Take a closer look at the influences and inspiration behind Naughty Dog's upcoming postapocalyptic survival game, The Last of Us.
A few blocks east of the Naughty Dog offices in Santa Monica is a small, side-of-the-road Japanese diner. It's an unassuming, plastic-menus kind of place: a family joint on Saturday nights and a lunchtime hangout for employees of the neighboring strip mall the rest of the time. It's not where you'd expect to see a celebrity, do a business deal, or come up with a million-dollar idea. But it's where, in the summer of 2009, Naughty Dog game director Bruce Straley and creative lead Neil Druckmann conceived the idea for The Last of Us.
Announced as a PlayStation 3 exclusive on December 10, 2011, during Spike TV's Video Game Awards, The Last of Us is the first new intellectual property from Sony-owned Naughty Dog since Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in 2007. The game follows two survivors--an adult man and a teenage girl--making their way across postapocalyptic United States 20 years after the outbreak of a deadly virus. It's a third-person action adventure that promises a darker, more adult experience than other games in its genre. It's a project that, according to its creators, will aim to push the graphical boundaries of the medium and test its storytelling potential. This last point is important. Without a good story, the game conceived by Straley and Druckmann in that side-of-the-road diner risks being lost forever.
The Mute Girl
The brainstorming sessions started as a way for Straley and Druckmann to unwind during development on Uncharted 2. Long days in the office would be followed by a nightly trip into West LA, where the pair would take up a table at the Curry House diner and problem-solve their way through the night. The discussion usually centered on what was and wasn't working in Uncharted 2, and how they could fix it. Sometimes, they allowed their imaginations to go beyond the game they were working on, pitching ideas, concepts, and scenarios they believed had potential. It was during one of these "what if" moments that The Last of Us was born.
When Uncharted 2's protagonist, Nathan Drake, finds himself in a remote Tibetan village in the Himalayas, he encounters a Sherpa named Tenzin. Tenzin doesn't speak English, so Drake initially finds it difficult to communicate with him. Straley and Druckmann originally wanted a mute girl in place of Tenzin--a decision partly inspired by Fumito Ueda's Ico--who would form a bond with Drake over the course of their time together.
"The girl would wake you up in the middle of the night and gesture for you to follow her," Druckmann says. "She'd lead you up to this rooftop and point to the horizon, and you'd see the sun just coming up over the village, one beautiful moment against a backdrop of violence and war."
The mute girl eventually became Tenzin, but Straley and Druckmann held on to the hope that they'd get another chance to explore this idea of an unlikely bond. Halfway through 2009, following Naughty Dog's decision to branch out and work on two games simultaneously (something Druckmann says was done in order to better leverage the PlayStation 3 technology), the pair saw their chance to try again.
A small development team was handpicked from within the existing team to start work on a new project, headed up by Straley and Druckmann, as director and creative director, respectively. While the rest of Naughty Dog started work on Uncharted 3, the new team discussed the possibility of a new Jak and Daxter game, which had the benefit of being an established franchise with a large fan base. But as the team began designing concept art and 3D models, Straley and Druckmann found they just couldn't get behind the idea. So they did what any brave developer would do: they trashed the idea and moved on.
It took them six months to settle on the final design for The Last of Us. Straley and Druckmann returned to the mute girl, drawing out the concept to devise the character arcs for the game's protagonists, Joel and Ellie. (Druckmann says these arcs remained the same throughout the development cycle, the one thing that always felt right.) Next, the team had to work out what kind of world Joel and Ellie would live in, down to its size and history. They knew that they wanted the world to look beautiful and that this beauty had to contrast with an undercurrent of human suffering. It wasn't until Straley and Druckmann sat down to watch the BBC documentary Planet Earth that they discovered what that suffering would involve.
The David Attenborough-narrated series examines different communities of plant and animal life from around the world. The episode Straley and Druckmann saw talked about something called the cordyceps fungus, a species of parasite native to insects that attacks by replicating the host's cell tissue. Some strains of the cordyceps fungus are also known to alter the behaviour of their insect host to maximize the conditions of infection, which got Druckmann thinking about a similar scenario in which humans became infected with the same fungus. It seemed there was a lot to explore if this kind of outbreak were to happen: the initial panic, chaos and uncertainty, and the stuff that comes immediately after. What would civilization look like 10, 20, or 30 years on? Who would be in control? What would the cities, the highways, and the infrastructure look like? How many would die, and how would the rest survive?
"This is the kind of world that forces people into a kill-or-be-killed frame of mind," Druckmann says. "I wanted the game to show players just how easy it is for humans to descend into this state when society as we know it ceases to exist."
Druckmann studied films, books, and television shows with postapocalyptic and dystopian settings, but soon found the real world to be a much more helpful source of inspiration. In studying the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, he learned about paranoia and man's need to protect himself when faced with the threat of extinction; the polio epidemic of the 1880s showed him how differences in class can color people's perceptions of blame in the face of a great disaster. Examining the history of human suffering also helped Druckmann answer the question of whether The Last of Us was the kind of game that needed a bad guy.
The original plan was to design a villain that would chase Joel and Ellie all the way to the end of the game, adding to the already-existing threat of infected humans and outlawed survivors. But in the end, Druckmann thought it felt forced, like the game was trying to fit into a Hollywood structure it didn't belong in. Taking his cues from history, he wanted to explore the idea that there aren't necessarily good or bad guys in situations like this; while Joel and Ellie are forced to fight for their lives, there shouldn't be anything to indicate that they are any more correct in what they do than those who attack them.
When the idea for the villain was dropped, it was replaced by a renewed motivation to further flesh out Joel and Ellie's relationship. It was Druckmann's growing belief that this, more than anything else, would make The Last of Us a success.