Sony’s The Last of Us on the PlayStation 3 won 10 awards — including Game of the Year — at the recent Dice Awards, the Oscars of video games. That happened because creators Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann of Naughty Dog put so much depth into the design of the post-apocalyptic tale of two companions — the grizzled Joel and the young but tough Ellie — as they navigated their way past zombie-like menaces.
Now the dev duo is back with The Last of Us: Left Behind, the first downloadable content (DLC) for the title. Left Behind features its own Ellie story, taking place before she met Joel. The narrative centers on her time with another companion — her best friend named Riley. This $15 release will give fans more time with one of the most remarkable characters and tales in video game history. Straley and Druckmann, who have talked with us extensively about the creative process in The Last of Us, followed up with an interview at the recent Dice Summit. They talked about how they put together a new story about the events that shaped Ellie’s personality before she became the tough, knife-wielding character of The Last of Us, which is full of both terrifying and tender moments.
It’s an unusual step for the franchise creators to focus on DLC when they could be creating the next major sequel to a blockbuster franchise. But Straley and Druckmann clearly love the world and characters that they created, and they took special care to tell one more story with Left Behind.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did the material for the downloadable content (DLC) come together? Was it planned for a long time?
Neil Druckmann: Not that long. It’s funny. The more you work on the story and talk about parts of the world, the more it starts to solidify and take shape. Some of it was thinking about Ellie’s backstory and how she was bitten. Early conversations were like, “Oh, it would be more interesting if she was with someone she really cared for.” … Once we had that idea figured out, and we had this opportunity to do a comic book with Dark Horse, we fleshed out some of that character. That character became Riley. Now we’ve worked with Faith Erin Hicks on that story. The comic became about how they first met, the first time Ellie encountered an infected and had to kill it.
We had this opportunity to do an additional chapter, and we explored whether it was worth doing. We didn’t want to tinker with the story in any way that would diminish it. But there was that gap between where the comic ended and where the game began that felt intriguing, to explore that moment that changed Ellie and give you a greater understanding of why she made certain choices in the main campaign.
GamesBeat: She almost seemed a little like a greenhorn in the main campaign. I didn’t think to consider that she’d already been through a lot.
Druckmann: We always knew she had some capability at the start of the game, whether it’s throwing bricks or jumping on someone and stabbing them. Obviously she gets more experienced as you get further into the story, but again, it was interesting to explore the Ellie before all that stuff, and see a more innocent, naïve version of her. We also see this other person, Riley, and how that person affected her and influenced her.
GamesBeat: Did you preserve that focus on just a few people and what’s going on with them, as opposed to the backstory of the outbreak and all that?
Druckmann: The DNA of The Last of Us has always been about characters and relationships and the bonds that we form with other human beings. It doesn’t reveal how the outbreak started or anything like that. The story takes place three weeks before the moment when Joel meets Ellie, so it’s not even that big a gap. But you get to see how Ellie lived in the quarantine zone.
GamesBeat: Was it all done after you finished the main game?
Bruce Straley: Yeah. We started pretty quickly after the single-player campaign was done. We took a couple weeks off. But we knew that we already wanted to explore the single-player story. We thought it was interesting for ourselves. Like Neil said, there was a story that was resonating. So, pretty quickly, after we got back to the studio, we started fleshing out the beats and what we were going to need as far as mechanics.
We created a new mechanic for combat. We have multi-faction combat now. We actually had a sketch of it in the single-player campaign, and due to time constraints, resource constraints, and what we thought was important to get the experience across for the main campaign, we had to cut that portion of the technology. So we looked at that again and said, “Here’s a good opportunity.” What’s cool about this is, now we can have humans versus infected, and Ellie, the player, can use a strategy of pitting them against each other. That’s one of those new tech things we’ve added into the combat loop.
Likewise, we started brainstorming about how we can build new relationship mechanics. We need to get Ellie and Riley to have this bond, and we need the player to have that same bond with Riley. We started exploring non-combat mechanics. We worked really hard on trying to get things on the stick and build up Riley’s character and build up that relationship through gameplay as much as possible. That took, what, four or five months, probably? Something like that.
GamesBeat: That’s pretty fast, compared to the first one.
Straley: It was a long five months, compared to the single-player campaign. It was a bit of a struggle. But we’re proud of what came about.
Druckmann: As DLC goes, I don’t know if it was necessarily that fast. Business-wise, you want your DLC to come out as close to launch as possible. For us, it was more important to get the characters and the story right. A couple of times, we extended our schedule for Left Behind.
GamesBeat: Do you also look at the DLC in the same way that many other companies think about it? If the game succeeds, you do DLC as a regular thing, with more than one story.
Straley: It’s hard to even call this “DLC.” Sure, it’s downloadable content, but we’ve been throwing around words like “downloadable chapter.”
Druckmann: Or “side story.”
Straley: “Additional content,” “additional story.” There’s almost this pejorative around the acronym, DLC. In this case, we’re not talking about a bunch of new weapons and new hats. We pride ourselves on having these character-driven experiences. Like Neil said, we pushed the schedule to get it right. We have to make sure that we feel good about it. We want to honor the fact that this is a very precious experience, in the single-player campaign, for the fans. If we were to muck with that and leave them with a bitter taste in their mouths, it would be a disservice to them as well.
We want to make sure that we do it to the Naughty Dog level of perfectionism. You put your life on hold for a bit to get this out the door, but it’s important that we do it right.
GamesBeat: What sort of setting is this, within the world of the game?
Druckmann: It takes place … Riley shows up in Ellie’s life, and you get the sense that there was some sort of falling-out between the girls. Riley is trying to win Ellie over, and she invites her to go with her. They both sneak into an abandoned mall within the confines of the quarantine zone. Then, they go on this adventure within the mall.
GamesBeat: Shopping malls and zombies seem to be a recurring thing.
Druckmann: The mall became intriguing to us in that it’s this sort of museum of who we are. These two girls were both born after the outbreak. For them, [shopping malls] are the relics of an ancient world. When they go in a Halloween store, the concept of Halloween is so alien to them. We can really play with that and do these fun games between the two of them, building on that relationship.
GamesBeat: Was it fun to return to a character that already had a story with a beginning and an end?
Straley: I think so, yeah.
Druckmann: We love these characters.
Straley: I love her even more, because of what we explored through the DLC.
Druckmann: It gives you another dimension to who Ellie is.
Straley: For us, we’re the biggest critics of what we’re creating and trying to do. We were very successful in achieving the goal of adding another dimension to this character, and another reason … a just cause, like … for who she is and how capable she has become over the single-player campaign. By playing through these sequences with Riley, you understand more about the lengths that Ellie is willing to go for the people that she loves in her life. That’s a layer of depth that, only by exploring this chapter, were we able to say, “OK, that’s cool. I didn’t know that. I loved Ellie already, but now there’s this extra little tick there.”
GamesBeat: You’re slugging it out in the awards shows here with Grand Theft Auto V, BioShock Infinite. Do you draw any conclusions from any of it yet, as far as what gamers mostly gravitate to?
Druckmann: The question is, do the awards represent gamers, necessarily? I guess it depends on the awards, who votes on them.
GamesBeat: This one represents game designers, I guess.
Druckmann: All this stuff is humbling, but you try not to put too much weight into it. It’s not why we do these things. We’re trying to make games that, first and foremost, we and the team are proud of, and second, that players can connect to and get something out of. That’s super gratifying. But I don’t think the awards will change what we do or our approach in any way.
GamesBeat: Has The Last of Us changed Naughty Dog?
Druckmann: Inasmuch as any game that we make….
Straley: Yeah. Of course we’re going to go through a transformation, just going through the process of trying to explore how to make a new IP and how to create these characters and an experience that we’re proud to put the Naughty Dog label on. And also, building a team around new concepts and the trial by fire. That can’t help but create a transformative experience internally.
But in regards to the games that we make, we’re constantly challenging ourselves. Uncharted 2, there were some challenges moving from Uncharted, and then from Uncharted 2, Neil and I branched out and created The Last of Us. We’re constantly evolving the ideas that we found in the last experience and pushing them. Once you play Left Behind, you’ll see how we’ve taken some ideas and evolved these concepts. You’ll see a new take, just inside of this smaller format.
We would get bored if we weren’t challenging ourselves or if we didn’t have some inkling of fear about what we’re doing as creators. We’d be playing it too safe. As a studio, there’s something to embracing a bit of that chaos and saying, “OK, this is part of the process.” Lean into the fear, as we say.
Druckmann: That’s how you make something new and potentially make something great.
Straley: It’s just reconfirming those lessons that Naughty Dog … if we stick together as a team and try to stick to the gamer gut inside of us that says, “That was the thing that sparked us initially.” Then, in the end, as long as we stay true to that passion, hopefully, we’ll create something compelling.
GamesBeat: I talked to Elan Lee from Microsoft’s Xbox entertainment studio in L.A. He was talking about how he wants to create something in between interactive games and TV, sort of shifting a little bit more toward TV. That’s why they want to do it in L.A., where they have access to a lot of top screenwriters and all that. Do you guys have some strong opinions on that space and which direction you might want to head toward?
Druckmann: The thing that we find is that to tell a successful story in a video game, the process of writing that story has to be integrated into the development of the video game. If it’s so separate … the fear sometimes is like, people think the fix might be to hire a really strong screenwriter. Unless that screenwriter is sitting there with the designers and engineers in-house, you’re going to get a separation between what that story is trying to do and what the game is trying to do.
We found it was a constant push and pull between the story we wanted to tell and the constraints of that story and the gameplay we wanted to create. Those things sometimes have to make pretty harsh sacrifices to meet in the middle and do something where its strengths lie in video games, rather than in one direction or the other.
Straley: The other thing is, we love games. Neil and I and all of Naughty Dog, we know that we’re making an interactive experience. We’re coming from it, initially, with that idea. We also love a good story. So our passion is in creating core mechanics and trying to create a feedback loop from the game language to the player and back again. That’s all part of the experience of trying to get you to feel what the characters are feeling in the story. Our choices, then, in what Neil’s talking about as far as the flex between story and gameplay decisions that we have to make … what do we feel is best serving the experience right now?
Interactivity ultimately allows us to do something that TV and movies don’t as passive media. It allows us to get the player more invested in every single moment that they’re controlling the situation. But people enjoy a story that’s delivered, again, with eloquence and respect for the medium. They enjoy good stories. That’s all we’re trying to do, is parallel those two things. We love making games and what that can afford us.
Druckmann: So there’s no movies coming out of Naughty Dog any time soon.
Sony is a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation headquartered in Kōnan, Minato, Tokyo, Japan. Sony Corporation is the electronics business unit and the parent company of the Sony Group, which is engaged in business through i... read more »
Naughty Dog, Inc. is an United States video game developer based in Santa Monica, California. It operates as wholly-owned Subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA). Naughty Dog was founded by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin i... read more »
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