A beloved video game franchise started by reverse-engineering movies. Now, it is one.
One of the most successful PlayStation franchises of all time began by trying to rival Hollywood's approach to blockbuster storytelling.
"When we set out to make Uncharted, we were trying to reverse-engineer summer blockbusters," Neil Druckmann, the writer and creative director of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, says. "And then we were like, how do we put that on the [joy]stick?"
Since 2007, the series, inspired by Indiana Jones, took players on adventures across the world and to the cutting edge of graphics technology. Noted for its lush settings and top-tier voice cast, Uncharted garnered acclaim and shipped tens of millions of copies across four main games.
Nearly 15 years later, a Hollywood edition of the franchise premieres next month starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg.
The process of adapting the games to the big screen wasn't straightforward. The movie was stuck in development for so long that Wahlberg, originally tapped to play protagonist Nathan Drake, aged out of that role and into that of Nathan's mentor. Sony Pictures secured the bankable charisma of Holland to play the fortune-hunter. A fan of the Uncharted games himself — the 25-year-old Spiderman star was eager to take a swing at the part originated by veteran voice actor Nolan North.
Asad Qizilbash, head of PlayStation Productions, sees the upcoming Uncharted movie as just the latest example of the cross-pollination between TV, film and games. "I personally feel that some of the sort of best, most exciting storytelling is actually coming from video games now," he says. "We've got 10 shows and films in development in total, on PlayStation Productions. So it's a really exciting time."
Here & Now's Anthony Brooks spoke with Qizilbash and Druckmann on the occasion of Friday's release of Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection, a remastered version of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy for the PlayStation 5.
On what led to the game series' success
Neil Druckmann: When we set out to make Uncharted, we were trying to, in a way, reverse-engineer summer blockbusters. But like our favorite kind of summer blockbuster that had really compelling stories, epic action. And then we were like, how do we put that on the [joy]stick? How do we build those cinematic set pieces but make you care about the characters so that you're not only engaged from a visceral standpoint, but from an emotional one as well? And I think that's a big part of why the franchise took off the way it did it. People fell in love with these characters and their relationships and like these epic journeys that went on.
On how to avoid the pitfalls of past video game movies, which have often been panned by critics
Neil Druckmann: I think like any good adaptation is like you take the core of it, the spirit of it, what works and then translate it, which means you have to change certain aspects of it to fit this new medium. You know, like when Batman was adapted by Tim Burton in '89. They took certain liberties with what the comic book does, but they were able to still keep the spirit of that character and what that character meant. And that's, I think what the team here has done extremely well is just to take these kind of core principles, these relationships, the heart of the story, adapt it to this medium, to the spectacle of seeing it on the big screen instead of playing it in your hand.
On how the movie's script evolved over the many years it's been production
Asad Qizilbash: I think obviously with any films in Hollywood, things take a lot of time. And, you know, when things really started gaining momentum and interest sort of came in from our side and things start to move on the project is when the creative take of actually having this more of an origin story or telling a part of a story that wasn't explored in the games. So sort of Nate in his early 20s, it introduces this whole new audience who've never heard of any of these characters. But at the same time, it offers a completely fresh take for fans who have spent decades playing this game. So that's for us when it really starts to get a lot of momentum and a lot of steam.
On the contrast between the Nathan Drake of the movie and the aging Nathan Drake that Neil Druckmann wrote
Neil Druckmann: When we made Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, that we're now rereleasing for the PS5, remastered, along with The Lost Legacy, we were trying to look at all the previous Uncharted games and the arcs that these characters have gone on. Here's Nathan Drake, this person that's really good at heart, but has this obsession. Almost like an addiction to adrenaline, to these adventures, to being in these really dangerous situations, and to these historical mysteries that he just can't let them go. And it's been really affecting his personal relationship with the people closest to him. And it was interesting to explore that and find for us as game makers the metaphor of like, you know, we've made certain sacrifices to make this art. How do you find that balance? Can you strike that balance between this thing you feel like you're meant to do and these people that you love and that you feel like you want to spend time with? And it's like at some point something has to give. And that gave us this emotional through line to then explore this guy that's been aging, that's been doing this his entire life. And it's like, 'Where do you want your life to end?' Like, where do you want it to go when you're at the end of this journey, even though he's doing these crazy, over-the-top things is really relatively grounded in how vulnerable he is both physically and emotionally.
On what other media inspired the writing of the Uncharted games, beyond Indiana Jones
Neil Druckmann: We're all massive fans of Indiana Jones, but we were looking way beyond Indiana Jones. As far as inspiration is for myself, Diehard is a big inspiration. I remember when I first started the movie as a kid, it just blew my mind of what an action movie could be and the kind of hero you could have in an action movie. With John McClane, you have someone that's very grounded and really, it's dealing with a guy that's on the verge of divorce and how can he reconcile this very personal relationship while terrorists are trying to take over the building that he's in. Sometimes it's TV shows. Firefly was another big inspiration for us, and we would just kind of see the tropes that they deal with and how they subverted them, how they change and what kind of characters exist in this world and then think, OK, what's a similar world we want to create with a similar tone, but obviously create our own cast of characters that have their own wants and needs and interesting obstacles and villains that get in their way.
On the games passing the torch to the film production
Neil Druckmann: When you're in the middle of making one of these, it's hard to imagine anybody else playing Nathan Drake other than Nolan North. It's hard to imagine anybody else like playing Chloe other than Claudia Black. But ... to me, it's the greatest compliment to have other artists be inspired by the thing that we've made. And I'm excited to see their version of it and understanding it's going to be different. Again, there's the spirit of it that's important to keep. But the thing that, to me, that's exciting is like, how are these different artists interpreting the thing that we've initially created? And again, I go back to that Batman example. Tim Burton made a very different version of Frank Miller's comic book Batman, but it's very much inspired by all the previous iterations of Batman that happened before it. And it's exciting to see, "how is this new artist going to adapt this material?
Asad Qizilbash: What we found is both Tom [Holland] and Mark [Wahlberg] are just incredible, diverse actors, comedy, drama, action and also fans and know the game really well and that helps as well. I think we were all surprised how much Tom was so influenced and such a fan of the game, and that helps. And he really wanted to do it justice, but then also bring his own fresh take.
On the ongoing convergence of TV, film and video games
Asad Qizilbash: It's a really exciting time, I think. I personally feel that some of the sort of best, most exciting storytelling is actually coming from video games now. And you look at, you know, Arcane, for example, or The Witcher. Obviously, you mentioned The Last of Us, which Neil is co-writing there for a series with HBO. It's just a really exciting time. The other thing, I think, is that we're going through this whole time where there's a new generation of film and TV creators and writers, directors who have actually grown up playing these video games and have this whole respect for the storytelling and art that's coming from video games. So I think that it's just adding a whole layer of respect and quality to what we're starting to see now. So the PlayStation productions in general, we've obviously got this film coming out and Neil's working on the HBO show. In total, we've got 10 shows and films in development in total, on PlayStation Productions. So it's a really exciting time. There are lots of great stories yet to come.
Neil Druckmann: I personally love just, you know, getting to play around with those different mediums and like understanding their strengths and weaknesses and how we can, like learn something from this like other production of a TV show and how do we bring that back into the world of video games? But the thing that's actually really exciting for me is, you know, games continue to mature and evolve and draw in a new audience. And I can't wait for that moment, you know, for someone to watch a movie or a TV show and just be enthralled by the storytelling within it and then also be surprised to be like, 'Wait, that's based on a video game. I didn't realize video games have evolved this much. Let me go check it out. Let me go see the origin of where this thing came from.' There's something that's very exciting there for me.
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