The Last of Us and its brutal post apocalyptic cordyceps consumed landscape, represents one of 2013′s most anticipated gaming experiences, not least because this isn’t your average survival action adventure game; it’s a Naughty Dog survival action adventure game. Like no other game creator this generation, Naughty Dog has pushed the collective creative envelope of game making; crafting unique and incomparable entertainment experiences that tick every conceivable box – be it visuals, storyline, gameplay or characterisation. It’s somewhat fitting that their company logo is embezzled with that of a paw print, as Naughty Dog have, and continue to, leave their iconic print and their acclaimed creative stamp on every generation of PlayStation to date.
The Last of Us is their latest creation, a mature ultra violet survival action adventure title that looks set to raise the bar even higher. TGL caught up with Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, Creative Director on The Last of Us, to talk about comparisons to the Uncharted series, the relationship between protagonists Joel and Ellie, what it is about The Last of Us that plays to Naughty Dog’s development strengths and much more besides.
Here we go………..
TGL: The Last of Us represents something of a contemporary rarity of sorts, in so much as the existence of the game didn’t actually leak or surface in the days, minutes or seconds leading up to its eventual reveal. How important is it for a project as high profile as The Last of Us, for the developers to retain complete control of its existence right up to the point where you actually decide that the time is right to publically lift the lid on the game?
Neil Druckmann: It was all a fluke. We got lucky. Seriously though, there were some scares and it was pretty remarkable that we were able to pull off the reveal like we did. Given that we announced on Spike TV Video Game Awards there were obviously some people outside of Naughty Dog who knew about the game and the credit really goes to everyone for being able to keep things buttoned up. Being able to control lifting up the curtain until the time is right really gives us a chance to make sure we have the proper content to excite our audience and that it speaks well to the what the game is truly about. It was a nice luxury to have.
TGL: Much has been made of the cordyceps fungus and the influence that said fungus has had on The Last of Us, both in terms of narrative and the composition of the world that Joel and Ellie must negotiate. Just how vital was the introduction of the cordyceps “factor” to the origins of this project? Were Naughty Dog already working and conceiving a new IP in the The Last of Us before the team decided to anchor the story to the cordyceps “factor”?
ND: We were kicking around a lot of ideas including potentially re-visiting the world of Jak & Daxter but 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’ mind and basically controls their behavior in order to spread it 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? That’s really how this post-pandemic world started to take shape. What was that outbreak infection? The cordyceps fungus answered that question.
TGL: Comparisons with Uncharted are inevitable but how important is it with The Last of Us to create an entirely new and innovative experience that enters the PlayStation 3 space as an original property that can exist all onto itself?
ND: The Last of Us takes place in a violent, brutal world. There has to be realistic tension between the characters, and a sense of danger and consequence when you are in combat. Civilization and the production of goods as we know it have ceased, and many things are in short supply – especially expendables like bullets, or first aid supplies. Because of this, you’re going to have to make judgment calls on when to use and when to conserve your supplies. But there still will be avenues the more action-oriented player can take to make their way through the game. That creates very different combat scenarios from most action or shooter games out today and is one of the many things that make The Last of Us stand out as an original property onto itself.
TGL: “Adapt or Die” springs to mind when looking back at the first handful of gameplay videos released for the title. The game seems to wear antagonism on its sleeve. How does this gritty atmosphere compliment what is actually happening to the surrounding world defined by the virus?
ND: At its core The Last of Us is a game about the human condition that pushes players to explore the limits of human perseverance. It’s a story of love, loyalty, and redemption. This is a world that’s been ravaged by a plague that has decimated society as we know it, so it’s really about how does one survive in this savage world? And when do the ends justify the means for survival? So there’s actually lot of contrast happening as the virus allows nature to reclaim what we had known as civilization. There’s a palpable tension you’ll feel when in combat or as you wander through familiar areas that have been made unfamiliar yet are still instantly recognizable. That moment-to-moment tension between what’s going on in the world and what Joel and Ellie will need to do to survive complement each other by the fact that that tension is always there.
TGL: How important is it that the player has a strong emotional rapport with Joel and Ellie? Can it be difficult to execute and promote this connection and affinity when there’s so much going on in the world surrounding the characters?
ND: Our goal in The Last of Us is 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. It’s definitely a challenge to make sure that connection happens within a collapsed civilization but that same world helps to set up stark contrast to the will of the characters and the journey they will be going on. As the world falls apart, the player will have to go on this journey that explores how people survive and what they do to come together. The amazing performances by Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie also help establish that strong emotional rapport.
TGL: The balance of power strikes us as an integral mechanic in The Last of Us, particularly when it comes to combat and initiating violence. How does this balance affect/influence combat and how it is initiated?
ND: When engaging in combat you have to deal with the infected humans, whom we will be discussing at a later point, and certain other surviving humans. 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 the balance of power mechanic. 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. It’s built into the AI system we’ve retooled from the ground up specifically for The Last of Us.
TGL: Both Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) are already established and celebrated actors and voice over performers in their own right, but what was it about their original auditions and interactions with the piece that influenced the decision to go ahead and cast both of them as the leading protagonists?
ND: We go through a rigorous audition process when casting a new character. This was especially true when trying to find the two leads for The Last of Us. Ashley was actually one of the first candidates to come in and read for Ellie. It was one of those rare instances where after she was done we knew we had our Ellie. She was tough, playful, and had that tomboyish quality that we always imagined Ellie to have. Casting Ashley was a no-brainer.
Joel took much longer to find. Once Ashley was part of the team, we had her act against all of the Joel candidates. We went through two full casting session, seeing dozens of candidates, until we finally auditioned Troy Baker. The thing with Troy is that in real life he is nothing like Joel – both physically and personality wise. But this goes to his acting talent because he came in and nailed it. Not only did he capture Joel’s character, he and Ashley hit it off right away. For the performances to be convincing, the chemistry had to be there. It also helped that Troy and Ashley are huge gamers. They got what we were after and have been passionate about the project every step of the way.
TGL: Given the success of the Uncharted series on PlayStation 3, is there an innate pressure with The Last of Us to deliver an experience that lives up to the high standard synonymous with Naughty Dog and an Uncharted trilogy that has already achieved so much greatness on PS3?
ND: Of course there’s pressure with any AAA game or creative act and The Last of Us is no different. Internally is really where the most pressure comes from. We are always pushing ourselves to do better and create more enjoyable, engaging, and fun games that truly raise the bar.
ND: We believe we are squarely within the genre that we feel Naughty Dog has demonstrated as one of our strengths – the action genre. The Last of Us is a survival action game and it has all the hallmarks that our audience has come to expect from Naughty Dog. It has all the depth of character, story, and performance that Naughty Dog has become known for.
TGL: And finally, what’s been the most rewarding part of the overwhelming positive public reaction to The Last of Us to this point?
ND: It’s been an absolutely joy to see such an overwhelmingly positive reception for the game so far. We’re awestruck that we were so well received, particularly with our E3 Games Critics’ Awards wins. This kind of reaction gives us the fuel that lets us know we’re heading in a positive direction and keeps us driving hard towards shipping the game. It’s a great little kick and we’ll be flooring it, heads down yet forward, until launch.
The Last of Us is expected in 2013 exclusively for PlayStation 3. Check out the latest Gamescom trailer below.