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.
The pressures of the world allow us to develop interesting characters. They force characters to make interesting choices. That’s where it started. Most of the games out there at the time were kind of cartoonish B-movie takes on it. We wanted to ground it and make it more serious. We felt like the more intimate we made the story, the more intimate we made the combat, the more we could make players feel what it would be like to have to exist as a survivor. We seized that opportunity.
Druckmann: It was also about viewpoints. Even though you might have seen these conventions in other media, exploring them in a game gives you a different perspective. If you play as Joel, to play as this morally ambiguous character and have to commit those acts yourself, I think it gives you a different perspective if you’re more removed, watching it or reading it. Likewise, when you embody Ellie, we knew this was an experience people hadn’t felt in a game before. It might be a well-trod genre in video games, but we knew that the kind of experience we delivered would feel unique.
GamesBeat: Are there any inspirations in that realm that you would call out, anybody else who’s done that well? In games or in other media.
Druckmann: There’s a book called City of Thieves, which is historical fiction. It explores the journey of these two survivors in Leningrad during World War II, while the city was under siege. They’re going to look for food and they run into cannibals and all these other horrible people, but there’s still humor in it. These two characters who hate each other form a bond. That was handled very well.
Straley: The Road, another book. That was a really good one.
Druckmann: Yeah. Also No Country for Old Men, the movie, as far as tension and what that showed us about how much you can create through subtraction. There’s almost no music in it, and almost no fighting. When the two main characters face off against each other, it’s really tense.
GamesBeat: It does seem a lot longer than the Uncharted games. Did you have some other things you wanted to do very differently from Uncharted?
Druckmann: We knew early on that we didn’t want to do as much traversal, that Joel would be much more grounded and less nimble than Drake. We moved out all of those mechanics. We wanted more tension, so we brought the camera in closer. The melee is slower and more brutal. Also, the AI has very different requirements. We wanted guys to communicate with each other, to be able to flank, to see when you dropped someone else and back away into cover. We scrapped almost all the A.I. from Uncharted and started from scratch.
Likewise, we wanted Ellie to be with you, when you’re stealthing and when you’re fighting guys. If you’re cornered, sometimes she’ll jump on their back and stab them. Sometimes she’ll pick up a brick and throw it. These are all dynamic systems. It felt like this game needed more of that systemic, sandbox approach than what we’d done in the past.
Straley: We also had the idea of set pieces in Uncharted. Set pieces can be collapsing buildings or moving trains through the Himalaya and so on. We wanted to take the same idea and narrow the focus down to the personal. We wanted to make it feel that there was something at stake when a set piece happened, and try to get more intimate with the set pieces.
So, for example, when Joel gets skewered by that piece of rebar he lands on in the university, you’re playing as Joel while he’s injured. As you play through that sequence, you see more and more of his abilities falling to the wayside as he’s losing consciousness and basically dying. Everything about that setup is our equivalent to jumping out of a cargo plane in Uncharted. It’s just that the scope has to be appropriate to the tone and the world and the intimacy we wanted to create with the characters.
GamesBeat: One of our guys saw this BBC sci-fi show, Primeval, where they had this episode where prehistoric fungi had turned people into fungus creatures. He wondered if you guys had seen it.
Druckmann: No, the BBC show we were ripping off is Planet Earth, where they talked about the cordiceps fungus and how it affects insects.
Straley: Neil and I would watch these videos where they literally use the term “zombie ants.” That was our jumping-off point. When we had a concept artist do the first preliminary sketches of what it would look like, again, it was a fate worse than death. There’s something beautiful and intriguing about the pictures of the fungus and how colorful and delicate it was, but then you know that this is growing through every pore of that insect. We wanted that contrast between the elegance and the delicacy versus the pure anguish, pain, and disgust of being controlled by a parasite.
In gameplay we liked the idea of echolocation and what that could provide for a very menacing antagonist to play through in these scenarios. A bunch of things came together that made the concept of the infected resonate with us.