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Uncharted 2 Creative Director Amy Hennig on Why Making Video Games Is Harder Than Making Movies

In the critically adored new PlayStation 3 game Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (out now), wise-cracking adventurer Nathan Drake returns in search of more lost treasure, romance, and spectacularly rendered gun violence. As you may have already gleaned from the screenshot above, Uncharted 2 is a great leap forward from its predecessor in all expected areas (graphics, level design, impressiveness of helicopter explosions, etc.). What's the same is the elegant storytelling, well-developed characters, and immersive, cinematic gameplay that makes you feel like you're watching a great adventure film. Last week, on the day of the game's release, we spoke with its creative director, Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig, to find out how they did it.

You're the game's creative director. What does that job entail?
We have both a creative director and a game director, and these two jobs are halves of a whole. So I work hand in hand with our game director, and his focus is primarily on how the big vision gets translated into the gameplay. And my focus is, how does the big vision get translated into story, characters, and cinematics. Together, we try to make sure the whole thing is a flowing cinematic experience. So to put it briefly, my main focus is on story and writing and working with the actors.

Where do you even begin work on a game like Uncharted 2?
You start with a bunch of research. Thank god for the Internet — this used to be a lot harder when I had to go to the library. We knew we wanted to do something very different than a jungle island [where the first Uncharted was set]. So the first thing we thought of was snow and East Asia and the Himalayas. In terms of mythology, that took us to the idea of Shangri-La and Shamballah. And from a historical perspective, it immediately made us think of Marco Polo. So I picked up a biography of Marco Polo and it just turned out that there was this interesting, convenient mystery about him, which was this journey home of his where he lost thirteen of his ships and hundreds of passengers and never said anything about it. We thought, "That's awesome." And then were just off and running.

The level of detail in this game is impressive — one of the characters has nose hairs, even. Can you give me an example of something that's in there that most players won't notice right away?
Well, we had one low camera shot, so we figured you’ve got to have the nose hair. He's in his nineties. We always say there are so many things that if we do them right you would never notice. The amount of detail that goes into the character models, especially on their faces ... You think about something like an eyeball and the amount of work that goes into making that not seem like a creepy, painted-on sphere. You actually have to model in the concave iris and actually work out the refraction of the cornea and how the light bounces around in there. It's stuff that a few years ago we didn’t even consider. But now, if you don’t get it right, the characters just seem like scary mannequins.

The game is being positively compared to lots of recent adventure movies. Could your team make a movie?
We probably could. And honestly — and I’m sure I’m being completely foolish to say so — but in some ways I think it would be a lot easier. What we do is so complicated. People have made analogies before — it's like you're trying to shoot a movie while inventing the movie camera. We have to write these game engines to make the game do what it does. An industry like film, where there’s some new technologies but a lot of it is working in very familiar territory, there’s a formula they can use. Whereas we’re right out on the bleeding edge all the time.

The camera movement is really great in this game. Were you consulting with a cinematographer?
No. We have programmers that focus on camera control and camera movement as one of their primary concerns. It is really an art, to make sure they’re adjusting and creating triggers for the camera to do appropriate things at appropriate times, to present the scene to the player in a way that doesn’t fell like you’re being led by the nose through the game, but also shows you what you need to see. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of games fall flat. We don’t have any particular person who’s a specialist, but that would actually be handy to have someone who is shepherding that whole thing.

Were there any specific parts of the game that took the longest development time??
The stuff that's on the moving terrain. The level on the train probably more than anything else. After finishing the first Uncharted, we said we know we want to have a sequence on a moving train. We don’t know where that train’s going to be, we don’t know what the story’s going to be, but let’s get working on it. And it was literally one of the last levels to be finished. So you’re talking about almost two years of development on a single level — and one designer that was committed to it the entire time, so thank God for him.

Columbia Pictures is developing an Uncharted movie. Can you tell us anything about it?
It’s definitely in the works, I can tell people. We’ve got the best possible partners we could in Columbia Pictures. If anybody’s got any fears of them not understanding the material or not loving it as much as we do, they can wipe those fears away, because these guys really get it. I can say from the meetings I’ve had with them so far, their hearts and their heads are absolutely in the right place.

Uncharted is pretty cinematic already, which should make it fairly easy to adapt into a film. Do you feel sorry for the guys who have to turn plotless games like Asteroids or the Sims into movies?
Yeah, it’s amazing how everything gets optioned these days. I guess people are desperate for ideas. The glass-half-full aspect is that it gives them a lot of creative freedom. But I think because Uncharted is coming from this long, long tradition of the action-adventure genre, it’s a very natural transition back to film. It certainly does make it easier.

Will Uncharted 3 be a PS3 game, or will it be for Sony's next console?
I don’t think I’m able to talk about any of that right now. On a completely general level, the PS3 is an amazing piece of hardware that both us and other developers are only now tapping into its full potential. There’s a lot of life in that box. That’s really the best answer I can give you.

So are you allowed to say what you’re working on now?
Well, what we do after we finish a project is we try to push people out of the building so they can all go on vacation. And we expect people to take several weeks off and just chill. But when people are back in the office we want people to explore new ideas regardless of what that idea might be associated with project-wise. So it might be a pet piece of technology, a cool little optimization a programmer wants to do. It gives people a little elbow room to try out some ideas that they can then pitch to the team. Inevitably, these ideas end up being a core part of whatever the next project is.

What did you think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Obviously, you're a fan of the series.
Yeah, of the series for sure. Those guys are our heroes and have been a huge inspiration. Boy, they had a tough row to hoe with Crystal Skull. You take something that’s so beloved from people’s childhoods and you’re almost inevitably going to disappoint people, right? That’s a tough job and I deliberately went to a midnight screening and I went with certain expectations, and you know what, I really enjoyed the movie. I understand people’s complaints about it and there are certain things I look at and go, "Yeah, they probably should have done that differently." And they probably do too. But all in all, I was one of those people that came out going, "Yeah, that was fun." At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do too.

Photo: Courtesy of Naughty Dog