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How design and story shaped Uncharted’s elephant ride

At GDC 2019, Naughty Dog’s Marianne Hayden spoke about how story and design informed one of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s most memorable moments.

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Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - Elephant ride

At GDC 2019, Naughty Dog’s Marianne Hayden spoke about how story and design informed one of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s most memorable moments.

You know how it is. You’ve gotta work with someone, but you don’t get on. And then, one day, you rescue an elephant together, and things change.

If you’ve played Naughty Dog’s excellent adventure game, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, you’ll likely remember one such scene. It’s a memorable moment, not just because you get to ride an elephant, but because it also develops the relationship between protagonists, Chloe and Nadine.

In a talk titled Design vs. Story: How Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Addressed the Elephant in the Room, Naughty Dog story animator, Marianne Hayden, revealed more about the origins of the scene, and the complexities it presented to the development team.

“Design at Naughty Dog often influences story, and story often influences design,” says Hayden. “Story and gameplay are developed in concert, one does not come before the other.”

The elephant ride in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is one example of how the studio uses this philosophy. The six minute sequence was initially born out of a desire for more gameplay interactivity, but as it was developed, the studio found the scene in conflict with the desire to keep the game as realistic as possible.

“Naughty Dog frequently creates scripted sequences where the player has limited control, but it still allows us to maintain a cinematic moment,” Hayden says. “These moments in games are always more emotional and have more impact when they are ‘on the stick’ and interactive, unlike cut scenes.”

Early in development, elephants were just part of the game’s background tapestry. They grazed quietly in a pond and were untouchable by the player. However, during development, play testers were continually attracted to them. The development team changed the game to allow for closer contact, only to find that the appetite for interactivity grew even greater.

“Once a player was allowed to get to the elephants they wanted to pet them, and feed them, and ride them,” says Hayden. “And once we started exploring this idea, we lost our sense of being grounded.”

Making a rideable elephant wasn’t a problem of development – horse tech from Uncharted 3 helped in that regard – but it was a problem of plausibility. Wild elephants just aren’t happy to give free rides to random strangers, and they can quite easily kill you.

“How to ride and get on a wild elephant was one of the biggest challenges in this story beat,” Hayden says.

To help, Naughty Dog brought in an animal welfare consultant and a cultural advisor. They assisted in designing a way for Chloe and Nadine to find themselves on the back of an elephant, while keeping the scenario as grounded as possible.

“They suggested from the very beginning that we shouldn’t be able to just jump on an elephant and ride it wherever we want to,” Hayden explains. “If we did this, that would suggest that the elephant had been trained, and in turn, mostly likely abused during that process.”

Making the sequence believable was a huge challenge. The solution was for the animal to be discovered trapped beneath the debris caused by an explosion. This helped justify there only being one elephant (it was separated from its herd) and also gave enough context for the ride to make physical sense. After much iteration, the decision was reached to make Chloe and Nadine work together to free the elephant.

Just as story plausibility informed this design decision, the resulting scene fed back into the narrative. The elephant ride essentially traps the two characters together for a short period, and following the rescue effort their relationship begins to thaw.

Early prototypes for the scene also allowed players to pet a baby elephant, something that would incur the wrath of its parent in real life. To satisfy this gameplay desire, the similar action of feeding an elephant was added, but in a place where it made more sense.

“The feedback we kept getting was that everyone wanted to pet an elephant,” Hayden recalls. “So we added the ability to pet the elephant in the beginning of the sequence, while you’re riding her.”

It’s one of the few interactive moments in a sequence that is predominantly scripted. However, the player does retain camera control, and this also presented a challenge.

“Our standard player camera didn’t work once we were riding an elephant and two characters were attached to her,” says Hayden.

The solution was a one-off camera arrangement.

“Our design scripter for this scene used two player cameras that would blend in and out, depending on where you were relative to the elephant. If you were in the front of the elephant, we wanted to make sure that we framed her face. If you were in the back, we wanted to avoid colliding with her butt. And if you were on the side, we wanted to frame Chloe and Nadine nicely.”

Player control was also restricted at the end of the scene. Once Chloe and Nadine climb down from the elephant there is no direct interaction with the herd, again to keep the narrative as realistic as possible. The one small concession is a brief moment to pose for a photograph. It gives the player a nice keepsake from the scene, and also gives Chloe and Nadine another opportunity to build rapport.

What began as piece of background texture, became a peaceful, relationship-building moment in fast-paced action game. Hayden says that this can only happen if you take the time to explore the options presented by the interaction of design and story.

“It doesn’t matter how big or small your project may be, moments like this take a lot of trial and error. Test them and get feedback. Add to them and make them the best moments possible. If something isn’t working, try it again in a different way. If it still isn’t working, just cut it and move on.”

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Fire Emblem Three Houses, Skyrim (still), and Grid.