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Uncharted 4 was inspired by the industry's struggle against crunch

Naughty Dog embraced "downbeat moments" and reconsidered the importance of fun, to the chagrin of certain fans

Nathan Drake's struggle to leave the addictive thrill of his past adventures behind is at the core of Uncharted 4, and according to creative director Neil Druckmann, it was a case of art imitating life.

In a new and very detailed interview with Rolling Stone, Druckmann said that the central theme of "passion versus settling down" was a reflection of the drive that leads so many people working in game development to crunch.

"We've all joined this industry with the hope of affecting people, touching them in some way. Which is why we work so hard, sometimes to destructive outcomes," he said. "So in this game, I really wanted to explore that. To kind of use the pulp action-adventure story as a backdrop, but it's all kind of a metaphor for our life's pursuit."

Naughty Dog's commitment to exploring the idea is admirable. Compromises are often made when chasing a large audience, leading to a certain homogeneity in the finished products. With Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog actually ignored negative feedback on the game's more deliberately paced sections, most of which was made on the assumption that creating "fun" is the ultimate goal of game development.

"I know there are people on NeoGAF right now complaining about the beginning of this game. They hate how slow it is... I'm OK if we lose some of those people"

Neil Druckmann, creative director

"We took [the word "fun"] off our focus tests," Druckmann explained. "It was just a weird word that people were getting hung up on. How do you rate the dive sequence at the beginning of Uncharted 4? Is that fun? There's no real challenge. There is a perceived threat, where they talk about oxygen, but that's just weird narrative fluff. You can't really run out of oxygen.

"But that level is important, to set up how mundane Nate's life is. Just rating it on its own, one through five, that was constantly the lowest-rated level. But it kind of had to be. We're not going to change that."

Simply changing the question from "How fun did you find this level?" to "Overall, how would you rate this level?" led to an immediate improvement in the test scores. Nathan Drake no longer wanted a life spent only in the pursuit of high adventure and chaotic action, so Naughty Dog needed to create an experience that mirrored his personal struggle.

"To us, it's an evolution of the studio," Druckmann said, pointing to the Himalayan village sequence in Uncharted 2 as a pivotal moment. "I guess it's getting more and more confident in using our medium to have these downbeat moments."

However, as Nathan Drake learns over the course of the game, maturity demands a measure of sacrifice. Druckmann is clear-eyed about the fact that, for certain players, the creative direction Naughty Dog has explored in The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 will be too much - or too little, depending on your point of view.

"I guess what I meant is that I know we're going to lose some people. I know there are people on NeoGAF right now complaining about the beginning of this game. Because I read some. They hate how slow it is. They don't believe it's really a game until you get to the end of the auction and you get your gun and you start shooting at people.

"That, to them, is the game. I'm OK if we lose some of those people. Hopefully they're replaced with other people who are intrigued by the more conscious pacing."

There's a great deal more in Rolling Stone's interview, which also lists a number of intriguing sections that didn't make the final cut.

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Latest comments (6)

Daniel Trezub QA Analyst, GameLoftA year ago
Haters gonna hate, that's a fact. I, for myself, feel relieved that a big AAA game is taking this position. We don't need more shooters. We need better games.
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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA A year ago
To be honest I'm getting a little irritated with the way Naughty Dog is not even broaching criticism at all these days. Just passing criticisms off as if they can do no wrong. It's very irritating and makes it clear they aren't listening to any feedback other than that they want to hear (though I also suspect the media is picking sound bites on purpose to evoke this kind of reaction).
We don't need more shooters. We need better games.
Right now shooters are better games. They actually have gameplay (tasking the player with exploring the depths of the games systems/making micro-decisions based on their understanding of those systems to progress), whereas downtime in most games is simply pacing to the beat of buttons. And this is fine as long as downtime (poor gameplay) is used sparingly for pacing or well balanced with action. Uncharted 4 is neither.

There are exceptions of course, such as the Tomb Raider games which use exploring/downtime as the main event and uptime (combat) to help pacing. But, as you can see, the quality of the combat in most Tomb Raider games (barring 2013 where the combat is strong, and Rise of the Tomb Raider which is structured around downtime well for reasons I won't get into here) isn't very good. And that's fine: It's used sparingly for pacing so it doesn't have to be great.

But what happens if the bulk of a game WAS that iffy mechanic designed as functional pacing fodder and nothing else? Well, then you have Uncharted 4. And Uncharted 4 is problemed in two ways i. It focuses on downtime to a lopsided degree and ii. All the depth in its gameplay is in the sparsely placed shooting sections.
Haters gonna hate, that's a fact.
I enjoyed Uncharted 4 greatly, from front to finish.

But that doesn't change the fact that it's focus on low quality downtime (which did a good job of setting the tone of the game on the initial playthrough) means that subsequent playthroughs on higher difficulties are largely the same: You'll have to trundle through hours of scripted climbing (though, to be fair, far less so than previous Uncharted's) and cutscenes to get to the core of the game that actually tasks you with approaching the game differently and making those educated micro-decisions.

Uncharted 2 didn't have this problem because of every downbeat there was an upbeat, and at times the distinction between downtime and uptime began to blur (navigating a collapsing city in silence only to run across a handful of enemies for example). The pacing and balance was masterful. The reason the climbing downtime in the Himalaya's worked in Uncharted 2 had nothing to do with that section being good, but the contrast it provided with the procession of high octane sequences that proceeded it. Naughty Dog seem to have misunderstood this.

As for how games with more downtime can be better. They could have puzzles that focus on concepts that require them to be resolved each time you play, rather than a set solution, or having an element of character development/item foraging that requires the player to make choices. The Last of Us did this to great effect: downtime didn't mean doing nothing, it just meant doing something less ballistic.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 25th May 2016 6:17pm

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Carl Hudson Studying Computer Science, University of AdelaideA year ago
I have no doubt U4 is a great game with great storytelling. I played U1 until the shooting started, then shelved it.
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Show all comments (6)
Connor Martin Aspiring game designer/tester A year ago
Acting like people who complain about a problem with your pacing doesn't seem like a very mature approach, particularly if they seem to have a well reasoned point. Forgetting that many of the fans are fans because of the product you made in the SAME SERIES is rather ignorant, they came for Uncharted and you gave them something less developed.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
@Shehzaan
"Right now shooters are better games. They actually have gameplay (tasking the player with exploring the depths of the games systems/making micro-decisions based on their understanding of those systems to progress), whereas downtime in most games is simply pacing to the beat of buttons."

I don't think that is happening withing the RPG genre, TBH, but I get your point.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
To be honest, I felt that the pacing and downtime in Uncharted 4 was a step up in terms of storytelling quality compared to 1-3. Uncharted 2 was my previous favourite because it had the best balance between exploration, puzzles and combat (IMO) but I feel that 4 has done an even better job.

I imagine that some people will be annoyed at this change after the incredibly sloggy combat-fest that was Uncharted 3 but Uncharted 1 and 2 are the heart of the series and 4 is very faithful to their example.

I especially appreciate that ND took the time to show rather than tell the player what the reality of the world and characters are. I can see that people who care mostly about the combat will be upset about those moments but the people who care about the story and characters will love this.

The only change that ND could have made was to make parts of the game skippable on subsequent playthroughs but I think you can select chapters to replay so I don't see so much of an issue.

I don't really see how people can be complaining so much when ND have gone out of their way to not only provide a superior experience compared to other action heavy TPS (See Mass Effect 2 and 3, Gears of War series and the two new Tomb Raider games) with nonsensical or truncated stories and also offer a slightly different approach compared to those contemporary experiences for people who want a different style of game. I will say again that Uncharted 4 is in the same vein as 1 and 2 so I don't think they strayed from the core of the series at all.

Frankly, having a rhythmic up and down beat style of gameplay is quite an old-fashioned and unimaginative way of designing a gaming experience. It's rote. This was a problem with some of the games above: you know when you have downtime and when action is coming just from suddenly walking into a room/area that's less of a corridor and has chest-high items spread around it. I never encountered a situation in those games where I saw that play out and there wasn't a combat section. In Uncharted 4 it happened several times. It subverted the expectations of the player and that makes things fresh and interesting because you can't predict what's coming next.

Development styles can and will change and thank god! I can't imagine if we were still getting the same horribly cut 70s and 80s style of action movies today. I appreciated them at the time but going back to watch a lot of the less iconic movies you see the same patterns repeating with poorly scripted sequences bracketing the story and jumps from one location or sequence to another without a proper segue.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 28th May 2016 10:11am

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