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 its 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. More than anything, I’ve been haunted by the beautiful and disturbing beginning and ending of this game. 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 an edited transcript of part two of our extended interview. In this part, they talk about the gameplay design decisions they made that gave the title its unique feel, and why and how they created the game’s memorable beginning and ending.
For part one of the extended version of our interview, please check out this link. For an excerpt on the game’s depiction of female characters, please check out this link. Here is another excerpt on the beginning and ending, our excerpt on gameplay decisions, and our excerpt on the inspirations for the game.
The gameplay decisions
GamesBeat: This game, in a lot of ways, made me feel like it was a sort of un-game. You’re not doing a lot of the things that you usually do in a game. You’re not quickly reloading all the time or mowing down lots of enemies. Can you talk about that approach and how difficult it was to pull off?
Bruce Straley: We knew that we had something special as far as paralleling the emotions of the characters in the world and the emotions that players would feel. We wanted to create a lack – a lack of supplies, a lack of everything else. You’re not building yourself into a tank. Every decision we made, it wasn’t about creating all these extra moves and things. If this is a middle-aged man, I have to believe that this is how this man could move around the environment and manipulate his surroundings and use weapons. He’s not a Navy SEAL or a space marine. He’s just a guy trying to survive.
That was motivating a lot of our design decisions as far as the weightiness of the animations and the risks and the rewards. It doesn’t take so many bullets to put somebody down, but it takes more punches. We wanted to get that equation right. This is the tempo or the pace that’s going to take somebody down, which then creates a strategy. The player has to think, “If I engage this person stealthily, it’ll take this much time to do it. Do I have that time? Would I rather distract them? Would I rather find a two-by-four, because that will be faster?” We’re trying to parallel these different systems, each with their own weight to them, to create an equation in the player’s head and let them go about strategizing and surviving each of those encounters. It made you, as a player, feel that this is the kind of brutal existence it would take to survive. Surviving sometimes means killing a human, which isn’t a pleasant act.
GamesBeat: Yeah, sometimes I was really happy to have two bullets. I did wonder about the one superhuman power that Joel did have — the hearing, the ability to figure out where the enemies were. Can you talk about that?
Straley: Listen mode came in about halfway through development. We were trying to ground it, in that it is something a human can do. You can focus your attention and try to suss out what’s happening inside the environment. The visualization might be interpreted as some sort of magic. I guess that’s one of those—I shrug my shoulders and concede.
What I was feeling when we were testing out some of these scenarios was that it wasn’t fun and I couldn’t strategize properly without getting some information back about where the AI was in the environment. Our AI is so dynamic. They respond to distractions. They regroup. They search the area and split up the environment in very intelligent ways. Most stealth games, it’s a spline, a patrol path. This is much more dynamic than that. When you have a very convoluted environment like the interior of the hotel space – multiple rooms, high occlusion levels – I don’t know the timing of what a guy is going to do. Is he going to come out of the hallway and bust me or not? I couldn’t strategize.
We talked about how we could create a system that would allow stealth strategy, but at the same time, ended up being more grounded. Focusing Joel’s hearing was our solution for that.
Neil Druckmann: At the same time, we recognize that there are hardcore gamers who want that challenge and want to really slow things down and take their time with each setup and not have this ability. They want to just use their surround-sound headphones and hear where guys are. We gave them the ability to turn it off. We also had the survivor mode. If you play on the most hardcore setting, you can’t have listen mode.
GamesBeat: It took me about 22 hours to finish. That probably tells you I had to replay a lot of things. I’m not a very good gamer. But I wonder if there are any statistics coming back to you that tell you how long people are playing or where they’re having difficulty.
Druckmann: We usually track that data. Then we had a bug and we had to turn it off, so unfortunately we don’t have much. We know that average playthroughs are somewhere around 15 to 20 hours. It’s a pretty big window. There’s a lot of difference the pace and approach. If you scavenge a lot and crouch a lot, you can go pretty aggressive and get through things, if you’re a pretty good player. But we’re trying to make you slow down and think more about how you’re going to handle the scenario. The times are higher than any other Naughty Dog game we’ve made.
GamesBeat: It does seem a lot longer than the Uncharted games in that respect. 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 AI 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 Himalayas 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: I was curious about why the clickers behaved like chickens.
Straley: [Laughs] Okay. I don’t know if that was exactly what we were going for.
GamesBeat: I just mean that they would move very erratically, like a chicken almost. [Laughter] It made them very hard to shoot. It’s hard to get a bead on them.
Druckmann: That was a conscious thing. Unlike most games, we didn’t want you to just go in there and blast people in the face. If you’re going to engage in combat, you have to be very conscious of how you’re going to do it. Look at your ammo, line up your shots. Once they freak out and come after you, we wanted that tension. We wanted you to run away. That became a hard thing to train into people. It’s okay to run away and reset stealth.
Straley: It’s like the anti-video game play mechanic. Running away is not something you do in video games. But in this world, we felt like if you were in a fight, it would be a valid strategy. We were trying to get players so invested in the world and the concept of death so early on that it’s okay. You’re going to fail and fail and fail until you get it. Running away resets the behaviors the AI and separates them as they go searching for you. That gives you a leg up. That’s not an easy concept for players to grasp.
Druckmann: That’s when the game gets the most fun, I would say – when you’re engaging in stealth and you screw up and you fire some shots erratically. Then you run away and hide and re-engage in stealth. It has this very fluid movement from state to state that we’d never experienced in a game before.
GamesBeat: You’ve seen the way a lot of people play the game. What have you learned about the kind of choices people make, and which way they lean when they have the option of choosing to play one way or another?
Straley: A lot of the focus-testing we do at the end of the development cycle is for difficulty settings, pacing, and trying to find those areas where people get lost. You would see one person play through and get done with the game in 11 or 12 hours. Somebody else would be on day five, coming in at 20 or 22 hours. It’s because we allow those choices. Somebody can go more aggressive, if they’re a better shot. They craft everything to be an explosive. They know how to use the distractions to lure the enemy into their explosives and kill lots of them at once.
Then you have this other crew that says, “I want to try not to touch anybody and see if I can get out of here without causing any harm.” You can get through a lot of scenarios in the game without ever engaging the enemies. You have to still distract them. Sometimes there’s what looks like a hard gate, but if you can just distract the enemy far enough away from it, you can get out without killing. That’s intriguing.
In the end the game did what we wanted it to do, which is afford a lot of choices for the player. It’s nice to see that resonating, because it tells us that these systems and combinations of systems work. That’s all we could ask for. However you think you need to survive, that’s what we’re trying to provide. Sometimes the game is going to come back and slap you, but at least you can try and poke around and see what you can do.
GamesBeat: I thought the one weapon that seemed out of place in the game was the all-powerful flamethrower. I was like, “Wow. I feel invincible now.” It was sort of a shocking feeling to have in that game.
Druckmann: That was something that went in late. It felt right in regards to improvisational weapons in the world, having someone craft a weapon like that and Joel finding it. That felt okay. When we were trying to tune it against the enemies, for the longest time it was underpowered against the enemies, through several playtests. We were running out of time, so at that point we just said, “All right, let’s make it powerful.” That’s what we ended up with.
It’s funny, because there was a mixed reaction. When you get that weapon, you’ve been struggling for a long time, and all of a sudden you have this flamethrower. There’s a sense of relief for a lot players. “Finally, I’ve got something I can use.” But we’ve heard different kinds of feedback about the flamethrower.
The beginning and the ending
GamesBeat: The beginning of the game knocked me off my feet. It was very different in that you started out with the impact of this virus on everyone else. A typical zombie story or whatever, it seems like it would start out with an explanation of where the virus came from or something. You guys didn’t do any of that stuff. You just started with something weird happening in this town. Can you talk about that?
Straley: We didn’t want it to be about a government conspiracy. We didn’t want it to be about the backstory. It’s a game where you play as these two survivors making their way across a post-pandemic world. That’s our focus. Getting into all that other unwieldy exposition-y storytelling just gets in the way of what we’re trying to do.
Throughout production, Neil and I focused on how less is more. How do we strip down things to get to the core? How do we leave things to subtext? Specifically, using the video game medium for what you’re describing about how we started the game—It’s more intriguing to play through these events as they truly would happen to somebody, and not have the privileged knowledge about what’s on TV or how scientists have discovered this virus and how it spreads. It’s more interesting to see how it’s actually going to go down. It’s way more intense, because it leaves so much to your imagination.
The Hitchcock way of doing things is that you’re left to interpret it yourself, which is way worse than listening to somebody expound on how A matches with B and B equates to C. That’s not nearly as intriguing.
One other lesson learned is that you don’t have to show your whole game development. That was a success for us. We showed very little of the game and I think that paid off at the end. Going forward, I think we’ll keep doing that.
Druckmann: The intro is about a family. That’s ultimately what the story is about. The opening shot of the game is Sarah and the closing shot is Ellie. That’s what the story is about, the bond with these two girls.
GamesBeat: That was one of my questions. What should the gamer remember about the beginning when they come upon the ending?
Druckmann: That’s an interesting one. There’s the question of what Joel has lost. The game explores this concept of a fate worse than death. If you turn into one of the infected and you’re still conscious, but lost in there, that’s a fate worse than death. Here’s this guy who’s lost his kid. That’s the worst fate for a parent. You’d rather die a hundred times than experience your child dying. And here he is at the end about to experience that again. How far is he willing to go to not have that happen?
GamesBeat: When I wrote my own story about this, I used a line from Schindler’s List: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” I always thought that was a great quote. The game and the ending made me think about it. The funny thing about it is that’s not true in this case. You save a life and doom the whole world.
Druckmann: Well, you’re a parent. We’ve talked to people who’ve finished the game. A lot of articles refer to Joel as a monster at the end – “What does it feel like to play a monster?” Just as I don’t feel that Marlene is a monster for wanting to kill a kid to save mankind, I don’t view Joel as a monster either. How can you ask him to do that?
You can argue that maybe he goes too far. There’s a conversation to be had. But for him, well, you can survive. He’s survived for a year in this world. What is it worth saving mankind if he has to go through hell again?
GamesBeat: One interesting thing to me is that the other game that’s really resonated this year is BioShock Infinite. The ending of that game is something that people have talked about a lot, and it’s very similar with The Last of Us. The thing that’s gone viral, that everyone’s talking about, is the ending.
Druckmann: That’s something that worked in our favor. We had focus tests at the office, where we brought people in to play the game, and for a long time, the ending tested badly. People felt it was unsatisfying. They wanted more of a climactic battle. They said that one of the characters should die, or maybe they both should die. Someone even suggested that Ellie shoot Joel at the end. But for us, we had this idea for the ending and we stuck to it. It felt like the most honest thing we could do for the characters.
Straley: With the example of BioShock, as well as our game—I played through BioShock, and there’s something to be said for not necessarily understanding exactly what’s going on. That helped me talk to people about it. There’s something about subtlety and ambiguity and subtext. When you see conversations between people out there and this stuff resonating with them, it gives us hope for the industry as a whole. Maybe people are maturing. We’re starting to look at them as an audience in the way that good filmmakers do, using subtlety and subtext in their filmmaking. It’s more interesting to let the viewer or the player figure things out for themselves.
We’re all grown up now. I’ve seen enough good stories in books and film. Now I want to see them in video games. When they come, that subtlety really sells. Now I can get in an interesting conversation with Neil about what this means over lunch or something. We find that more interesting, not only as developers but just as people who digest media.
Druckmann: It’s super intriguing to us, seeing all these articles that talk about whether Joel is a hero or a villain. Why does he have to be one or the other? Couldn’t he just be a complex person who’s made good and bad decisions? It’s open to interpretation.
Straley: It’s interesting, because it butts up against everything that you know about video games – the hero complex, the power fantasy, saving the world. If you just make deep characters that have real human drama, at this point in our lives and in the medium, it’s much more interesting to discover what we can do with story and gameplay and paralleling those two. I think there’s still so much more potential in this medium. We’re only scratching the surface.
GamesBeat: The first 15 minutes or so of the game, it was so beautiful. It was movie-like. The interesting comment is that for a lot of gamers, when you say a game is movie-like, it’s a negative thing. It means you have to watch it instead of playing it. How did you feel about that duality there?
Druckmann: Usually the word that’s used is “cinematic.” Some people see that as a pejorative for a game. We don’t. Steven Soderbergh gave a good talk about what it means to be cinematic. He talks about having authorial intent, using pacing, using lighting and shots. When we looked at the intro, the question was, “How do we set up the tension of the world?”
You gain control of Sarah. You’re walking out and turn the camera, and then you see light coming from Joel’s room. You start to hear this news report and you walk in. That seemed like about the right amount of time to pass to give you the next clue, so you hear the news report. Then you hear the explosion and the window rattling. We use sound effects to complement that. Then the music comes in when Joel runs into the house. It’s using all those storytelling elements that are usually attributed to cinema, but we’re using them in gameplay. To us it’s like, why wouldn’t you use that language? We’re a visual medium as well.
GamesBeat: The interesting part about the movie side — toward the end Joel is in the hospital, and he’s trying to rescue Ellie. You have no choice left. You have to follow through, and you have to shoot these doctors. Can you talk about that? That part disturbed me. In effect, at that point, I didn’t have a choice in the game?
Druckmann: Just out of curiosity, what did you do when you got there?
GamesBeat: I just stood there for a while, waiting for Joel and Ellie to escape. Then I realized, “OK, it looks like I have to shoot these people in order to get Ellie out of there.” So I did. One of the workers was just sitting on the ground. I tried to shoot him in the leg, but he basically keeled over and died.
Druckmann: The one you have to shoot is the surgeon, the main guy with the scalpel. The other two, that’s just you being dark. [laughs] You don’t have to kill them. You could have just picked up Ellie. But that was intentional. That whole sequence used to be a cutscene, where Joel walks into the operating room and kills the doctor. But there was something, again, about using interactivity to say, “You are going to role-play as Joel. We’re going to make you feel that choice.”
Whether you agree with it or not, Joel is on this rampage. It’s ultimately his decision, but if you’re along with the story, you’re going to have to commit these acts. It rubbed some people the wrong way, that they didn’t have a choice, because – especially at the end of games – they’re so used to having this moral choice. But it didn’t feel honest to the character. It felt to us like if you were along for the ride, you were going to have a bitter experience, because you’re doing these acts yourself. You can feel horrible about them or question them or debate them, but you have to commit these acts if you want the story to progress.
Straley: People debate a couple of things. They say, “It’s an interactive medium. I want that choice at the end. I want engagement there.” First, it’s not a game built on that. The story hasn’t done that up to that point. It would feel very awkward to just throw that choice in at the end. Second, when we asked people, “Okay, if we did give you that choice, what choice would you make?” 90 percent of them said, “I’d save Ellie, of course.”
Some interesting articles have come out recently about empathy games, and then some about the end of our game. It’s the contrast of the conflicts between what the player is thinking versus what Joel is thinking that allows you to explore what we’re doing with that character. It’s because you’re not him that you get to see him.
I find that interesting as a device. It’s not about interactivity or non-interactivity. It’s being able to explore something that you are not. It’s Joel who’s going through that, not you, but you get to feel some of what it’s like to be Joel and what lengths Joel is willing to go to.
GamesBeat: There’s been a lot of questions about whether you would do a sequel. Is a sequel even possible? Everybody in the world is dead now, right?
Druckmann: We’ve mentioned in the past that when we constructed The Last of Us, it’s a complete story. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and it has the arcs that we wanted to tell. If we never had a chance to tell any more stories in this world or with these characters, that would be okay.
Now that we’re done and we’ve had some time to rest, the question is, is there another story to tell in this world? We’re trying to figure that out. We don’t want to do the Matrix Reloaded of video games. [laughs] Can you do the Godfather Part II of video games, though? That would be the test. If we come up with something that’s exciting on that level, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we’ll do something else.