Naughty Dog's Lemarchand Defines Uncharted's Heritage
Although Naughty Dog co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand has just shipped the widely-beloved Uncharted 3, "It's really a little bit too soon to start dissecting it," he suggests at a Gamasutra-attended lecture Thursday night. Instead, Lemarchand was at NYU's Game Center to discuss the team's development journey through the iconic franchise, with the spirit of its inspirations.
Lemarchand got his break working for Microprose with the Genesis' second-ever realtime 3D game, F15 Strike Eagle II, and worked with Crystal Dynamics on projects like the Soul Reaver and Gex games before moving onto Naughty Dog. The PlayStation 3 heralded the arrival of the Uncharted franchise, the first two of which have sold about 4 million units each.
The series began with a specific goal in mind: "We wanted to make a video game version of the kind of summer blockbuster, action adventure movie that we all grew up loving," he says. "And we wanted you, the player, to remain in control of the hero of the game from moment to moment, as much as was humanly possible."
Naughty Dog also wanted to capture and reinvent the spirit of the pulp action genre, referencing films like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, TinTin as well as the same kind of early adventure cinema that inspired Stephen Spielberg in the creation of Indiana Jones.
A third inspiration is the fine art work of painters who worked with architecture, such as the travel paintings of David Roberts and the "adventures in light" undertaken by 19th century Romantic painters.
The Hennig Factor
Lemarchand has worked with Naughty Dog lead writer and creative director Amy Hennig since 1998, when they "cut [their] teeth" on the Soul Reaver series. "Amy, for my money, is not only one of the best writers in the video game business, she's also an exceptionally thorough researcher," Lemarchand enthuses of his colleague, whose work on Uncharted 2 has been recognized by the Writers Guild of America, in addition to other awards for her story craft in games.
Lemarchand describes Hennig as a "very modest writer, very free of ego," a person who places as much credit for the vividness of her characters on the games' actors, who include Nolan North and Emily Rose, as on her own writing. According to Lemarchand, she often claims that some of the best dialogue in the game has been improvised by the actors rather than scripted by her. Naughty Dog has what can be considered an unprecedentedly close working relationship with its performers relative to the rest of the video game space, bringing them into the process and allowing them a voice in the development process, crediting their unique knowledge of the characters they play.
But in the beginning, Hennig studied pulp adventure extensively in preparation to begin the Uncharted franchise, and found some common themes: Running, jumping, bare-fisted brawls and chases, casts of eccentric characters with shifting allegiances, and cliffhangers and reversals of fortune. "Amy quickly realized these are all themes that provide a great basis for an action video game - action being the operative word," Lemarchand explains.
Hennig and Lemarchand also learned that part of the pulp action legacy included a fairly bright, humorous tone expressed whenever appropriate, whether through the color palette of the environment or through the personality of characters. "We're always checking ourselves as we add each new things... to make sure it resonates positively with the emotional tone we're trying to hit," says Lemarchand. "This emotional tone thing is very fragile and it's very easy to disrupt it."
Pitching Uncharted To Sony
There were many challenges in the creation of the franchise. First of all, when Naughty Dog began development of Uncharted 3 the PlayStation 3 didn't exist yet, and the team was forced to begin by working on the PC.
"We messed up badly," laughs Lemarchand, illustrating early tech challenges from the beginning. Yet once they had PS3 dev hardware in hand, a reboot helped get things back on track. Naughty Dog won Sony over with a proof of concept movie that used a montage of concept art tied together with the kind of music that they thought set the right tone - music from "Master and Commander," to be exact. Some of the concept art from that early montage made it into the original game directly, others arrived "in spirit," and some, like the underwater sequences, weren't able to be included until later games.
"We love to 'back-pocket' ideas," explained Lemarchand. Even in that early concept montage, the Naughty Dog team was imagining the dynamic water scenes that would become important setpieces of Uncharted 3.
Key to that proof of concept was motion capture and dynamic camera that would become key in making action sequences seem lifelike. The concept also leaned heavily on the power of advanced facial capture to create expressive, emotional characters; a contextual combat system, and dynamic fight sequences featuring multiple opponents. Again, some of that technology had to be held over for later games.
"Even though we hadn't built out very much of the game at this point, we were able to use this concept movie ... to communicate to the producers at Sony," he describes, "and also to get our whole team moving in the same direction."
More Challenges Await
Some of the early challenges for the team involved paving some new ground in characterization. The relationship between lead character Nathan Drake and his mentor and father figure Victor Sullivan is pivotal to the plotline across the Uncharted games. At the time, exploring alongside a friendly character is a feature many games use to create a dialogue and sense of companionship, but for Naughty Dog with the original Uncharted, it felt new.
In visually complex levels, it's easy for the player to get lost. "We had to fine-tune the art and do lots of playtesting to find just the right balance," Lemarchand recalls.
"Another big challenge... was navigational AI for Sullivan," he said. "We had to make sure that he followed you closely enough that the characters felt natural" - but not so much that it felt unnatural or creepy. Through the process of refining the companion, Naughty Dog learned it could "kind of bring color to the plot through the off-the-cuff characterization, and to advance the plot in line with the flow of the game's action gameplay."
The team also re-imagined ways to bring color and drama to action sequences by investing the player with agency. For example, in a scene of Uncharted when Drake has to cross a waterfall by journeying across tall pillars, the team wanted to elevate the drama by adding an explosion - but rather than make it an automatic sequence, they instead implemented an enemy firing. Engaging with the enemy would cause the explosion that would create the desired color as well as an environmental bridge forward, and just putting that task in the player's hand creates a greater sense of investment.
A Culture Of Creativity
Creating the type of studio environment that allows for imagination and invention may require letting go of the rigid structures of traditional development - at least, that's certainly the case for Naughty Dog. Many developers still consider themselves in the business of software developers, says Lemarchand, and employ the traditional "waterfall" method of software development. Although predictable budgets and schedules are important to game development, the good intentions contained in the waterfall approach are often "hijacked," in his words, "by the process of discovering what's fun in your games."
"What about when you're struggling to do something new, as we were... what do you do when you're not sure how all the pieces of your game fit together?" poses Lemarchand. Naughty Dog has found its own method, and Lemarchand compares its creative approach to "the way that a collage artist works." Projects begin with lots of brainstorming, and a lot of "big ideas" are isolated. (Image below via Joystiq.)
For example, the team knew they wanted to bring Uncharted 3 to the desert, as well as to take advantage of technology developments that allowed object scale - massive, dynamic spaces as seen in the game's cargo plane sequence and the cruise ship sequence. Naughty Dog began with large ideas that represented lynchpins for the rest of the process, and experimented around them.
"We think this is just one way in which making a video game is fundamentally different than making a movie," he says. Movies require a screenplay completely devised up-front.
The resulting dev process is similar to Agile methodology, although Lemarchand asserts Naughty Dog doesn't adopt any kind of formal structure as laid out traditionally. A dogmatic approach would create a sense of loss within the studio, he says. The studio favors a flat hierarchical structure without producers, in which everyone on the team has the opportunity to take ownership.
"This flat structure really helps to cultivate the right conditions for... a very open, meritocratic studio culture," Lemarchand says. "Everyone on our team is encouraged to contribute ideas and constructive criticism about the design and production of what we're working on."
"We force ourselves to be brutally honest with each other, and if some part of the game is not up to scratch, we say so to each other, sometimes very bluntly." Continual feedback from all parts of the studio coupled with little formal hierarchy can create a "sometimes very messy and chaotic" environment, but Lemarchand says it's a positive chaos, because "the people with the responsibility are actually the people making the game," and "the bad parts always get called out by someone."
That approach also requires a lot of energy and initiative, versus assumptions that someone else is fixing a problem one may notice. "We can't just send one email or put it on a list to be dealt with later," he says. And this approach - focused on ownership and constant communication - can scale regardless of team sizes, Lemarchand believes.
To avoid bad feelings in an environment where feedback and passion is crucial, the team has an informal contract to avoid personal conflicts and not to "get too bent out of shape." "When we can't resolve an issue among ourselves, we can appeal to the minimal amount of hierarchy that we have at the studio... to help us settle matters," he explains.
The culture of open communication overall strengthens the team, Lemarchand believes. Daily openness and honesty makes the team members more accountable to one another and more trusting. "When our team hits a crisis we can react flexibly as a group because of this trust, rather than splintering into factions." Teams that lack trust or get bogged down in office politics can get paralyzed, he warns.
The studio culture isn't born from written rules or management edicts, but from the fact that the organization's leadership conveys those behaviors every day, and "behaves in the ways they want everyone else to behave," says Lemarchand.
Convey Vulnerability, Not Snark
Despite recent progress in the field of exciting game stories, including strides made by Naughty Dog with Uncharted 3, Lemarchand, believes story-driven video games still face the enormous problem of creating emotional connections between players and characters.
"The problem is often simply the lack of this emotional connection... but game creators both mainstream and indie have done great work in the field of storytelling action games, and when video games are at their best, they can create very deep emotional resonance" through both gameplay and narrative, he believes.
Lemarchand says he feels current game narratives tickle the intellect, but don't connect with players hearts as well as he believes they could. This gap, he says, is "an enormous wasted opportunity that robs our form of an enormous part of its potential power."
Structure and pacing, as employed by Naughty Dog to create thrilling moments in Uncharted 3, are one way to work around gaming's natural constraints, but certainly there are numerous other opportunities.
"Ours is not the only approach; a so-called 'wide linear' game like ours is only one approach to video game storytelling, and lots of us at Naughty Dog are excited about the open world, systemic approach" favored by studios like Rockstar and Rocksteady, and by designers like Clint Hocking.
But in Lemarchand's view, one of the biggest inhibitors to creating a meaningful, emotional storytelling experience for the player lies in gaming and development culture, which he feels often tries to be "too tough, and too snarky."
"As game creators, we put up too much front in our creations and we don't make ourselves nearly vulnerable enough," he says. "I think our audience senses this, and they emotionally withdraw from our games."
By comparison, film and theater can be profoundly intimate, having mastered tactics to deliver the nuances of human emotion. Audiences need to understand a character's feelings, the journey that led them there, and to have knowledge of his or her vulnerability in order to invest in a story, and that's true for villains in addition to heroes -- if not even more so.
"I'm not calling for us to get soppy and overwrought," Lemarchand emphasizes. "We human beings are also fascinated and impressed by nuance and restraint." The notion of "less is more" can be essential to the potency of emotional portrayals, he adds, highlighting how effecting it can be to watch someone struggling to hide a reaction.
And storytellers need to have something to say, using insights on their preoccupations, struggles, fears and longings. More importantly, "We have to get in better touch with our emotions and become more adept at portraying them in detail... with restraint, clarity and above all, vulnerability," says Lemarchand.
Games won't reach their full potential to connect with their "extraordinarily sophisticated" audiences until these obstacles can be surmounted, he adds. "I think that we owe it to our audience of players to really dig deep, and tell some stories worth playing."