchise. But also in a way a love letter to Naughty Dog, if you think about all the stuff we put in there, the nods to Crash Bandicoot and so on. When I started at Naughty Dog, one of my first memories was seeing Bruce at a programmers’ desk with an early version of a PS3, this character running around, and someone telling me, “That’s going to be our PS3 title.” My memories of Naughty Dog are all part of the Uncharted franchise.
GamesBeat: Do you have a sense of loss, then, letting go of Uncharted?
Druckmann: It’s bittersweet. The fact that it came out, though, and that it resonated with so many people—they got what we were trying to do. Because you never know. We’re part of the game. It’s the game we want to play. But you never know what the industry’s taste is, what players are into now. If it’s not open-world—who knows? Maybe they’re not going to be into it. So the fact that it was satisfying to so many people, it feels satisfying to us. Okay. We left this in a good spot.
Straley: It’s okay to let it go.
Druckmann: Maybe if it really sucked, we’d want to do one more.
GamesBeat: Are you excited about whatever else you’re on to next?
Druckmann: When you’re doing something new it’s always exciting. That’s why coming back to Uncharted was exciting, because Last of Us was so different. To come to Uncharted was reinvigorating in that way.
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