Crafting The Last of Us — A Focus on Character Interaction
Developer: Naughty Dog / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Release Date: May 7, 2013
Great games aren’t made by accident, and Naughty Dog has a clear plan with The Last of Us.
“Any good narrative is about the protagonists and the dynamics that they have between the supporting cast and the emotions that are drawn out,” Naughty Dog Co-President Evan Wells said. “We wanted to apply this crazy pressure that would draw out very interesting reactions from our protagonists. We created this universe, this post-pandemic world where the population’s been decimated.”
Last’s vision of the future is one of the bleakest created. An infectious fungus — the type that really exists if you’re desperate for nightmares — has found fertile ground in human hosts. The infection doesn’t just kill, it also interferes with the nervous system, turning its host into a mindlessly aggressive monster.
“They’re going to try to swarm you and overcome you through numbers,” Wells advised. “You have a very different strategy when you approach them. They can still see your movement and they’re very quick.”
That leading phrase “they can still see” references the Clickers. These subjects have been infected since the original outbreak some 20 years before the game’s story begins. Fungus has sprouted out of every orifice on their body… including their eyes.
“The only way they navigate the environment and find their prey is through echolocation. They emit this clicking sound, which is what we really wanted to associate with that dread and fear. ‘Oh my gosh, I hear that sound,’” Wells said. “You know something really bad is coming. These guys are dangerous.”
As horrifying as that sounds, the game’s real tension and fear comes from a different kind of monster. The outbreak has pushed humanity to the breaking point. Quarantine zones are ruthlessly policed under martial law, with the rest of America abandoned to the infected and any lawless groups that do all they can to survive.
That’s the secret sauce to Last’s horror — the direct, ever present danger from infected and the more insidious, cunning danger of roving humans that possess intellect but have traded their morality for survival.
“That’s our intent, to create these two types of antagonism. To come to realize that humans, when they’re driven to their most basic instincts, can be more horrific and scarier than the actual monsters,” Wells said. “You’re going to find these different pockets of humanity and see what they have been driven to do in order to survive in this new world.”
Ultimately, Last contains a third source of tension. Yes, fungus monsters are awful and feral humans are even worse, but the real unsettling fear comes when the game holds up a mirror and makes you ask yourself uncomfortable questions.
“That is absolutely one of the focuses of the game, to make players ask themselves ‘If I were in that same situation, what would I do? How would I behave?’” Wells said. “You get to see different options and different people have taken different strategies in order to try and survive.”
If the goals of this game and the roots of this universe sound meticulously planned, there’s a reason. Naughty Dog’s legacy is built on games that are fine-tuned for the hardware they run on and only accomplish goals that are attainable at that time.
“The transition for us from Crash to Jak to Uncharted and now The Last of Us has been driven by technology,” Wells explained. “If you think back to Crash Bandicoot, a lot of the decisions that were made in the character design and the gameplay were driven by the limitations of the original PlayStation hardware. It was barely capable of even doing 3D.”
Because of the system’s low resolution, Naughty Dog had to dedicate more screen space for the character to convey expressions and emotions. That means a larger head, which automatically means a more cartoony aesthetic. Better hardware means more resolution and finer tools to convey a message. If Crash Bandicoot was Naughty Dog’s stage play, then Uncharted moved them into movie directing.
“When the PlayStation 3 came around, we could fully realize something that’s modern day and features real humans and real performances by actors that can express themselves. Not just through dialogue, but through facial performance and that characterization and emotion that lets you see between the words,” Wells said.
Even though The Last of Us is also on the PlayStation 3, it has entirely different goals from Uncharted.
“With Uncharted, it was more of a summer blockbuster, a popcorn-munching matinee sort of thing,” Wells explained. “We wanted to apply what we’d learned to a completely new genre. Something that would allow us to tell a very different story. Something that would test these characters in different ways and test their relationships.”
Hence the layers of antagonism. As previously stated, great games aren’t made by accident, and Naughty Dog has built The Last of Us from the ground up to craft a very specific experience.
With this foundation laid, The Last of Us becomes more than a game; it’s a world meticulously crafted to create great stories (note the plural).
“Every time we make a game, we approach it as developing a franchise. It takes so much to build a universe that we want it to have legs and see sequels,” Wells said. “We don’t really know where this is going, but we want to make sure that it’s rich enough and broad enough that it could support more stories and more adventures.”