WARNING: This interview contains extensive plot and gameplay spoilers so please avoid reading until you’ve had a chance to complete the game.
Naughty Dog’s survival-action epic The Last Of Us is one of the most celebrated games of this console generation, breathing new life into the zombie and post-apocalypse genres through a resolute commitment to nuance and respect for players’ intellect. When we had a chance to sit down with the two creative leads behind the game, Neil Druckmann (creative director) and Bruce Straley (game director), and one of its principal actors, Ashley Johnson (Ellie), we wanted to plunge beneath the surface and talk about the game in its entirety instead of tip-toeing around spoilers. What good is a story-driven game if you can never talk to the developers about the story they’ve crafted? If you’ve finished The Last Of Us, read on to go deep behind the scenes.
The game’s Pittsburgh quarantine zone called to mind images broadcast via news media in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. It was chilling to see Joel fording through waist-deep water and remembering images of survivors doing the same after the Lower 9th Ward flooded. Was post-Katrina New Orleans a reference point for designing that particular stage?
Bruce Straley: Absolutely. There’s a book of photography I have by Robert Polidori called After The Flood. He does all sorts of interesting books. He has another one on Chernobyl and Pripyat, the town outside of Chernobyl. He did these amazingly beautiful, horrific photos going into house after house, city block after city block post-Katrina and it’s again the juxtaposition of the normalcy and upheaval, seeing a child’s teddy bear cast into a pile of debris with drywall that has mould growing on it, a child’s trophy from a soccer match lying on a mattress that’s obviously been soaked through and through. It’s those kinds of contrasts that bring the life back into – it’s not just decay and rot and post-apocalyptic grey, it’s a human world that we’re playing with when we portray this destruction. If it’s just nature wiping out nature, nature has been doing that forever. That’s the way nature renews itself. It’s the fact that it’s the world we’ve created being pushed into disarray that affords us the ability to say that something realistic, something you can actually believe in happened here.
It’s that collision of the familiar and unfamiliar that gets me interested in little backstories. You can put the pieces together when you can see the water’s not high right now but you can see the water line at a different level and you can see something cast up on the hillside once the water line receded. And then you’re like, there’s a story here, I can see somebody has dragged a bag of goods and supplies, and they’ve sifted through it. And you realise somebody’s been here. These little stories and vignettes piece together experiences you don’t get to witness. But Hitchcock proved that it’s almost better not to see it because it lets you fill out the greater story. It’s fun to play with.
Exposition sucks, right? You don’t want to hit everybody over the head all the time. Let it be subtle, let it rest, let these little pieces be picked up. I guarantee there are probably a tonne of things you missed and that somebody else is going to get. That’s the fun thing about this. Depending on how you play it and what your perspective is at that time and where you’re at, you’re going to see different things coming out of the environment.
Naughty Dog has been synonymous with Uncharted for a number of years now, yet you’ve bucked marketing conventions by launching The Last Of Us, a new property, without a Drake-style poster boy. Instead you’ve got a bearded guy in a flannel shirt. What’s more, Joel and Ellie are equal partners so there isn’t even a clear focal point character-wise, which seems like a marketing liability in itself. How much did you wrestle with the potential commercial impact of these creative decisions?
BS: The experience that we wanted to deliver really superseded all doubts that we had. We invested and committed to telling this story and developing these characters. Neil and I were talking about these ideas together in a room by ourselves, feeling out what this game could be, and we’ve got nothing to play, you’re just in your head talking about ‘what if this happened?’ and then after that ‘this other thing could happen’. You’re experiencing that mentally and you think, I want to play that game. Nobody’s making that game and we have that opportunity. We have one of the most talented, if not the most talented team in the industry, we have a wealth of tools that we’ve built up including the engine that came from Uncharted, which was an amazing engine. And then the storytelling knowledge that we accumulated from the Uncharted series, how does that lend itself into this new genre?
Neil, you mentioned to us earlier that you think The Last Of Us is a polarising game. Why?
Neil Druckmann: I should say, I’m probably a bad judge of this stuff, because going into E3, I remember telling Bruce [Straley] that I don’t think we’re going to have the kind of reception we usually do. I really felt that with Uncharted, we kind of hit that Summer blockbuster, all that spectacle and the collapsing building, we knew we had something that was going to wow people. With this, I was more unsure.
It’s the position I’m in now that’s very different. As I go up, I lose confidence. But it was a much more intimate experience and subtle experience, and I wasn’t sure if people would pick up on it or how they would read it. Maybe they would interpret it in a totally different way from the way we interpret it. But I was pleasantly surprised. Now before launch, I feel the same way. Some of the stuff in the game is very subtle and I question whether it’s too subtle, whether we should’ve hit things on the head a bit more. But at the end of the day, we keep it as subtle as we would want it to be. That’s the thing at the end of the day that Bruce and I have set for ourselves: let’s make the game we really want to play. Let’s make the game that’s not out there but we really want to play.
Aren’t those the best pieces of art? The ones that don’t seem overly concerned if you read or watch them because the author or filmmaker simply wanted to express something personal?
ND: There’s something really unique – and I know Bruce feels the same way but I’ll just speak for myself – I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in because Sony gives us complete freedom. Their attitude is, whatever you guys want to do, we’ll support you. And at the same time I have bosses above me, Evan and Christophe who run the studio, and they gave us creative freedom. So I don’t have the burden about making money for the studio. I don’t look at the budgets. I don’t do any of that stuff. My job is just: do the best game possible. So I find that there’s a certain responsibility that comes with that. Even though we’re making a triple-A game, let’s do the game we want to make, let’s do something unique, let’s take a bunch of chances, let’s put a 14-year-old girl on the cover. It’s weird that that’s taking a chance, but at the same time, we love Joel and Ellie, and the thing I love is that ultimately you play as her. And that’s the thing we’ve just been lying about, and I can’t wait to hear people’s reaction to when you make that transition. Again, that was one of those things that we decided, let’s just do it subtly, let’s not make this big moment where the camera’s going to do some crazy thing when it shifts perspective.
Even with the deaths, it was important for us to treat them really subtly. For example, Tess dies offscreen. In the part later on where Joel collapses off the horse, that was really small and really short. It was important not to linger on those too much. I guess, except for the first death in the beginning. That was important to linger on.
We’ve lost our composure at the end of a small handful of games, but this was the first time we’d ever been moved to that degree in the opening 20 minutes of a game. We probably should’ve seen the tragedy coming, but it still caught us off guard.
ND: I wonder why that is. I wonder if it’s because there are so few games where kids can die, where kids are in real jeopardy. You look at GTA: let’s just take kids out of the equation. You look at Oblivion: let’s just take kids out of the equation. Yeah, I know it’s controversial and I know it’s harsh, but it’s part of the world, and it’s part of the story we’re trying to tell and it was so important to show that. I kept telling Evan, I was like, I’m waiting for some Sony executive to come in and say, ‘you have to take out this scene, you have to cut it, it’s too much’. And it never happened.
There’s also the fact that your audience has been conditioned by the pulp genre fiction of the Uncharted series to believe that characters you like tend to be insulated from death.
ND: And it’s important for that genre to do that, by the way, because that game has a certain tone. If you start going there, you would break that tone, you would break what is Uncharted.
Playing as Joel’s daughter at the beginning of the game beautifully reinforced the “us” part of the game’s title. You’re not just playing as a single character, you’re empathising directly with a contingent of people affected in different ways. And later when you switch back and forth between playing as Joel and Ellie at the end, you get to experience first-hand how much each depends on and cares about the other.
ND: It’s funny that you say that because one of the things we just can’t talk about is how we play with perspective, and how perspective helps you empathise with characters. We know it’s much easier to empathise with the character you play as because they’re making the choices that you make, because you’re making those choices. So then to switch that and all of a sudden have Ellie in the position of power – I don’t know if you actually thought Joel might be dead.
When he fell on the exposed rebar, we didn’t like his prospects.
ND: Yeah, and then it was very deliberate at the end to have you play as Ellie. We really wanted, after all the things that Joel has done to save her, to objectify him and let you see him from the outside. How did that make you feel when you played it?
It was striking to see him in such a vulnerable position, especially since he’d played the part of the guardian himself for so much of the journey. Joel is such an interesting character because, despite being the leading man, there are all these telling moments that illustrate how insecure he is, how little of a leader he truly is. There’s a bit of ambient gameplay dialogue in which he asks Tess, “Which way we goin?” He’s basically admitting that he doesn’t know where he’s going. So many developers have been trying to figure out how to sell the ‘everyman motif’ and you seem to have finally cracked the code somehow.
ND: The evolution of that is really interesting, and I can only take credit for so much of it because a lot of it really was [Joel’s actor] Troy Baker. I had a certain idea for Joel initially which was much more of a Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men type – very quiet, very cool under pressure, and Troy really started playing him as a character that really gets swept away by his emotions, he can’t help himself sometimes. When he’s angry, he doesn’t want to but he lets Ellie know. And then there’s that scene in the ranch house where he’s telling her that she’s not his daughter. He’s trying to insult her at that point because she got to him, and he doesn’t know how else to deal with it. But in a way, at that moment it’s too late for him because the seed was already planted and at that moment he’s going to see it to the end.
Let’s talk about the very last exchange in the game between Joel and Ellie. Story-driven games have notorious difficulty with figuring out how to drop the curtain in a satisfying way, yet The Last Of Us strikes just the right balance between conclusiveness and ambiguity. Ashley, as the actor bringing Ellie to life, what did you think when you read those pages of the script for the first time?
Ashley Johnson: It’s funny because that ending, everybody’s interpreted it so differently. In my mind, Joel and Ellie have already gone on this whole journey and Ellie is fully prepared – if finding the cure and getting the cure means dying – then so be it. But finally having a connection and a relationship with somebody, that becomes more important because it’s like, I’ve finally connected with somebody in this world. If your choice is to save me over everybody else in the world then…ok. I trust you now and let’s live life.
In that moment she’s giving Joel permission to lie to her, which is a bit unsettling but also beautiful in the level of trust it conveys.
BS: I like that it can be read different ways. Like we were talking about earlier with the title, just with the two little syllables of Ellie’s “ok” to Joel, depending on where your head space is when you get there and how committed you are toward Joel and his goals, how aligned you are with who he is versus how much you’re committed to Ellie and what her perspective is, that commitment that she had. She was ready, to the ends of the earth, whatever it’s going to take, we were going to do it. It could really be read in several different ways, and it is open-ended and it is a somewhat ironic ending. It’s not your typical ending, but it’s still a nice resolution to me. It has a nice finality of, ok, all right.
ND: Some people read it as, oh, they left it open for a sequel – cool! And what we’re saying is, if we never make a sequel, that’ll be alright. In our mind the journey has been wrapped up.