An original level for Naughty Dog’s third-person action adventure “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End”. A work in progress.
The goal of the project is to improve my iterative process as well as further utilize player psychology and architectural theories when building levels. I did extensive research into Naughty Dog's level design techniques in pursuit of creating something original yet familiar for the "Uncharted series". The progress is documented on my Twitter.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment
Released in 2016
A crashed plane on top of a waterfall, traversing the overgrown cliff-sides of Libertalia, a tropical island, to get to it.
Washed ashore, separated from his brother and down on his luck Drake has to find a way over the cliff-side walls of Libertalia. Unarmed and outnumbered. The debris of a small aircraft from the 60s seem to provide a way in.
Shooting, climbing (with and without piton acquired in the beginning of chapter 13), jumping & swinging with rope (including mid-air-grapples and attaching the rope and then jumping). Automatic stealth when entering tall grass.
The player starts the level unarmed.
Two beats. Vertical combat or stealth, or a mix of both, in open ended combat arena - transitioning into linear platforming with climbing and rope jumping.
Section in game
A follow-up to chapter 13 (“Marooned”), squeezed in before chapter 14 (“Join me in paradise”).
The sharp seaside cliffs of Libertalia, a lost mythical island in the Indian Ocean. The cliffs guard the lush jungle within. Vegetation seeps from the inside onto the inhospitable cliffs and trees have taken root against all odds. A crashed plane, the only sign of civilization, creates contrast.
The papermap shows an example playthrough. After carefully considering the level design in "Uncharted 4" the combat area of the first half of the level is made to be open ended, thus there are several paths to choose from depending on playstyle.
ONE. The player climbs the cliff and is greeted by the objective. The plane plays an important role as a landmark for the level, re-appearing at different points through the play session.
For the landmark I wanted something that contrasted against the natural shapes in the level, choosing a modern piece of machinery that would stick out and generate interest.
The waterfall signals to the player that there is a way "inside" the island, beyond the cliffside wall is the source.
The safety from the tall grass to the left (and in addition the enemy in front) is supposed to lure the player in and gives the player an overview of the level in the process.
Finding that U-boat in the jungle of the first Uncharted kicked things of for this one. That contrast between wilderness and civilization is really exciting, like finding a time capsule, and I wanted something similar as a landmark for the level, hence the airplane.— Anton Samuelsson (@antondunder) October 25, 2019
The whole combat beat was designed to facilitate different playstyles: the player wanting to go in guns-blazing, the player wanting to strategize and sneak through the area or the player that wants a bit of both.
TWO. Taking the second enemy out gives the player another chance to overview the large area and the surrounding enemies (including two snipers on the distant tower-like structures).
The player is presented with several options: jump to the closest enemy to the right or take the waterslide down to the enemy on the left. This must be timed with the movement and
viewing angles of the patrolling enemies to not raise alert.
Throughout the level enemies function as breadcrumbs for the player to follow. The level provides hiding spots for the player that wants to lose some heat, and opportunity to burst out for the player in hiding.
Analysing "Uncharted 4"
I identified two key elements for the combat areas: enemy sightlines and hiding in tall grass. Enemy placement and sight is what drives the player movement in the level – in combination with the hiding spots I wanted the player to strategize and consider their movement through the open ended area.
THREE. Stones are placed through the level to deny affordance and create curves to funnel the player in desired directions. The generous amount of tall grass to hide in ensures a flow through the level. There is always several paths to choose from.
FOUR. The tunnel, an opening, connects the two areas, provides an escape route or opportunity to stealth. It was important to show the exit of the tunnel before entering it, communicating to the player the size of the space and where they will end up, not making it a detour.
FIVE. Climbing spots are highlighted in yellow to show possible traversal options in the blockmesh.
The flat ramps on the ground are supposed to be broken pieces of the plane that have scattered over the level, showing possible long jumps while simultaneously being breadcrumbs to the landmark. The border of the waterslide is surrounded by tall and sharp structures (visual language) to deny affordance and signal that the water slide is a one-way route: you can’t climb back up on it.
SIX. The opening of the tunnel in the pillar is one of two available ways to climb up and reach the snipers.
SEVEN. Reaching the two snipers atop of the pillar (both with plenty of cover to protect from player aggression making it difficult to take them out before reaching the pillars) is the finale to the combat beat.
The snipers have haunted the player through the level, or been a constant potential threat for the stealth player, but now the player can take them out. If any enemies are left in the previous section the player now has the higher ground and a sniper rifle – the power balance shifts.
Additionally, the player gets to view their progression through the level and showing off traversal choices they didn't make.
EIGHT. The level transitions into the traversal beat. To illustrate this the player uses the rope to swing across a large gap. On the other side is a small climbing section where the piton is required to climb up the wall. The piton is typically not a tool used while in combat and indicates to the player that the combat beat is over.
All climbing paths are arranged horizontally to convey affordance to the player.
NINE. Climbing sections in Uncharted games are a great opportunity for unique composition and camera framing. This climb against a slanted wall contrasts with the waterfall in the background and shows of a stuck piece of the plane.
In comparison to the combat beat the traversal beat has more demanding climbing sections – the player must survey the available climbing spaces and choose between different paths. Combat climbing is straightforward to facilitate eventual combat happening at the same time.
TEN. After attaching the rope to the tree in the rock, swinging to the other side, the player gets a new angle on the landmark but this time at a closer distance. Covering landmarks and then reintroducing them, almost teasing the player, makes the path to the landmark more interesting.
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