We don't normally interview developers the day their game comes out. And to be fair, we didn't exactly speak to Naughty Dog just now - we've been sitting on this for a couple of weeks. But we did speak to them after we'd made up our minds and given Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a honking 10/10 review.
With that in mind, we focused on the decisions behind particular scenes, casting, and anecdotes about the game's development. There are some extremely minor spoilers beyond, but nothing you'll remember as you pelt through the game this weekend. So, if that sounds good to you, read on to see what lead multiplayer designer Justin Richmond and community manager Arne Meyer have to say for themselves.
Eurogamer: The story of Uncharted 2 is based on what might have happened during Marco Polo's journey home from China. Why did you pick that, and why settle on Shambhala as the game's big mystery?
Arne Meyer: The project is very collaborative. We do a lot of reading and watch a lot of movies and really try to see what sort of historical events can we use as a platform for our story, because our story, although fictional, is based on real-world events.
So we were brainstorming what sort of things we could use as a platform, and one of the things that came up was Marco Polo, because he kept incredibly detailed diaries and journals of his adventures in East Asia, and there was one particular area where he didn't document what was going on, and that was what happened to the ships on his journey back to Europe - he started with 13 and came back with one.
He never explained what happened, it's a great mystery and it just kind of resonated with us in terms of where we wanted to go next.
Eurogamer: Which other stories did you look at for Uncharted 2?
Justin Richmond: I don't think we can tell you because there's a good chance we might use some of them in the future.
Eurogamer: Uncharted 2 has lots of new characters, most notably Chloe Frazer. What's her background and what's the journey that she's on?
Justin Richmond: From the beginning we always wanted - I know Amy [Hennig, game director] wanted - Chloe to be a foil for showing not only what Drake could have been if was a little bit darker, but also to play off Elena, because Elena's the good girl that does the right thing all the time, and the more heroic version of what Drake could be.
But there was never that other side of Drake, which we really wanted to show in this game and it was important for Amy to show that this whole world of treasure hunters is a little seedy, and so we needed a character that was believable and funny, but a little bit darker than Drake and was going to push the boundaries on what was acceptable and what was not.
As far as what her actual backstory is: I'm not sure we can talk about that much.
Eurogamer: So Chloe was brought in to help show another side to Drake. Is that going to be a trend when introducing new characters - that they help shine a different light on our hero?
Arne Meyer: Well, this game was really important for us to really delve deeper into what Drake's personality is. And one of the best ways to do that is to show what kind of personal issues he has, how he acts on those and how he reacts to other people's independent personalities.
That's part of the reason the cast of characters grew, so that we could introduce people he couldn't trust at all, or people he has to trust implicitly like Temzin who doesn't speak English, so they have to trust each other. And then how he's like with old friends and how he's like with colleagues that he has a past with but he's not sure what the future holds.
Justin Richmond: I don't think there's a limit on what the cast can be. I think we'll grow in whichever way the story goes that we're telling; if it's 100 people then it's 100 people, but I don't think it's ever going to get that big, and I don't think we're ever going to limit ourselves based on that kind of thing. It's always going to be about the story that we're trying to tell and the number of people that we can tell it with.
Eurogamer: Another new character, Harry Flynn, also appears to have a colourful history with Drake. Can you shed some light on that?
Justin Richmond: The big thing that we revealed in this game was that Drake tried to break into this museum before and everybody else had gotten killed. Basically, with Flynn, we wanted to hint at what their relationship was but not give it away.
Arne Meyer: Really the point was - and it's the same thing with Chloe - that we're trying to explore the darker area of Drake and that he came up from this underworld and had clearly worked in this underworld. So it's who his colleagues were at that point, and that's really what his relationship [with Flynn] is: he had a relationship with these people at time when he was doing things that were a lot more evil than we know him as.
Justin Richmond: Flynn is what Drake would have been if he'd gone another way, right? Flynn is...
Arne Meyer: About greed, about the money.
Eurogamer: The game starts with a train-wreck sequence but that's not the start of the story! That's outrageous. Why did you decide to do this?
Justin Richmond: It's an awesome narrative framing device. One of the really cool things at the beginning of the project was Amy went to our lead game designers and said, "I want to do this train-wreck sequence, and what if we start you part of the way down the [story] line and reveal little bits of the past as you go?"
And it worked out really, really well, because you get this really cool, awesome set-piece at the beginning of climbing up this collapsing train car, going, "Where are we?", "What's going on?" Then you get these little flashbacks and "oh!", here's what happened. It's something that gets you into the middle of the story very, very quickly. The biggest thing for us was wanting to start the game on a big bang and make sure it was really fascinating straight away.
Eurogamer: The stealth in Uncharted 2 is basic and Drake only has a limited array of equipment - what's the advantage of a minimalistic approach?
Justin Richmond: The big thing for us, gameplay-wise, was wanting to be accessible. What we specifically didn't want to do was turn it into a Splinter Cell where you have guys on patrol and you have to map it out and figure out what's going to happen. What we really wanted to happen was player choice - easy player choice. We wanted the player to very quickly be able to say, "I'm coming into the scenario and I can stealth it - I can climb up over this stuff or sneak around it - or I can go in guns-blazing and kill everyone in the room."
We wanted to be accessible for a large amount of players, and if we'd done any more hardcore stealth it would have shut it down for a large number of people, and detracted from the action-adventure. So we wanted to keep it basic in the sense that you can play it very easily. A stealth game is not what Uncharted 2 is. We wanted to do stealth that kept in-line with what Uncharted 2 is, and what we did is the best possible scenario.
Arne Meyer: We wanted to keep our universe very believable in terms of how NPCs interact with you, and one of the criticisms we'd had from the first game was that enemies might not know where you are in your current situation. If you kill one guy and no one else sees it then obviously no one else is going to react to it. It's keeping up this believability that's really important to what we do, even though we have this stylised world and stylised characters, it's making sure that everything makes sense in a real-world for you.
Eurogamer: Nolan North has won plenty of plaudits for his role as Drake. But Claudia Black (Chloe) and Emily Rose (Elena) fit around him perfectly. How do you go about picking the right cast?
Justin Richmond: Emily Rose actually came about in this very organic way. Emily Rose was originally hired to keep track of the script on the sound stage, but when Amy Hennig saw how she interacted with Nolan she said, "You are Elena." And she became Elena from that point on. That was really cool, because Emily had just moved to Hollywood and had come from nowhere and wasn't really an actress yet. We put her in Uncharted and all of a sudden she's on ER and her own show and all sorts of stuff so that worked out really well.
When they were casting for the next game, they knew they had to have somebody that played as well with Nolan, and when Claudia came in she just fell in. Claudia's great. She's really funny and was able to ad lib with him, and as soon as they saw that - all of those castings were done with Nolan - they were like, "That's it, she's Chloe." It's funny, I get to hear all the out-take audio and stuff, and the two of them are just hilarious - the stuff they're talking about off-set is just brilliant. They acted like old friends from the beginning.
Eurogamer: Would you ever sign a star just to put their name on the box?
Justin Richmond: No, that's not what Naughty Dog's about. If we find somebody who is the right person for the role then that's who we're going to put in. Nobody knew who Nolan was three years ago, but now the guy's a superstar in the videogame world. It was a huge win that he happened to play Drake, and play Drake perfectly, and bring great things for us and Nolan himself. Obviously the guy is now in like every game ever, but he's awesome, and I can't say enough good things about Nolan, he's the nicest guy ever.
The cool thing about the actors, actually, is that they're really involved in the process; they come to the studio and it's really, really cool. The best thing was [laughs], the guy that plays Sully came over to see some of the game we're showing and he was like, "Oh my god this is what it is!" Apart from recording the cinematics, they don't get to see the actual gameplay, so it's really cool to show it off to them.
Eurogamer: It's noticeable that your main bad guys are English and Russian. Have you been watching too many Hollywood action films? Are we really that bad?
Justin Richmond: [Laughs] No you're not that bad. The idea for Lazarevic, that he was this war criminal, was one of the first ideas that Amy had and it came out organically.
Arne Meyer: You're trying to find this archetype of somebody who's really bad and what environment he comes from. And if you're trying to make that believable you've got only a handful of places you can draw upon.
Justin Richmond: We wanted him to be a war criminal, right? And we wanted him to Eastern European... Flynn was just a casting thing. We'd written Flynn and then the guy who ended up playing Flynn just so happened to be British. It's not a choice! It's just the guy who played him had that accent and we're not going to ask him to change.
Eurogamer: Now you've got multiplayer, what do you think sets it apart from other similar games?
Justin Richmond: Everything? [Laughs] The big thing is obviously that there's an environment people can interact with. There's been other cover-based games and those with shooter aids, but there's no game that combines the two so well. You can climb up on top of a ledge, pull someone down, get up there, get behind cover, maybe jump down and break their neck, climb up a wall and maybe pull someone else down. There's no games that replicate that feel.
One of the criticisms in beta was that we didn't have enough vertical, so we went into some of the maps that weren't finished and added even more and pushed it really, really far. There's a map that's not in this demo, that has like seven storeys of verticality and you can get up on these sniper perches and a ton of other stuff. The way you interact with your environment and with other players is totally different and I think that because we spend so much time with the controls it's really tight and it works really well.
Eurogamer: What's your favourite part of the game? Which part would you tell your parents about to really dazzle them?
Justin Richmond: There's three. Am I allowed three?
Eurogamer: If you must!
Justin Richmond: Scene one is what we showed at E3: the demo of the collapsing building, because that sequence of getting up on the roof and finding that helicopter, into the collapsing building, does things that no one has ever done before. When you climb on top of that hotel and you look down at that vista, it just takes your breath away. Even now.
And then the collapsing building does things that are amazing. It seems simple when you look at it, but you've got Drake, you've got a friendly AI, you've got AI, on a moving floor that's falling through space, interactive with objects that you can take cover on but are falling and rotating at the same time - you know that thing with the helicopter? I mean, it's crazy that we pulled it off. So that's just a mind-blowing sequence.
The train is another thing that looks simple but is technically, hugely complex. The train moves through 40 miles of track. It's two or three discrete sets, so you have a jungle set, a tunnel set and then a mountain set. Again, you have all the simple things like AI moving around on a moving train that's moving through space - that took a huge amount of work.
You have Drake interacting with an environment that's moving through space like that - that's hugely complex. Ragdolling - how does that work? It didn't work for a long time. How do the guns work on the train? When you're playing it it's awesome, but technically it's hugely impressive and there's no load at all. Most games wouldn't be able to pull that off - I don't think there's any games that could pull that off.
And the last one is simple, but I think it's amazing, and it's when you get to [...I've cut out a massive spoiler here, this is sanitised -Ed] and it starts to pour rain and floods. It's awesome.
It just looks so cool. You move through this environment, it's been stunning and nice and beautiful, all of a sudden it starts to rain a bit and you come to this doorway, you hear thunder, it starts to pour rain and then you jump down and then there's this flood happening and there's bad guys standing in there and they get wet and you get wet and they look like they get wet.
The rain's interacting with the flood: when you kill somebody the water pushes the bodies downriver. That is just... That's not a set-piece, I just think it's really cool.
Eurogamer: So those are the three. Do you have any other ones?
Arne Meyer: I really love the train.
Eurogamer: That is also our editor's choice.
Justin Richmond: One of the really cool things about Uncharted 2 is seeing these huge sets and thinking, "I'm going to get over there. I don't know how to do it yet, but I'm going to get over there."
My favourite set-up is when you get to the... [I'm protecting you from spoilers again - Ed] and you come to this area and the bad guys are ahead of you and in place, but they don't know you're coming, and you can stealth your way through this whole bit. Probably 15 minutes of gameplay.
Eurogamer: Now you've picked your favourite part, it's time to pick your favourite character.
Justin Richmond: I think Chloe's my favourite character, besides Drake - obviously I love Drake. But I think Chloe's awesome and she's really, really funny and plays off Drake... Oh, no no no! I love Sully! Can I have the three of them? Does that count? I guess if I have to pick one then I'd love to see another adventure with Chloe in, for sure.
Arne Meyer: I'm going to be traditional: I really like Lazarevic. I think he really emphasises this badass villain. The model looks great. We're always creating these human antagonists and he looks badass enough that you're scared of him, and that's visually, because of his attitude. Oh, and Drake.
Justin Richmond: Yeah, Lazarevic, he's awesome. And Flynn... Ha ha.
Eurogamer: Tom Bramwell's choice is Temzin.
Justin Richmond: Oh, he likes Temzin? Temzin's awesome. Actually, the guy who plays Temzin is really cool, too. He came into the office and he did a bunch of reads of our Tibetan stuff. The cool thing about Temzin is that he doesn't speak any English, and we don't translate it. So he talks to you and you don't know what he's saying, and I don't think that a lot of games would do that. And a little known fact: Cristophe [Balestra's] children are in the game as the children villagers.
Eurogamer: Amy Hennig was talking about Naughty Dog as a company the other day. You're quite small, yet you've smacked the PS3 around like no other - what makes you special?
Justin Richmond: It's the people; the environment that we work in. It's super collaborative, we're really careful about who we hire, so we spend a long time vetting people.
Arne Meyer: We might not hire someone who's traditionally a tools designer - they might come from a completely different background. Our tools designer, who's awesome, if you looked at his background you'd never have placed him where he is, yet he's probably one of the best programmers we've ever worked with. It's really just about how they fit in the environment. A lot of our artists come from Hollywood doing CGI work.
Justin Richmond: The people we hire... You can't just be good at what you do; you've gotta work with people really, really well because Naughty Dog is 100 per cent collaborative. If you can't handle people coming over to your desk telling you that what you're working on sucks then it's not for you. I can go over to Paul, the engine guy, and say, "Hey, I noticed this sun thing here, what's going on with that?" And he'll go, "Oh, I should fix that," or, "Oh, we have a plan in place."
Alternatively, he can come over to me and say, "The cover in this multiplayer map is terrible! What's going on?" So we'll fix that. We get a lot of that stuff; everybody plays the game and everybody has input. The level of acceptable work is very, very high, and everybody knows that and everybody is pushing the bar in their own field. Nobody at Naughty Dog is willing to accept anything less than the best. If that means going back and doing something over again or spending more time on it then that's what we're going to do.
Arne Meyer: We have a flat hierarchy and the reason it's like that is because everybody is working at such a high level that we don't need a deeper hierarchy. Everybody is of the quality to be a lead in their own department.
Justin Richmond: The cool thing is that you'll literally have access to the presidents when you need to. So if some character artist thinks something is not working he can literally go to Evan [Wells] and say, "I don't think this is working." Or go to the lead of that department and say, "Hey, what's going on with this? We need to make this better." All those things.
And on top of that we just have some brilliant programmers. I can say, "I have this really crazy idea!" That's how it usually starts. And then someone will go, "That is crazy, but let's figure out how to do it..." Now that the tech is where it is, there's nothing we couldn't do at this point.
Eurogamer: Do you still play Dodgeball with Sony Santa Monica?
Justin Richmond: Actually, they've just started a league this week! What was the name of our team? Naughty Balls I think.
Arne Meyer: Yeah!
Justin Richmond: It's them and Infinity Ward and Sony Santa Monica and Insomniac and a bunch of people just from LA.
Eurogamer: Ah! And do you still have a close relationship with Sony Santa Monica?
Justin Richmond: Yeah! I mean, we share tech with all those studios. Guerrilla gave us all this stuff and we gave them some stuff. Media Molecule came over and we did some stuff with them.
Arne Meyer: Insomniac... It seems a little closer with Sony Santa Monica because they're two blocks away. Ha ha.
Justin Richmond: I have lunch with Warren, one of their designers, like every other week. Actually they were working on some stuff and they called Cristophe and I to go over there and talk to them. But again, we would do that with any other studio - actually, even non first-party studios: we talk to Infinity Ward a lot. We'll talk to anybody. If you want to talk to us, we'll talk to you.
It's really cool that we foster these relationships with these other studios, because actually you'll see in the multiplayer when the game comes out that all these other studios have tags. We have the paw for Naughty Dog, but Infinity ward and Insomniac and Guerrilla all have their own little tags too.
Eurogamer: What are you doing next? You can tell me.
Justin Richmond: [Laughs] I don't know what we'll do next actually.
Arne Meyer: We definitely think of Uncharted as a franchise and we'd love to work on another one. But it's really about what is fresh and what we want to do next.
Justin Richmond: People right now are just like, "It's out the door let's go to the beach!" But it's funny, because you'll come to the office and people will be like "Hey, check out this cool thing I'm working on." There are already people doing cool stuff and brainstorming.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is out today for PS3 and reviewed elsewhere on the site.