The original trailer for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune ends without revealing the name of the game. The developers were at a loss deciding what to call their new adventure, when PlayStation’s then-executive vice president Phil Harrison told them calling a game “Uncharted” would mean bad sales in the UK. After the teams E3 2006 teaser ended with only the developer’s name, it prompted a lot of buzz for the game to spread as “that Naughty Dog game” (or more derisively, Dude Raider).
At the time, it wasn’t clear Uncharted — first known as Project Big internally — had a personality all its own, without much to go on beyond some updated takes on exploration and combat and impressive graphics for the era; yet the vibrant colors and dynamic, stylized action left people intrigued. Despite the enthusiasm for this mysterious new adventure game, though, it’s unlikely anyone thought an everyman like the baseball-tee protagonist could dethrone as colossal a pop-cultural presence as Tomb Raider.
Ten years is plenty of time for a reversal of fortunes. This week’s release of Uncharted 4, actually the fifth game in the series (not counting a digital card game and a new Tomb Raider GO-style mobile spinoff), is sure to break new sales records for Sony and Naughty Dog. And when you think of big-budget adventure globetrotting adventure games, its arguable that Nate Drake comes to mind before Lara Croft. How did this happen?
When Uncharted was introduced in 2006, the industry were having some growing pains. The seventh console generation had just barely begun, with Xbox 360 roughly six-months old and PlayStation 3 still months away from its November launch. The new hardware meant wild upgrades in processing power, giving developers newfound abilities to create games with incredible realism. After years of cartoony platformers, Naughty Dog was ready to take the plunge.
Looking back on Drake’s Fortune now, it’s hard to immediately appreciate the impact it had after release, but in 2007 little of what’s now expected — and taken for granted — in modern third-person game was established. To get better performances, Naughty Dog used the same actors for voicework and motion capture, rather than the standard practice of separating the two with different performers. The actors recorded scenes together too, like on a film set.
Since Uncharted was an homage to serial pulp adventure stories, having great characters was a huge priority, meaning they needed to be as believable as possible.
High-res facial resolutions played a big role too. Suddenly, Naughty Dog had the power to show what a character was thinking just by his facial expression.
“We actually tended in the past to write games more like they were radio plays because we couldn’t count on the visuals to convey nuance,” former creative director Amy Hennig said in an interview during the lead-up to the launch of Uncharted 2. “[Now] there’s lots of cases where you can infer things about the characters when they’re not even speaking.
Unlike most other games of its time, this type of nuance is largely what made Uncharted so revolutionary. Aside from the performances themselves, the game also used relatively unnoticed techniques, like blended animations, to make Drake react to, say, rough terrain he was stumbling over as bullets were flying past in real-time — leaving no canned movements to break the immersion or make the adventure feel less like reality.
The game also felt somewhat responsive to what players were doing, with Drake’s friends chatting and reacting to things during gameplay, not just in cutscenes. (To say nothing of the set pieces, which arguably brought larger than life moments and explosively technical action sequences back into the limelight in a fresh new way.)
To be fair, games borrow or are inspired by each other all the time, and storytelling in the medium was traveling in several directions in 2007, which also saw the release of the narratively different (and equally influential) BioShock. And while Gears of War also beat Uncharted to the punch with its partners the year before, it’s doubtful anyone would think of Epic’s shooter as more concerned with character development over action.
Looking at the years since Uncharted’s release, it’s hard to ignore how Naughty Dog’s take on storytelling has appeared to reverberate. Developers have attempted to their game casts more likeable or relatable (or least drawn with a little more depth), in games like Vanquish, Infamous, Enslaved, Resident Evil and even Crystal Dynamics’ rebooted Tomb Raider, to name a few examples, even if not every effort has necessarily been a complete success. (A.I. companions, meanwhile, seem to be in at least half of all third-person games from 2008 onward).
To Naughty Dog’s credit, Uncharted 2 and 3 only improved on the foundation laid by Drake’s Fortune, as the team continued to hone the various tech challenges and integrated writing techniques that brought the games to life. (Even Sony Bend’s lone out-of-house entry Golden Abyss is pretty good).
It was inevitable that Uncharted 4 would further in the same tradition, albeit with a little more edge to its tone post-The Last Of Us, given the studio’s unexpected change in creative leads. Its implications for what may be possible in future triple-A games are huge. Still, without Naughty Dog taking that first step toward creating its own Indiana Jones, the industry might well be a different —and less interesting place.