The Last of Us: An Interview with Naughty Dog
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains to this day the finest action adventure of this generation and one of the defining games of the PlayStation 3’s lifetime. It is a stunning piece of narrative-driven gaming that stands up to repeated playthroughs the way a similarly aimed summer blockbuster would still entertain after multiple viewings. Although there are many stand-out sections that folk might choose as their favourite, the mountain village and what follows stands out to us at The Digital Fix. The awakened Nathan Drake wanders safely around this otherworldly village in peace, taking in his surroundings completely unopposed - light years from any other section. At the end he again meets Tenzin, a Tibetan explorer who was the man who found the stricken Nate and brought him to safety, and latterly health. These two embark on a journey together whereby they must rely on one another to make progress. This whole part of the game struck us and many others, not least the game’s Lead Designer and Game Director, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley.
“Bruce and I would have these dinners when working on Uncharted 2, talking about ideas to see what we wanted to explore. One particular sequence in Uncharted 2 which really resonated with us was that with Tenzin....it was a sequence where we were really inspired by the game Ico and we wanted to see how much of a relationship we could build just through gameplay mechanics.”
And so The Last of Us was born. Neil and Bruce were asked by Naughty Dog to lead the formation of a second team as part of the company’s growth, thereby allowing them to work on two triple-A titles concurrently (we all hope the other team is beavering away on an as yet unannounced Uncharted 4 for PlayStation 4). Bruce retains his role from the previous game whilst Neil, who also had a hand in writing parts of the stellar Among Thieves, has assumed the role of Creative Director, a position manned by the unrivalled (to date at least) Amy Hennig on Drake’s adventures.
Whilst working on Drake’s second treasure hunt and then during brainstorming sessions once tasked with creating an all-new title Neil and Bruce worked their way towards what they wanted their new game to be, avoiding any attempt to just make a game that wasn’t Uncharted. This was important as it helped ensure whatever the output was the quality was as high as it could be, rather than compromising for an arbitrary reason. Neil told us that “it’s a question of what’s best for The Last of Us, not how do we differentiate ourselves from our previous game. So our AI system (for instance). Our needs for this game are so different that we had to scrap it and start from scratch, because we wanted our AI to coordinate on such an intimate level that’s very different from the action stuff of the past. Likewise with the graphics engine there is no electricity, so light became a character in how we draw and define environments. We wrote a whole new lighting engine which has more soft bounce lighting, so you can see where the sun is coming from. It seeps in through windows, doorways and bounces off of surfaces and characters cast soft shadows when they pass by. Also because we are focusing so much on the relationship we have created a ton of content that is optional. If players go exploring, if they venture off of the beaten path, they’ll hear conversations between Ellie and Joel that flesh out their characters in sometimes sweet ways you might miss if you just head for the next goal (we experienced one particular instance where Joel and Ellie find an old arcade machine and Joel makes a little dig at gamers...). At first it was really scary as people might never see this but then we find people learn it on their own and it feels natural and organic.”
It was clear that in defining The Last of Us they wanted to ensure they maintained the very tenet of Naughty Dog’s working ethos, that is to make the very best game they could. Bruce and Neil talked about interests in other media from games to films to books and determined that what they wanted was two-fold. One was whether you can “build a whole game around this concept...where two people have to work together, to save each other. Even when the characters haven’t met. You can build that bond over time...and the player can see that bond grow”. The second point was more mechanical rather than focussed on the relationship and how that moves things forward. “Interesting choices are made by flawed humans when they have to decide something. Normal people have boundaries but when pressure’s applied what happens? Normal isn’t normal anymore. So what is now normal”?
It seemed logical to look towards a future whereby the definition of normal was blurred. Aware of organisms and circumstances in real life - as later confirmed by their consultant Dr David P. Hughes, Assistant Professor of Entomology and Biology at Penn State University - the choice of fungal infection leading to a variation on classical post-apocalyptic society was chosen. Fungal infections happen all around us to animals and insects in the world. It even happens to humans. But thanks to the bacterial and viral infections outnumbering such instances by multiple magnitudes those of us fortunate enough not to have to hear about them, don’t hear about them. From that point there are fictional constructs at play but all with the focal point of delivering a world which isn’t normal. A world that is full of horror.
That being said when Bruce and Neil reflected on revered survival horror games they realised that wasn’t what they wanted to do. “We love it, it’s just an observation as we love these games with the jump scares and psychological tension but it all ends up being kind of one note, dark, brooding, narrow corridors with everything closing in on you and the note runs itself a little thin. That’s the horror aspect, but then we wanted to bring the other dimension to it which is kind of the action and the adventure. The sense of a journey and the arc of these characters that we get to play out“. The Last of Us is not survival horror, it’s survival action we’re told. Naughty Dog challenged themselves according to Bruce Straley to see if in “combining the elements from the books we were reading, the movies we saw and the games we like playing we could create a new genre. It’s pretentious to say it but you know, survival action is what we’re deeming it, is what this game has become.” The team did a lot of research into the world they were creating, taking influences from The World Without Us (book) and the aforementioned scientific basis for the game’s events. By doing this they were able to create the world they wanted where people would need to make decisions, be it how to utilise the limited resources they’ve found - make a shiv for a quiet kill, a molotov cocktail for a big boom or something more defensive, like bandages. A world where whatever has happened to people is “worse than death. It had to be worse than death. This is taking over control of me and I know it but I have no control over what it causes me to do”. That’s stage one of the infected - the runners, with stage two being blindness where the infected adapt to use echolocation to move around and hunt the humans left behind, the humans having to make those new everyday choices in a world we don’t yet know.
To that end there’s a duality betwixt and between the game’s main protagonists, Joel and Ellie. “Joel is a way to link our world into that of the game (set twenty years from the present day), here is someone who’s lived on both sides of the outbreak and at this stage sustained some pretty horrible losses that we would have all had to had we survived an outbreak”. Very much a survivor. “Emotionally shut down because of all the pain and loss he’s had to go through”. The outbreak is a filter that he’s had to pass through, meaning that he starts the game as this “changed, broken soul”. To Ellie though, born just fourteen years ago, this is all she knows. “If we were to see someone in front of us get murdered we’d probably go into shock, but for her it’s what she’s used to, what she’s seen from day one all her life”. She is able to “maintain an optimistic view of life, she can still maintain somewhat her innocence but that gets slowly chipped away whilst she’s with Joel”.
The game is all about the two lead characters, their relationship and how that evolves over time. Whilst the Uncharted series can be seen as a cross between Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, very much a summer blockbuster movie where action, plot and narrative is key, The Last of Us is primarily focused elsewhere. “It all comes back to this high level goal we wanted which is to form this relationship through you playing as Joel. Joel meets Ellie at the beginning of the game, so you meet Ellie at the beginning of the game. Slowly and surely you are forming this bond. We had some people from Naughty Dog’s other team play the full game for the first time when we were done. Someone who finished it told us how attached they were to Joel and Ellie. This person also watched someone start the game, watching these two characters and commented on how totally different they were to those at end of the game”.
It was clearly what the development team had hoped for. “It was a big compliment, as we wanted to have a subtle progression throughout the game“. Neil Druckmann reiterated this when we spoke with him later. We actually reminded him of a comment relating to Dead Island, whereby on seeing the original trailer and then the completely different tone of the game a sigh of relief was given because it hadn’t done exactly what The Last of Us was setting out to do. But since then we’ve seen the wonderful partners, relationships and NPC AI that Clem in The Walking Dead and Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite are extremely well regarded examples of. Was there any worry The Last of Us would become diluted in its impact?
“I don’t think so....even that Dead Island comment, I wouldn’t put it that heavily. When working on something for three years things constantly come up, whether in games or films, that look pretty similar to what you’re doing. Were people listening in on our brainstorming sessions? All you can do is have that initial vision, that initial idea that thing that inspired you, and you just have to keep pushing forward, thinking back to what inspired you and stick to your guns. If you try to react to those things, you’ll never finish your game. At the end of the day, because of that, I feel we’ve achieved our goals, which were to create this bond unlike you have ever seen in a videogame. I realise there are these other games which have come out and done something similar but we have the focus groups, mainly to tune difficulty. These are at times hardcore gamers and we had these people cry in the middle of our focus tests which we have never had before. In the exit interviews we had people say they have never felt so connected to a character as they did to Joel or Ellie, or I have never seen a relationship like that in a videogame. To us, that was the biggest compliment. We stuck to what we believed in and - at least for a small group - it paid out.“
Obviously in such a game with the focus on the characters and their bond the acting is key. Troy Baker as Joel is nearly as well known now as Nolan North, having starred in a variety of games but most recently and perhaps most memorably, as Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite. Alongside him as Ellie is Ashley Johnson, who despite being listed in the IMDB as having voiced characters in a Ben 10 game insists this is her first time in this medium*. She was attracted to the role of Ellie because “I had never done a videogame before and I wanted to do one, then I auditioned for this and I feel pretty lucky to be part of this game. But I love this story, I’m a big fan of this genre - who doesn’t like post-apocalyptic stuff, you know? But there’s so much more to the game than that so I feel it’s lame to just call it a survival action game, or a post-pandemic game. It would still be a strong story to me if it were not in this world. I know that’s a huge part of it of course but the characters and the journey they go on, I have never seen that in a videogame.” Neil added that “Ashley is humble, but the work she did with Troy, I’ll say it, it will go down as two of the best performances ever in videogames. I really believe that“. Not setting the bar too high, then.
In terms of the scenes which we’ll get to play through and see if we agree that the performances here are the finest we’ve ever seen in a videogame we asked how the different subject matter affected the acting of them, the mocap sessions and so on. Were things anymore intense than the comparatively jovial pitch of Nate’s games? “Some of them were very intense”, said Neil. “Ashley doesn’t mind throwing her weight around on some action or some pretty heavy scenes. But some were funny, some we were on the floor laughing. We always tried to strike that balance even with this game. The thing we don’t like about survival horror games, say, is they tend to be kinda one note. They do it very well and are very effective and as far as tension is concerned nothing beats videogames. But for us it becomes much more interesting especially on long-form narratives such as a game to switch it up. If exploring the human condition you want to explore fear and excitement and laughter. That’s why Ellie is such an important part of the mix as she still can be optimistic about the world and admire things Joel would just walk past and not notice as for him it’s all about survival. But yes, there were some pretty intense scenes, a couple of which people two takes in left the set as they couldn’t watch anymore”.
The player is Joel throughout the game as far as we know but Ellie is clearly very important, at least as important as the aforementioned Clem or Elizabeth. Perhaps more so? When talking about the AI Bruce mentioned that “Ellie has to be a real person”. The longer you linger in a given area, the more you explore the more you’ll be rewarded with information about her, about Joel, all delivered via the natural and organic conversations mentioned earlier. She is also able to be quiet when you are, because you’re trying a stealth approach through a particular area or she’ll hunt for a brick when you’re behaving a little more excitedly. Basically, what the team have tried to do here is create a “fully fledged character”.
It was incredible being able to hear key players in The Last of Us’ development team talk about what they set out to make, what they hope they’ve achieved and their thoughts about the whole process. We’re promised a videogame unlike any we’ve seen before. It will focus on choices that we have to make as we move through the game, choices affected by our feelings towards Joel and Ellie, a relationship hoped to be unlike no other. We’ll see how those characters change, how their interactions vary and that in turn will alter what we do. The verbatims from Neil Druckmann in particular, with his belief in the quality of acting performance coupled with the responses from those who’ve been on this journey with Joel and Ellie bodes incredibly well. So does the quality in this team’s CV. We’ll leave you with the final words from Neil and Bruce, which should do nothing less than ensure comprehensive salivation in anticipation of this title. We asked Neil about how he managed his transition from Lead Designer to Creative Director and of all he mentioned this was the most encouraging: “To this day I feel I’m out of my element at Naughty Dog. I am surrounded by people who are the best at their craft. I don’t know how I fell into this, but I feel like the luckiest guy I alive. I get to make the best game ever made, the game I always wanted to play”. Bruce was also asked what going from Uncharted 2 to a more mature game was like. He said that from a personal point of view that it was “Daunting. Uncharted 2 was one of the better games ever created. That was fun, but how do we match it? Even if we can get near to it (I’ll be happy). It was scary but a privilege that Naughty Dog gave us the opportunity. Pretty amazing”.
We’ll see on June 14th whether it really is pretty amazing. You wouldn’t bet against it.
* - A final clarification before we had to end our chat with Ashley and Neil revealed that there was some non-TV dialogue recorded, and this was intended for “something else” but eventually put into this game. So in terms of knowingly playing a role for a videogame? Yes, this was Ashley’s first time.