This interview has major story spoilers.
Whenever I finish a great game, novel, or film, I always wish that I could talk to its creators and quiz them about their inspirations. I had the chance to do that with the creators of The Last of Us, the blockbuster game for the PlayStation 3. Director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann dutifully answered the questions that ran through my head as I played their masterful game about a man, a girl, and a zombie apocalypse. Here’s an edited excerpt of our interview, which focuses solely on their inspirations.
For the extended version of our interview (part one), please check out this link. And here is part two of our extended interview. Here is our excerpt on the female characters, our excerpt on gameplay decisions, and our excerpt on the beginning and ending.
GamesBeat: I’m very curious about inspirations and intentions in the way you told the story and the inspirations for the characters. Can you talk about some of those? Maybe the inspiration for Ellie, for example?
Neil Druckmann: When Bruce and I were working on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, we would brainstorm a lot of gameplay scenarios or story scenarios. One of the things we ended up calling “The Mute Girl” is a sequence of gameplay — again, this was all just theoretical. Drake was in this war-torn city. He joined this rebel group that was fighting a civil war. They all bed down for the night, and one of the members of the group is this teenage girl who is mute.
We started to brainstorm how you would form a bond through gameplay, where you can’t rely on dialogue. She would shake Drake awake in the middle of the night and motion for him to follow her. She’d start climbing up buildings and jumping gaps, and you’re following her and seeing that she’s excited. She really wants to share something with you. As you’re climbing up on this rooftop of this building, you get to see a vista over this whole city as it’s lit up. You hear gunfire and stuff in the distance, but it’s this really beautiful moment that you get to share with this character, all through gameplay.
That idea stuck in the back of our minds when we started discussing our next project. That morphed into a question: Could you build an entire game around this concept of meeting a character really early on and forming a bond that would evolve and shift as you see all the facets that a deep relationship between two people can have?
GamesBeat: As far as intentions, what kind of story did you really want to tell?
Druckmann: We knew we wanted this arc where we started with someone whose life has been horrible for the past 20 years. He’s pretty much dead. He’s a very different person from the father you saw in the beginning of the story. He has very little humanity left him. The more time he spent with Ellie, she would pull these aspects back out of him.
The reverse of that, for Ellie, would be a coming of age story. The more time she spends with a survivor, the more she takes on those qualities herself. All this worked toward a climactic moment where their roles would flip, both in story and in gameplay. The 14-year-old girl becomes the hero. She’s the one saving him and essentially bringing him back to life. That was our earliest intention for those characters and their arcs.
Ultimately, at least for Joel, it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid. Each step of the way is a greater sacrifice. At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at. But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity. When he has that final lie with Ellie, he’s willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line in order to save her.
Likewise, for Ellie — there are different interpretations out there. I don’t know if it’s fair to give a final interpretation of what that last “OK” means. But there is a pointed intention there for her.
GamesBeat: A lot of people have said that this is a really good game. The sales are backing that up. But it’s in a crowded genre, this zombie genre. One of my editors called it a “zombie game,” and when I first heard that, I sort of did a double take. I never really thought of this as a zombie game. There are plenty of opportunities to have these kinds of moral dilemmas in this zombie genre, though. The Walking Dead is another good example of that. How do you tell a zombie story without falling into the trap of just being one more zombie game?
Bruce Straley: When Neil and I were talking about the original idea, we were looking at a bunch of things as far as media — books we were reading, movies we were watching — that all came together. We saw this opportunity where survival horror, or whatever you want to call it, gave us an opportunity to develop characters inside of that world. Nobody had really done that in video games yet. Taking what we’d learned from the Uncharted series, studying the craft of creating characters, and paralleling that with the conflict in gameplay and conflict in stories, we can make you as a player feel more of what it’s truly like to exist inside of a world where every bullet counts and each step you take is a conscious choice that’s going to make or break your existence.