Video games are incredibly complex pieces of art. Everything in them is created from scratch. Unlike movies or TV shows, there’s no location in the real world to scout out and use to fill your camera lens. If you want a gorgeous environment in which to set your story, you have to create the environment out of pixels. Likewise, you don’t benefit from hiring a George Clooney to save your movie (I know, even Clooney couldn’t save Batman and Robin). You have to make your hero or heroine out of bits, bytes and motion capture performances.
It’s no wonder then that after all the complex heavy lifting of world creation, game mechanics and character modeling, sometimes things like character development, storytelling and even the heart and digital soul of a game can get left on the drawing board.
Technology With Heart & Soul
There are two technology driven companies, however, that always exceed audience expectations with their commitment to storytelling.
One is Pixar, who consistently puts story and character before beautiful animation and whizz-bang CGI. It’s for this reason, I believe, Pixar has been so wholly successful with audiences young and old. This core principle, that story comes first, pours like a fountain from the company’s founder, John Lasseter. After a shaky transition to Disney ownership, the soul of Pixar is clearly alive and well in a movie like Zootopia. Pixar has consumed its host, imbuing Walt Disney Animation Studios with its beautiful heart and esthetic. What’s funny is that Walt Disney always understood this, and Lasseter really learned it from him. Regardless of how old the technology is, (check out the original Toy Story) Pixar stories are timeless and current because, for them, story is king.
The other well-known company that puts storytelling first is Naughty Dog.
In the late 1990s, Naughty Dog wasn’t known for character/story driven video games. They were known for popular franchises like Crash Bandicoot and — later — Jax & Daxter.
Even with Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog was trying to push new boundaries. At the time, those boundaries were defined by the transition to 3-D gaming as it evolved out of 2-D side scrollers. In his excellent history of Naughty Dog, Colin Moriarty describes how Crash was developed, made up of 532 polygons and fully animated. He functioned like a Warner Bros.’ cartoon with no physical skeleton, very different from other sprite based characters at the time.
Sony was focused on selling their system and didn’t quite appreciate how important a mascot like a Mario could be. In 1996, however, Crash Bandicoot became an exclusive for the PlayStation and would eventually come to represent the new platform. The first and second Crash Bandicoot games would eventually sell 14 million copies and were commercially successful in Japan as well as the U.S. Clearly, character sells.
From Crash Bandicoot to Jak & Daxter
The first Jak & Daxter was a key point in Naughty Dog’s history. The development costs were much greater than they had been on the Crash Bandicoot games. Production values and costs skyrocketed. In 2001, Sony purchased Naughty Dog which immediately gave the developer more resources and money. Jak & Daxter was still in production as the ink on the agreement dried and from then on, Naughty Dog would only make games exclusively for the PS2, PS3 and the current PS4. (Ever wonder why you couldn’t buy Uncharted for your Xbox?)
Jak & Daxter went through many iterations, just like any video game, but right from the get-go, Naughty Dog always wanted to make it, “[A] third-person open world action adventure game that’s entirely character-based” according to Sony producer Sam Thompson.
Additions to the Jak & Daxter game like an in-game movie at the beginning that would actually convey plot were “revolutionary at the time.” More and more story was introduced into J&D by way of cut scenes. Josh Scherr, an animator with Naughty Dog, started to question how traditional cutscenes in video games were frequently staged with characters talking directly to the player (think Elder Scrolls/Fallout).
Scherr didn’t want to do that with his camera. “I started trying to do some actual cuts and moves and things like that. Some people thought it was cool, and some people thought it was actually making it feel like less of a video game, in a bad way. ‘This is a video game convention. Characters talk to you directly through the screen.’” (Read more here.)
By the time Jak II was in development, Naughty Dog had embraced the use of a camera for their video games and were really in the business of making movies inside video games. Andy Gavin, co-founder of Naughty Dog, said, “With Jak II, it’s almost written like a movie… The story integration got a really serious push. It has an elaborate plot and all these in-game cutscenes. They’re not movie stuff, not FMV. They’re just a part of the game. We tried to interweave it with the game so you’re really playing the story. It’s not some weird multimedia thing.”
Charting New Heights
Clearly, by the time Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune came along in 2007, the idea that video games should include movie elements such as storytelling and character development was part of Naughty Dog’s DNA, even though for the rest of the video game industry, it was still largely a gestating idea — at least at the production levels that would be found on Uncharted.
Drake’s Fortune plays more like an interactive movie than a traditional video game, although the featured game mechanics in the title are still polished, fun and well executed. Cut scenes are used selectively and almost seamlessly to push the narrative along. Most gamers, myself included, are not huge fans of extensive cut scenes — these tend to get in the way of actually, you know, playing the game.
Personally speaking, I’m OK watching the cut scenes from any Uncharted game. Watching the cut scenes is actually part of the gaming experience. The conversations, acting and emotional substance of the cut scenes informs and empowers the subsequent game play. I recall after finishing Drake’s Fortune that I actually went and watched all the extras that came with that disc, just like I would a movie I loved.
I wanted to understand how Naughty Dog captured the actual performances and see early versions of the characters that were in the game through concept art. Literally, I was in, “How did they do that?” mode.
The level of detail in an Uncharted game is exquisite. My now 17-year-old daughter remembers me exclaiming back in 2007, “Cassie, did you see that? He went in the water and when he came out, his pants were wet. I’ve never seen that in a game before.” Sadly, Cassie never saw her dad in a non-nerdy light again either.
10 Moments of Great Storytelling and Character Development in the Uncharted Series (spoilers, naturally)
Everything I’ve stated thus far is academic and maps Naughty Dog’s non-Uncharted games to their earlier efforts. I also neglected to mention, The Last of Us which probably has had a huge impact on the development and feel of the new Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
Let’s just go ahead and call out the 10 Best Moments of storytelling and character development in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception. We’ll save A Thief’s End for a #spoilers article.
- Drake and Sully abandon Elena after she’s subsidized their diving trip to find a diary written by St. Francis Drake. The moment is a terrific piece of storytelling and character development, because just like Han Solo killing Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina (Han did shoot first), this shows just how much of a rogue Nathan is capable of being. The fact Drake and Sully plan this departure together also serves to demonstrate the trust and bond of their friendship.
- Nate and Sully discover a German U-Boat in the middle of the Amazon jungle. It’s just an amazing image and environment to play with. Drake’s Fortune drops in a plot revelation at this point in the game that Sully is actually in terrible debt to another treasure hunter, Roman, who is looking for El Dorado — the City of Gold. Sully is shot protecting Nathan when things go south. Nate flees as an unexploded torpedo in the submarine goes off and takes off with Elena who reappears in Sully’s plane. Nate believes Sully is dead. Terrific stuff.
- At the end of Drake’s Fortune, Nate learns that Francis Drake was trying to keep the statue on the island because of its curse and tendency to turn people exposed to it into super zombies. Roman is urged by another villain, Navarro, to open the statue/coffin, knowing he will be exposed to the curse/mutating factor inside. Sure enough, he begins to mutate and something gross hits the fan.
- Among Thieves (a.k.a. Uncharted 2) really kicks up the storytelling and the series finally hits it stride. The game starts towards the end of the events covered by the game. This is a classic trick of noir cinema where the hero is often shown in dire straits, sometimes literally DOA, and proceeds to recount how he came to be in such a sorry situation. The use of noir trappings elevates every aspect of the game from the characterization (Chloe the femme fatale), narrative, even the lighting (chiaroscuro). We find Nathan Drake half dead, sitting in a train passenger seat with a gunshot wound in his stomach. The camera pans to reveal Nate is actually on his back, sitting on a train carriage hanging off the side of a snowy mountain.
- Chloe is a bad-ass equal to Nate and makes a great bad girl. Uncharted: Among Thieves likes to draw comparisons between Chloe and Nate’s more stable, less physical Elena. Chloe can treasure hunt with the best of them, the best of them being Nathan Drake and Sully. She’s funny, irreverent and doesn’t take any of Drake’s lip in the game. When she mentions a hotel nearby, he immediately assumes she’s coming onto him for some Afternoon Delight and she immediately sets him straight.
- Elena reminds us later in Among Thieves that she’s the equal to Chloe when it comes to protecting our hero Nate from one of the major villains Flynn. Elena slaps Flynn in the face then escapes with Nate. Maybe she’s more bad-ass than Chloe? Sure, she’s a white knight and more predictable than Chloe, but isn’t that why we ultimately love her more. She’s steadfast and loyal. Just like Sully. Isn’t that why Nate loves her?
- One of the most intense scenes in Among Thieves is when Chloe is forced to shoot the thug Darza who is trying to throw Nate off the train. Initially grateful, Nate and Chloe begin to argue because Chloe is still working with the bad guys, she just doesn’t want to see Nate dead. While they are shouting at each other, a gun fires offscreen and Nate suddenly doubles over in pain. Flynn’s shot him in the stomach. Chloe saves Nate again, pushing Flynn’s gun to the side as he fires a second round and Nate escapes before blowing the train off the tracks which takes him back to his dire predicament in the beginning of the game.
- Drake’s Deception begins with an unusual scene set in a London pub. Nate and Sully are both there to meet a man called Talbot who is interested in buying Nate’s ring. Not wishing to sell it, a fight ensues and Nate and Sully escape, only to be captured by an older English lady, Katherine Marlow (a nod to Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled detective) and seemingly gunned down by one of her thugs. But it’s all a ruse. The plot turns quickly and Nate and Sully enjoy some witty banter.
- Even after three games, Uncharted still surprises ] by allowing us to play Nathan Drake as a small boy. Where other game developers might have used this as a simple gimmick, in Drake’s Deception, what happens during this scene helps give us a better understanding of Nathan Drake, his motivations and his father-son relationship with Sully. The flashback to Nate’s childhood also helps forward the plot in regards to the mysterious woman, Katherine Marlow. All this seems like a fairly solid nod to the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- I’m not sure the last scene really fits the theme here, but it’s just too good not to mention. In Drake’s Deception, Nate stows onto a plane through its landing gear. He’s discovered by Marlowe’s men and the bay doors of the cargo plane are opened with Nate thrown out of the back of the plane. He manages to grab the cargo net trailing from the plane and crawl his way back inside where he subdues Marlowe’s thugs. When an explosion rips a huge hole in the side of the plane, Nate is sucked out into the vacuum. What follows is a fantastic, soundless freefall and miraculous parachute opening as Nate floats gently to earth, music building, the last part of the game’s desert world revealed. It’s a pretty breathtaking moment. Lawrence of Arabia? Maybe not. Best emotional gaming moment ever? Pretty close.
Ultimately, the Uncharted series is defined by rich characterization and Nathan Drake. The gameplay is enhanced because we care so much about the character we’re playing and the non-player characters who surround us and help us. What makes this so special is that this is still such an unusual achievement in the world of video gaming. As good as other games can be, they rarely affect us the way a movie or TV Show does. Is this the future of gaming, or rather a unique few blips from a studio called Naughty Dog? I hope for more of this.