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Richard Lemarchand: The Uncharted Designer Speak About The Series

Enthusiastic but contemplative, Richard Lemarchand is best known for his lead game design roles on the  Uncharted series, serving alongside the likes of Neil Druckmann and Jacob Minkoff. But in 2012, after eight years with his celebrated creative team, he left Naughty Dog in order to take up a full-time associate professor role at the University Of Southern California. Despite his new focus, Lemarchand hasn't left making games behind, and is currently working on a series of experimental prototypes while simultaneously attempting to relearn, and perhaps even reinvent, his craft. We meet with him in a quiet café a short distance away from this year’s bustling Dare Protoplay show, for which he delivered the keynote, to discuss what inspired his change in direction, designing ambiguity into games, and why virtual reality will challenge more than just your visual perspective.


What were the reasons behind your switch in career?

The way that I’ve been explaining it to myself is that I have always been interested in both technology and the arts. I was one of those kids who loved science and maths, but was always on a stage somewhere doing something. I liked to draw and make things out of cardboard when I was a kid, and I did quite a lot on home computers, too. And I grew up in the ’80s, a time when the promise of virtual reality was clearly on the rise and digital technology was revolutionising the world and the arts. So I wanted to do something with my life that would allow me to make things, to create and to use all of these exciting new tools that were appearing in the world.

By the time I left college, I was convinced that to be a game developer would be a wonderful thing to do with my life. I was very lucky that Microprose, who had an office in the south west of England at the time, was advertising for game designers in our local paper my mum spotted the job advert and convinced me to send in my CV and a covering letter! They gave me a chance. I was unproven as a game designer; I had some hobbyist game-making experience, but no professional experience. I was a very poor BASIC programmer, but I loved to draw, [so] I took along some designs that I’d done and they gave me a six-month trial. I didn't look back. But at the same time, my other overriding passions were the novel, cinema and pop music, and I entered the world of videogame development feeling like all of these other interests were imminently going to come to bear on videogames as a form. When Psygnosis hybridised the world of electronic dance music with gameplay and very stylish visuals from The Designers Republic, who’d I’d loved from the magazines they were designing at the time, I was like, ‘Right, yes, this is happening.’ I’d always had this fire in my belly for videogames in the context of contemporary art and culture, and that’s really what led me to work on the kinds of projects that I worked on: the idea that games could reach towards something artistic. It’s what led me to Naughty Dog, of course that’s a no-brainer, because their work is transcendent. And then it was what led me to volunteering at University Of Southern California, where I now work, and to start volunteering for IndieCade, the international festival of independent games.

So what made you act on exploring those interests?

I remember where I was when I made the decision: I was ironing a shirt in a hotel room at IndieCade in the fall of 2010, and we’d just had an amazing weekend of art and indie games and great talks from so many wonderful progressive designers and thinkers. And I kind of saw this fork in the road ahead of me very clearly. It was very difficult for me to leave Naughty Dog; it’s an amazingly talented game studio filled with phenomenal people that I’ve learned so much from. And I could have stayed there indefinitely. But at the same time, like many people, I thrive on change and challenge, so after Uncharted 3, it just felt like a good point to make a change of direction. I thought, ‘Perhaps I have an opportunity to move my work a little closer to the world of art games.’

How did your USC appointment come about?

I started talking quietly to friends about what kind of opportunities there might be out there, and one of those friends was Tracy Fullerton, who’s the director of the USC game programme and now my boss at USC Games. She said that there might be an opportunity at the School Of Cinematic Arts, in which the Interactive Media & Games Division that we work in is situated, to make a transformational hire when they take someone from industry, typically a cinematographer or a great writer, and bring them on at the teaching faculty in the School Of Cinematic Arts. And that’s what happened. And now this new role has fulfilled my goal beautifully, because I get to bring my experience and everything that I learned from all my amazing colleagues down the years and relate it to my students. I get to do a lot of talking about games and play as art and culture, so it’s worked out really well for me. I’m really happy.

Do you find teaching as satisfying as making games?

It is very satisfying, but in a different way. I have to be completely honest that, yeah, now that I’m three years away from shipping my last big triple-A game, I do miss it. There’s something incredibly satisfying about working in a big team like that, doing this incredibly difficult work that requires a good ear for nuance, a good sense of how things are working both rationally and emotionally for an audience that is kind of removed from you. Even though we did a lot of playtesting at Naughty Dog, it’s still a kind of indirect art, you're devising rules and tweaking numbers in order to create a system from which dynamics will emerge when another human being plays with it. And that’s a little different from writing a story or editing a film. You’re creating this space of possibility for someone else to explore and make discoveries in. Shipping a big game, one that works out well especially, is really satisfying and I do miss it a bit, yeah. Although hopefully I’ll get some of that feeling back when I start to playtest and release the experimental games that I’ve been working on.

Has the opinion you held of videogame education as a creator changed in any way since you moved into teaching yourself?

I’ve been following videogame education very closely as it has developed over the past decade or so, and I’m the kind of person who reflexively buys every book on game design that comes out. So I feel like I’ve pretty well kept on top of the way that game design, development and production education has developed. I know that, as with anything new that’s highly complex, it’s been a struggle for everyone on the side of the academy and on the side of industry, and maybe for the students as well to work out exactly what it is we all want from game education. But I think that we’re in a really good place right now, because, of course, the answer to that question is never going to be unitary. There are so many different kinds of interests that it’s possible to have in videogames, [spanning] from the point of wanting to learn concrete skills that you can apply in the creation of a game to maybe more abstract skills related to design or production. You might have an interest in games which is cultural, sociological, psychological or critical, and I’m very excited about the emerging field of game studies, which is gathering a great head of steam. And I think that game schools are now carving out identities for themselves to describe well to potential students and potential faculty staff exactly what it is that they do. That has obviated many of the tensions that may have been around, certainly in the more distant past.

How much time do you get to be a game designer nowadays, alongside your teaching duties?

I’m carving out as much time as I possibly can to continue to be a game designer, but it has been a challenge. And as a new teacher, I have had a lot to learn. So certainly for my first year at USC, my teaching took up a lot of my time. Although I think once a game designer, always a game designer they can never really take your stripes away from you! I’ve been interested in design with a capital D since before I joined the game industry, and I aspire to always be designing, all day, every day. I’ve always been very interested in the relationship between design and art. At a young age, I was introduced to the work of William Morris, and to his adage, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I’m very interested in that idea, and it has always seemed very relevant to me as a game designer, or for any kind of interaction design, when you want to make something that is useful, tractable, interactive that we can understand how to use or at least if we can’t understand how to use it, then part of the designer’s intent was to obfuscate or confuse. And at the same time, we want to create some kind of emotion or a sense of beauty, or to impart a message. So to align these aspects seems like a very interesting problem or challenge. And I guess that I try to bring that design lens to everything that I do.

So can you tell us what you’ve been working on?

In that first year [at USC], I began working on an experimental game design research project with Julian Kantor, a very talented Interactive Media & Games MFA student. Julian listened to the ideas that I’d been formulating over the course of the time leading up to my joining USC and immediately added a load more amazing ideas to do with procedurally generated environments. Over the past two years, he’s built out this amazing engine in Unity that allows me to do all kinds of cool stuff with explorable 3D spaces that are generative and never the same any two times that you pass through them. So this summer, and last semester in the spring, I’ve been finding as much time as I possibly can to really hone my own skills, and to try to reinvent to some degree the way that I make games. I saw this as an opportunity to try to springboard off what I already knew, but to also go back to square one in some ways. I’ve been learning lots more about Unity and C#, because I’ve always been the kind of game designer who believes in being hands-on. I really like to have used every tool once, mainly so that when I have to talk to people who are very skilled at using a tool, I can talk some kind of sense! But also I love to make things, so this summer I’ve been creating a whole bunch of prototypes, and finally something is starting to emerge.

Where do you see your research taking you? Is it purely academic, or can you envisage a future in which you’ve founded a new studio?

Right now, I have a kind of luxury that I’ve never had before: I have time. I do want to put something out there in an appropriately near-future timescale I’m a big believer that you have to make work and just put it out into the world in order to make progress in your own design practice. But at the same time, never before in my life have I had the luxury to say, ‘I’ll release it when it’s ready.’ And I think I’m going to, in the great tradition of brilliant game designers such as Tracy Fullerton and Jonathan Blow, see where the game leads me, and whatever’s appropriate for it is the form I hope it will take. I’d definitely be excited about the idea of forming a studio in the future, if that was something that could fit in well with my work at USC. But I would also be equally happy if it was a game made by a couple of people, because I believe that games made by small numbers of people can be every bit as powerfully expressive as games made by 300 people.

Are there any areas of game research that particularly interest you at the moment?

Design research is a broad term that’s still being fought over, but it’s the sense that you can make discoveries that are maybe not quantitative discoveries, but are more qualitative discoveries by making works of art and entertainment, albeit interactive or playful, that help you to develop your own practice and your own voice. I think that’s where my work is going to land. Although I do have a lot of very specific interests, things that games haven't traditionally discussed. I’m interested in interpersonal dynamics, especially ones that are difficult or troubled in some way. For example, I’m interested in emotional abuse, since it seems like a very complex subject that’ hard to have a conversation about. I'm also interested in human sexuality.

Uncharted is renowned for the interplay of its characters, but did you feel indie development better suited your desire to explore these kinds of issues?

I guess what I’m most interested in is the connections that I see between games and other cultural forms like the novel, or pop music, where we don’t so much have a particular message that we want to get across, but we do have something that we want to say. And maybe we want to say something at multiple levels at once; maybe we want to say something that is hard to say directly, perhaps something about the culture that we find ourselves in, something that’s good and bad at the same time. Maybe it’s something about our interpersonal relationships that has the same character. I am grateful to you, and thank you for the compliment that you paid the Uncharted games, and I think that, because of the skill of the team, we did do some of that. We certainly tried to put a lot of complex stuff into that game that couldn't easily be interpreted in a sort of singular way.

It’s certainly true that players feel deeply connected to, and protective of, the central cast of those games.

That’s part of Amy Hennig’s brilliance. She once articulated it to me very clearly, the way that she felt that if the character ever said something that an audience could understand unambiguously, then that dialogue would not be as powerful as dialogue that was overtly clear but in the gaps around what [the characters] were saying there was some ambiguity or uncertainty about exactly what they meant. Because that’s how we relate to each other, right? I can pay you a compliment, but you might not be sure if it’s loaded with some resentment. That is the stuff of the complexity of our interpersonal relationships. And when we create that way, our audience reacts to what we’re overtly putting into it and are brought along for the ride by their understanding of someone being in love with someone else, but they bring their own depth of understanding and emotion to all of that other stuff in the spaces around the edges. They bring their whole history of personal experiences to it, and in doing so, that work [then] becomes their own.

But do you think that kind of ambiguity can extend beyond dialogue and narrative into design?

Yes, absolutely. In the case of Braid and games like that, it finds expression in play mechanics, I think. If you look at a seminal example, Rod Humble’s The Marriage, where with some shapes and some mouse interaction he says something that’s difficult to say about his experience of the dynamic tension of being in a committed, mutually nourishing relationship, and your relationship with the rest of the stimulating, replenishing world. And while I have been quite narratively focused in the work that I’ve done and I am still a big believer in that I’m also extremely excited about the possibilities of expression through game mechanics, maybe in a very abstract sense. I’m a big fan of the work of Steph Thirion, who made Elissand Eliss Infinity, which, on the face of things, are these quite abstract puzzle games, but which I think are artworks that tell us something about our perceptions and our ability to act through our fingers.

When do you think that kind of depth of thought will proliferate throughout the industry and beyond being predominantly the preserve of smaller developers?

Well, I’m a big believer in the expressive power of interactions that aren’t necessarily strongly ludic. We see it in the work of people like Tale Of Tales through games like The Graveyard, which I have often spoken about as being very influential on the opportunities I saw when I worked on the peaceful village sequence in Uncharted 2. We see it everywhere in game design now, from this emerging genre of experiential games which includes Dear Esther, Proteus and The Night Journey and a whole load of other awesome stuff that’s coming along. And also in moments of gameplay, like the way that Telltale Games have very skilfully asked you to choose between two different paths in a dialogue tree, both of which lead to the same resulting node. Some people might say that’s meaningless; I disagree, because you’ve made a choice. It’s almost as if you’ve said something, and in saying it, you became more of a particular way of being. You expressed yourself. And that’s part of the interaction and meaning of the game. So I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff related to what you’re describing to do with various different kinds of expressive gameplay. It’s a huge field and I think we’ll see a lot more of it in virtual reality.

Are you following developments in VR very closely?

I’m an old school cyberpunk. I didn't read Neuromancer in 1984 I think I read it two or three years later but ever since then I've been eagerly gobbling up every bit of thinking and fiction that I can related to the idea of simulated worlds. So I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a kind of theatre of the mind, the theatre of inner space, where all of our senses can be spoofed. Virtual reality always seemed to me like spoofing the sensorium the sensorium in the Bishop Berkeley sense of the entirety of our perceptions, of our phenomenological set and our sense of proprioception. And I’ve always been interested in the strange, the outer edges of human experience in dreams and hallucinations. Partly because, as Oliver Sacks so eloquently points out in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, it’s really by looking at when things go strange or wrong in the human mind that we learn most about the functioning of all of our minds. And, of course, I’ve always been very excited about VR as an artform and the kinds of things that we could do. And USC has a connection to Oculus Rift my colleague, professor Mark Bolas, worked for decades on a set of virtual reality technologies, some of which provided the basis for Palmer Luckey’s work in VR. And Laird Malamed, another colleague who teaches in the USC game programme, is now the COO of Oculus VR. So that means that there are a lot of Oculus headsets around at USC, which students and faculty staff have all been keenly experimenting with.

Going back to your comment on perceived choice in The Walking Dead, many games that attempt to blend nonlinear and linear design highlight a tension between the two. Do you think they can coexist?

I don’t see why not. For example, I really liked what Naughty Dog did in The Last Of Us with the crafting system. The way that the story unfolds is structurally quite similar to the way that the Uncharted games unfold, and yet it sits happily in harmony with this tremendously nonlinear complex system that has lots of emergent properties, which impact the parts of the narrative that are to do with you the player and your actions in the game. Although, of course, in design everything is important, the gestalt of the system is important. If something is bolted on that doesn’t sit well with the rest of the parts, then I can imagine situations in which they would be mutually antagonistic. There’s a novel called Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar that's designed to be read in unusual orders, and I think that kind of stuff is going to be a big part of the future, certainly of art games and maybe increasingly entertainment games, too. In the ’30s it would have been hard to envisage a movie like Memento. And yet by 2000, cinema audiences had been jumping around in time enough to be entirely ready for a piece of storytelling as complex as that.

The Last Of Us was updated recently would you like to see Uncharted receive that HD treatment too?

I’m very excited about HD remakes of older games. Mainly because they’re often really great, but also because video games face a particular kind of archival problem. Very often the assets that go into making a game don’t get archived properly at the end of a project, and sometimes games just become inaccessible after a certain amount of time. But there are also complex issues around revisionism; whenever you remake something, I’d say it’s impossible to not change it in some way, and I think there could be interesting cultural questions around what those changes might mean… But overall I think it’s a great trend and I hope we see a lot more of it. I was very happy to see Abe back in action!

How do you feel about the way that the industry has changed since you became an educator?

It’s very interesting. I think, though, that there isn’t really just one game industry; there are a huge number of interconnected industries, some of which are more similar to each other than others. And I remain keenly interested in the fortunes of the industries because of my friends that work in various parts of them, and for my students. I’m always disappointed to see studios close or have their funding withdrawn. But at the same time, maybe it’s a case of the more things change, the more things stay the same, because the kinds of difficult things that we’ve seen happen recently are the same kinds of things that I’ve seen all throughout the duration of my 20 years in the game industry. But I feel confident that the future is bright for the entirety of games because of the way that we’re always being either invited or required to learn new skills and to think creatively in new ways. And that always creates business opportunities, right? It’s really down to us to figure out how to connect to other human beings in a way where we can give them something that they’re happy to give us some money in return for. That’s a very long-standing problem in the history of the arts that reaches back probably 4,000 years! I remain really excited about the kinds of technologies that are coming along and the kinds of artforms that are emerging, and the energy and clarity that young people bring to this, and any, artform.

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