The Last of Us Preview: Emotions of Apocalypse
Working in a medium that prefers to innovate by inventing new ways to murder people, Naughty Dog has succeeded by mastering story and character. With the Uncharted series now concluded, it arrived at E3 last week to tout The Last of Us, a thoughtful, mature take on the post-apocalypse that plays to the Santa Monica studio’s strengths.
The game centers around an unlikely partnership between Joel, a scruffy, hard-bitten survivalist, and Ellie, his 14-year-old sidekick. “We wanted to tell the story about these two people, and the emotional bond that comes from them,” Naughty Dog editor Ryan James explained in an interview.
Player character Joel was born before a fungal plague destroyed modern civilization, turned wide swaths of humanity into slavering zombies, and forced him to adapt or die. “He’s seen a lot of loss in his life,” studio rep Bruce Straley confided during the demo playthrough. Straley needn’t have bothered — Joel’s harrowing past is written all over his haunted, weather-beaten face.
Ellie, by contrast, was born in a Boston quarantine zone, six years after the outbreak. A post-apocalyptic upbringing has made her into teenager at once familiar and unique. “She’s not 14 like we know 14,” Straley explained. “She’s wise and more capable beyond her years…she’s very used to this darkness, this world, but she’s also very fascinated by it.”
Though they first encounter each other under the umbrella of quarantine, Joel and Ellie are eventually thrust into the decaying, plague-ridden streets of America, where they must rely on each other to survive. Naughty Dog draws on post-apocalyptic fiction like Children of Men and The Road to tell a story of survival defined by a protective, paternal instinct. “We knew that you needed to be able to care about her, and care about taking care of her,” explained James.
To that end, the developers have carefully calibrated the emotional experience of the game; they want the player’s emotions to be “aligned with what Joel and Ellie are feeling as survivors,” according to Straley. “The pressures that are applied to them are applied to you.” The key to this process will be character development, particularly when it comes to Ellie. “We don’t want her to be a robot in this game,” Straley explained. “we want her to be realized as a person.”
On the other hand, because Ellie is controlled by the game’s AI, Naughty Dog had to take pains to ensure that The Last of Us wouldn’t feel like an “escort quest,” an infamous game design pitfall defined by vulnerable, stupid companion characters that constantly wind up dead. “We’re going out of our way to make sure Ellie is not a babysitting mission,” Straley reassured the assembled journalists. “She needs to be capable of protecting herself.”