As many of you will have seen, the review scores are finally in for The Last of Us – the brand new PS3 title from Uncharted studio Naughty Dog. At the time of writing, its Metacritic score sits at a mighty 96/100, cementing its place as one of the very finest video games of this console generation. Perfect scores came in from some of the toughest critics in the business, including Eurogamer, Edge and Videogamer.
In just seven days you’ll be able to judge for yourself, but in the meantime I caught up with the game’s Creative Director Neil Druckmann to delve into the project’s origins, its development and the studio’s thoughts on the finished product. Read on for some great insight into video game development at the very highest level.
Neil, you’ve been tasked with creating a brand new IP and following the hugely successful Uncharted series. Do you feel much pressure on your shoulders?
Neil Druckmann: Absolutely, just because it’s a new position for me as writer and creative director. But I guess it’s less so much for people outside the studio and more about me wanting to make the team proud. I’ve said this before but I feel I’m surrounded by the most talented people in the industry and often I feel I’m out of my league, so it’s more like making sure they’re proud of the work we’re doing. It was really gratifying when we wrapped this thing up to have a lot of people compliment the project and say how proud they were of it.
Joel and Ellie aren’t your typical video game heroes. How confident are you that they can become gaming icons in the same way that Nathan Drake and Crash Bandicoot did before them?
Neil Druckmann: I don’t know about them becoming icons, but I will say that having seen how people play the game and seeing their reactions, I can say confidently that these will stand as two of the best ever performances in a video game. It’s a bold claim, but these guys really blew us away. Not only that but we’ve had a bunch of focus testers play the game and have had people actually cry. They’d come up to us and say “I’ve never felt so attached to a character”.
How difficult is it to imbue a video game with genuine, believable emotion and drama?
Neil Druckmann: It can be difficult. I don’t want to say it was too difficult – working with such talented actors, I didn’t have to do much! I just tried hard to stay in line with what we were trying to say with the game, and to write simple dialogue. The mantra I had was ‘never get fancy with the dialogue’. Just keep it short and natural. If it ever sounds wrong, change it. The actors were really good at telling me when things weren’t working. We’d spend a lot of time in rehearsals saying lines, ironing them out and making them as natural as possible.
The general themes addressed in The Last of Us’ story are really in vogue at the minute – we’ve had The Road, Revolution and The Walking Dead all cover similar ground. What do you feel you’re bringing to the genre that is new and unique?
Neil Druckmann: All those other things you’ve mentioned are from passive mediums – you’re watching it or reading it. We’re fans of all those things, but we felt in a game – specifically an action game – there was a lot of stuff we could do with mechanics and gameplay that could really get you attached to the characters, to form a relationship through story, performance, dialogue and gameplay mechanics.
With you interacting with Ellie you’re really forming a reliance on this character. We felt that combination was really strong and lacking in games, especially in the survival genre. We felt we could structure everything round this relationship. Every decision has always been – ‘how is this helping this relationship and the goal of forming a bond between Joel and Ellie?’ I really feel we hit on something unique and that’s what people who’ve played the whole game have told us.
Have you played BioShock Infinite yet? How do you feel about how they used their supporting character, Elizabeth?
Neil Druckmann: I haven’t played it yet – I have a backlog to catch up on! But I will say that what we try to do with Ellie is to constantly keep her alive and feeling human. Whether you’re in or out of combat, Ellie should make interesting or surprising decisions on her own.
In a lot of games where you have NPCs that come with you, they’re annoying as you’re essentially babysitting them. We didn’t want that, but we didn’t want the opposite either – them sitting in the corner with enemies ignoring them. If that happens they don’t feel like a real person. For us, it was important that enemies do engage with Ellie. And in combat if you’re being attacked she will pick up a brick and help you. As you progress through the game and she’s spending more and more time with Joel, her abilities grow. You’ll feel like she’s changing as a person.
How expansive is the universe and mythos you’ve created? Have you left space for more stories?
Neil Druckmann: We’ve spent a lot of time researching the world and the disease and how institutions react to a pandemic. But then a lot of that stuff is in the background and we’re very conscious of keeping it there. Because that’s not what the story is about – it’s about these two characters and the journey they go on.
I think the world is ripe for more stories, but as far as the journey Joel and Ellie goes on it ends with this game. We were very conscious that we didn’t want to leave this story dangling. If we never do a sequel we’re okay with it, because we told the story we needed to tell.
What elements have you included to encourage repeat playthoughs?
Neil Druckmann: It’s the longest campaign we’ve ever made in terms of pure gameplay hours. It’s long. And there are more collectables than we’ve ever had, and there’s a lot of backstory you can pick up on through them. You probably won’t find them on your first playthrough.
And then there are RPG elements in how Joel can upgrade his personal skills – how steady he is when aiming, how much health he has, and so on. And there are upgrades for each weapon too, which you can find by scavenging for parts. You won’t find those on your first playthrough, so we’ve got New Game+ encouraging players to go into scenarios and try different strategies.
It’s our most systemic game too. Stealth, how you strategise – each confrontation can play out differently. You can avoid combat altogether if you like. It’s hard, but you can do it.
How have you gone about differentiating the combat from the Uncharted series?
Neil Druckmann: It’s a very different game. I know people try to compare it to Uncharted – but we’ve had players taken aback by how different it is, not just to our other games, but from any game they’ve played before.
For example, running away is a big strategy here. Usually in a shooter you don’t do that. You hunker down and blast away. Here, you’ll really need to run away at times and re-strategise, take stock of you inventory, craft new items and so on. There’s a learning curve at the beginning but then when you get into the flow it’s going to feel very different from anything you’ve played before.
How far is the finished game from the original concept you started out with?
Neil Druckmann: Surprisingly, the core of it has remained pretty much the same. We had the idea for these arcs for the characters and there’s something very specific we wanted to say with the story. That has stayed the same, even when vast parts of the story around it have shifted and gameplay elements have been cut out and replaced. The heart of it is Joel and Ellie and the bond that builds between them remained. That was our original vision and we stuck to it, I’m proud to say.
Neil Druckmann: If I could go back and change anything? With the team we’ve had and the time we’ve had, we’ve made exactly the game we wanted to play. We always said – let’s not worry about what other people like, or what’s popular, or try to second guess what’s going to be successful to market. Let’s make the game we want to play that doesn’t exist right now. And that’s what we did.