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    Uncharted 4: A Thief's End,Performance Art

    There is something subversive to the casting of  Troy Baker  as Sam Drake. Nathan Drake is played by Nolan North, for so long the hardest-working man in videogame voice acting, and Naughty Dog has cast the young pretender to North’s throne as Nate’s older brother. Yet put the two in same room and there’s no trace of animosity. It’s hard to get a word in edgeways, in fact, and tougher still to keep the pair from veering off on tangents. “It just seemed like a perfect fit,” Druckmann says. “Knowing the relationship between Nolan and Troy, and how they’re already like best buddies and almost like brothers, we knew we could play off that energy on stage.”

    Baker has been lending his voice to games for a decade, but look back on his early career and you’ll find such intriguing roles as Miscellaneous Voices, Additional Voice Talent and Various Soldiers. It’s only in recent years that he’s hit the big time, with starring roles in BioShock Infinite, Infamous: Second Son and, of course, as Joel in The Last Of Us. For him, Uncharted has long been an obsession. “When I first came to LA, all I wanted to do was  be in  Uncharted. I wanted to get shot by Nathan Drake. There was so much about Uncharted that made me want to do this [for a living]. I’d done some other stuff before, but I was like, ‘If that’s how they’re doing it, that’s how I want to do it.’ Which is something I think the industry as a whole was saying. Everyone was like, ‘We want to do it the Naughty Dog way’.”

    Few would manage it. Naughty Dog’s approach to voiceover work is more common among people making movies than developing games, with table readings and rehearsals at which North has a habit of making little tweaks to the script. It’s his right as Druckmann puts it, “Nolan owns Nathan Drake.” When Drake thinks wryly out loud as he clambers up yet another cliff face or contemplates a yawning chasm before his mud-stained shoes, it’s often the improvisational result of North commenting on a video of the scene that’s playing during recording. Crucially, for A Thief’s End, Baker and North have recorded their scenes together in the same room at the same time, often while wearing motion-capture suits.

    Yet there is often a very good reason for the way most companies keep their actors apart, as North makes clear while explaining that this isn’t the first time he and Baker have shared a voice booth, although previously it was hardly on this scale. “The closest we’ve come was that Transformers one [Fall Of Cybertron], where I did Cliffjumper and he did Jazz. Those two go on a mission together, and they put us in the booth at the same time, so we actually got to riff off each other rather than do it separately. It should  have taken an hour. It took about three.”

    As a project, Uncharted 4 hardly lacks for step changes, but one of the more obvious is the move away from rendered cutscenes. Running Uncharted 4 ’s cinematics in-engine in realtime has meant character models have to be of cutscene quality throughout the game, hence the 800 animation bones in Drake’s face. As lead programmer Christian Gyrling explains, the new generation means navigating the Uncanny Valley’s darkest depths. “You need skin deformation. If Drake laughs, you need the skin on the forehead to move a little bit, and if it doesn’t, it feels like he is not quite alive. The bulging of your skin under your eyes when you’re blinking, laughing or squinting that’s the difference between talking to someone who has skin, [rather than being] made of plastic.”

    The project has already involved a tremendous amount of work for Gyrling and the tech team, but the tools the studio is making for A Thief’s End will see them through the entire generation. That doesn’t mean, however, that the hard part is over. “We learn new things about the hardware every week,” he says. “Knowing what happened on PS3, that’s going to continue for four or five years. It just keeps on going.”

    It was a painful start, too. Naughty Dog, a Sony subsidiary, spent the past generation working exclusively on  PS3, and while it pushed the fussy Cell processor further than anyone, that counted for nothing when PS4’s specs came in. “If you’ve never made a console game before, or if you have a PC engine, it’s much easier [to develop for],” says Gyrling. “It’s a very developer-friendly console. But we had an extremely specialised engine for PS3, and  we didn’t have a PC version. We had to implement one very, very quickly we have 150 people on the other side of the building that need to be productive. It wasn’t that much fun, but it had to be done.”

    Naughty Dog is no stranger to crunch. Staff spoke out about the brutal hours required to get Uncharted 3 finished, and similar graft was needed to make the sequel’s PSX demo. One staffer explains that he shaved his head during the studio’s most recent spell of downtime; now it almost touches his collar at the back. You’d understand if morale were low. “Everyone was super-excited to be on PS4,” Gyrling tells us, “but while we were working on Windows, it didn’t really feel like a project that would ship. Morale and excitement definitely took a swing up when we switched. We have a game, it’s running on PS4, it’s starting to look beautiful, and we have a lot of time to keep pushing in all directions. It’s awesome to work with these guys. Every day I come into work, it’s fun.”

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