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Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley on the singular mission of 'Uncharted 4'

The key to 'Uncharted's' success? It's the characters, say its creators

On Monday night, the eve of the Electronic Entrainment Expo (E3), Sony unveiled a new segment from the upcoming chapter in its hit "Uncharted" series. In the sequence, set in a Madagascar village, the game's hero, treasure seeker Nathan Drake, is the focal point of all sorts of disaster.

The scene begins with Drake and his pal Sully opening a giant door that leads to a bazaar. Then there are gunshots and a chase through the streets, into buildings, up stairs, on rooftops and into a Jeep. 

But the takeaway was not that "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End" has blockbuster action moments. What lingered after the clip ended was the interplay between Nathan and Sully, and, in an extended version of the scene shown Tuesday at E3, between Nathan and his brother. As the segment progressed, it became about Nathan and his wife.

There was never a pause in the action -- or the dialogue.

One-liners flew between Drake and Sully, and though they were dodging bullets, they also seemed to be having a blast as they rampaged through construction sites and chicken farms.

Then Nathan's brother arrived on the scene. Dressed like a member of Huey Lewis and the News, with the sleeves rolled up on what appeared to be a denim shirt, Drake's demeanor changed slightly from excitement to skepticism, and it was as if the bad influence had apparently strolled into the picture. 

Creators Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann have been clear from the start that "Uncharted 4" will bring a conclusion of sorts to the series. The game centers upon an older Drake, one pulled into an adventure by his friends, by his brother and his own addiction-like inability to simply avoid the allure of a treasure hunt. 

"People's obsessions," Druckmann says when describing the themes of "Uncharted 4." "People's passions in life. Nathan Drake is very much driven by his passion, and that seems to be at odds with trying to settle down with someone he loves."

Indeed, the clip shown to media on Tuesday ended not with a bang but with a quiet moment, one in which Drake, Sully and his brother open a motel room door only to be surprised by Drake's wife, Elena. She isn't happy. Drake, who moments ago was pinned upside down in a Jeep that was about to explode, is suddenly facing a challenge with no easy way out.

The trend right now in video games is to move toward bigger universes. So-called "open-world" games, in theory, afford players a bevy of options, the ability, say proponents, to write their own stories.

Straley and Druckmann have different ideas. They want to write their story, to craft narrative-first games and to create deep, nuanced characters. There may be action sequences in "Uncharted 4" that would make the Avengers jealous, but it's a character-driven game, its designers insist. For that, they say, is the key to forging a connection with the player.

"With 'Uncharted,' it's always been a character-driven action game," Straley says. "It's just cranked up. The thing that we try to do, that we really are conscious of and what other games do different, is we're constantly thinking about the characters. We'll throw away pieces of gameplay or throw away pieces of story in order to maintain something."

He continues, "Even though we can crank it up to 11, if you don't earn that 11 -- that notching up -- if you don't have contrast, then 11 is meaningless."

On the pair's last game, 2013's "The Last of Us," the two definitely dialed it down. Though the game fit comfortably into the zombie genre, its core was the relationship between its two stars, Joel and Ellie. She was a potential cure to the plague, and he was the reluctant caretaker in charge of escorting a teenage girl. Over the course of the game their interplay went from one of forced pleasantries to more of a father-daughter relationship.

Druckmann says the critical and commercial success of the game gave the two the confidence to intersperse more low-key, dialogue-centric moments in their games. He pointed to "Left Behind,' an additional episode to "The Last of Us" that featured a kiss between Ellie and her female friend Riley. 

"You have to earn that," he says. "Games, what I feel like they often get wrong, is they have a good payoff, but without the set-up it falls emotionally flat. That's the thing we work so hard at."

Too often, Druckmann added, games go for broke but don't put in the effort to establish  characters. Or maybe they even sacrifice character development in favor of trying to create player choice.

"We can create jetpacks," Straley says. "We can do whatever we want. But if we're not thinking about the story, if we're not trying to couple it with an emotional beat within the story, then, OK, we give you this big broad expansive environment but you have no pressure. You can go left, right, down, anywhere you want. That ruins the pacing. Pacing is the most essential thing we're after."

"Uncharted 4," at least the bits shown Tuesday, had pacing. There were choices a player appeared to be able to make -- namely involving different directions to run -- but there was always a sense of added character depth. Maybe it was a joke between Sully and Drake, or maybe it was a look of hesitation when Drake's brother offered him a ride on his motorcycle, but the sense was that this was a bigger universe, one in the hands of directors as much as the players.

"I was thinking about films and cinema," Druckmann says. "When you're making a film, you're thinking, 'What is this shot about?' It's got to be one idea. Sometimes, it's 'this, and it's this and it's this.' Then you've lost the audience. It's muddy. That's one of the things we've become much focused on. What is the one thing we're trying to convey?"

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