Balancing Freedom and Storytelling in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

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Chloe Frazer in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, out August 22, is looking like a promising way to eat up the last bit of summer. Dispensing with series lead Nathan Drake, this expansion to last year’s stunning Uncharted 4 focuses on fortune hunter Chloe Frazer and mercenary Nadine Ross, two side characters from the series now given center stage. The gameplay is still Uncharted — you’ll scale a lot of cliffs, swing on a lot of ropes, and shoot a lot of generic bad guys — but the change in characters creates a new feel to the series. Nadine and Chloe are more wary of each other, but also more droll and biting than earnest bro Nathan Drake ever was.

The section I played is more ambitious than anything in Uncharted 4, taking that game’s Jeep-driving exploration sequence and wildly expanding it. You’re given a huge open space in western India with three different forts to explore and numerous things to distract you along the way. It feels like a small open-world game — you can even climb a tower to get a lay of the land and your main objectives plopped down on a map — but done with Naughty Dog’s combination of tight gameplay and stunning performances. The amount of meaning the actors and animators are able to get through the subtle shifts in facial expressions continues to impress — especially when compared to the still-wooden performances you see in the majority of video games.

After playing through a 30-minute section of the game, I talked with lead designer on Lost Legacy, James Cooper, about Naughty Dog’s approach to telling stories.

When you actually sit down to write the story, I imagine you sketch out the broad narrative arc. But when it comes down to specific sections of the game, how do you divide the beats between “Here’s the story we need to tell” and “Here’s the set piece and the gameplay we need”?
It’s a very collaborative environment. We don’t do one thing without the other. One of the unique aspects about the studio that really makes Uncharted work is that we always approach things with the story in mind when we’re designing the gameplay elements, and we’re always thinking about the gameplay when we’re writing the story.

The two go hand in hand throughout. In regard to [the segment you just played] being very explorative and player-driven, that’s actually one of the biggest challenges. We’re trying to tell a linear story in a nonlinear environment. We had to break down a number of things: How does that work? How do we design around that? How do we build these spaces? There are aspects of the story that will play out linearly — irrespective of the choices that the player makes — whether they go to fort A, B, or C first. We still try and make that linear narrative work. We still have the arc that you would expect from a story crafted like that.

And certain things will happen depending on the player choices they make. Some aspects of the story, you may or may not experience. We talked a little bit about the side quests, so to speak, in this space as well, and players may never see anything of that — unless they go looking for it.

Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

What did you learn about telling stories in Uncharted 4 that you brought to this game?
We have an expression that we use in the studio, “Keeping it on the stick.” Which is a high-level goal that we have: trying to keep as much of the story in gameplay as we can. We were doing more of that in The Last of Us, and in Uncharted 4 particularly, with things like optional conversations, where the player can learn more about the world or engage more with certain characters. Like, do we need to tell a particular moment as a cinematic, or can we keep that in gameplay? Whenever we’re in set pieces, we’re trying to keep the gameplay as much under the player control as we can, so that you can really feel like you’re playing this experience.

What’s the decision process like when you choose to go to a cut scene over staying in the game? 
It tends to be for when we need the more subtle emotional cues, when we really want to frame certain shots and tell certain poignant stories. One thing that we also find works really well is using cinematics as a pacing tool. We have a lot of players who will play through and want to experience as much of the story as they can, and a lot of players just want to play purely for the story — like they don’t care about the gameplay. We use cinematics to layer in what’s happening with the characters. What are they feeling right now? What are their goals? What are their motivations? How do we keep the story moving along? What are the revelations we’re trying to get at in this beat?

Again, that was something that’s been a huge challenge in this section because it’s so player- directed. Because we’re really handing the reins over to the player a lot more. How do we still retain what players expect from an Uncharted game — in terms of pacing — while enabling a certain level of player agency?

The dialogue still has that sharpness of Uncharted 4. Do you have a writer that specializes in those back-and-forth moments? And what is that writing process like?
So, Shaun Escayg and Josh [Scherr] are the two writers — Shaun is the creative director as well. Those two guys have worked very closely together in terms of setting out the high-level arcs for these characters and the story, and then really building in the minute-to-minute dialogue through the game. So everything is informed by those high-level goals. And we take that into where we have gameplay spaces to make that work.

So it’s like, “Okay, the player is going to be driving for a moment here. So this is a chance for them to talk a little bit.”
Yeah, and typically — particularly during the gameplay parts, because the player might be driving for 5 minutes; they might be driving for 15 minutes; we really don’t know — there’s a lot of dialogue that we have written that some players are just never going to hear. This is like, the sixth interview we’ve done today and I’m still hearing things in this that I’ve never heard before. That’s why I’ll be laughing at the same time you’ll be laughing, because I hadn’t heard that little bit of rapport between the two characters — it’s great.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Balancing Freedom and Story in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy