This interview has story spoilers.
I was deeply touched as I played the game. It made me think about so many questions as I reached the ending, which comes full circle with the first 15 minutes of the story. Joel and Ellie, two survivors of a zombie apocalypse, are superbly crafted characters who bring deep emotions out of each other at a time when the world has fallen apart.
After I played the game, I felt a deep need to get answers from the creators. Neil Druckmann, the creative director for The Last of Us at Naughty Dog, and game director Bruce Straley are about to move on to something else. But just in time, while the experience of creating the game is still fresh in their noninfected brains, I caught up with them.
No, I didn’t hold a gun to their heads. But they still answered every question I had. They talked to us in a comprehensive wrap-up interview, and this is a transcript of part one. In this part, they talk about the deep interplay among the characters, the thinking behind the female lead Ellie, and the overall inspirations and intentions.
For an excerpt on the game’s depiction of female characters, please check out this link. On Tuesday, Aug. 6, we’ll run part two of our interview on this link. And here are excerpts on the beginning and ending, gameplay decisions and inspirations for the game.
The deep interplay among the characters
GamesBeat: A lot of things are sticking in my head even though I played the game awhile ago now. I’m sure everyone you’ve talked to has related some interesting story. My 16-year-old daughter sat with me through the beginning of the game and felt like she had never seen a video game that had such an interesting story to it. She hardly ever plays anything on the consoles, so that’s a big accomplishment. Now that you’ve seen a lot of reviews and what the critics have dwelt upon, is there anything surprising to you about where people went with their interpretations of the game?
Neil Druckmann: We were surprised at how well it was received. The story is a little more subtle and the material is a little more mature. The gameplay is a little harder, more complicated than what we’ve done in the past. We thought we would have a smaller audience, or that it would be more divisive as far as how people’s reactions. But we were pleasantly surprised.
Bruce Straley: We were surprised by some of the criticism of our use or execution of the female roles inside of the game, and some of the backlash that we got from it. I think we did an extraordinary job of creating strong characters – men, women, black, white, gay straight. We’re just trying to create completely fleshed-out characters. Yet somehow we were used as a soapbox or something for people to stand on and say that there are still problems with the industry.
It’s good to have the conversation. We agree about all of those things. Every single one of those inequalities in the industry–We need to have that discussion and we need to be more mature about our approach to the medium. It was just odd, the way it felt like our game was being used in that way. I mean, think of all the games you could use instead of The Last of Us.
Druckmann: I’ve been thinking about that. There have been a lot of articles pointing to the positive aspects of the women and other characters. I think that there’s a little bit of a sexism valley, for lack of a better term, like the uncanny valley. The more progress we make, the more those problems stand out. I get that people are going to want to pick things apart.
GamesBeat: You do have very developed female characters — stronger, more interesting — than what have been created before, and people can still perceive them as needing to be protected or rescued. I think it’s a little off base. There is a section in the game where you do get to play as one of these characters. You’re the agent of that character.
Druckmann: That was our intention all along, to create a story with dual protagonists. They both have strong arcs. There are moments in the game that affect one character or the other. It was surprising to me that so many people said that this was only Joel’s story. You have scenes like Ellie talking to Sam. That scene in no way affects Joel. It’s purely for Ellie’s development. Those scenes were sometimes glossed over to make a point.
I feel like, as we get more sophisticated with our storytelling, the criticism has to become more sophisticated. We have to dissect these subtleties, instead of just pointing to these tropes and saying, “Well, you have a woman dying, so you have a game where the death of a woman fuel’s this man’s story.” The discussion has to go deeper than that.
GamesBeat: Is there a way you found to talk about some of the big points in the story without giving the story away? I imagine you’ve done these interviews quite a few times already.
Druckmann: From a marketing standpoint, something we were very conscious of initially—We said, “Here are things we will lie about in interviews.” If somebody asks, “Do you play as Ellie?” we would say no. Even though we knew from the beginning that we were working toward this climactic moment where the roles of the characters shift.
Straley: I’m surprised no one called us out on that in hindsight. “You fuckers lied!” [Laughs]
Druckmann: We did dozens of interviews where we outright lied about it. “No. Joel is the only person you play.” We also decided we would never talk about the prologue where you play as Sarah.
There was another thing we did that I guess we could have talked about, which is Ellie being immune. The reason we didn’t—One, out of context it just sounds like a cliché. But also, once you know that, then your next question becomes, “Okay, how does that play out?” Everyone would have been guessing about how the story ends, instead of how the story begins and what it’s about. By not revealing that aspect, there was more guessing about why they’re on this journey and why they’re together, instead of just how it might end. That helped the ending be really surprising.
Straley: It also helps not to talk about that because in gamers’ minds, one of the biggest fears they have when they hear about a 14-year-old girl and a middle-aged man is the escort mission thing. You’re going to have to babysit her. Players don’t want that. As much as we could, in our PR and so on, we were trying to say that Ellie is very capable from the get-go. She’s always been designed as a capable counterpart to Joel. By saying that she has the immunity, it suggests that you’re going to have to escort her. We wanted to stay away from that.
Druckmann: Another thing we did, which we’ve never done in the past, is that there are characters we didn’t show at all in our marketing materials. Tommy appears in a line or two and a shot or two in the trailer, but we never fully revealed him. We never showed Henry. We never showed David or talked about Nolan North being in the game. Again, that helped people playing the game for the first time be surprised by those moments when you meet those characters.
GamesBeat: The surprise in the meantime is that it’s sold so well. People seem to like it a lot.
Druckmann: That’s great, but for us as a team, we need something that’s going to inspire us for the next two, three, four years. It has to be more than, “This will make money.” It has to drive us through those long nights when we’re struggling to put that thing together.
The cool thing about the sales success is that we did the game we wanted to play, not knowing whether it was going to succeed or not. The takeaway for us is, “Okay, that approach worked. Let’s do that again. Let’s make a game that we want to play that isn’t out there yet.”
Also, how popular Ellie ended up being says a lot about whether games can sell with a female protagonist.
The inspirations and intentions
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?
Druckmann: When Bruce and I were working on Uncharted 2, 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 “Okay” 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?
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: 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.