Sony’s new game The Last of Us has what sounds like a pretty typical setup: You play as the grizzled veteran Joel escorting 14-year-old girl Ellie across America, now a ruined landscape filled with murderous humans and the feral infected. But the folks behind the game at Naughty Dog have tried to make it an atypical apocalyptic tale. The critically acclaimed game (reviewers have called it “remarkable,” “genuinely surprising,” “a new entrant into the discussion for this year’s best title.”) is visually stunning, but it is also a character-and relationship-driven combination of story and strategy that marks a departure from standard zombie offerings. Here, Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckman and game director Bruce Straley discuss how the studio approached a classic genre and made it new.
The world of The Last of Us features the United States two decades after a fungus has claimed most of the population, turning them into zombie-like infected. But the focus of the story isn’t the monsters. It’s the people who survive. “When the post-apocalyptic genre is done properly, you really get to explore people and what we do to each other,” says Neil Druckmann, the game’s creative director.
People have congregated into various communities. “The game starts out in this military quarantine zone. It’s martial law with very strict rules of how to behave: There’s curfews, there’s ration cards, and anybody that breaks these rules gets executed. It seems harsh and oppressive, but at the same time it’s keeping people alive,” says Druckmann. “Later, you run into a group called Hunters. They have barricaded highways and are following survivors into the city so they can kill them and steal the supplies. Everybody is doing something bad, but it is done to keep themselves alive.”
On a micro level, The Last of Us is about the father-daughter relationship that grows between Joel and Ellie. “We used everything we have in our toolbox, from cinematics, to the performances we captured, to game-play mechanics, to form this bond between these two characters that would get stronger and stronger over the course of the game,” says Druckmann.
Despite the violence, and in contrast to it, Naughty Dog has emphasized the characters through dialogue. “When you are exploring, there are all these dynamic conversations you can have with Ellie and find out more about her backstory and also how she feels about the world,” says Druckmann. “She grew up in the quarantine zone, so for her, walking through the woods is this beautiful, majestic thing that she gets to appreciate, that Joel, a hardened survivor, doesn’t think about. So you get to see the world through these two very different character’s eyes.”
The epidemic that has turned people into the infected is a fungus, inspired by the BBC documentary Planet Earth. “There’s this segment on this cordyceps fungus. It plants itself inside insects and bores its way into their mind and changes their behavior, essentially turning them into zombies,” says Druckmann. “It forces an ant to climb up to high ground. And then the ant dies and the fungus bursts out of its head and releases spores. This can wipe out whole colonies. The segment ends talking about the more numerous a species becomes, the more likely they are to fall victim to this fungus. Well, what if this thing jumped to humans?”
With a natural cause rather than a supernatural one, Naughty Dog used some logical rules to govern the infected. “We created this entire life cycle, classified in different stages of infection. In stage one, people still have their humanity on some level, but their body is out of their control. When they see anybody, they run at them and try to bite them, to spread the infection,” says Bruce Straley, the game director of The Last of Us. “As the infection grows to stage three, it grows out of the orifices in the skull, opens up the frontal lobe, and it grows out of the eyesockets, giving complete loss of vision. They use echolocation to navigate environments and find victims.”
When Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, the creators didn’t want it to fall into the video game genre of “Survival Horror” typified by the zombie series Resident Evil. Straley says, “It’s not survival horror because that is that B-movie, tongue-in-cheek sort of stuff, jump scares or claustrophobic corridors and flashlights. It’s just kind of one note.”
Similarly, there were aspects of zombie movies they wanted to stay clear of. Druckmann adds, “We weren’t interested in explaining the exact biology of the infection. It wasn’t important for the story of the game to have some government conspiracy where you find out where ‘Case Zero’ came from. It became much more interesting to explore these communities, these relationships, and ultimately Joel and Ellie’s journey.”
In the end, they wanted a game about people in a harsh world, influenced more by The Road and Children of Men than Dawn of the Dead. “Neil and I went and saw No Country For Old Men together. I remember it was such an absolutely visceral experience. It was tangible and palpable, the tension I walked away with,” says Straley. “That is something I never played before, that kind of tension, that sense that you are so invested in those characters because the pressure is so high, there’s so much at stake in the storyline. That’s a game I wanted to play.”
Beyond these films, the books they read were more about illness than undead. “We read books about polio, the reaction of people to a pandemic and how people get xenophobic and scared of other groups. We read about Spanish flu at the turn of the century and how a whole town would barricade themselves in due to the fear of getting infected,” says Druckmann. “It’s interesting what people are capable of when they face extinction and what people do when they are so desperate. You get to see the best and the worst of men.”