The Last of Us (PS3) Developer Interview at Fan Expo Vancouver

This past weekend we had the opportunity to attend Fan Expo Vancouver.  It was a weekend of anything geek.  From movie stars, videogame stars, TV stars, to cosplay and booths of venders selling all things geek.  It was a great event.  Sony PlayStation Canada was there too and where showing off a few games and one such game was The Last of Us.  Sony PlayStation Canada brought a friend to talk about The Last of Us; his name is Eric Monacelli and he is the Community Strategist at Naughty Dog, the studio who just happens to be developing the game.  We got a chance to talk to him and below is the interview we transcribed for your reading enjoyment.  So without further ado:

COG: How far into development of The Last of Us are you now?

Eric: We are shipping June 14th so we are pretty close.  We are putting the spit and polish on it and we are going to go gold pretty quick here.

COG: What is the true genre of the title?  For the lack of a better word it seems like a survival-horror game mixed in with more adventure or action then we usually see.

Eric: We are calling it ‘Survival-Action’ as it has elements of survival horror and there are elements of action adventure.  Naughty Dog is known for making action adventure games so that is our category.  We are good at telling stories and we are good at making cinematic action games so that is where we are headed.

COG: What was like breaking into this “new genre” that you’ve coined ‘Survival-Action’ and how long has the game been in development?

Eric: It has been in development since the about the end of Uncharted 2 which was 2009, so that was the pre-production stuff, not coding any stuff, but getting ideas for our next game.  We have a lot of talent at our studio and some of them wanted to share their great ideas for a game so we split into a two team studio which is how we operate now but it doesn’t function like a traditional split as we have a very open studio and everyone is either on their razor scooter or they just walk over to someone and ask a question.  We share our tech libraries and it’s just one of those things we want to make a new IP and how do we go about doing it.

COG: What inspired you make the Last of Us? The relationship between the two main characters is a big one…how did this all come about? 

Eric: The foundation of it a real plausible science.  In the BBC documentary Planet Earth there is a segment about a colony of ants that gets infected by a cordyceps fungus and this fungus gets into the ants and affects their neurological functioning and their behaviours and they start attacking other ants and the ant colony gets wiped out.  This happens a lot in insect colonies.

Neil and Bruce and people working on the game had this idea “what if this fungus spread to humans?” and “What would happen then?”  So we thought about that a bit and how nature would reclaim what we had made and start to change everything.  This was one of the foundations and from there no cell phones, no cameras, no mass media, no Internet, no toilets.  All this stuff is gone and how do people start to behave.  So we started to develop our characters from the ground up based on that.  Joel and Ellie got developed on that, based on the foundation of the world they live in during the game.

COG: We surf the ‘interwebz’ a lot and there was some kind of debate a while ago about the box art for The Last of Us.  The issue that was noted was that that there debate as to be whether or not to include Ellie on the front of the box or put her on the back.  Is there any truth to this?

Eric: It wasn’t really a debate so much as it was a discussion as to how we should make a box art, which happens with every game that we develop.  We wanted to figure out where we should position the characters as this is not a co-op game as you play with Joel the whole time and there was a lot of  “You play as Joel the whole time, so he should be front and center”.  But really this is a game about two protagonists and they are two equal people in this game and when you are playing through the game you will see how capable both of them are and we wanted that reflected in what we had on the box.

COG: Is the game as a whole a strictly single player experience?

Eric: So there is a single player component and a multiplayer component.  In regards to the multiplayer component, the modes and what that is going to be, we are not ready to talk about yet.  It’s a new IP and we want to emphasize what our meat and potatoes are and what we are making?

COG: How did you develop the interaction between the two characters? 

Eric: When Neil was writing the story he wanted it to be a journey.  One of the big influences was the relationship between Tenzin and Drake in Uncharted 2 where Tenzin is like a ‘guide’.   So he wanted to make a story where there was a character who would follow you and the AI was a little more then a guide, not just somebody who showed you were to go or who you had to drag around.  The writers want you to connect with this other character.  These are foundations.  ICO is another influence.  So that is where we thought to go.

COG: Does the most effort and time get spent character and story development or is it on the gameplay itself?

Eric: Effort is everywhere.  There are hours and hours of polishing all the details.  There is different disciplines in the studio that focus on specific areas but as a studio we are encouraged to put it all in every day and if there is something you see that you may not like you are encouraged to speak up and see if things can be done better by talking about it.

COG: If there is one thing gamers are going to love about The Last of Us, what would you choose?

Eric: Man, that is tough.  I am going to say two things as I have already seen one of them that I did not expect.  People have already started cosplaying as Joel and Ellie and the game is not even out yet.  It’s remarkable they are into it and want to dress as them.

I really do feel that the biggest and most remarkable thing is the sound design.  We put TONS of effort into it and I encourage people to play with headphones on.  It is atmospheric and minimalist, it is heavily influenced by negative space, using sound in such a way that you hear every footfall, rain falling and leafs rustling.   When those moments of tension creep in it amps up.  Our music composer is two-time academy winner Gustavo Santaolalla and he is amazing.  I feel like people are going to love the soundtrack.

COG: You have a good handle of the architecture of the PS3.  I have a hunch, and I am speculating here, not asking, that this could be Naughty Dog’s swan song on the Sony’s current console.  What was it like doing the game so late in the console’s lifecycle?

Eric: We are at a point where we feel comfortable with how we utilize the PS3.  The cool thing about it is that it was a future proofed machine when it came out and there is still stuff to explore at this point in its lifecycle so we’ve been pushing it to it’s limits and hopefully The Last of Us becomes one of the last great games for the PS3.  Maybe we develop something after that but we don’t’ know where we are gong next.  We feel like it is getting to the point where The Last of Us is going to be really special for that (PS3) machine.

COG: Is The Last of Us a franchise you envision becoming long term such as sequels or are you going to wait until you see how well it sells?  There has been a lot of buzz since it dropped at E3 last year and we were curious about this.

Eric: We have kept the buzz going and love to see how people are into it.  A lot of franchise realities are such it comes down to sales.  We have tons of creative ideas to make it a franchise but it comes down to the consumers and how much we want to push it beyond that.

COG: Is there any unique aspect that you can talk about in regards to the combat or weapons?  Is there any sort of new things we haven’t seen yet?

Eric: We have put a lot of work into our crafting and scavenging system.  You go throughout the game world and find little pieces of such things as a battery or some tape, but not enough tape or such to make a new weapon.  You’ll have to find more pieces of tape and once you collect all the necessary elements you can actually create different upgrades for your weapons in such a way that feels very organic and very natural.  I feel that this is a cool system that we put in our game that you don’t see in others.  You will also find recipes to craft some of the higher up weapons, so you do that during the game too.

I feel like the gameplay is also remarkable and how the tension builds.  You want to give players a choice and we allow players to be more offensive or more defensive, using stealth.  They can do different sorts of things and we feel we are perfecting that.

COG: Are you able to say how long the game will last (single player experience)?

If you rush through or do speed runs, and that is your bag, it will take you a good chunk of hours.  The average play through is 12-16 hours, but that is not finding everything.  If you want to do everything, unlock everything, get the highest weapons, you’ll have to play for a long time.  This is one of the more ambitious games that we have done in terms of scope and scale and size.  It’s going to take a good chunk of time.

COG: Being so close to going gold, is there anything you’ve left on the table that made you go “Awwwww, I wish we could have but we just couldn’t”?

Eric: There is a lot of stuff during the development process that gets left on the drawing board.  Everything we’ve cut has served the game in a way to make it more streamlined and better and get it into it’s hands in a way that is going to be the most compelling.  It’s not so much regret, but if we had more time we might make it bigger and that sort of thing…there is no regret as they are decisions that have been made to ensure that the gameplay experiences are up to par one with what Naughty Dog puts out day to day and that also the game is a compelling and gripping experience for whoever buys it.

COG: What is the word or words that come to mind in terms of what you want gamers who put The Last of Us into their PS3 to feel? What may describe that feeling?

Eric: There are a few themes throughout the game that we want you to embrace and have emotional feedback based on them.   It’s a game that is a study in contrast and we want people to realize and recognize some of those contrasts and want people to feel the tension of living moment to moment and that day-to-day survival.

Also the overarching themes of the narrative are love, loyalty and redemption and we are exploring this relationship and want gamers to do that as well.  Those themes are quite paramount in the game.

We want to thank Sony PlayStation Canada and Eric for taking the time to chat with us about The Last of Us.  From what we have seen to date, and from what we learned in our chat with Eric, the game looks very promising and we can’t wait to check it out when released this coming June.  For now you can check out a few screenshots below: