UNCHARTED Territory: Behind Game Writing w/ Neil Druckmann

UNCHARTED Territory: Behind Game Writing

Games today are more akin to movies than the single button and joystick days of yore. With big budgets, bit talent, and fully fleshed out stories, they are letting you interact and play a role, starring in tales of adventure from days of dragons to mystical legends and even in the far reaches of space.

Neil Druckmann is the Creative Director at Naughty Dog, home of the award-winning Uncharted series (it even won our pick for Game of the Year 2009). We spoke with Druckmann about the process of writing for games in his prior role as Lead Game Designer, his favorite parts, and why they're a unique medium. Oh, we also got a little tease about Uncharted 3 at E3 next week.

Newsarama: Let's start, as they say, at the beginning, Neil. When did you decide you wanted to work in video games? Was there a particular game that got you to that point, or was it a slow, cumulative thing?

Neil Druckmann: Well I've always loved games, since my earliest memories playing Double Dragon or Rampage. I was always a video game geek growing up. But I never really thought  people actually make this stuff and that's an actual job you can pursue, until I was in college.

I was a criminology major for three years, and I had this crazy idea I was going to become an FBI agent. Then as an elective I took a programming course and really enjoyed it. I thought, You know what? Maybe I can make video games! So I thought if I could program I can get into games. At the same time I was reading "Next Generation Magazine" and oddly enough there was an interview with Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, the co-founders of Naughty Dog. They were just talking about how they broke into the industry, and how their love of games just made them do it. Those two events inspired me to change direction!

Nrama: Was there any backlash in your family about switching from Criminology to video games?

Druckmann: No, not really, because it was Computer Science, so my family thought that sounded like a respectable major. They wouldn't let me go into art, for a long time I wanted to be an animator, and that's the one thing my parents put their foot down on.

Nrama: Most people probably don't know what "Lead Game Designer" means. What fell under your purview with that title?

Druckmann: Naughty Dog is pretty "flat" for the most part. We try to have a culture where anyone can speak their mind about anything. For example, if an animator is playing multiplayer and sees something they don't like, they're going to come and complain and say "this sucks, fix it!" Usually they're more considerate than that. (laughs) But anyone can go and tell someone animation is wrong, or modeling, anything like that.

On Uncharted 1, we started introducing the concept of leads. So Leads are funneling the conversation more and leading the department towards the greater vision of what the game is. So a lead game designer is overseeing level design, combat design, basically anything where we're designing the experience for the player.

Nrama: You also do some of the writing for the games though, right?

Druckmann: Yeah, I was co-writer on the first two games in the Uncharted series.

Nrama: Well, writing for games, especially games that are basically 15 hour interactive movies like the Uncharted series sounds like a daunting task. How do you start something like that, with so much ahead of you?

Druckmann: I think we try to avoid thinking how daunting that task is. Every story starts with a concept or an idea. Often it's a historical cue- with Uncharted 2 we were really fascinated with Marco Polo's journey. We found this historical fact that he had this fleet of ships, and somewhere along the line on his way back to Italy, they were lost. But it was never told what happened to those. So for us that's an interesting what if.

So it starts with a spark like that, or it's more character driven. Uncharted 1, we didn't really see Drake in his more natural element, which is that of a criminal. So Uncharted 2 we thought "what kind of people would he associate with?" We then just start with a ton of ideas, 99% of which will get thrown away. We just start chipping away at them and fleshing out the basic flow of the game, the basic flow of the arc of the characters.

Then as levels come online we start writing stuff for the specific levels. We'll write dialogue for one area, then back out and make sure that it fits with the macro vision of what we're trying to accomplish. If the answer is yes, then we go on. If the answer is no, but the new stuff is more interesting than what we were doing on a macro level, then we'll try to change that.

Nrama: So those early parts of the process is kind of done by committee?

Druckmann: On Uncharted 2, it was me, Josh Scherr the lead cinematic animator, Amy Henning, the creative director, and Bruce Straley the game director. So we were kind of the unofficial story team. Other people would come in and out of the meetings but it was basically that group. Sometimes we'd jump around the interesting locations to go to and why he'd need to go to those places. Sometimes we discuss characters or Drake's arc or gameplay and how that can influence story. So we'd jump around topics, and keep pinning things to the wall, seeing how it affects the story, adding new ideas, throwing out ideas. That's in the pre-production area.

Once we hit production we all go to our regular disciplines and we meet less regularly, but we're brainstorming on our own and bringing them together. So Bruce and I will focus more on design because we're working in that department, whereas Amy and them are focused more on the story and the cinematic. So we'll then check there to make sure the gameplay stuff is working with the story stuff.

Nrama: When scripting dialogue, are you writing things just in a "movie script" style, or is your format different for games? Does it change between cinematics and during-gameplay sequences?

Druckmann: For the most part when we write we use the screen-writing program Final Draft, so it's much like you'd write for a movie or a TV show. We don't have branching dialogue, so we don't have to worry about how to handle that like you would in a game like Mass Effect or Fallout.

A lot of our in-game dialogue is improvised by the actors. We'll write a few lines, the basic flow of what we think they should talk about. Then we'll capture video of the gameplay sequence. Let's say the collapsing building from Uncharted 2. Then we'll bring the actors in, and they're so in-sync with the characters, they'll watch the videos and improvise. They go off-the-wall, come up with jokes, how the characters would react to these situations, and they give us tons and tons of material.

So actually, the wittiest lines are coming from the actors and not from us.

Nrama: What do you look to as influences when it comes to writing? Is it strictly other games, or do you look at movies and tv shows and even novels and comics too?

Druckmann: I try to stay away from games as a writing influence, because that tends to stand out too much. It's the novels; I know Amy will go a lot of times to classic movies. We're obviously heavily influenced by Indiana Jones but we'll go to stuff that's influenced by, like Gunga Din, or old comics like Tin-Tin.

Nrama: Which stage of game writing comes the most naturally, and which is the most challenging? Does that vary at all from game to game, or even section to section?

Druckmann: In that group I was telling you about, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I really struggle with dialogue, because English is my second language. So it takes me a long time to get dialogue that I feel comfortable with. I feel more comfortable with looking at the structure of a scene and guiding the dramatic sequence of it.

As a company, one of our strengths is pacing; we really focus a lot of energy on making sure once someone picks up the controller and starts playing the game that it's a roller coaster ride that they never want to put down. So at the end we'll make huge cuts to the game if it's not working or a scene is too long.

Nrama: For someone who wants to write games- what recommendations do you have for them? Are there any specific other aspects of games they should study?

Druckmann: I think it's really hard to get into game writing unless you're already in games, in that company. Or if you've proven yourself in writing in another medium like comics or a TV show or something like that. For me, I started as a programmer at Naughty Dog, then I moved over to design and was always really interested in writing. So for someone interested in writing games, I would say focus on writing, but look on other ways to get your foot in the door at the company.

Indie games is another great way to get into it, there are a lot of people making them.

Nrama: What do you think it is that has made story so important to today's video games?

Druckmann: I think as humans we just love stories. It's a way for us to experience these events or meet these characters we wouldn't otherwise. It's a way for us to draw on that and attach it to the visceral action that you're playing. Giving emotional context to it makes it much more powerful. If the game plays really well, it can only be so good without a story to support that.

Nrama: Spinning off of that, what is it about games uniquely as a storytelling medium that appeals to you?

Druckmann: There are certain ways to tell stories that you just can't in other mediums. One of my favorite sequences in Uncharted 2 is when you're carrying the cameraman. Jeff gets shot and you're carrying him, and the two females, Chloe and Elena are the two sides of Drake's conscience. Chloe is telling you to drop this guy and Elena wants to save him. So as you're playing it, you're hearing the argument, and the action is going on around you and you're feeling the pressure, feeling the tension, and it all leads up to the cutscene where Chloe turns on you. So I think you can only get that connection, that tension in a game. You could tell the same story in another medium, but not get the same experience.

Nrama: What's your favorite part about working on the Uncharted series in particular?

Druckmann: I'll say two things. I really like the idea part in the beginning, when it's a blank slate and we're spitballing and coming up with ideas, it feels so creative, like anything goes. The opposite side is I like the end of the game when it's all coming together, you're head down, mouse and keyboard, tweaking things, and seeing it all come together.

Nrama: So you like the beginning and the end, but the middle is terrible.

Druckmann: (laughs) The middle is the hard part! You're trying to get things to come together, but it's not really there.

Nrama: Now, you've also written a graphic novel - tell us a little about that and what was appealing about the graphic novel format for you.

Druckmann: It was awesome, I've been a huge fan of comics my whole life. In a different life if I were to pursue art I would've become a comic book artist. It was a relief to work on something that I completed on my own. Uncharted, we're really writing by committee, there's a creative director and game director that have a vision and we're trying to follow that vision, but it's collaborative.

So for me, A Second Chance at Sarah was a personal story that I wanted to tell, and I found an artist I really enjoyed working with. So it was nice to just do something that I really loved and enjoyed.

Nrama: Would you write an Uncharted comic if the opportunity came?

Druckmann: Well I actually did! We did an Uncharted motion comic that's actually a prequel to the first game.

Nrama: Do you think we'll see more of that, or maybe in print?

Druckmann: Maybe… maybe….

Nrama: Now I know you can't really say much of all about Uncharted 3 but can you tease us a bit with what we'll be seeing at E3 next week?

Druckmann:  I'll say, when Uncharted 2 demoed with the collapsing building at E3, we won a bunch of best in show awards. We're going to totally blow that away. If you're going to see what we're showing at E3, bring a diaper, because you're going to lose your sh*t.

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