Sony is just weeks away from letting the world experience Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 3 swansong, The Last of Us. At a special reveal event in London, gamers and press saw the studio present a section of gameplay - which you can read all about in our preview right here - and were able to field questions about the game.
I sat down with game designer Ricky Cambier to learn about the studio’s philosophy behind the game - and itself.
SPOnG: The Last of Us can really be described as a journey between two contrasting characters, focusing on the relationship between Joel and Ellie. As a studio, do you feel this is where games need to evolve - forging connections between game characters and game players?
We feel like it’s possible to draw out so much [personality] from a character through the relationships that evolve through the course of a game, sure. It’s definitely something we’re interested in. I can foresee games that can do some strong character development in the future, but for us and The Last of Us
in particular we were really interested in the exploration of two opposing characters.
We wanted to be able to see how we could draw the relationship between two people out, both in terms of cutscenes and in terms of gameplay. Of course, the gameplay is important in this regard; the interactivity is the reason why games are unlike any other medium. A lot of this was inspired by the Drake and Tenzen sequence in Uncharted 2
, where you had a brief moment to play alongside somebody that didn’t speak the same language, but still shared a bond with.
That really resonated with people, and that seed of an idea stuck with us. Which led us to see what we could do is we were to explore that same kind of relationship dynamic over the course of an entire game.
SPOnG: One thing I felt, particularly when playing the demo... I panicked a lot, ran out of ammo in fights, died several times... I thought the stealth system could have been off as well, as I was having trouble with it. But on reflection, I felt that was all rather intentional to offer a sense of desperation. Was that the case?
Yes, at its core at the very least. There’s definitely a goal, for us, to really think about what it would be like to try and survive in this world. And to pass that feeling on to the player. So, that level of desperation you were experiencing, that was intentional. We also tried to develop the human AI to experience the exact same thing when you’re fighting against them.
Your enemies will react to things in the same way you would. They approach each scene with the same level of desperation and will to live. We tried to set this in tone, but also in resources - you mentioned running out of ammo a lot, and that’s something you really need to be conscious of. When facing a situation, you need to think like a survivor - whether there’s any tools in the area you can use to help you out.
SPOnG: Does that desperation seep into the philosophy of the game as well? Can you explain a bit more about the characters, the world they exist in and what they have to do to survive?
To pull out interesting elements and the relationship between two people, we had to feel like they were coming from very different places. So, you’ve got Joel, who has lived through the events that led to the world as it exists around him. It’s been 20 years since the infection broke out - 90 per cent of the population has died. He’s gone through a lot, and you can just imagine that he was just an average joe. Someone like you know. What kind of choices did he have to make to survive?
Not only has Joel got his past actions to deal with, but the infected are applying a huge pressure on the world’s surviving population. So you get these hunters - humans that are also desperate to survive, but will kill you in order to do so. When you take actions to defend yourself - when you have to get into those moments and make decisions where you get to feel that brutality - you get to feel the choices that Joel has had to make in the past.
Compare that with Ellie, who’s 14. This is all she’s known - this is the world. Normality, for her. She’s fascinated with how the world was before, and has a natural curiosity. It’s a stark contrast to Joel, and you can see that even in the demo. As you explore through a space, you sometimes get dialogue from her. And as a player, you even start to realise that certain environments might seem completely alien to her. She grew up in this quarantined zone - all buildings, all walls - and as you’re walking through this forest in the game, she starts to talk about it. As a player, it’s also a reminder that there’s still stuff out there worth being curious about.
SPOnG: The impression I get from The Last of Us and Uncharted is that Naughty Dog, as a studio, has really expressed itself as this very cinematic, high quality developer as of late. Would you say this is your specialty now, or do you see yourselves going back to more whimsical games like Jak and Daxter or Crash Bandicoot?
At the heart of it, the studio continues to be interested in that character driven narrative. That’s definitely at the heart of what we’re about. And that approach lends itself to cinematic experiences. But there’s a lot of unknowns for the future. We’re entering a really exciting time - both I think for squeezing the PS3 to the max with a title like this, and also with what next-gen is going to offer in the coming year. How that changes some of the cinematic qualities and the ways you’re going to be able to interact.
SPOnG: So, it doesn’t matter what artistic approach you take, whether it’s cartoony or cinematic, you’ll always be driven towards that character-focused narrative?
Yeah. I think... for me and for a lot of people at the studio, it simply a case of... loving the games that tell a story that you’re really interested in. And I think as long as we feel like we can explore a story that is impactful to our audience, we have room to play with the style. But we’ll see.
SPOnG: What are your thoughts on the PlayStation 4? You guys must have toyed around with it a little bit.
I personally haven’t got hands on it yet. I look forward to that. We all watched Sony’s February reveal event in the office, though. Getting all those hardware specifications and checking those out. We’re just really excited about it - being in this position, at the turn of the generation cycle. The goals that Sony has set, the hardware choices it’s made, the community features it’s working in and the general direction that the PS4 is heading, makes me excited as a game designer.
SPOnG: Thanks a lot for your time.