"The Last of Us" creative director Neil Druckmann. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)Link
The 14-year-old Ellie in a scene from "The Last of Us." (Naughty Dog / SCEA)Link
Joel and Ellie in a scene from "The Last of Us." (Naughty Dog / SCEA)Link
With “The Last of Us,” the survival horror title developed by Naughty Dog exclusively for the PS3, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley want players to forge real emotional connections with smuggler Joel and Ellie, the 14-year-old he is hired to protect, as they fend off infected humans while traversing a largely deserted East Coast setting.
In recent pre-release testing of the third-person adventure, Druckmann and Straley said, they got the reaction they were hoping for when they first hit on the concept for the game a few years back: Players cried.
“We’ve had people come out and say, ‘I’ve never felt this attached to a character before,’” Druckmann told Hero Complex on Thursday night at a pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) event hosted by Sony. “We know it works in a small group. I guess let’s see if it works out in the masses.”
Druckmann and Straley were in Santa Monica on Thursday to show members of the media new scenes and characters from “The Last of Us,” set for release June 14. The highlights included quiet, somber moments and more violent set-ups.
Exploring the game’s town of Lincoln, Mass., for instance, can be done with few run-ins with the zombie-like humans that now populate the Earth (they’re called “clickers,” named for the sounds they make as they hunt down uninfected prey). As Joel and Ellie travel outside of quarantined zones, they can go in and out of largely empty shops and homes, wandering through areas that feel like ghost towns.
Venture into a backyard, and Ellie runs over to a small pack of garden gnomes. “I had an art book filled with these,” she says. “I always thought they were super-cute. Not fairies, though. They freak me out.”
The game can be played without discovering many of these conversations. Yet as players stroll through the town looking for supplies, certain locations or items will trigger conversations between Joel and Ellie that reveal their back story. It’s an interesting way to learn more about their place in this new universe, rather than say, having them discover lengthy diary entries or audio recordings — the usual mechanism by which action games convey information.
“What’s new to us is that there’s a lot of rich optional conversation,” Druckmann said. “You don’t have to engage if you don’t want. You can just keep going forward and get to the next objective if you want.
“But if you go explore,” he continued, “not only will you find parts to upgrade your weapons or artifacts that let you craft different items, but you also get cool intimate moments between Joel and Ellie. If you go into the pizzeria, there’s an arcade machine that Ellie recognizes. You can go and engage with her and she’ll tell you something about it. You’ll see Joel’s reaction to it. It’s a way for us, through exploration and scavenging, to get you to know more about Joel, Ellie and the story.”
The original score from Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”) creates an ominous mood that enhances the gaming experience and underscores the bond between Joel and Ellie. When he lifts Ellie over a fence in order for her to open a pathway, the player might start to worry that she will be attacked by one of the infected humans. Rather than the sharp, high-pitched sounds of anxious violins many titles would use to amp up the tension, the music grows softer, as Joel questions his decision to allow Ellie to be alone even for a few seconds.
The more time you spend with “The Last of Us,” the more it becomes clear that this is a rare game where what doesn’t happen is as important as what does. Mood and atmosphere are equal to action. It’s an introspective adventure.
“It is completely psychological,” Straley said. “We studied the Hitchcockian approach. Less is more. What you don’t see is scarier than what you see. It’s simple. We’re trying to get to the root of things, and what we’re trying to do is make you feel a certain way. If something just jumps out at you, it becomes predictable. You hit a corner, something jumps. You hit a switch, something jumps. It’s predictable.”
One commonality “The Last of Us” shares with other apocalyptic tales is its conceit that it’s not always the infected humans that pose the biggest threat. Joel and Ellie stumble into the traps laid by one of such survivor, Bill, who may or may not be a friend to the pair.
When the fight scenes arrive in the game, they come abruptly and require strategy — before gamers meet Bill, Joel is thrust upside down in a trap meant for the infected and must fight off waves of clickers as Ellie struggles to free him. With items such as bullets and arrows at a premium, makeshift weapons such as a pipe with scissors attached to it take on special importance. Characters also can fashion Molotov cocktails, but again, supplies are limited.
“The same ingredients you use to make a medical pack are the same ingredients you use to make a Molotov cocktail,” Straley said. “When you’re down to just enough ingredients to make one of those, you have to make a decision. Med pack or Molotov?”
“We’re not trying to make just a story,” he added. “We’re not trying to make something that’s passive. We want you to be invested and involved. It’s an interactive medium. Sometimes there are compromises, but working with those constraints can give us something beautiful at the end.”
– Todd Martens
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