Uncharted 2 proved to be something of a lifeline to Sony when the PlayStation 3 console was still finding its feet. A blockbuster hit which managed to snatch limelight (and the lion’s share of accolades) away from the Modern Warfare 2 juggernaut, the title not only was an accomplished demonstration of software engineering, but also told a pretty mean story.
When Naughty Dog unveiled Uncharted 3 at an event in Hollywood a couple of weeks back, we took the opportunity to talk to the game’s cinematic lead (and Naughty Dog’s first hire back in the day), Taylor Kurosaki. The film-trained Kurosaki left Naughty Dog after Crash Bandicoot 2 released to work on music videos and commercials, but returned six-and-a-half years ago, stating “this is where all the cool stuff is happening.”
VG247: How far in its evolution is storytelling in games?
Taylor Kurosaki: It’s just now getting exciting. I feel we’re just now getting to the point where you have that suspension of disbelief. Where the technology is not a limiting factor. You can truly be immersed now.
VG247: Do you think gaming is still in that “80s action movie” phase where people cringe a little in retrospect? How do you think the current crop will be remembered in a decade or so’s time?
I think there are classic pieces of art that remain relevant. Die Hard – you can watch it today, it’s a fantastic film. There are horror movies that aren’t spooky now as well as horror movies that still are.
VG247: Is that something that forms part of the conversation at Naughty Dog though? The legacy of the games you make?
It comes through in the crafting of it. You can appreciate playing Super Mario Brothers; it doesn’t hold up graphically, but it’s such a well crafted game that it’s still relevant.
Looking back at the work we’ve done in all series it does hold up, and I think it will continue to hold up. But yes, the graphics will get better [and] the technology will evolve, but as a piece, as a time capsule I think [Uncharted 3] will be looked upon favourably. I hope so – that’s our goal.
VG247: How much do you have to fight for your piece of the pie amongst the other production groups at Naughty Dog?
Luckily for me the active cinematic experience – the interactive storytelling – we place a premium on that. So I usually get the resources [needed].
VG247: Because you can say storytelling’s brought you to this point?
Yeah. There’s a lot of games out there that look amazing, that play well, that are fun. I do think that we are one of the leaders in the storytelling aspect of it.
VG247: How do you figure out the balance between interactive and cinematic elements in-game?
You’re either playing the game and are in complete control (and there are lots of cinematic things that happen while you’re in complete control) or we take all control away and you’re watching a traditional cinematic.
To me the grey area where you’re in somewhere in-between… I haven’t seen them work particularly well. If you’ve got a in-game cutscene and you have player control while that cutscene is [playing] it’s human nature. People are going to try to like, punch the person that’s talking to them or they’re going to look away – that really detracts from the experience.
Our thing is when you’re in control, you’re in complete control. There are story elements that are being communicated to you while you’re in complete control – your NPCs are talking to you. When we really want it to be truly about story, we use a typical cutscene. We feel like a traditional cutscene is the most effective way to convey story.
VG247: How do you encourage hard core gamers to slow down and take in a story like Uncharted’s as opposed to them blasting through it?
Uh… make it good? [laughs]
I know the way I play games. When I play games I take my time, I want to see all that stuff. I want to investigate the little crevices and the corners…
VG247: – but there’s a good chunk of the gaming population that don’t.
We allow people to triangle out of our cutscenes. If you want to, you can. Again I think the way to incentivise people not to do that is you make them good. Keep them entertaining.
Everyone knows that’s the typical thing people do: “Oh, skip the cutscenes”. I think people have gotten into the habit of skipping them because they aren’t well done. They’re sort of juvenile.
VG247: On one hand you’re trying to build Drake as empathetic character people can relate to; on the other he’s running all over the place constantly killing people. Do you find yourself as a storyteller asking for less of a bodycount?
There are typical conventions in gaming that we have to adhere to. It’s something that people sort of accept. In terms of the bodycount, it’s what people want to do. It’s a shooter. At our nature we’re a shooter.
One thing we do shy away from is being arcade-y. When you’re grappling somebody, when they have you in a chokehold, it’s visceral. You feel it.
It’s a thing we do struggle with. We do discuss [it].
VG247: Do you ever worry whether companies like Zynga (who recently described themselves as a web company, not a games one) could impact what games studios like yours are trying to achieve artistically?
I think comparing a Zynga game to a game like ours … they’re only similar in name. It’s a completely different experience. I don’t do the Zynga games but I like playing Angry Birds, but I also like this. It’s like comparing reality TV with Avatar.
VG247: But you’re a developer in a field that’s gaining increasing prominence in the mainstream. Is there a concern that the mainstream’s values regarding gaming could be derived from Farmville, et al?
Again, I like a Big Mac but I also like filet mignon. I mean, we were talking about “we put this feature in because it’s designed to make money”. All of us at Naughty Dog – that kind of thing never enters into our way of thinking at all. I make things that touch me and touch my heart. That’s what I do. I don’t think about what other people are making, what the latest trends are, whatever. I do things that speak to me, and I hope if they speak to me that they speak to a lot of people.
When I’m making a trailer or making a cutscene or when I was watching Justin [Richmond, game director] play the game in there, I was “in it”. I think it’s really simple – trust your instincts, make what you like.