It’s more free flowing than you might think.
Naughty Dog’s games are among the best written games in the industry, if not the best. A lot of the credit for this goes to Neil Druckmann, whose work includes Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Last of Us, and the upcoming The Last of Us Part 2, which will actually be his first solo outing as game director.
Speaking in a presentation at DICE (via DualShockers), Druckmann discussed his creative process, pointing out that he first needs to know the major beats of the plot and the story arc. Once he knows that, he works backwards from there- knowing the ending is important, because for him, the ending is the essence of the story, and it informs how he approaches the rest of the story he is telling. All of this, he does on index cards, as this is still him just throwing ideas at the wall to see what does and does not stick.
Eventually, before the first scene of the game is to be shot, the team gets together, and starts to actually write the story, based on Druckmann’s ideas and outline. Eventually, the developers are brought into the studio and informed what the ton, aesthetic, feel, and direction of the story is. This session can last a while, and is recorded, so the developers can refer to it at any time.
The end result is a Naughty Dog game- but the secret, of course, is not in how Naughty Dog does it. The secret lies in the fact that this is just an insanely talented studio, and once it sets its mind to something, there is no stopping it.