The Last of Us: Interview With Creative Director Neil Druckmann and Game Director Bruce Straley
It’s a rare occasion these days to find a game that isn’t a copycat or a sequel of a previous title. True, unique IPs are a phenomenon that seems to be diminishing, and truth be told, it’s simply a risky endeavor in today’s market. However, every now and then a game pops up that just makes people say “Wow”.
To say that The Last of Us has taken the gaming world by storm is somewhat of an understatement. Naughty Dog has recently had great success with the Uncharted franchise, using a blend of fantastic storytelling, big Hollywood-like set designs and a character focused narrative that delivers one of the best gaming experiences in recent memory. This approach seems to continue with The Last of Us.
Gaming Examiner sits down with Naughty Dog Creative Director, Neil Druckmann and Game Director, Bruce Straley to discuss the highly anticipated The Last of Us.
Gaming Examiner – The Last of Us is heading in a radically different direction than Uncharted. The comparisons between the two games must be getting old at this point, but what influenced your decision to move away from the Uncharted franchise and focus on a new IP?
[quote_center]Another fascinating aspect of the infection is that different strains of the fungus infect only specific, individual species – so it is a highly targeted infection[/quote_center]
Naughty Dog – From the beginning of this project we have been trying to do something different with it. It’s a darker look at the world, but with the depth of character and performance that Naughty Dog has been known for. While we were working on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, we happened to watch the Planet Earth documentary series by the BBC and one segment in particular caught our attention. The segment was about the cordyceps fungus; a parasitic fungus that infects insects’ minds and basically controls their behavior in order to spread itself to other insects. Once a single insect is infected, the fungus can wipe out whole colonies. Another fascinating aspect of the infection is that different strains of the fungus infect only specific, individual species – so it is a highly targeted infection. This led us to the question: what would happen if this infection, this cordyceps fungus, attacked humans? This question formed the narrative foundation of The Last of Us and the project has been evolving and developing from there.
[quote_center]Ellie will be a valuable resource throughout the game. She’ll not only throw bricks at assailants but she’ll also be critical for scavenging, solving puzzles and tipping the balance of power in their favor as Joel and Ellie struggle to survive the harsh realities of the post pandemic world.[/quote_center]
GE – There have been a number of games where you have a NPC that’s a major part of the gameplay and story; Ico and Amy come to mind. What are you doing with Ellie’s character to insure that her participation in your playthrough is dynamic enough to where she feels like an actual, functioning character? The E3 demo comes to mind, where Ellie distracts an enemy while you close in for the kill…
ND – Strong AI is an important focus for The Last of Us. Similar to how we’ve designed the enemy AI to feature dynamic, realistic opponents, we’ve also designed Ellie to be a very capable ally who provides vital mutual aid to Joel in overcoming obstacles. In and out of combat situations, Ellie will be a valuable resource throughout the game. She’ll not only throw bricks at assailants but she’ll also be critical for scavenging, solving puzzles and tipping the balance of power in their favor as Joel and Ellie struggle to survive the harsh realities of the post pandemic world.
GE – Despite the fact that The Last of Us is not related to Uncharted in any way, there must have been some influences; maybe in the UI, certain gameplay elements? Is that the case here, or are you trying to distance yourself from the Uncharted franchise as much as possible?
ND – As we mentioned when The Last of Us was announced, Naughty Dog is now a two team studio. Key learnings and aggregate knowledge and experience are shared openly among the teams. Our seating arrangement here isn’t based on project, but instead on departments. And we have a very open floor plan with few walls, and even fewer offices, this way those spontaneous conversations that mutate into brainstorms allow everyone around to participate – and we encourage it.
A more specific form of cross-project sharing we’ve created is our code database called ‘NDLib’. It’s the core code for some of our major and low-level systems that both games can use, and that people from either team can update. This allows us to not double up our work efforts, leaving more time for the project-specific tech needs. So our code database is something that’s also shared.
GE – With Uncharted, it became well known that the realism of the actors’ performances was due to them actually acting out a scene in a studio as opposed to simply reading lines into a mic. Is this method also used for The Last of Us? The performances that we have seen so far are astounding…
ND – Thank you for the compliment! We’ve worked very hard to maintain the depth of character and performance that Naughty Dog is known for in our games with The Last of Us. We’ve used similar performance capture techniques that include any improvements in technologies that have happened since we last took our actors onto the mocap stage. It’s our goal in The Last of Us that you, as the player, become so invested in the characters, the story, and the tension of our gameplay mechanics, that your own emotions mirror those expressed within the game by Joel and Ellie at any given moment. The amazing performances by Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie also help establish that strong emotional rapport.
GE – Can you describe combat in The Last of Us? Will it be faster paced, or are should we be expecting something more along the lines of a survival horror, slower paced mechanic?
ND – As you saw with the E3 gameplay footage, combat will be brutal yet intimate. When Joel has been tackled and is being choked out by an opponent the camera will be tight and the fact that Ellie is sneaking up from behind with a knife to aid Joel will be hidden. We want to make sure the player feels the tension Joel and Ellie are experiencing. Making our human antagonists feel realistic and believable has been one of our greatest undertakings for this project. One way the player is going to feel that is through what we’ve termed the balance of power. That is when the enemies will change their behavior based on what weapon they see Joel holding, how many of them are left alive, and whether the player has managed to surprise them. Balance of power is key gameplay mechanic for the title.
GE – Ellie seems to represent an innocence that Joel has lost; by protecting Ellie, Joel is also protecting himself. Will player choice have an effect on their relationship throughout the game?
ND – The relationship between Joel and Ellie begins when Joel has been tasked by his dying friend to smuggle Ellie to another quarantine zone. It starts as a job he’s taken on. As we demonstrated in our behind closed doors demo at E3, aspects of Joel and Ellie’s relationship and their personalities can be revealed by interaction with various elements, such as an old movie poster, throughout the game world. You’ll find out more about Ellie and Joel’s journey as the story and their relationship evolves throughout the game. If you choose to fully explore the game world you’ll be able to dive more deeply into their stories and personality quirks.
GE – A classic theme in Naughty Dog titles is the “teacher” scenario, where one character is handing down what he/she knows to a new generation. We saw this with Sully and Drake and even Samos looking over Jak and Daxter, and now with Joel and Ellie. Why do you think this formula resonates so well with players today and was it a conscious choice to keep that motif in the game?
ND – Not sure we’ve consciously applied a formula or any specific approach to any of the motifs in The Last of Us but we have many influences. We were highly influenced from the section in Uncharted 2, where Drake teams up with a Sherpa who doesn’t speak the same language as Drake. Through a short period of gameplay time, we managed to build a bond between Drake and the Sherpa that resonated with us. We were intrigued by the idea of building a deep, complex bond between two characters over the course of an entire game. That thought process eventually led to coming up with Joel and Ellie.
[quote_center]We’re not ready to talk about the details of how multiplayer will be implemented, however we can say that it is not co-op within the main campaign.[/quote_center]
GE – Uncharted had tremendous success with the co-op portion in the online function in their game, will The Last of Us see that in the future?
ND – We are supporting multiplayer with The Last of Us. We’re not ready to talk about the details of how multiplayer will be implemented, however we can say that it is not co-op within the main campaign.
GE – It was recently revealed that things in The Last of Us will subtly change depending on how you play it and the route you take through the game. Are we talking multiple endings?
ND – We have a defined narrative arc we want to tell with The Last of Us – there is only one ending to the story and the game. At the end of the day, we are creating a video game and we’ve made sure that there are plenty of choices for the player to make either in combat or exploring the environment. In fact, with supplies being so scarce, it’s important that you take the time to explore and scavenge for anything that may aid you in the future.
GE – Christophe Balestra once mentioned that he sees video games moving into the realm of respect that film gets. Is this why, in an ever increasing competitive multiplayer gaming world, Naughty Dog has focused so much on the single player story experience? Do you see the single player experience leading the charge into the next level of sophistication and respect from the general public?
ND – Above all, with The Last of Us, we’re interested in telling a very tight, well-constructed, narrative-driven gaming experience that (if we do our jobs right) successfully parallels the player’s feelings with our main protagonist. A great deal of depth and sophistication can be found in almost any kind of gameplay if enough hard work and thought is put into it. Often respect from the general public is relative to the quality of game that they play. The Last of Us will be a game that sets the quality bar for the survival action genre and features the depth of gameplay and narrative experience Naughty Dog is known for.
Thank you to Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley for their time! And as usual, keep your eyes plastered to Gaming Exmainer as more info on this amazing game drops!