Before there was Uncharted, there was Project Big.
In 2005 Naughty Dog was a game studio best known for charming, cartoonish action adventures like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter. But the studio had bigger ambitions, and wanted to create a more sophisticated blockbuster, something with human leads and lots of action. The team toyed with a number of ideas — at one point they even considered a game set in a high-tech underwater station; a few months later BioShock was announced — but ultimately settled on a pulpy action adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones, now widely known as the Uncharted franchise.
The first in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, is the kind of game that Josh Scherr, who now has worked at Naughty Dog for nearly 15 years, had wanted to make for a long time. “I absolutely loved Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid,” he says. “I saw it in the theater when I was 10 years old. I’ve always loved that [style of] romantic adventure.” But before they could make the game, they had to sell Sony on the concept.
Above you can see the original pitch video for the game, codenamed Project Big, that would become Uncharted. A combination of concept art, animation tests, and lots of buzzwords, the video does a remarkable job of showing the core of the Uncharted experience. There are a number of aspects that are different — roguishly handsome hero Nathan Drake is much goofier in these early stages — but the video gets across the fundamentals of the series: an adventure with a focus on both stunning set pieces and strong characters. And that’s part of the reason Scherr was excited to work on the game in the first place.
"The thing that we wanted to focus on from the get-go were characters and story," he explains. "That was something we felt that — particularly back in 2005, 2006 when this first started getting developed — was something that was sort of an afterthought in the majority of video games out there. So we really wanted not only to tell this pulpy, action adventure-style thing, but also really try to develop some relatable, entertaining characters and have the story be what pulled you through the game."
One of the ways the game manages to do this is through animation. Drake and other lead characters have expressive faces that let you know how they’re feeling with a raised eyebrow or curled lip. The game also introduced something called "additive animation," which was cutting edge at the time. Essentially, the system added in new animations depending on context; Drake will sprint with confidence when nothing’s going on, but if he’s being chased and shot at he’ll flinch and duck while he runs. For Scherr — who currently works as a writer but got his start in the animation department — it was a big challenge. "It looks very simple now compared to [how it looked] back then," he says. "But we were doing a lot of things that we had never tried before."
The version of Drake featured in the video was based partially on Johnny Knoxville, with a comically emotive face like something in a Dreamworks film. This was ultimately scrapped in favor of the more traditionally handsome look featured in the game. Another key aspect of the character not featured in the video is the voice acting of Nolan North, which has since become synonymous with Nathan Drake. According to Scherr, the studio auditioned somewhere between 20 and 30 actors before they found the right person.
"When Nolan came in, it was fairly clear that he was going to be the one," Scherr says. "He had that right kind of devil may care feel to his voice, but he could also get serious when he needed to. And most importantly, as we discovered, is that the guy was hilarious." North even performed part of his audition while doing a Christopher Walken impression.
Part of the reason North was chosen for the role was not just his voice, but his physical acting as well. Uncharted was the first Naughty Dog game to utilize motion capture, and the studio wanted an actor who could embody the character in terms of both voice and action. "If the voice feels disconnected from the rest of the body then that’s not going to work," Scherr explains.
Like many early concepts, the pitch video is also a bit ambitious in places, showing off a number of features that never made it into the game. The beautiful water effects shown toward the end, for example, were a bit too daunting to include; the portion shown in the video was actually a remnant from the old BioShock-style concept that pre-dated Uncharted. Similarly, the contextual battle system, in which Drake can fight multiple opponents hand-to-hand and even take their weapons, wasn’t implemented until Uncharted 3. "Not everything that you see in the pitch video made it into the game," says Scherr, "but it served as a real point of inspiration for us."
This was especially important due to the original Uncharted’s somewhat troubled development. Not everyone at Naughty Dog was happy about the transition from cute, cartoony games to a realistic blockbuster about shooting people. A number of staff left, and at the same time the studio was dividing its resources, working on a new Jak game for the PSP. The portable game was ultimately scrapped so the entire team could focus on the new title.
In spite of this, the game managed to meet the projected deadline from the pitch video — but not without a few close calls. Scherr notes that one of the game’s most iconic levels, one where Drake rides a jet ski through a river while being shot at by enemies, was designed and built in less than a month, barely enough time to make it into the final product. "It was done so close to the end that it was terrifying," he says.
Ultimately the effort was worth it; Uncharted is now a blockbuster franchise that has changed the course of Naughty Dog. Across three games the series has sold more than 20 million copies, and that success has helped the studio continue to push in new directions, most notably with the zombie thriller The Last of Us.
Next week will see the launch of a remastered collection of the original trilogy for the PlayStation 4, and in March we’ll see Nathan Drake’s final adventure, with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. For Scherr, the new game is one last chance to enjoy this world, one he’s been immersed in for a decade, beginning with that original pitch. And looking at the pitch video now, the comparison shows just how far the series — and the developer — has come during that time.
"It’s always nice to look back and see where you started," says Scherr.