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We can’t call Master Chief one. Or Niko Bellic. Or even Mario. But somehow, Nathan Drake seems like an old pal…someone we’ve been chumming around with for years now. Sure, that may be a little delusional and even a bit pathetic, but you try naming a video game character that feels more real-life legit than Uncharted and Uncharted 2’s everyman protagonist.
Funny enough, it takes an extraordinary amount of work to make a character as average as he can be. We chatted with Amy Hennig, creative director at developer Naughty Dog, to find out why exactly and what makes Drake Drake. And along the way, we get her thoughts on Shadow Complex’s copycat good guy, who shouldn’t be playing the lead role in the Hollywood flick, and what we should expect for Uncharted 3.
Bitmob: We’ve read that you based Drake’s physical likeness on Johnny Knoxville, but where does his personality come from?
Amy Hennig: The Johnny Knoxville thing is actually a misunderstanding. I wouldn’t want people to get too hung up on that — he was one of the contemporary people we looked at. There are a lot of different people in him, physically, as well as coming from sketches from our concept artists.
From a persona aspect, Drake comes from a long tradition of romantic action-adventure heroes. Cary Grant…and we even went back to the earliest movie serials, movies from the ’30s and the ’50s, and the more recent revivals of the action-adventure genre in the ’80s, and even recently with movies like National Treasure. There are certain traits that a lot of those characters have in common — that irreverent, roguish sense of humor, that charm.
All games seem very dark, gritty, and serious — we thought there was plenty of room in this industry for a game with more of a sense of humor, a game that didn’t take itself quite as seriously and hearkened back to the tropes and conventions of screwball comedy and even romantic comedy. That’s where a lot of Drake’s persona comes from.
Casting Nolan North in the role was [also huge] because he’s such a great actor. So much of who he is imbues Drake with his character.
When we hired Nolan, we really let him know that we just wanted him to be himself. He’s got so much charm in his own persona, and we wanted to bring that out. I’d say that, in a way, our greatest inspiration was Nolan himself.
Bitmob: Speaking of Nolan, does it suck that he played a very similar character in Shadow Complex?
AH: Even down to the look, which was amazing.
Shadow Complex’s Jason Flemming (left), played by Nolan North (right).
Bitmob: So what did you think of that?
AH: Of course, I’m thrilled to see people recognizing Nolan’s talent and to see him getting all of the work that he can get and all of the recognition he can get.
But I’d have to be honest and say that we were the ones with Uncharted who tapped into that talent in a way that I don’t think anyone had recognized and done yet. To see other people following along now and going, “Oh we wanted a character in our game like Nathan Drake, so we just sort of made him look like Nathan Drake, hired the same voice actor, and had him do the same thing” seems kind of…unimaginative, I guess?
On the other hand, I’m sure Nolan’s going to get typecast because that is his persona. He’s a funny guy and has that easy-going, roguish charm. You can’t ask him to not think of himself when offered these other roles, right? I think we’re going to have to expect to see some of that…but yeah, I’m a little possessive. [Laughs]
Bitmob: A lot of the games’ conversations feel eerily real — stuff normal people would be saying in those situations in real life. How did you get this natural dialog going?
AH: When you’re working on the story part of a video game — while you’re working on recording dialogue or mo-cap — you block out a short period of time, maybe a couple of weeks, to work with your actors exclusively. Then you’re done, though maybe you’ll come back later and do some pickups.
It’s very much a job for those actors. They come in and see their lines, and they’re usually working alone. They don’t get the context — what’s going on with the story or the characters. They just read their part and then leave. That’s just how it’s always been done.
Because we’re based in LA, we work with the actors like you would if you were working on a TV series. We work with them over the course of an entire year on a regular basis — multiple times a week or every other week…. This means that they’re just as invested in the project and the characters as we are.
We table-read, break down the scripts together, re-write and revise together, and actually have a whole rehearsal day before we even shoot on the mo-cap stage. Because they work together, there’s a ton of collaboration, revision, and improvisation in our process that I don’t think you ever see in other games.
Most of our audio is recorded on the mo-cap stage. In the voice recording studio, we usually have them working together as well. Just like they do on the mo-cap stage, they’re bouncing off each other, improvising, riffing, ad libbing. We actually have them riffing right to gameplay video.
I think that’s where all that organic, natural flow comes from that people are responding to. We don’t want it to seem gamey.
Bitmob: How did you guys decide, “OK, we want to make Drake so talkative” even when no one’s around to listen to him?
AH: The fact that we’re a third-person action-adventure game means that he does have more of a tangible presence in the game than, say, in first-person games when you’re looking through the eyes of your avatar. So we already knew that he can’t be a silent protagonist for that reason alone.
A lot of it has to do with making him relatable. The challenge with a character who speaks a lot is that you don’t actually want to alienate the player and make them feel like they’re a passive observer of this completely discreet entity. Even though they’re not necessarily embodying that character, we want them to identify with the character.
We find that people identify with Drake a lot because he says what they’re thinking, or he says what they’re saying, at the exact same time when they say it. When he’s taking cover and makes some little comment to himself, people will laugh and say, “Oh my God, I said exactly the same thing at the same time he did!”
That also comes out of our process — and the fact that we have Nolan actually recording dialogue to picture. He’s reacting to the gameplay the same way the player would, so a lot of those little serendipitous moments, where he says what the player is thinking, comes out of the fact that it’s an instantaneous human reaction on Nolan’s part to say, “Oh my God! Oh shit, look what’s happening me!”
We thought that was really important…that we could get identification with the player and character not through silence but through this sympathetic collaboration with him, if that makes sense. You’re in it with him. You’re playing him, but you’re also sympathizing with him as you’re playing because you can see what he’s going through.
Bitmob: It’s strange that Drake will comment on Uncharted’s own overused conventions, like when he says, “I’m so tired of climbing shit,” or if he makes sarcastic remarks about pulling switches and such. It’s almost as though he understands that this is a video game and that the puzzles should behave within that context.
AH: Yeah and there’s a fine line there. We intentionally do what they call “hanging a lantern on things.” We know that we’re playing in an established genre with a lot of conventions. Sometimes you have to figuratively turn to the camera and wink a little bit, to let people know you’re completely aware you’re playing in well-trodden territory.
We have a list of rules and touchstones when we’re working on the project, and one of those is that the game shouldn’t take itself too seriously. We end up writing a lot of those self-referential quips, and a lot of those self-referential quips come to the actors themselves as they’re ad libbing.
Then we pull a lot of them out because if you do it too much it starts seeming very self-conscious. Sometimes it feels appropriate because it takes away a little bit of the tension, or it’s a little bit of a wink back at the audience to say, “We know what you’re thinking right now.”
Bitmob: Do you think it’s getting a bit cliché within the Uncharted franchise that, whenever Drake verbally suggests that things are OK at that moment, something inevitably bad happens right at that moment?
AH: [Laughs] Give me an example of what you’re thinking of.
Bitmob: Off the top of my head, Drake was walking across a wooden bridge and says something like, “We’re OK now,” and the bridge starts crumbling right at that moment. I’m expecting that when he says things are going to be OK that it’s not going to be OK within a second or two.
AH: Actually, we try not to do that too much, because it feels a little too conventional…sort of like, “It’s quiet…too quiet.”
If anything, we try to do the opposite a little bit more, like in the first game when he’s stepping across the wooden bridge and he says to himself, “Well this looks safe.” It’s more of that ironic realization of how ridiculous his predicament usually is.
Occasionally you’ll get the thing where he’ll say something like, “Hoo, I think we’re good now,” and you turn the corner and all hell breaks loose, but that’s part of the nature of the game. If hell didn’t keep breaking lose you’d get bored. So it’s inevitable that if he makes a comment like, “Well that’s over,” it’s only over for a few minutes, isn’t it?
Bitmob: Can you give us a hint as to who’s playing Drake in the Uncharted movie? Please tell us that the Matthew McConaughey nonsense was just that: nonsense.
AH: As far as I know, that’s just a rumor started on the Internet. If that ended up being the casting, it would be a surprise to me, too — and not a welcome one, because he’s already done a couple of movies like this, and I think we need a fresh face.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you any specifics because the movie’s still in the process of being worked on. I can tell you, though, that the people that are producing the movie are Arad Productions and Ari Arad, the guy who did Iron Man and all the Marvel movies.
These guys know casting. They take material that other people might treat as if it were a little silly, and they take it very seriously. They’re not messing around.
I know who they’re talking to, and they’re definitely on the right track. That’s about all I can tell you.
Bitmob: What historical events or locales would Nathan Drake like to explore next?
AH: We just finished this one, and I wouldn’t want to give up anything concrete about a game that people aren’t going to see for a while.
I can say that we like the idea of grounding our stories in a historical reality. We take a mystery that we know exists, and this is what we did in the first game…the mystery of Sir Francis Drake’s burial at sea, which had some unexplained aspects to it. In the second game, there’s the mystery of Marco Polo’s lost fleet of ships on his journey home from China.
Then we just go off on our own creative tangent, and say, “What if this is why that happened?” And then just have fun with it. We always want to say our stuff is set in the real world, but that there are still mysteries to find even in this world that we believe has been mapped, explored, and had satellite images taken of every corner of it…that if you know how to look, you can find unexplored corners and mysteries.
A big part of our process is a ton of research into a ton of real-world locations, real-world history, real explorers, and then real objects of mythological or historical importance, and the actual real mysteries that are associated with these things. It takes a little while, pre-production wise, to come up with the next one and make sure that we’ve met all of those goals.
So, I don’t have anything concrete I can hand you at this point because I’d be giving up too much anyway, but those are the rules that we place for ourselves…trying to stick to something that’s familiar and then do something unfamiliar with it.
This crazy-long interview (which, believe it or not, was actually 2.5 times longer before we edited it down — Hennig warned us she likes to talk a lot) was transcribed courtesy of James Clinton Howell. Howell is a freelance writer and localization manager for Deltahead Translation Group LLC. His publication credits include PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Hardcore Gamer Magazine, and 1UP, and his localization credits include Konami’s Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel 2 as well as Metal Gear Solid 4. He currently manages the public domain localization of Tez Okano’s cult Dreamcast game, Segagaga.