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A profile of Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand

Few studios take narrative craft as seriously as Naughty Dog. Since the start of its Uncharted series in 2006, Sony’s Californian outfit have developed a new are of expertise, one focused on collaborating with performance capture artists, pouring resources into rehearsal time, and learning to carefully integrate story and character into traditional production processes.

Richard Lemarchand is a pleasing embodiment of this marriage of art and technicality. Naughty Dog’s lead game designer graduated from Oxford with a degree in physics and philosophy, and describes his interests as divided from an early age. “I grew up playing computer games, and I was always one of those kids at school who was very nervy, very into maths and physics. But I was also always getting up on stage for one reason or another. I think when I was a kid I wanted to be a Tomorrow’s World presenter, more than anything else. It was the confluence of technology and entertainment that really excited me.”

During a recent visit to London, Uncharted star Nolan North joked about another alternative BBC career for Lemarchand, suggesting his Tom Baker looks might have landed him a spot as Doctor Who’s understudy. But Lemarchand has more of the David Tennant or Matt Smith about him, angular English enthusiasts who confound with an off-hand knowledge of the intricately technical but also demonstrate scene-stopping emotional intelligence. In a single breath he’ll casually reference projective light maps and dynamic physics simulations, before drawing back to explain how these tools service the precise dramatic needs of a particular moment.

“I think it’s very important that every designer be part engineer, part artist,” he says. “You know our brains have two sides, one is rational, analytical, spatially reasoning, the other is intuitive, emotional. And we bring both of those sides to bear on everything we do. It’s important that a designer understand the tools that he has to work with. But it’s also important he understand how the things he builds will land with people in terms of their total intellectual and emotional experience.”

In the event this interest in design led Lemarchand to his current career, rather than to Television Centre. “I got back into games after I’d been to college,” he says. “The Amiga had just come out so graphics were looking amazing. I made a beeline for the career’s office, where they told me I didn’t have a hope in hell of becoming a games developer, because I have a physics and philosophy degree. Fortunately my mum showed me a job advert in the local paper, the Gloucester Citizen, for a company called Microprose, an American developer with an office in the West of England.”

At Microprose Lemarchand designed two games for the Mega Drive: Tinhead, a visually strong post-Sonic platformer, and early 3D title F-15 Strike Eagle II. A third project was started, another side-scroller called Boo! on which Lemarchand had the opportunity to work with Danger Mouse animator Keith Scoble (“an amazingly talented guy”). Despite featuring on the front cover of One Amiga magazine the game was never released, and Lemarchand’s subsequent search for new opportunities eventually led to California.

“I saw a job advert in the back of Edge for this new studio, Crystal Dynamics, in Palo Alto in the San Francisco bay area,” he says. “As a young cyberpunk I knew all about Palo Alto, it was the home of Xerox Park, where the mouse had been invented and the graphical user interface had been invented, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. I knew that Crystal Dynamics was a company that has been founded with a remit of bringing together great videogame talent with great linear media storytelling talent. They called it ‘Siliwood’ back in the day – that was the goal, to combine Silicon Valley and Hollywood.”

Naughty Dog’s work on the cinematic Uncharted might be the ultimate realisation of this goal, the game produced half in-studio, half on the Sony Pictures soundstage. But Lemarchand’s time at Crystal Dynamics was a crucial stepping stone. The first game on which he worked was side-scrolling 3DO-exclusive Gex. The studio’s single-platform strategy had been abandoned by the time he started production on Pandemonium for the PlayStation. “I think that was the world’s first game set in a manifold,” he says, adding with characteristic meticulousness: “A manifold, for fans of mathematical topology out there, is a 2D plane which is bent around three dimensions.”

As much as the games themselves it was the people and approaches Lemarchand encountered at Crystal Dynamics that shaped his outlook. He worked with current Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells on Gex: Enter The Gecko, and then with Uncharted’s influential creative director Amy Hennig on the Soul Reaver series. Hennig in particular Lemarchand credits with having an “incredible vision, with similar ideals of wanting to bring together the best of interactivity and the best of story to create something special and new.”

This is typical of Lemarchand, who is continually name-checking colleagues, sharing credit and generally advertising the joys of creative collaboration. “You have to have fun to make fun,” he says, and makes it clear that Naughty Dog is a special place to work, thanks in large part to the influence of Wells and co-president Christophe Ballestra. “Without trying to impose structure on people, they’re all about empowering the individual developers at Naughty Dog to do what they know how to do well.” But there’s also a sense that Lemarchand is simply an upliftingly positive individual. He remembers during playtesting on Uncharted 2’s ‘Peaceful Village’ level watching players “rushing straight up to the first NPC that they saw and swinging a punch at them.” Convinced the players “weren’t truly trying to attack the villagers, they were trying to see if they could interact with them” Lemarchand had the team alter the level so that attacks instead became handshakes, and was gratified by the delighted reaction of subsequent players.

“At the end of the day design is about human psychology, and that’s a subject that’s always been fascinating to me. Who are we? What makes us tick? How do we see the world, and how do we interact with it? To my mind it’s really just to do with being inquisitive about everything in life. And that’s something I think is incredibly enriching. If you’re interested in the world, you really can’t help but have a good time in it. And if you’re having fun, then it really gives you a good chance of being able to make really good fun. And that of course is the key to game design.”

This text first appeared in Edge #235. The image is stolen shamelessly from the Guardian.

 

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