Post originally written on May 2, 2016
I want to look at the Uncharted series’s (1, 2, 3) levels before the release of Uncharted 4. The purpose of this is to identify and understand the “building blocks” used to create levels.
My primary focus is level design and how that supports the narrative and gameplay of this story adventure title.
Before I cover level design, it is important to remember narrative drives the game’s development. First and foremost, Naughty Dog games are all about character relationships. The bonds forged between characters drives the narrative of the game. And that narrative creates a tone that resonates with the player. All aspects of development (audio, level, environment, systems, gameplay, etc) must support that narrative tone.
In each Uncharted game, there are two parallel stories to unravel: the story of Nate & company, and the story of the treasure heist. How these two are interwoven is how we get a complete action-adventure game and determines what/how environments get developed.
For the story of Nate and the cast of characters that relate to him, we learn more about each individual character and what they mean to Nate. Nathan Drake is adventurous, light-hearted, funny, stubborn, conflicted, and determined. He is surrounded with people who love him and hate him. Despite the over the top adventures they undergo, these characters exchange silly banter and emotional struggle, making them believable characters. Hence why people can relate to Nate and the cast. And these relations between the player and Nate grow deeper as the series moves on. The tone of Nate’s story is humorous and playful, yet emotional and touching.
The second parallel narrative of the treasure heist provides the basis for where the story takes place. Each Uncharted game involves a rich history of fortune and fame lost to the world long ago and becomes a race to riches between Nate and any interested parties to reach it. Whether it’s the elaborate tales of El Dorado, Shambala, or Ubar, the game’s narrative structure is paced by a scavenger hunt yielding the depth of the treasure’s history. The tone is mysterious and secretive yet thrilling and adventurous.
With the two parallel narratives of Nate and fortune, the tone equates to a thrilling, action-adventure filled with tugging of the heart strings. So the world of Uncharted and its levels need to provide excitement in its action but also allow for reflection of awe and depth in its adventure.
So what better way to accomplish that through a combination of combat and traversal.
Core Game Loop & Mechanics
The narrative action-adventure of Uncharted is a simple game loop:
Traverse/Puzzle > Combat > Cutscene
Not always in this order, but you basically move through an environment as the puzzle, fight the bad guys, then receive narrative progression as your reward.
The game mechanics can be derived from those core game loops:
Traverse/Puzzle = Climb, Jump, Interact
Combat = Punch/Fist Fight, Aim, Shoot, Cover, Toss Grenade, Dodge/Roll
And with the narrative and the mechanics established, we can actually see the building blocks of level design derived from the core game loop.
Uncharted Level Design
Story beats of the plot establishes different levels within the world of Uncharted. They organize the narrative by chapters that has a number of levels within it reflecting the pace of the story. Using my own terminology, levels are categorized as: Puzzle Traversal, Combat Arenas, and On-the-Rails
1) Puzzle Traversal Levels -
Levels that require navigating the environment where the level itself is a puzzle. Sometimes, the puzzle is figuring out how to move throughout the space like jumping from one chandelier to the next then climbing up a series of poles where the puzzle is the environment. And other times, there may be distinct room(s) where the player needs to interact with the objects in the space, usually using hints from Nate’s sketch book, to solve the puzzle. These puzzle traversal levels allow for a variety of scale as they take place within exterior, interior environments, or a combination. And giving an explicit puzzle helps break up the pace of simply moving through the environment.
Using Nate’s mechanics of climbing, jumping, and interacting with object, the player must find their way to the end of the level to unlock narrative progression as their reward. The level guides the player by using vibrant textures/colors (often, classic Naughty Dog yellow) to show what ledges or objects to climb on. These ledges or objects are clearly different such as bricks that bulge out with detailed textures giving hints to the player. In addition, the cameras plays a role in providing hints. Although the camera is freely adjustable by the player with Nate as its pivot point, certain areas script the camera to force a perspective/direction to hint at what they should pay attention to next. This is limited as Uncharted wants the player to have full control of the camera but give a nudge when walking up against a tall wall or vista; a slight helper. And of course, if the player has a hard time figuring things out, there’s typically a fail-safe by giving a hint (pressing d-pad up) after a certain amount of time has passed and Nate verbally expresses / someone expresses to him about being stuck or lost.
In Uncharted 2 Chapter 8, Nate and Chloe are in the temple where a large room requires them to use mirrors to reflect light towards the center of the room to unlock the puzzle. The size of the room has Nate run across ledges, climb up and down bricks, and interact with mirrors while having Chloe as the companion assisting him and verbally giving hints. Yellow ledges and detailed textures lead the player to where their next step may be but also uses light to guide this puzzle. This larger scale traversal puzzle gives the player an appreciation of the environment according to its narrative but also providing some brain teaser as a break from a previously action-packed combat arena level.
These levels are important in slowing down the pace of the action and gives time to the players to appreciate the world Nate has gotten himself into.
2) Combat Arenas Levels -
Levels that provide appropriate amount of cover (or lack of) built in a manner that allows the player to fight through different encounters. These levels utilize Nate’s mechanics of climbing, shooting, fist fighting, and cover to defeat enemies so the player can advance to next narrative objective. The overall direction of these levels vary in scale and arrangement but overall, provides a clear direction of where Nate can position himself against incoming enemies. Most combat arenas have Nate placed on one side or corner of the level while the enemy are placed throughout. Typically, it feels like Nate will fight in a manner that feels like he’s pushing forward whether the level is a narrow space or open area. This linear combat progression can be as literal as fighting in a train where the space is physically narrow moving from one car to the next and fighting enemies that are literally in front of you. Or, if the space is large with varying height, Nate will typically be on one end of the map and must push his way “forward” by taking out each enemy then making his way to the “other end” of the map. It’s all about reaching one side to the next.
I think Uncharted 2 had some of the best combat arenas because it created fantastic moment to moment combat utilizing its level design. For example, at beginning of Chapter 12, the city street level where Nate and Elena escape close call with the enemy, they are in the dense city where enemies clearly have access to various balconies for fighting. To counter balance that, tall sign posts are placed throughout the level and have a number of signs on each side like a branches to a tree. Nate can climb onto different “branches” but also orient himself on either side of the metal sign and use that as cover during encounters.
It serves as tactical advantage of traversal and cover. In this particular level, enemies spawn from a couple of spots on rooftops/floors where it forces the player to utilize all aspects of this sign post. I found myself swapping on one side, shooting a guy down, hearing bullets fly at me somewhere else, then quickly hopping up then swinging Nate over to the opposite side just to take out my newly angered enemies. And scripted events caused a sign I was using to fall in a manner that oriented Nate a different direction but acted quickly to take out threats. It was thrilling as I had to act quickly and use the environment to my advantage. Even though this was merely a small moment within the level itself, it was clear that it was arena for fighting creatively.
These levels are about Nate and company defeating the enemy and move onto their objectives. Aware of Nate’s capabilities and enemy design, level designers find different ways and arrangements to keep combat engaging and exciting through scale, enemy placement, environmental challenges, all of which are obstacles for Nate to overcome and push “forward” in the story.
3) On-the-Rails Levels
Time-sensitive levels dictated by a major threat on “the rails” that is chasing Nate and will kill him if the player does not react/respond within time limit. These levels are linear because there is only a single, straightforward path to navigate and requires Nate to use any of his mechanics quickly or he will die and/or cannot reach the objective. And the idea behind all of this is the notion of a “moving level” in this thrilling adventure of Uncharted.
This can actually be broken up into two sub-categories: On the rails combat (where Nate is “stationary”) or on the rails traversal (where Nate is moving).
“On-the-rails Combat” - The level and camera experience is scripted on the rails, or moving in a linear path, while Nate is “stationary”. The objective is to defeat enemies within a certain time and/or distance to protect his life or the objective at hand. These levels typically have Nate in a moving vehicle operating a machine gun or limited movement on a platform. The player typically has control of turning the camera around despite Nate’s limited movement himself.
These levels do not have a lot of traversal but Nate must still respond to killing enemies within a time limit.
“On-the-rails Traversal” - The camera dictates the experience as its scripted on a rail and Nate must traverse the level in time to keep up with the moving screen. Unlike the “on the rails combat”, the game briefly becomes a platformer where Nate must jump/climb very quickly across the map as obstacles and enemies serve to prevent Nate from doing so. And like the puzzle traversal levels, the environment hints to the player where they should go through shape language, detailed textures, vibrant colors to get them to head the right direction to escape danger.
Uncharted 3 did a great job on these types of levels and provided great variation of them in their narrative context. One of my favorite on the rails traversal level is in the first chapter where a flashback of young Nate is running across the city rooftops.
Despite the city density of dozens of rooftops and balconies in what seems like “too many choices”, there are a number of things at work: the camera placement hints to what to jump onto next, strong forms of lines within the architecture guide player’s eye (i.e. direction of gable roofs, direction of Spanish terracotta rooftops patterns), avoiding where enemies pop out of windows, and even the direction of white birds flying that catches player eye. And during this intense platforming, the camera is actually not completely on the rails. It is actually moving at the player’s speed with many minor scripted moments where camera will shift to hint next direction. But the sense of urgency feels like the environment and camera moves forward, and thus, the player needs to “keep up” before it’s too late. These “on the rail” levels creates high amounts of intensity as time pressures the players to react quickly. And these quickly paced moments provide great variety to the narrative experience as a whole.
Mix n’ Match Building Blocks
With these three main categories of levels, Uncharted can mix and match to create variety in their levels but also maintain gameplay challenges and expectation. With the narrative plot in mind, the level can then pace itself to match the beats.
For example, Uncharted 3′s ship level (chapter 14 and 15) is a good example of a holistic narrative level design. In chapter 14, Nate infiltrates a ship to find Sully and finds himself in a combat arena in the main room of the ship. He wards off enemies in this multi-story room, moves on through the corridors of the ship and finds himself in a bit of mess. But as certain events causes the ship to sink, this once familiar level now gets flipped on its side as it becomes an on-the-rails-traversal level. So chapter 14 used this ship as a traditional combat arena level but with certain unfortunate events, turned chapter 15′s version of the ship to a faster pace thriller as Nate needed to move fairly quickly in the same level that was now turned over and flooding waters.
Understanding the narrative and mechanics calls for three types of “building blocks” within level design. This establishes expectation for the player as they’ve been trained to understand what they (Nate) can do, and expect to perform those actions within the environment given to them.
What Could Be Improved, Changed?
Uncharted level design and narrative follow a linear formula. I don’t want to take away or throw odd curve balls at player expectation, but I would try to introduce some variation or branching diamond structure narrative within the level design itself. By having Nate make a decision in a level, perhaps the environment may force the him to navigate else where or make other decisions that wouldn’t make a completely different narrative as a whole, but rather change that player’s experience within a certain level that can be 1) different that someone else’s, and 2) curiosity to create replayability. Imagine, in a puzzle traversal level or on-the-rails-traversal, if the player decide to quickly hit a switch that requires Nate and companion to be split up for a little while within a temple (reunited after the level), equates to a different narrative experience were he to make a decisions to see them together. Or maybe, Nate chose to shoot all but one or two bad guys who ended up escaping the level and popping up later forcing a different combat arena. This can reward additional narrative lines or extra VO you may not get otherwise. Or even different combat encounter. It may not change the experience as a whole, but they would experience that segment differently that could alter how they feel. Uncharted 4 has already alluded to the idea of narrative decisions choices within dialogue, but they appear to be within cutscenes and may not necessarily branch the narrative. I suggest taking this idea to the building block level where certain decisions forces the player to experience the level differently. It will still follow the overall formula of linear story telling (both literal to the level and narrative) but still can give some variation and make players wonder “what if I did this instead”?
So What? And What About Uncharted 4?
I write all of this, well, because I treat these analysis as a “note to self” for games I play… but because the release of Uncharted 4 is within a few days, and this was a way to recap and understand the overall structure of the Uncharted series. A series that dates back all the way to 2007! Nearly a decade of working and learning from this series, we are nearing the end as they release the final piece of the Uncharted story. There have been development videos discussing how Naughty Dog has learned a lot from making The Last of Us and how they plan to tie those lessons in making Uncharted 4 the “best Uncharted of the series”. So by understanding the building blocks set by the past three games (and having played The Last of Us), I look forward to see what the last one has to offer.