Naughty Dog on the Changing World of The Last of Us
Lead game designer Richard Cambier talked with us in LA about Part II and how things have grown with this long-awaited sequel.
Ever since The Last of Us: Part II was first revealed, it was clear that this would be a very different game from the first. Ellie is older this time around, it was only recently that we got a look at Joel at all, and we're starting off in the safe haven in Wyoming. On top of that, there are a bunch of unanswered questions from the first that are yet to be addressed, so the sequel is looking to be very interesting.
When in LA this week we talked with lead game designer Richard Cambier about the various changes inbound with Part II, and the world that we'll be seeing this time around, so check out the full Q&A below to get a sense of what we can expect.
GR: This isn't The Last of Us II, this is The Last of Us: Part II. Why did you guys feel the need to give another part to this story that we already know?
So for us this is The Last of Us: Part II because it's kind of dealing with very similar themes from the first game, and of course it's a continuation of our story of some of the characters that you already know and love. So here we're exploring this conversation around revenge, around like how far are you willing to go for someone that you love? Which mirrors what happened in the first game, of seeing how far Joel is willing to go, and now we get some looks into how far is Ellie willing to go.
GR: In the past it's been about hate, these dark emotions, but in the presentation we also heard it's about love as well. Tell us a bit more about that.
Well you kind of need both I think. This is that cycle of violence, right? This is that... you know, you develop this hate in this cycle of revenge because of the things you love so much. You really need this deep care and this deep love for something in order to reach these areas and push yourself, and we start to look at those challenges of what are you willing to sacrifice of yourself, and I think you kind of don't get sacrifice without love and without hate; you kind of need both.
"When it's time to be brutal, you're gonna have to be brutal to survive."
GR: In this story of violence, this cycle of revenge, how dark and how brutal do you guys go?
We go as far as we needed to kind of tell this story, and you can see this in all of the things that you're seeing in this demo that you just played, this experience of yes you get these tender and beautiful moments, you get this time to see a bit of Jackson, see Ellie in her daily life, see her in some of these moments, but you're also facing these vicious dogs, right, like how do you survive that when one of those attacks you and the fangs are right there and the teeth are there, and you've gotta decide - are you gonna strike back? How are you gonna get through this space?
So we're showing that you have this choice, but when it's time to be brutal, you're gonna have to be brutal to survive.
GR: How does that brutality manifest itself in the combat?
You'll see this of course now that you're dealing with some of the more intricate melee system that we've got now, so your opportunities to dodge, what if you don't succeed that dodge and you've got an enemy coming at you with a machete, and if you get hit with that, feeling that impact, versus when you dodge, being able to strike back quickly, and seeing some of those combos.
And also some of those contextual finishers that we always try to incorporate are now even better than the first one. Slamming up against walls, pounding into the ground - those types of range of violence showing Ellie trying to figure out what she needs to do to survive in this desperate world.
GR: In the demo we played we were very isolated. How vulnerable are you in this game? And how are you pushing the survival elements from the first game?
This incorporates, back into some of our mechanics about survival, about needing to explore. You see you've got these wide spaces now where you can kind of back alleys and find some more buildings, find some more supplies, and now if you go through a little too quickly you might miss some of the environmental storytelling, you might miss some of the supplies you need. It's a little bit this balance of okay are you going to be able to gather up what you need.
And then especially with someone like Dina, you're also sometimes gonna have someone with you, someone that has your back occasionally, someone that's gonna jump in there, and you saw the way she can support you against some of those infected, because we've spent a lot of time refining our AI, pushing them to new limits and really kind of building those bonds through gameplay, which is something that, for us, really gets back to creating that love and that exploration of building a relationship, because Ellie is also just this 19-year-old girl trying to figure out her way in the world.
GR: We've heard it is the biggest game you've done. How open is this game? We're thinking about the open driving section from Uncharted 4.
Yeah, we really wanted to push this exploration that's critical to this world, like I was saying about the survival, and also just the environmental storytelling. You saw in this demo, you can start to see some of these notes in this neighbourhood about... there's this conflict that Ellie's facing, right, which is critical, and then you start to discover like 'oh there were people who were in some conflict here before', and the more you explore, the more you can paint in that this is a world full of people trying to survive - each person in their own way getting pushed to their own limits of what they will do to survive. You see these stories through these notes, through this environment, through the graffiti on the walls.
So we kind of lean into that. Okay you see that building off in the distance - you can go and check it out , find a way in, maybe break a window - because now we've got this glass that's a lot more dynamic both in combat space and outside of. You might be wondering 'how do I get in that building?' and maybe you need to shoot it, but now you might make noise, and what is that gonna draw? So there's always like this [...] push and pull of this environment.
GR: The environmental storytelling we encountered told us stories about the Wolves. Tell us more about this group.
What what you learned in the demo about this WLF, which is this Western Liberation Front, this is this group that's trying to survive. You don't learn a lot about them in this demo, but it's just this hint of this conflict that arose between them and FEDRA - we know FEDRA from the first game, some of the first groups that built up some of the resistance against the plague and made those quarantine zones.
So you see that, within Seattle, there was this other group that kind of rose up against that oppression, which mirrors a little bit of Ellie's own experience growing up and what we saw in that first game with Joel. So you can just see that it's a rich world, right? There's a lot going on, there's a lot of people out there that are trying to survive, kind of in their own ways, and we like to fill in those details through the environment, through the notes, and really encourage that exploration gameplay.
GR: Dina played a big role in this demo, but what other allies will we be seeing?
Well you got to see Dina, who obviously - like you said - is very important, and of course you got to see Joel , who's critical to this story as well. And then there's plenty more that we haven't really revealed yet, and that's gonna be all more to come.
"Do we think Ellie would do this for love, for hate? And for us I think the answer's yes."
GR: In the past, especially after Paris Games Week's 2017 trailer, conversations have taken place around the level of violence we're seeing. Do you even think about whether you're taking it too far?
I think that's a really good question. I think for us it becomes, is this believable for this character? Like how far are they willing to push? And this is a question, like we see all the time in the news and the world, like what desperate people will do, so the question kind of becomes what makes sense for the world?
And this is a really desperate world, right. People are really trying to figure out how to survive, and then on top of that you put love, you put hate, and now you kind of raise the stakes everywhere. So for us it just comes back to, do we think Ellie would do this for love, for hate? And for us I think the answer's yes.
GR: The first game dealt with themes of masculinity, with Joel as a father, but how do you explore Ellie's femininity here?
I think for us we look at, like you saw, both seeing how capable Ellie is and also just seeing what it would be like to be 19 on patrol, to go out with someone that you kind of just had an awkward moment with the night before, someone that you have feelings for.
So even in this really, really desperate world, this world of survival, there's a bit of routine, right. You get into that routine, you're kind of doing your job. Something that I really love about this game is that there's also this great beauty in nature reclaiming. You have this beautiful snow environment, you're seeing this snow deform under their feet on horseback, through a frozen river, the edges of the creek crumpling under the horse's foot.
So you're out in this beautiful nature with someone that you care about, so for us that's also just an exploration of what young love is, and crush, and awkwardness, and being flirty, and being like 'hey let's try to survive, what are you doing later? Wanna hang out?' And it's like 'also we should probably kill these creatures, but like oh let's hang out'. So for us it's still human, it's still 19-year-olds, still kids figuring out their way.
GR: The demo we saw was incredibly detailed and visually impressive. What goes into making visuals for something like this?
That's an exploration for us from every department, like a huge team, everyone in their department pushing. You're talking about some of the animations, talking about the new motion-matching, the movement, what it feels to control Ellie, those change of directions - all of that feeling incredible. We've got an incredible environmental team, incredible lighting team, so we talk about 'okay what's the mood of this scene, okay how do we do these transitions from indoor to outdoor'.
You might be in this lush environment, and then suddenly you get inside this building and you drop down this hole, and things change really quick, you know. It went from like this 'ok kinda pretty kinda water' to like now you get that hint of spores, now get flashlight time, now you get shadows moving about, you get things scurrying, and so for us that mirrors even kind of like the arcs of the characters, that light to dark, those desperate times.
GR: Following on from that - what goes into audio?
Again, an incredible audio team, a team that's going down and each surface has a different sound, the environments, things in the distance. I think even the music is incredible, just those things that are all gonna match together, like 'okay what's the goal of this scene? When Ellie is now in this new environment and she knows there's a bunch of soldiers around, how do we get everything starting to feel like you're surrounded, you're overcome?'
And even within that you might hear a bird fly off or something, so it's like suddenly this beauty switched to danger, and things seem clear and calm, but there's still nothing not quite sure. It's even interesting for me as a designer to watch some people play and be like, I know that there's no enemies around right now, but I see people still peeking around corners a little bit and moving like 'oh yeah, they understand it's a dangerous world', and for us, you might think you're scavenging and you move a garbage can and then suddenly there's five infected inside.
If you're not always careful, you're not using that listening mode, if you're not kind of respecting the world, respecting the enemies, respecting nature, you might get in trouble.
GR: You mentioned a new melee combat system. What does this entail?
So this starts a little bit with again talking about Ellie, looking back at Ellie and thinking about how is she different? We talked about Part II, so she's a little more agile, she's a little quicker. Now you even have things that are new like jumping - you can now traverse more, you can dodge. So she's a little scrappier, a little quicker, having to get out of the way of these enemies, and so this leads to more opportunities to counter within the melee system, and avoid oncoming attacks.
And you'll see some things that are familiar - finding weapons, using scavenge to decide like okay do I want to upgrade this melee because I think this next area [is dangerous], or I want to be ready in case someone gets close to me or in case the dog gets your trail and starts to pick you up and you need to get out of there really quickly. Or maybe you want to spend some of those supplies for a bomb, because you want to be a little quieter, you want to plant the seed and kind of move away and lure some people over.
So this ties in to not only new systems that we think are appropriate for the character and the story there, but also encourage broad style of gameplays for our different fans.
GR: Ellie has matured a lot since the first game. How have you depicted that?
Well from the glimpse that you've seen now you know she's grown up in Jackson. At the end of the first game they turn up in Jackson, they've been living there. You can see that they're settled into some routines, they have some festivals, they have some lights, they still... you still hear stories of the dangers, they're going on patrol, they're checking the areas, they've gotta sign these log books. You get a sense that things are okay but dangerous, and so for us this is just a look at what that growing up would be like, and so it's that balance of okay you have Joel around, you have people around, but you have new relationships. So in some ways it's just like what everyday life would be like for her, and that it's kind of like a new regular. Like kids are still gonna be kids, people are still gonna grow up and find ways to have relationships and do normal things, it's just now there's daily patrols you've got to do instead of daily chores.
GR: With the first game being a new IP, there were no fan expectations. Now there are plenty, so how do you manage that?
The interesting thing about this question, one of the things about Naughty Dog I think, is that there's kind of always a lot of expectation. In the years that I've been there, we're still our biggest critic, as cliche as that sounds, we're just in there, we're pushing everything, we're still encouraging every department to come over, talk to people. The amount that we push ourselves still feels like the most that we get, so it's kind of just our own accountability in that regard, of wanting to make a great game, wanting to tell a great story, and really wanting to examine these themes and examine this conversation around violence and revenge and humanity and what are humans capable of in situations like this? So that bar, that standard, we just try to keep raising and raising.
GR: The facial animations are impressive, so what goes into making these characters believable in how the look and what they say?
I guess I can't stress enough that I'm so impressed by every department in the studio. I might be head down trying to work out some new environments or themes, you know, or Anthony [Newman] trying to talk through these ideas, and then there'll be a new video someone might send around the office like how they figured out a way to get proper shadows under the eyes of the characters, or to get the skin colour just right.
So there's people dedicated to both these really big moments and really small moments, and that's the level of detail that we're really passionate about at Naughty Dog, so when you have an entire team that's passionate about that, who really want to own these things to make it really beautiful, like you saw in the trailer of the nose deformation or the kissing on the lips - the same detail we have there that really highlights this love, is also the same detail that we have when like a knife goes into the neck and you see the skin separate. You're like okay that's intense, but that's the love and the hate, and you get that detail coming from every department and every team member, which is kind of incredible.
GR: The small details stood out to us during our time exploring the world. How much love goes into making these environments?
The simple answer is a lot, as you can tell, but it circles back to the themes. Looking at the themes and the environment artists going through, doing research, great art direction, trying to set these moods, and then it's just review and iteration and time and wanting to push it harder and asking ourselves 'okay how can we make this look better? Is this lighting right? Is this environment right? How can we get more shadows? How can we get more interesting shapes within here?' Always going back to inspiration in nature itself, looking back and also creating concept art and just looking at 'how do we get this feel, and are we achieving what we want?' And if we're not yet - let's go back and push and ask questions, and be like 'what do we need to change to get there?' And I think it's that iteration and push that hopefully makes a great Naughty Dog game.