Bleh, it has been a long road from the start of the Hackathon to typing at my keyboard about the event. This was my first game jam and I was awake a full 24 hours (and beyond), I got sick, and wrecked my sleeping schedule all in order to make a game that only ended up being partially finished. I wouldn’t change a thing. Even with all of its drawbacks, the experience was extraordinary and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Forgive me if this post is a little rambly and all over the place and less professional than some of my other posts. I’m still dealing with the aforementioned sickness and lack of sleep which, surprise! Makes it really hard to think straight.
Anyways, the beginning is probably the best place to start. Our team consisted of 3 programmers/designers, a narrative designer (me), and a visual artist. We trekked together over the hall in which the event was being held and set up all of our computers and various equipment in one of the rooms. We brought a coffee machine which proved to be an excellent morale booster. Anyways, the premise for our game was a series of short and easy to understand mini-games that up to four players could pick up and play. We started with an original goal of making 10 mini games, but ended up scaling back to 5, and then down to 3 games as our deadline grew nearer and we continually ran into various problems or issues that bogged down progress. The programmers tell me that the back-end programming, as well as programming for 4-players, was a real pain.
The game was called Mini Mages and its narrative premise was that of four novice mages applying for an apprenticeship with a renowned grand mage. A lot of the content I had written for the game didn’t make it due to time constraints, but that’s just game development. Things will always have to be cut for the sake of deadlines and or other restrictions. Speaking of restrictions one of the ones I found challenging while writing for the game was my restriction on the length of content. We wanted the game to feel fast-paced and frantic and we wanted to use a typewriter effect that scrolled text in. Combined with the limitation of having the screen with text appear for a limited amount of time to keep with the quick pace of the game all of my written content had to be around 100 – 120 characters. Not words, characters! My skills to write with brevity were pushed to limits. (Unlike now where I’m just spewing info at you.) It was hard, but it got done eventually. After that, I spent the rest of the night supporting the real heroes (our programmers and visual artist) by looking for free audio we could use, due to a lack of time to create our own, and by making sure everyone was stocked with snacks, coffee, and energy drinks.
Anyways, long story short it was a lot of fun. We made 3 mini games for our game and we got 3rd place out of the other competitors. All in all, not a bad day/night.
I’d highly encourage you to look for game jams in your area and or create your own. They’re great fun especially when you’re surrounded with your friends and working on something that you are all greatly passionate about.
Now I am going to resume sleeping in hopes that eventually I’ll wake up without a headache or feeling sick in general.
Okay, so this is going be a short and sweet post, but an important one none the less. Do all the things! Seriously, do stuff lots of stuff. Learn stuff, go places, see things, it is incredibly important that you do. Why? Because knowing more and having experienced more give you more to draw on when making a game.
If you read my article about experiences (if not check it out: here) then this should be starting to sound a little familiar. Tons of game designers draw on personal experience when making work. Experiences that the designers went through or felt physically or emotionally have helped create truly great games, but you can’t have those experiences to draw on if you don’t have many experiences.
That being said, learning is an experience too and learning a little about a lot of different subjects can really help to inspire your designs. When I write fiction mythology, world history, and culture have a huge influence and inspire me on a regular basis.
So, what I’d urge you to do is go out into the world like it was some sort of open-world RPG sandbox and interact with it. Travel to new places, taste new food, meet new people, do something new, have experiences. It’ll help you grow as a designer and it’ll help you grow as a person too.
Also, if you think that learning more about mythology and classical literature would be a cool way to expand your knowledge then I highly recommend giving Overly Sarcastic Productions a look. They’ve got great summaries of classical literature and myth with an extra dose of humor and wit. Seriously give them a look.
As always feel free to leave a comment below and let us know what’s up. I’m always interested in the thoughts and opinions of others.
So, do you own a copy of Fallout 4? Chances are that you do; it sold pretty well. If so, you can use it to practice a little bit of game design and chances are you already have. Fallout 4’s settlement mode is a great tool for practicing a little bit of world design. The mode allows you to place various objects and create various structures within a set area as well as populate these area’s making them a place to live. If you’ve been using the settlement system you’ve been practicing world design without even knowing it. Neat, right!?
But how can you learn even more from Fallout 4’s settlement mode? By using it knowingly. When you’re building settlements incorporate design philosophy into your builds. A good place to start is by analyzing how Bethesda has created a lot of other areas in Fallout 4. Pay attention to the aesthetics of the design. Most of the buildings look fairly ramshackle and poorly built. This is a post-apocalyptic setting after all and the people living in the wasteland don’t have access to proper tools or equipment and have to make do with what they have. So, maybe you could try and mimic that kind of design philosophy yourself throughout your various settlement builds. For instance, if you’re building in a settlement that’s near a train yard maybe you could use train boxcars as part of your design, maybe you could turn those boxcars into shops and home for various settlers. Near a location that contains a lot of demolished cars? Then maybe try building structures out of old tires and scrap metal.
With a design philosophy pertaining to realism, you would want to think about what objects make up the structures in your settlement, how your settlers got those items, and how practical their use would be. I, for instance, tend to build walls around my settlements using elements of resources prevelant in the surronding areas. For example, at the Red Rocket Gas Station settlement, I used buses and truck trailers to make up portions of the wall surrounding my settlement I then made the inside of these settlements double as a home as I could see my settlers using them as such. But, that’s just using a design philosophy built around realism in terms of the world you’re building in. I could think of a couple other philosophies you could use when building a settlement, such as one based around making outlandish and unique structures, or another design philosophy based solely on how much utility and function structures provide your settlers.
I tend to like the idea of designing with realism in mind because of the limitations and challenges it puts on building things and I think it is a great exercise in world design. If you’ve played a lot of previous Bethesda Softworks styles you’ll notice that they have a ton of really believable areas in their world because they do think about the overall environment and the world their building in, but that is an article for a future date.
P.S. One more tip for Fallout 4’s settlement mode before I go. Try not to overuse a particular asset if you can. Too much of one asset repeated over and over tends to break the overall vibe of realism and doesn’t have nearly as much aesthetic appeal as something that uses variety. If you’re looking for tips on building Fallout 4 settlements in general, I highly recommend checking out the youtube channel: No Respawns. He does a great job at creating some believable and innovative settlements.
So go out and give building a settlement using a design philosophy a try also if you like the kind of content I’m putting out feel free to leave a comment below.
This article is going to be talking about pen & paper role-playing games such as D&D. If that all sounds like a load of jargon to you might I suggest taking a look at one of my previous articles: D&D and Modern Game Design.
If this isn’t your first time rolling a D20 or any other kind of funny shaped dice then you’ll fit right in.
So, you want to get experience in narration or design or maybe narrative design but, like me, you’re not a computer whiz who has a decent command over programming languages like C# or Java Script. Well, you’ll probably have to deal with those things someday, but it doesn’t have to be now. In fact thanks to pen & paper role-playing games you can actually start designing right now.
For this article, in particular, I’m going to be using Dungeons & Dragons or D&D as an example, but this applies to any and all pen and paper role-playing games. I’ve just picked D&D for this example because it is what I’m most familiar with and because there is a free lite version of the rules that you can download and use by clicking on this link. The Basic Player’s Handbook and the Basic DM’s Handbook should have downloadables at the bottom of the page.
Okay so you have the rules, but now what? Well reading the Player Handbook and DM Handbook both is a good start. You don’t need to read them cover to cover, although you should read both in their entirety later down the road. For now start by getting a feeling for how the game is run, the introduction section of the player handbook is a great place to start as it acts as an overview as to what D&D is. You’ll also want to keep these on hand when you play to consult the rules.
(Sidenote: I almost forgot, but you’ll need to pick up various polyhedral dice: a d6, d8, d10, d12, and a d20. You can get these at a local game store or download one of the free dice apps on either the android or ios app stores)
Okay, so now that you’ve looked over both handbooks maybe you’re starting to see how this could lead to learning about narrative and design. Dungeons and Dragons is a series of systems you can use to create not just a story, but an experience that is realistic in the fact that it simulates a universe governed by various laws and properties not too dissimilar from our own and allows players to interact with that universe in any way they see fit. Open world sandbox games attempt to do the same thing. So in essence, DM-ing a Dungeons & Dragons Game is like being the designer of your own open world sandbox game. Neat, right!?
As a DM you’ll be the judge of the rules as well as create the games: setting, non-player characters, determine loot, create combat encounters, traps, puzzles, ect. Most of those fall under aspects of game design. So, what I would encourage you to do, starting out, is focus on the aspects of design that interest you the most the ones you are really good at working with.
What do I mean by that? Well, I mean focus (initially) on the elements in games that you love the most. I’m a fan of narrative, so I’d make a narrative-heavy adventure with a grand over-arching plot, a cast of colorful characters, vibrant locals, and maybe some romance for good measure. You, on the other hand, might really love games like Dark Souls with really tight level design and grueling, but not impossible combat encounters. So, you’d then focus on creating an adventure with plenty of traps and difficult encounters with monsters using grid paper and battle mats to map out the exact positioning of each monster and trap. And if you’re the kind of person that likes to design mechanics over experience then try and change the rules a little bit or create a new class. Playtest them with friends and try and figure out what’s fun and what’s broken.
Remember, this is just where you start, you’ll want to work on all aspect of design in a campaign as you will have to work with all of these aspects and make them work together in a cohesive manner in order to create a truly great experience. And don’t feel bad if you’re lacking in one area or another; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. That’s why there are often multiple designers working on a game and why dev teams have the various leads that they do. Focus on just becoming proficient in all aspects of design, not perfect, practice makes that, or so I’m told.
Thanks for reading the article. I hope this inspires you to try playing pen & paper role-playing games and use them as a tool for learning game design while also having fun. If you’re having trouble making a campaign or just want to know more about D&D and how you create and run games I’ll post a few resources below that’ll be able to help you out.
As always leave your thought and opinions in the comments.
If you’re interested in game design chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D for short) or pen and paper roleplaying games, but you may not know the important role that they play in the history of game development and design that makes them relevant to the games industry today.
Way, way back, in a mythical era, called the seventies, two guys, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, played a miniature wargame called, Chainmail, with supplemental rules for a fantasy setting created by Arneson. The game took place in Gygax’s basement and when it was over the two began collaboration on the world’s first pen and paper roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons.
In case you’re not familiar with the terminology pen & paper games are games that do not require a specific board or game pieces with the exception of various dice. You can use other objects such as game boards and miniature figures if you wish, but they are not needed.
D&D itself is a pen & paper roleplaying game, in which players create a character of various races and classes that represent them in the game. Players then use these characters to interact with a world (usually of the fantasy genre) created by a DM or Dungeon Master. The game itself provides rules or systems for how players can interact with the game’s world and whether or not their attempted actions fail or succeed. In short, the rules govern the chance of success of any action based on stats assigned to the player’s characters.
If this system seems familiar to those you find in roleplaying games it’s because D&D’s systems were the inspiration for a ton of different video games. Modern game series like Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity pull heavily from these systems and other games pull individual mechanics out of this system and use them in their games.
Here are just a few:
Assigning attributes point, skills point, having feats or abilities, these mechanics found in many roleplaying games and even some non-roleplaying games all stem from D&D originally. Even the concept of having a class that outlines your characters abilities or being able to play as various races that appear in literary works of Fantasy such as, J.R.R.Tolkein’s, Lord of the Rings.
In the mid 90’s to early 2000’s Wizard’s of the Coast, D&D’s publisher, worked with video game developers to make games that were a direct port of D&D’s mechanics and rules.
Modern games still, to this day, often utilize various elements from D&D’s combat mechanics. Whenever you see combat damage as an integer greater than one number and lesser than another you can thank D&D and the use of dice rolls to determine varying factors such as damage or a character’s chance to hit. Any time you see the term “critical hit” or critical damage you can thank D&D’s critical hit mechanic that grants players bonus damage for rolling a ’20’ on a 20-sided die. The idea of “leveling up” comes from D&D too. Players gather experience points as they interact with the world and gain more experiences. Once a player has enough points they “level up” and are able to increase varying stats and abilities of their character.
STORY / NARRATIVE
D&D was one of the first games to feature branching narrative or multiple narrative paths. Not only can DM’s plan for branching narrative and construct it before players sit down for a session, but DM’s can change the story on the fly based off of player’s choices creating a fluid and believable world.
This is one category in which D&D has a strong competitive edge and one of the reasons I believe it is still so popular today. D&D’s open systems and rules allow for unprecedented freedom in the choices of its players and allows them to truly play a role in shaping the story versus choosing between ‘Choice A’ and ‘Choice B’ as we do in so many other games today.
These are just a few of the ways D&D has played a role in shaping the modern game industry and without it I believe the games we play today would be radically different. So, next time you land a critical hit in World of Warcraft, create a new character in Destiny, level up in Skyrim, or choose between several different dialogue options in Mass Effect remember the game that pave the way for it all: D&D.
First off, before people accuse me of bashing Fallout 4 I ‘d just like to say that I love the game and I am one of the biggest Bethesda Softworks fanboys that I know, but just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of it. (Sidenote: Do not apply to friends and family)
Fallout 4’s narrative starts off with your character’s life and family being shattered by total atomic annihilation. Your hometown is destroyed, most of the world population dies, your spouse gets murdered, and your son gets kidnapped while you are forced to watch helplessly from the sidelines. It is a pretty hard-hitting and emotional opening. As your character ascends into the world from Vault 111 there is a definite sense of dread and loss as you look upon your neighborhood, Sanctuary Hills, and the rest of the commonwealth of Massachusetts in complete and utter ruin. The game guides you through a couple tutorial-esque missions before giving you direction to head to a place called Diamond City to search for your lost son, and then . . . Fallout 4 derails its own narrative.
Fallout 4’s world is huge and expansive with plenty to do, such as side quests, exploring unique locations, looting, crafting, joining a faction, and creating and helping various settlements in the wasteland. For me and a few other people who’ve played the game this all ended up taking precedences over finding your missing son. Your missing 1-year-old son lost in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland filled with, raiders, cannibals, mutants, ghouls, and a million other horrors. You’re telling me that a parent that awakens 200 years after the world is nuked to hell would rather be saving total strangers, building settlements, or taking a scenic tour of Walden Pond? I think not!
If it was my actual child I would have torn ass to Diamond City first chance I got and Fallout 4 gives you the means to do just that. Within the first hour or so of gameplay they hand you Power Armor and a minigun. More than enough protection for you to make it to Diamond City in one piece but, instead most players, myself included, seem to find themselves wandering around exploring the huge and expansive world Bethesda has created. Which is great! Bethesda’s believable world building and design are some of the things that make their games truly unique and special, it is what makes Bethesda such a popular and beloved game development studio, but the same thing that makes them great hurts the genuinely great narrative created for the game.
Every bit of Fallout 4’s gameplay and design urges most players to go and explore and do whatever they will in its open world, but it creates a disconnect with the motives of the protagonist Bethesda created. However you play your character, whether you help the people of the wastes or pillage and steal, there is no getting around the fact that your character was written with the desire to find their son and track down their spouse’s killer. Your character will unavoidably say so at multiple points. This takes away the freedom players had in previous Bethesda titles where their character was more or less a blank slate that could be whoever they wanted. In Fallout 4 you can act as you want, but your character’s initial goal is finding their son, no matter what choices you make. You are forced to play as a character that constantly reminds people of their desire to find their son, but instead does a million other things such as helping or robbing total strangers, building settlements, or salvaging crafting materials, because that’s what the player naturally wants to do. The person behind the controller isn’t going to care nearly as much about the virtual baby that only got a few minutes of screen time before being stolen, but the character definitely should and that emotion should transfer to the player, it should invest them in their troubles, that’s when stories are at their best and where video games have great potential for emotional storytelling.
This conflict could be resolved in a few ways, either you make the player want what the character wants, which would involve making the player far more emotionally invested in their family from before the war. If players could have spent more time with their character’s spouse and child before the bombs dropped they would might care about them and have a stronger sense of urgency to match that of their character.
Another method is designing the game in a way that what the player wants to do becomes essential to accomplishing the main character’s goal. For example if Power Armor and other great equipment wasn’t handed out at the beginning of the game you’d be forced to explore and scavenge to prepare for your journey to Diamond City or if there was a series of challenges that were essential to reaching Diamond City other than just reaching the city itself that would have made the game’s narrative much stronger because players would have done what they wanted to do as part of the mainstory. The impulses of the player would have been incorperated more clearly into the plot.
Lastly, you could remove the urgency from the story, which would probably ruin the current story or involve the creation of a completely different story, but it would solve the problem. If you knew for sure that your son was safe for the time being or if Fallout 4 narrative went in a different direction that didn’t involve the whole missing child angle. There would be no disconnect you’d be free to establish your character’s own agency and desires
Now, I’m not saying that this ruined Fallout 4, the game is still fantastic, and in my opinion an all around great game that deserves all the critical praise it has receiving, but I believe that with a few tweaks Fallout 4’s narrative could have been so much more emotionally rich and engaging to players with a more cohesive meld of the games narrative and its design.
So, what do you think? Am I being way too nit-picky? Do you find issue with Fallout 4’s story like me? Are they the same issues or different ones? Let me know what you think in the comments section. Hmm . . . Now, that I think of it Fallout 3, in a way, did all of the things I talked about in this article. They made the player care about the character’s objective, they made what the player wanted essential to completing the character’s goal, and they didn’t create a story that forced urgency on the character, but that . . . is an article for another day. Thanks for reading!
Ha! You thought I was done talking about Uncharted 4, didn’t you? Well, like two star-crossed lovers, I cannot stay away. That and I promised to write a second article about Uncharted 4, but that’s beside the point.
If you haven’t read my previous article you can find it here. It discusses both the narrative design and themes in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
I had to write another article because the narrative elements aren’t the only thing about Uncharted 4: A Thief End that are worthy of merit. The gameplay saw some great changes and there were one or two nice set-piece gameplay moments that worked to the game’s benefit.
Gameplay / Mechanics
Uncharted 4 adds a couple of new mechanics or gameplay pieces to spice up the game and give players something new and unique for this entry in the series.
For one, stealth gameplay has been expanded upon. Uncharted 4 stealth gameplay allows you to track enemies and go in-and-out of stealth. Enemies now have a UI elements to indicate their awareness of the player as well. The addition of this works well for the game thematically as Drake as aged and matured a great deal since the beginning of the series and would most likely utilize stealth in order to more safely defeat enemies. At times the stealth felt a little cheap as I could avoid and dispatch enemies with ease negating what could have been a fun and interesting gunfight, but at the same time having that option in how you approach that situation is freeing and creates a more realistic and grounded feel to combat.
Another new gameplay addition is the grappling hook, which adds a great deal of fluidity to combat. I had a blast swing through areas of the game like Tarzan while shooting, tossing grenades, or dropping down, fist first, on enemies. The grappling hook is also used for general traversal and to solve some clever puzzles, but let’s be honest the best part is the drop punch.
Lastly, we have the vehicle gameplay, which was utilized for specific set-piece moments of the game. Finally, Nathan Drake gets to drive! In previous entries any sort of vehicle chase scene would involve someone else behind the wheel while you jump from vehicle to vehicle, fighting bad-guys, but in this entry you finally get to take the wheel yourself and it feels good. Driving through the chase scenes added a new level of tension and freedom allowing me to dart in and out of various alleyways and even ram enemy vehicles. That being said vehicles weren’t just applied to chase scenes. They were also applied to exploration.
The new vehicle gameplay ties in with an element of design that is new to the Uncharted series and that is of openness. While the game may not be open world it has been designed with much more exploration and multiple routes to the player’s object which makes traversing the world feel much more improvised and realistic. This goes into everything from driving your car around a volcano in Madagascar, to haveing many more handholds and foothold when climbing terrain. This give creates a good illusion of being open even though the paths will all eventually diverge into and head to the next part of the story.
The other major change of design philosophy when it comes to Uncharted 4 is its pacing. Previous entries would feature a great deal of combat combined with high-action set pieces and then a smaller portion of platforming and puzzle solving. Uncharted 4 is set with a reverse pacing where action is built up to instead of just a constant. This entry focuses more on narrative pieces, exploration, puzzles, and platforming. There has been a significant decrease in the amount of combat encounters and it serves the game well giving it a pacing more akin to films such as Indiana Jones which served as an inspiration for the Uncharted series.
The new pacing works well as it focuses and highlights the area of the game that shine such as the narrative elements and platforming. It also allowed for more precise and tightly built combat encounters that make great use of the environment.
Lastly, I wanted to just point out one little moment I thought was cool in terms of design. At one point Drake is trying to climb a cliff face in the rain while injured from a recent wreck. So while I was trying to climb this cliff face I would try to jump from one handhold to another as I’m used to doing, but I couldn’t I would stumble and nearly die as a result. The game instead forced me to slow down and carefully grab nearby handholds without jumping which I previously didn’t even know was a feature. I thought it was an interesting piece for that moment as the gameplay mimicked the character having lesser mobility in that situation.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End adds a new and exciting gameplay elements that help the game a meld really well with the overall design philosophy of the game. The new pacing really helps create a cinematic feel to the game and highlights the elements of the game that really shine. The new openness adds to the immersion and fluidity of the game creating a more natural feel in how you do everything from transversing environments to fighting enemies. Due to these improvements Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a great game and in my opinion the best in the series. Naughty Dog was right to make this the final chapter of Nathan Drake’s saga as it is the best one yet.
As always feel free to comment in the section below. I’m always interested in seeing feedback from readers and hearing new opinions.
Game Blurb is another column about smaller talking points regarding games and design. Basically, they’re just me trying to collect and publish some loose thoughts rattling around in my brain. This one, in particular, can be translated into a lot of mediums other than game design, but I’ll be strictly talking about it in those terms for the sake of staying on topic.
Our topic for today is experience and no I’m not talking about points used to level up a character in a Role-Playing Game or an MMO, but instead about life experiences in general and how they have inspired games and their design. It’s actually pretty amazing how much of the games creators goes into the games they produce.
One of the earliest examples of life experience being translated to a game that I can think of is Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for the original Legend of Zelda game which was inspired by his exploration of the hills, caves, and woodlands surrounding his hometown. Translating these experiences into a game is what drove Miyamoto’s design and the games early concept. Link, like young Shigeru Miyamoto, would wander and explore various areas. One of the most important elements of this exploration Miyamoto wanted to convey was a sense of discovery, hence all of the secrets that players can stumble across while exploring the game’s world.
Quantic Dream CEO, writer, and director, David Cage created Beyond: Two Souls based on his experiences with the loss of a loved one. He took a highly personal and heartbreaking experience and turned it into a touching and thrilling experience in which protagonist, Jodi Holmes, explores feelings related to death and loss throughout her story within the game.
“But the more I wrote, the more I realised I was writing about what I had experienced. Writing is a strange process, because you don’t always know what you have to say when you start. It’s only when you read yourself that you realise ‘okay, this is what my inner voice had to say” – David Cage
Lastly, we have Uncharted 4, which I recently wrote about in a previous article. In a Game Informer interview with Uncharted 4 game director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann. The two talk about the development of both Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the previous game they developed The Last of Us, but in the interview, they also touch on the relatability of the characters and what has inspired some of their narrative choices. Neil Druckmann talked about how his passion for making games mirrors the main character, Drake’s, passion for adventure. Both of them struggle with sacrifices in the pursuit of their passions, specifically a sacrifice of family. Neil mentioned that he hasn’t been able to spend as much time with his family as he’d always like because he is working on games. So then the game’s narrative ended up exploring obsession and passion. Can it go too far? What would you sacrifice? What should you sacrifice?
Pulling from experiences such as those above adds greatly to the narrative and design of any game. They add a level of relatability and honesty that only comes from conveying a true experience. If you’re thinking, “We’ll I want to make a game about a secret agent or a samurai, but I don’t know anything about that experience.” Then I would advise you to find the relatable experience from what you do know about the game or narrative you’re creating. Maybe you know or are someone who leads a double life of sorts. You could convey that experience in the creation of your secret agent game. Or maybe you have a strong sense of integrity and honor or live by a code of some sort, you could relate that to your samurai game.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that you can inject personal experience into games in a lot of ways by drawing from not only events but feelings as well and then translate them into your games creating an honest and relatable story. Easier said than done, but I think that’s part of the trick, part of the magic of narrative, especially in games which are, in a way, synthetic experiences.
Hope you gained something from the article, I know I did.
If you liked what you just read feel free to come back for more. I have new content towards the end of every week. Also feel free to leave your thoughts opinions in the comment section bellow.
It’s games like, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End that make me glad that this is a small blog and not a large and professional site. Why? Because I can take a moment to gush at how good this game is and all that it does well. That’s why!
I recently started playing the Uncharted series over these last few months and I haven’t regretted it one bit. The series as a whole deserves all of the acclaim it has gathered and is definitely a series I would recommend looking into.
I just finished the last game in the series, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a week or two ago and was thoroughly entertained; especially by the deep and rewarding narrative woven by the game. That being said:
THERE ARE LOTS OF SPOILERS BELOW. READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
Uncharted 4 brilliantly develops a series of themes that stay consistent throughout the game’s entire narrative all while having players reflect on the characters and the history of the series. I cannot think of a more proper send off for a series.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End starts in media res, a fancy term I’ve decided to use to make myself look smarter than I actually am, meaning to start in the middle of the narrative. The game starts with an action sequence with Nathan Drake, driving a boat towards an Island with his brother, Sam, all the while fending from pursuers. The use of media res in this entry is done better than in most and lends itself nicely to the narrative by giving players a new context for the events when presented again in chronological order.
The game then flashes back to Nathan’s childhood in an orphanage giving players more backstory on Nathan’s character and his history. It more importantly, begins to set up Nathan relationship with his brother, Sam. The scenes establish Nathan and Sam’s relationship setting Sam as a mentor and powerful force in Nathan’s formative years.
This scene then transitions to both Nathan and Sam as adults in a Panamanian Prison, a clever nod, and development on what was most likely a simple throw-away joke from the first game. Now the prison is the setting for a crucial moment in Drake’s life where he witnesses what he believes to be Sam’s death during an attempt to escape the jail.
The game then shifts gears from the intense high action scenes to the story of Drake’s life in retirement. Now settled down at a steady job at a marine salvage company and married to long time love interest, Elena Fisher. From here the writers set up a normal life for Drake. One with no action or intrigue, it’s steady but dull and uneventful. The scene working for the marine salvage company mirrors this excellently by making players work and get excited about the find only to realize it is just a bunch of copper wires.
From here the game transitions to a scene with Drake cloistered in the attic of his house surrounded by objects from his old adventures. You can, as a player, look over these object wistfully in-game looking back fondly on adventures from earlier Uncharted titles. You can also shoot some targets with a toy gun for kicks, which narratively is important because it shows Drake’s yearning for action and adventure.
This section of the game’s narrative demonstrates his new relationship with Elena as husband and wife. Players can judge the relationship by observing various mementos and photos scattered across the house and come to the assumption that this is most likely a happy marriage and that Nathan and Elena really do love and care for each other. However, we as players come in at a point where Drake has become slightly distant towards Elena due to his dissatisfaction with his current lifestyle placing a small rift on their relationship.
I really enjoyed these moments of the game even though they didn’t feature much in the way of gameplay because it expanded upon Drake’s character in a way the series had never really done before making him more human than ever before. It showed him as an average person and made his character all the more relatable through this series of slice-of-life vignettes.
The game then cuts to Drake doing paperwork in his office when he hears a knock on his door only to find his long lost brother, Sam. The two rekindle their relationship by having a humorous dialogue about Drake’s previous adventures before Sam sets the game’s plot in motion by telling Drake that he now owes money to an infamous drug lord for busting him out of jail and that the only way to collect that money is by retrieving the lost treasure of infamous pirate Henery Avery.
This creates an extra layer of conflict as Drake has promised Elena that he would leave his life as a treasure hunter behind as a condition of their marriage. These themes of greatness versus simplicity and a normal life versus one of danger and adventure is constantly repeated throughout the game.
We see this a lot through the interactions of both Nathan and Sam as Sam continually pulls Nathan further and further back into his old life as a treasure hunter making the temptation of adventure harder and harder to resist even to the point where Nathan is given several outs from the adventure, but opts to stay regardless because of his enjoyment.
During the game, the story of St. Dimas the penitent thief or good thief who asked Jesus for forgiveness on the cross and Gestas the impenitent or bad thief who mocked Jesus on the cross, is related as it ties into the treasure of Captain Avery. The story draws a nice parallel to the brothers in term of the penitent thief and the impenitent thief as Nathan has left behind this life of treasure hunting, he is penitent, while Sam has yet to escape his obsession for Captain Avery’s treasure and his own desire for a life of adventure and greatness.
If you’d like to learn more about both Nathan and Sam’s relationship in the game there is a great interview with both Nathan’s voice actor (Nolan North) and Sam’s voice actor (Troy Baker) where the two discuss their thoughts on the relationship of the brothers. They make interesting points about a role reversal that goes on with Nathan the younger brother taking on the role of the older brother and becoming the mentor.
As the game goes on Elena finally catches on to the ruse Nathan used to go on this adventure and she finally confronts him forcing him to deal with the fact that he lied to her. This goes back to the theme of family and what’s important to Nathan and he’s forced to choose between both his brother, Sam and his wife, Elena, and in part adventure as well. Nathan ultimately chooses to help Sam and Elena walks out.
The two brothers then leave alone to pursue the lost treasure of Henery Avery. As their situation gets increasingly dire Nathan tries to talk Sam out of hunting for the treasure. This is due to Nathan realizing just how important Elena is to him and the fact that he might have lost one of the few things in his life worth caring about. Again we see Nathan in a role of penitence.
Eventually players reach a scene where the two are cornered and Sam is forced to reveal that there was never a drug lord that he owed money to. Sam lied to his brother in order to get him to join him in this treasure hunt. Nathan nearly gets shot by, Rafe Adler, and is knocked off of a cliff unconscious.
The scene then transitions to a flashback of Sam and Nathan when they were both younger. The two discover documents relating the story of their deceased mother’s archeological expedition to find Henery Avery’s treasure. This then ties back into the theme of family and it increasingly becomes apparent why Sam is so obsessed. It isn’t about the wealth, but instead about having something to prove. Nathan and Sam in their past were considered nobodies and they never really had any family, except each other. This treasure in a way would not only reunite their family but, finally prove both of their worth in Sam’s eyes. It would validate the two of them. This is simply good storytelling that really ties together with metaphors and themes just like a piece of good writing you would find in any other medium.
After this flashback we witness Elena nursing Nathan back to health as he recounts the flashback player had just seen. The next few scenes nicely work together as Nathan and Elena try to find and save Sam all the while the two reconcile their relationship. In the process, it is ever so slightly revealed that Elena had missed their former life as well. The two have a good deal of romantic moments that definitely pull on the heart strings of hopeless romantics such as myself.
Eventually the gang manages to rescue Sam and begin to head back abandoning the treasure and hopefully Sam’s obsession with it, but it doesn’t pan out. Sam darts headlong toward the treasure first chance he gets. Nathan eventually catches up with him aboard Avery’s pirate ship and is forced to confront Rafe Adler after the ship is set on fire by his partner. During the fight Sam has been trapped under a large pile of wood and players are led to believe that Nathan will have to leave his brother behind as he dies for a second time. It is during this that Sam reveals that all he really wanted was for the two of them find the treasure and that he can now die happy, fortunately, Nathan cleverly uses a canon to free his brother at the last second. The two narrowly escape as the surrounding environment crumbles around them.
The game then transitions to everyone saying their goodbyes and parting as everybody goes back to where they belong. Sam goes with Nathan’s mentor and father figure, Sully, to continue having adventures of his own and Elena and Nathan head home. In the next scene, it is then revealed that Sam managed to sneak a sizable amount of treasure into Elena’s pockets allowing Nathan and her to buy the salvage business and travel the world looking for artifacts legally and safely leading an adventurous life while simultaneously settling down.
The game then fades to black and cuts to what I think is one of the best epilogue chapters of a game. In this epilogue chapter, you control Nathan and Elena’s daughter years after the events of the game. You explore their familie’s home and get to not only know, but experience the idyllic life Nathan and Elena have won for themselves. In a medium that is saturated with tragic heroes and ill fates befalling our protagonist towards the end of their journey it is nice to see the classic: happy ending. It was especially worrisome in this entry since it was subtitled: A Thief’s End. But knowing the ending the title is oh so fitting as it is a thief’s end and the start of a new life for Nathan as both a husband and father.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has a fantastic narrative thanks to skilled writing and intuitive design choices working together in tandem. The game explored themes of family, sacrifice, and the virtue of a simpler life. The game also successfully brought about a satisfying end to a beloved series for fans old and new.
In the next installment of this two-part Case Study, we’ll look at the gameplay elements that helped to make this game as fun to play as it was to experience.
Playing games makes you a better game developer. Common sense, right? Of course, it does! Having experience with a medium as a consumer is important and will help you to better understand it. The same goes for a lot of other mediums. Musicians ,for example, are large consumers of music and much like game developers got into music because of their love for it.
Now, I’m not saying you should play a whole lot of video games and call that your education, that’s ludicrous. What you should do is play games and study them. Look closely at the game and it’s mechanics, then think about it as if you were a designer. What does this mechanic evoke in the player? Is it fun? Rewarding? Why? Is it intuitive? Do would the designer in this instance want it to be intuitive? You could probably think of 100’s of questions about game design if you tried.
Let’s think of a couple examples questions using popular games to help get you in the right mindset. You can provide answers in the comments if you like. We’d love to hear what you think.
1) How does the Dark Souls series create a feeling and atmosphere of dread?
2) What is (in your opinion) the most core part of a game like Skyrim’s design?
3) What makes Minecraft so appealing to multiple audiences?
4) What in your opinion is the best, opening or start, of a game you’ve played? What made it the best?
4.5) Have you ever played through a game tutorial you thought was good or well done? Why did you think so?
Another good practice to get into is to take notes on games you play. Not to hint at any upcoming articles, but I personally have a good chunk of notes on the most recent Uncharted game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I looked for things like the game mechanics, how did they work, how did they make me feel, did they help or hinder the narrative, and then being a writer I have a ton of notes about the narrative structure itself.
So, if you’re interested in game design or are hoping to become a designer I would highly recommend thinking critically about the games you’ve played and taking notes on the games you play in the future. Journal your experiences and reflect on them. It’ll not only make you a better designer, but also a better critical thinker.
Want to talk more about studying games? Well, you’re in luck! Play Study will be a reoccurring segment on The Game Library that will look into more fine points of analyzing game through the lens of design. I also have another similar column in the works called Case Study which will feature a breakdown of my or another member of the Game Libraries notes on a particular game.