With the highly anticipated Uncharted 3 due out next month, Techday caught up with Keith Guerrette, lead visual effects artist for Naughty Dog.
Techday: Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
Keith Guerrette: I’m lead visual effects artist, so I do all the special effects, the sand, the water, the explosions, the blood, that sort of thing.
TD: How long have you been with Naughty Dog?
KG: I got in at the beginning of Uncharted 2.
TD: When was that?
KG: That was Spring of 2008, so I’ve almost been there for four years now.
TD: How has the technology changed in that time?
KG: Tremendously. With Uncharted 2, one of our huge challenges for the game was the set pieces. We had a collapsing building sequence where the floor that you’re on was actually collapsing but you were still able to actually traverse and navigate around it, and we had a train sequence where in most games when you have a train sequence either it’s moving straight or the train stays still and the world moves, but we had this train sequence where it was actually going around rails, so we spent a lot of time building the system where we could move the level around the character as he’s going through the gameplay. So we spent a massive amount of time trying to get this technology to work on Uncharted 2 and we barely used it. We had those two sequences that everyone loved and were giving us all kinds of praise for but we had so much more that we wanted to do with it. From the tech side that’s been one of our big pushes for Uncharted 3.
For my tools, the visual effects for the fires and everything else, we’ve continued pushing them over and over again. When I came in we scrapped all the technology we had for visual effects and particle effects. We went through phases of hitting small milestones and kept adding more and more features to it so by the time we finished Uncharted 2 I felt we were industry competitive. With this one we had the ability to sit down and really figure out what we needed to do to make these awesome things, so we’ve got a lot of set pieces, we’ve got water flowing down hallways, we’ve got a fully dynamic ocean that the entire level, a cruise ship, is attached to, we have an airplane that explodes mid air while you’re inside of it, and there’s a ton of technology that goes into that. It’s all subtle things, things that the player if they’re involved in the gameplay experience they won’t notice it. We wanted to add to the gameplay experience, not be the gameplay experience.
TD: How have you found the PS3 console handles the new detail?
KG: I think with this generation of consoles we’re starting to see that the technology’s not actually the impediment any more. It’s coming down to the artists and the developers. In the past the toolbox has been so tiny and constraining that we had to drastically change our tools and our workflow to be able to make a game, but I think the tools are almost at the point where the variances you’re going to see between games is going to come a lot more from the artists and the designers and the developers making it than the technology that’s being used to make it.
TD: How long do you think it might be before the PS3 runs out then?
KG: I honestly think that if we stopped moving the console technology forward we’d still be able to have a plethora of amazing games. A lot of developers are really starting to come into their own with how to use technology appropriately with the art, and at the same time as the technology’s been pushing, on the film side of things there’s been an amazing amount of new technologies and new techniques for art that we can pull from. Obviously if we do advance to the next generation of consoles there’s going to be a lot more things we can do, more dynamic interactions, more lights that change and interact, the rendering’s going to be that much nicer, but these are all subtle things that are not the most important part of the game any more. They’re cool things that nerdy people like me can geek out on, but the real art of making a good gaming experience is coming from things that are not directly tied to the technology.
TD: You just mentioned the importance of film to gaming – how are the two crossing over now?
KG: That’s one of the things that Naughty Dog was focused on from the start of this franchise. When Naughty Dog was making the decision to go down this route Gears of War had just come out, and that was where the industry was going – desaturated colours, post-apocalyptic action shooters, minimal story because they had so much wealth of action gameplay they could throw into it, and the heroes were all these huge big buff guys. So we sat down and thought, we want to make a gaming experience that’s driven by story, by personality, by relatability to the characters. We want our character to be a normal human, we want saturated colours in a rich, vibrant world, and we want pulp action, something that’s going to be lighthearted and fun and accessible.
So from the start we’ve been going for cinematic gameplay. Films are a great wealth of resources for us because you can go sit down and watch a movie and be afraid or sad, and we want to take what they’ve been doing and find a way to transition that into games. So films have been an amazing source of reference for us just in the art of storytelling. Storytelling is the key ingredient to film making and we want to make it the key ingredient to our games.
At the same time, the graphics technology, the 3D arts technology, is always pushed the most in film because they’re limitless. They can have a render farm of 30 million machines and go to town with making things look as visually impressive as possible. So we look at them in retrospect and say is there any way we can learn from this? And as the consoles get more powerful of course we’ll be able to take more of what they’re doing.
TD: It’s a pretty exciting time.
KG: Yeah, it is. Before this generation of consoles there was a very strong segregation of wanting to work in games and wanting to work in film, because the techniques for games were so dumbed down. Now it’s a lot closer, and as an artist a lot of the time the tools are exactly the same.
TD: The idea of having a writing team behind a game is really cool.
KG: It’s new, and it’s definitely something we’re trying to influence. We want to see the industry shift that way, to support stronger stories, and we’re starting to see it, a lot of companies are looking at what we’re doing, and we’re looking at what they’re doing, and it’s cool to see the entire industry shift and see that games are a very viable art form for an emotional journey. We were one of the first studios to have a full in-house writing staff, and we’ve got a lot of people around to make sure that we’ve got a great story running through, and that the dialogue works. We’ve also got a wealth of experience from our designers and animators, who come from film backgrounds and are storytellers at heart. That’s one of the absolute key ingredients we know that people love about our games, and one of the things we’re proud of about our games.
Uncharted 3 comes out in early November. Go here for more.
Do you like games with strong characters and plots, or are you all about the action? Post your comments below.