In between the big, satisfying skirmishes in the new God of War, players can put gruff protagonist Kratos and his scrawny son Atreus in a boat and paddle across a lake while the father tells his boy a fable. The moments in the boat are among my favorite in the game. They reminded me of a wonderful sequence in last year’s Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and of the great moments of peace in a lot of excellent action games that offer a refreshing breeze between the thunder cracks.
I captured the scene in Uncharted on my PS4 right after it happened and have included it atop this post. If you plan to play the game, don’t watch and bail on this post.
If you did play the game or don’t mind being spoiled on a fun surprise scene, read on.
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In the scene, the game’s gun-toting protagonists, Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross, rescue an elephant and then ride it (and feed it) en route to a pond where a family of elephants are hanging out. While riding the elephant, they chat and bond. By the time the scene is done, they’re gawking at elephants and taking a picture with them.
That Uncharted moment, like the God of War boat sequences, builds on a design tradition that goes back at least as far as 1994’s Super Metroid, which includes an early sequence in which the player quietly explores the damaged caverns where the original Metroid game violently concluded. Over the years, many game designers have developed an admirable instinct to give players of action games a peaceful interlude in between the genre’s violent beats. These aren’t just moments between rifle salvos or sword swings, but moments when the weapons are put aside and the player is told that, for the next little bit, something more chill is going to happen.
A decade after Super Metroid, 2004’s Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, the rare Zelda game broken into discrete levels, interrupted its combat-filled chapters with one that was all about helping out people in a village. In 2009, development studio Naughty Dog interrupted the shootouts, chase scenes and dramatic climbing escapades of its Uncharted 2 game with a pleasantly peaceful walk through a mountain village. And in 2013, that studio provided relief from the tense action of the post-disaster game The Last Of Us with a magical scene involving giraffes that had escaped their abandoned zoo.
The Uncharted: The Lost Legacy scene echoes the Last Of Us’ giraffe moment. It offers another cameo by a large animal in a game that otherwise focuses on people set amid buildings, hills and other more familiar things. It essentially controls as a brief vehicle sequence, a trope sometimes used to diversify the flow of on-foot action games. If developers want to keep mixing things up, I’d happily take a few more runaway elephant rides over standard tank or jeep driving sequences.
The Uncharted scene is brief. It last just six minutes in a game that runs about 10 hours. It’s nevertheless among the game’s most memorable moments, like those sequences with Kratos and his son on the lake, because once in a while, amid the heat of battle, there’s nothing better than a moment of peace. Even though by definition these moments have the least action in them, I find them thrilling.
Update - (6:57pm): Shortly after I published this post, several of the people involved in making it started tweeting about the scene, how it was created as a lark and how it almost didn’t make it into the game. What follows is the oral history that broke out on Twitter throughout Friday afternoon:
Jeremy Huxley (texture, environment artist at Naughty Dog): I worked on this section and let me tell you, it was hard to get right! We fought back and forth between animation, story, design and art to get this section to even work, eh @MotleyGrue @Marianne_Hayden and @_James_Cooper
Michael Barclay aka MotleyGrue (game designer at Naughty Dog): Absolutely, all in the name of making it awesome mate! Feedback and collaboration on that sequence was so much fun. I’d love to show off the early versions of it, it was surprisingly harder than making things explode.
Marianne Hayden (animator at Naughty Dog): LOL totally. I love how the elephant was supposed just be an animal we saw in the background. Then it was, well, we have to ride it. Okay, well how do we do that? Create an entire story line for it.
Huxley: And for a while it was 3 x as long of a ride sequence and he jumped a cliff, then we reigned it in…Actually, that was what was so hard for me to accept, for a long time it played itself and you didn’t do anything and it was a really long sequence. Even through @bruce_straley wasn’t there, I just imagined him in my head yelling “Tell it on the stick, that’s how we do things”
Bruce Straley (former game director at Naughty Dog): Aw.
Me to Huxley: Wait, what??? The elephant killed itself? Dark.
Huxley: No, it was more like he had to jump into the water from a long distance and it was super silly. In the end we just changed the art to work, because it wasn’t working at the time. I remember @retrogamemonkey fixed the environment to match over the weekend.
James Cooper (former game designer at Naughty Dog): We also talked to an animal welfare consultant to make sure we were representing the elephants in a respectful way. We had concerns that by including this in the game, we would be promoting the riding of elephants in parts of the world where in general they’re treated badly.
Barclay: We received a lot of trust from [the game’s lead designers] @ShaunEscayg and @kurtmargenau and a LOT of back and forth and collaboration on this sequence. Glad people liked it.
Kurt Margenau (game director at Naughty Dog): Sequence exists because [animator] @soria_sancho was doing a test and put Chloe on an elephant as a joke. Then people wanted it for real. I hated it so much. My gut was “omg how do we make this not dumb and silly”. After many iterations we found a way. Thank you team for being persistent! .. Proves that gut reactions aren’t always the best and taking something seriously and integrating it into the story is the best way. It’s now one of my favorite sequences too!