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.
Above: The Last of Us
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.