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In 'Uncharted' games, story adapts to big action scenes

Mark Milian, CNN
The makers of video game
The makers of video game "Uncharted 3" built their story around cinematic action set pieces.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sony's "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" for PlayStation 3 hits stores on Tuesday
  • The previous two games sold a combined 8 million copies
  • Game's developers say the creation process starts with a big action scene

San Francisco (CNN) -- When the developers of the "Uncharted" video games sat down to brainstorm their latest adventure, the first thing they decided was that they had to have a cargo plane and a cruise ship.

No matter that they didn't have a story, script or setting yet.

The designers and programmers immediately went to work on what reviewers say are the most memorable scenes in "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception." The PlayStation 3 game, published by Sony Computer Entertainment and developed by Naughty Dog, is set to hit stores on Tuesday.

"Yeah, that would be pretty cool. Let's do it," Naughty Dog co-president Christophe Balestra recalled saying then. In an interview this week, he and creative director Amy Hennig offered a look at his studio's unusual storyboarding process.

Their goal at the start of each game's production is to "try to come up with these set-piece moments that aren't just for show," Hennig said. "In many ways, they become the signature pieces of the game."

Those segments also take the longest to plan and build, which is why they need to be conceived as early in the process as possible.

A scene from new adventure game \
A scene from new adventure game "Uncharted 3."

A memorable scene from "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" was planned in the same way. It involves a firefight atop a moving train, and it's a moment that is often referenced when reviewers compare the Uncharted games to blockbuster action films. Naughty Dog executives have said that the train scene took a long time to get right and that they considered cutting it in order to make Sony's launch deadline.

After determining a game's centerpieces, Naughty Dog's brass then choose where the story will take place. They ask themselves, "Where can we go that's physically different?" Hennig said. Previous games have sent the protagonist, Nathan Drake, to uncharted territories that include jungles and snowy tundras. For "Uncharted 3," the Drake character will explore sand dunes.

Next, Hennig had the unenviable task of figuring out how in the story a giant boat fits together with a desert locale.

"I can't start off with a big script," she said. "I'd rather be given the weird challenge of, 'OK, we're going to do a desert and a cruise ship. Figure out how.'"

Hennig is familiar with atypical assignments. At Electronic Arts in the early 1990s, she was the lead designer for "Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City," a game that placed the basketball great into a Super Mario-style adventure, fiery basketballs in hand. (Hennig dodged working on a sister project called "Shaq Fu," which has ranked on countless worst-video-game-of-all-time lists.)

Naughty Dog takes pride in its games having "character-driven stories," rather than employing mindless action or scattershot plots. Hennig spurns the use of a "silent protagonist." However, character development, which she says is the game's most important element, still has to bend to the parameters set earlier in the development process.

"The story has to be the most flexible thing in the whole production," Hennig said. "It's way more like working on a television show."

Naughty Dog execs Christophe Balestra and Amy Hennig.
Naughty Dog execs Christophe Balestra and Amy Hennig.

It's a show that many people are tuning in to. "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" has sold nearly 5 million copies. That beats the original game, which sold 3 million units, not a disappointment by most standards. The expectations are high for the upcoming game, and the initial reactions have been very positive.

Still, the technical improvements in "Uncharted 3" aren't quite as drastic as the leap Naughty Dog made between the first and second games, Hennig said. The latest edition incorporates features the developer has wanted to have since the original, she said.

"We're pretty run down," Hennig said. "Not only does it get physically harder as you get older, it gets emotionally and spiritually harder."

Naughty Dog doesn't expect to put out another game for at least two years, Hennig and Balestra said. (A different studio is making "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" for the PlayStation Vita.) They said executives haven't decided whether the next game will be part of the Uncharted franchise, or another Naughty Dog series like "Crash Bandicoot" or "Jak and Daxter" -- or something completely new.

Whatever it is, you can bet the development process will begin with an epic helicopter flight or car chase or explosion of some sort.

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