The Last of Us Lead Designer: You Will Come to ‘Rely’ on Ellie

This interview is based on a hands-on preview event for The Last of Us, hosted by Sony Computer Entertainment. For context, you’ll want to read Looting, Crafting and Stealth-Kills: Hands on with The Last of Us, and Ross Lincoln’s take on the demo, Generation 7 Ends On A High Note: The Last Of Us Hands-On.

The Last of Us might be a game about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungus that turns humans into vicious monsters, but it’s also the story of a relationship between two people: the older protagonist Joel and his 14-year-old ward, Ellie.

The developers at Naughty Dog created the game with the intent of making the relationship between those two characters the real crux of the title. That means that Joel and Ellie will be spending a whole lot of time together, and since Ellie is an AI-controlled character, Naughty Dog was presented with some tough challenges. There aren’t many games that have handled AI-controlled companion exceptionally well, and “escort quest” — a mission that requires players to protect another character from harm — has become something of a dirty word among modern gamers.

So in setting out to make a game that could be considered one giant escort quest, since Joel is literally escorting Ellie across the country and takes on a role of protector, Naughty Dog had to be very aware of keeping Ellie from becoming a burden, said Lead Game Designer Jacob Minkoff in an interview with Game Front.

“Top level, we said, ‘We’re Naughty Dog; we’ll make it work,’” he joked. “…As for how we approached it, we said, ‘This is the hardest technical challenge we will face. Let’s start working on it from Day One,’ and figure out how we can design it in,” he said. “Because yes … it is very common that games do it wrong and allies become a burden, and our top level from day one has been, ‘A Number One: Ellie must not be a burden,’ and we’ve put some of the smartest designers and programmers we have on making that happen.”

Minkoff said the goal of The Last of Us is to tell the story of Joel and Ellie, which is that of a developing bond between protector and protected, and two people who learn and grow alongside of and because of one another. There’s an emotional bond between the two characters in the story that’s the focus of the narrative, even though the surface level is a story about two people fighting fungus-headed zombie-things.

Along with making the two protagonist characters form an emotional bond, Minkoff said Naughty Dog wanted players to form a bond with Ellie as well. The idea was first born out of a sequence that takes place in Tibet in Uncharted 2, when players are helped briefly by a partner character, a Sherpa named Tenzin.

“The reason why we went into this in the first place is, back in Uncharted 2, we had that sequence with Tenzin, the Sherpa, and you built this relationship with him entirely through gameplay. He was in every way Drake’s equal, and he didn’t speak a word of English,” Minkoff explained. “And yet, you built this relationship with him, and you liked him and you relied on him. So we said to ourselves, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create a game where it was focused on building an arc, building a relationship with a character, over the course of the entire game. So that’s where the idea of Joel and Ellie’s journey came from.

“So the focus is that we want you to feel that Ellie is an asset, she is your equal, you are teaching her new skills. Joel has been a survivor for many years, he’s been outside the wall, he was alive when the outbreak happened. Ellie’s lived her whole life behind the walls of the (military-controlled) Quarantine Zone, but now they’re kind of thrust together in this journey.”

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