Richard Lemarchand is talking about plug sockets. They are important to him. He recently completed work on a new videogame called Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception but when he looked at the first scene, which is set in a London pub, he noticed something was not quite right.
“They had put the plug sockets upside down,” he laughs. “I was working with a team of artists, designers and animators from across the world and a lot of them weren't aware of which way up they were supposed to be. I had to get it changed. If there was one detail out of place, I would never have heard the last of it.”
Given Lemarchand is British, it is understandable that such an error would have led to a great deal of stick especially since Uncharted 3 is expected to be one of the year's biggest-selling games. Produced by California-based developer Naughty Dog which created the first two titles in the series, Lemarchand is its lead designer and it is a role he has taken to with relish.
“Being involved in such a major game is just so very exciting,” he says. “I grew up playing games on the ZX81 and loved titles like Galaxians. It's where my passion for gaming grew from. There and the arcade machines in the local fish and chip shop.”
Uncharted 3, however, is a world away from the rather primitive monochrome games he enjoyed during the early 1980s. The first two games in the series were famed for their cinematic approach to gaming. All three have movie-style set pieces, explosions galore and strong narratives that would not be out of place on the silver screen.
Gaming has long had a fixation with film. During the 1980s, when Lemarchand was growing up, many developers would produce games based on the hit movies of the time. They didn't always work out – when Atari produced a game based on E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, it was such a disappointment that not only did sales bomb but it was also blamed for sparking the great videogame crash of 1983, helping Atari to a $536 million loss and leading other companies to bankruptsy.
Conversely, there have been many flop films based on games, a sizeable number of them directed by German helmer Uwe Boll including the terrible Alone in the Dark and Postal. But Uncharted 3 aims to be something different, hovering in the space that lies between gaming and film. While much of this is due to its Indiana Jones style of gameplay that could come straight from a pulp fiction adventure novel, it is also due to the work that has gone into the characters which populate the game.
Although many recent games have been more successful in blurring the boundaries with film – from the dark thriller Heavy Rain to the detective-driven LA Noire with all of its realistic faces – Uncharted 3 does not try to appear real, even though the graphics are undoubtedly impressive. Instead it relies on the strength of its characters.
Central to proceedings is Nathan Drake, a character based on actor Harrison Ford and Jackass' Johnny Knoxville. Voiced by Nolan North, he is one of many recurring faces in the series to date. North's impact on the role has been so great that many fans petitioned Sony Pictures to have him play the character when the game is turned into a movie, pencilled in for a 2013 release. While that decision has yet to the made, the case is certainly a compelling one.
“He would be my favourite choice for the role,” says Lemarchand. “One of the main reasons the game works so well is the talent of the voice actors. When Nolan came for the auditions, he got it spot on. We had a lot of people who thought they had an idea of what a videogame character should be and they would act tough. But Nolan brought a feeling of a guy who had vulnerabilities and it worked very well.”
The game's script was produced by American writer Amy Hennig but Lemarchand, who honed his love of the arts and science with dual honours degrees in physics and philosophy at Oxford University, says the method Naughty Dog uses to bring the game to life was also valuable.
“We cast the game very carefully and we're kind of unique in this way,” he adds. “We have workshop scenes with our actors where we gather their creative input. Amy will often choose lines that the actors come up with on the spur of the moment over things that she has written herself because they work better. She's very humble in that way and she has the courage and willing to do that. There's no ego involved. It's about making the story as good as it could be.”
While the vast majority of other games have actors record their lines separately, Naughty Dog asks its performers to wear motion capture suits and go through the scene together as a group. They act the scenes out using props, grabbing plastic guns, for instance. Lemarchand says it opens up the greater possibility of ad-libbing and makes for a more natural performance. The scenes are filmed so that the graphic artists can study the facial expressions when they animate the characters.
“When we get the actors to perform together on the motion capture stage, they play off each other,” Lemarchand explains. “It brings out a performance that is emotionally rich and that is what all of us, as humans, respond to.”
The result is a game that is naked in its cinematic ambitions. “We share a common vision for action videogames: we want to create a cinematic storytelling experience that is truly playable,” says Lemarchand. “It's been a dream for a lot of us – both game developers and players - that there would be an action game where you are almost always in moment-to-moment control of the main character. As you make an input the character performs an action.”
With a handheld version of the game on its way too – it will be released for the new PlayStation Vita – it seems Sony is keen to capitalise on the game's success. Certainly, Lemarchand is in no mood to stop now. “We've always said that we'll produce Uncharted games for as long as people want them,” he says. “I feel we tell some cracking good yarns and I don't see why we can't carry on for much longer.”