MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
It's just over two weeks ago when we met with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley in a still-bustling corner of Sony's business booth, situated the floor above the L.A Convention Centre's main halls. In just over an hour those halls would close, and E3 2013 would officially be over.
Our talk with The Last of Us creators, creative director and game designer respectively, was the last interview on our own E3 schedule. It's also the one myself and GRTV Editor - and cameraman for the interview - Nick Holmberg talked about the most, even with next-gen hardware and games being pushed into our faces the past few days.
Because as an unapologetic fan of the studio, Nick had brought a The Last of Us artbook and two silver pens over on the flight with him to get it signed by someone at Naughty Dog. Three days ago he'd bumped into Neil outside the Sony conference, only to discover neither pen worked at the crucial moment. It's been a running joke for the week that it was a sign something else would go wrong, or the interview wouldn't happen for some unknown reason.
Our luck held out. A few minutes shy of 4pm L.A time, a PR introduced us to Bruce and Neil. At this point the game was a few hours from release, and had been riding a wave of rightly-earned stellar reviews from press (us included) the past fortnight.
We'd spent a good portion of the time between finishing the game for review and the interview discussing the finer points of the story with colleagues who'd filed their own articles. Everyone had an opinion.
So digging into the reasoning behind decisions and choices made - not only by the game's characters, but the studio who created them - is mainly why we're here. So we stood, and we talked. About many things.
(And in the end, Nick got his artbook signed.)
It goes without saying that there are huge spoilers ahead. So if you haven't finished the game yet, bookmark this piece for later and do so first.
For safety, we'll repeat that:
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
Here, you can watch the entirety of the GRTV interview, while below it you can find quotes covering specific subjects covered during our talk.
Did we mention there's spoilers ahead?
A Different Ending
Neil: "We knew we were going to have that point were the characters flip and Ellie would become the protector, both in story and in gameplay. That was always the goal with everything. And what's interesting is we even had a very specific idea for the ending, but during the course of production, that changed and became something very different, because of how the characters shaped themselves over the course of making the game."
Winter and the cliffhanger
Neil: "We actually had a lot of discussions about that, and we would argue about it, whether we should reveal it or not reveal it - or whether people would be into Ellie enough that they would keep going with the adventure, not knowing what happened to Joel.
"But ultimately we felt like respecting our audience and letting them linger with a bunch of questions that we don't always answer...[it] felt like a more interesting approach to take. So that when Ellie drops the line and asks for medicine - you know. You know without us having to show and tell you; all it took was that one line."
Bruce: "...Neil and I had a lot of back and forth about when should we reveal it, when shouldn't we reveal it, how do we reveal it, and it was a real struggle. I think we found a really nice balance there."
Neil: "We brainstormed a lot - should we show how Ellie got Joel on the horse, or how she tied him to the horse, how did she get to the cabin... we talked about doing a montage which would show all these things. And in the end - you don't need it. you can fill that stuff in; it's not important for the story. We just need to cut forward and show Ellie alone, get to the part with David, which will tell us more about Ellie and who she has become."
Bruce: "It's a game of contrast, in every which way, from the environments, to Joel and Ellie, to even the different factions you run into. We really want to play with this idea of 'who are friends, who are foes?', and you are attached to Ellie, and you know her to be capable from one standpoint - Joel's perspective.
"When you get boosted by David [as Ellie] inside the mineshaft, you've been doing this the whole time and all of a sudden it's flipped and something in your brain just clicks and it's "oh, this is what Ellie's been feeling the whole time", and it puts me in a different perspective that I haven't seen before and it opens up feelings for her."
Neil: "It's something unique to games that's hard to articulate, but we're using perspective to create empathy, and throughout the whole game you are Joel. And every action you take is Joel, and you're viewing Ellie from the outside - and all of a sudden, you are Ellie. And now every action you take - every action I've seen her do before, now I have this different perspective, I have a better understanding of her that's really unique to our medium. You couldn't do this in a book or film or TV show. It can only be done in games."
Neil: "We had arguments after the fact about whether we should have done this as a choice or not. But the way we feel about it is that at that point, Joel is in such a state... what he experiences at the beginning of the game is a fate worse than death. Like he's been in hell. And for him to do that a second time - he's willing to go to any lengths to not do that, that I think he doesn't have a choice. He's really at a point were there's no choice for him...."
Bruce: "And it's Joel's choice. And we understand.. we put a lot of effort into building up that relationship and hopefully you can understand or empathise with what Joel's gone through, and that relationship he has, that bond that is now created. And whether you agree or disagree with it, hopefully you at least understand Joel as a character...you can go: 'okay, this is the furthest someone will go for their love'."
Neil: "It's hard to answer something like this because it is open to interpretation; it's almost like you write this stuff kind of vague so the actors themselves can internalise it, and they're making their own choice as well. There's a moment were Joel pauses when he's talking to Marlene - is that hesitation? Or just him planning what he's going to do next? I can't tell you definitively it's this or this. It's how did it make you feel? How did you feel when you played it?"
The Last Line, The Ending
Neil: "The thing we love is that we talk to different people about the ending and about the last line and what it means. And we've had people emphatically say "it means this". And we've heard different interpretations of what "this" means. So we don't want to come out and say "this is what we intended, this is definitely the answer", because it is open."
Bruce: "In play tests... we have some testers that had finished in the same sort of time frame sitting next to each other and we ask general questions - try to tune difficulty etc - and they would start arguing next to each other, what is the ending, what they would do - 'no Joel would do this...' That's were we knew - it's fun. In that way it's creating dialogue, it's creating interest, people are invested in it. That's the most we could ask for."
Neil; "And we can tell they're putting themselves in that situation, asking 'what would I do?'. It's not a clear-cut answer what you would do because how far would you be willing to sacrifice humanity, sacrifice all these things for someone you really love. Is he selfish? Is he not? It's all a different perspective."
You can read our review of The Last of Us here.