We could debate all day who "won" E3, if such a designation is actually meaningful. (It isn't.)
But no serious conversation along these lines would be complete without mentioning Naughty Dog's rabidly anticipated sequel to its postapocalyptic smash hit game The Last of Us. Playstation clearly thinks so as well, setting the premiere of Last of Us Part II's new trailer in an anteroom decorated like the video's opening shot, an elaborate piece of stagecraft that set it apart from the debut trailers for every other game at its annual E3 briefing.
BuzzFeed was lucky enough to sit down with Neil Druckmann, the director of The Last of Us franchise, and Halley Gross, cowriter for The Last of Us Part II, at this year's E3 conference in Los Angeles. We talked about what makes a good postapocalyptic world, the nature of violence, and how Druckmann hopes to "one-up" his neighbors at Sony Santa Monica on the heels of their recent triumph, God of War.
The Last of Us was known for being the most raw and evocative environment for postapocalyptic games, which is impressive because gamers and game developers are obsessed with the postapocalypse. Could you talk a bit about what goes into creating a realistic postapocalyptic world that’s also fun to play in? What separates your world from the rest of the games out there that are trying to do, ostensibly, the same thing?
Neil Druckmann: Well, I think what we do different at Naughty Dog is I think we have a radically different approach than most studios, and that is that we’re very character driven. What makes us unique is everything we do from gameplay to art to story is ultimately in service of a message; there’s something we’re trying to say. And second to that is that we say that thing with honest, well-told, strong characters. And then applying that same principle is, like, to say, Okay, what is the thing that created this post-pandemic, postapocalyptic, whatever term you want to use for this world, and how do we make it dangerous, threatening, and beautiful?
So how we treat characters is they have contradictions and complexities, and that’s what makes them human. Likewise, this world should have this feeling of death and yet that beauty that invites you to go explore it, this familiarity with something completely unfamiliar — like a tree growing inside of a mall or a flooded street that you’re wading through. So those kind of juxtapositions of evocative imagery combined with characters is what sets us apart.
Let’s talk NPCs (non-player characters). You guys also created one of the most famous NPCs of all time. Can you tell me: What’s the beating heart of a good NPC? Again, what separates Ellie from all the other NPCs we’ve seen?
ND: Well, so, Ellie used to be an NPC, but she’s the protagonist in this story, so the player is controlling Ellie. Umm, it’s safe to say with the game that we made in the past that there will be some NPC with you in this story, even though we’re not showing [the NPC] in this demo. And our general approach is to say, again, How do we treat them like people? How do we get them to behave honestly as those people? How do we give them interesting characteristics so that they can navigate the world, make meaningful actions, and surprise you in the way people do?
Along those lines, I’m sure you have some familiarity with Atreus from God of War. Do you see any parallels, or do you see that as a step forward for NPCs? Do you guys feel like you’re on a parallel track with that, or do you feel like you’re approaching NPCs differently?
ND: Yeah, we’re friends with those guys. We’re neighbors. I guess they’re not in Santa Monica technically anymore, but, yeah, we share tech and creative processes. And we welcome the friendly competition to one-up them in every regard. And you can tell Cory [Barlog, game director for God of War] that.
[laughs] OK, well, if I ever meet Cory, I will tell him that. I mean, it’s a hell of a thing to have you guys out there trying to one-up each other because there was your game that created so much buzz, and there was almost nothing like it again until God of War, and now you guys are releasing again hot on the heels of that.
ND: I mean, in general, our approach is not to look so much at other games. We’d already been working on this game for a few years, prior to anything else recently that’s come out, and we are very confident in the story we want to tell and the messages behind it. But we’re always looking to see, Okay, is there some technique, is there some graphical thing, is there something in a movie or a book or something that we could creatively steal that’s going to service the message of the story better?
When the second trailer dropped, there was some reaction, like, Holy shit, this is violent even by Last of Us standards. You’ve already said that everything you do is in service to a message, so it seems apparent to me that the violence is in service of that message. Have you been surprised at the reaction to some of the violence? What is the underlying message of the violence in the game?
Halley Gross: This game is really about the cyclical nature of violence. It’s something we’re really excited to have a conversation about. So I think it’s exciting that people are talking about it.
So society breaks down, people have to deal with each other in ways that they wouldn’t have if those interactions were mediated by something like a government, and that starts a cycle of violence?
HG: Well, it’s this idea that, sort of, violence begets violence begets violence, and the sort of growing trauma that ... creates for Ellie and on Ellie’s soul.
Is there ever any point in either game where the violence is more in service of gameplay, where you want players to have fun? Or do you want them to have to feel every kill as part of the narrative, as something they have to do?
ND: For us, with The Last of Us specifically (Uncharted is a little different in our creative approaches), we don’t use the word "fun." We say "engaging," and it might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one for us, which is, we believe that if we're invested in the character and the relationships they’re in and their goal, then we're gonna go along on their journey with them and maybe even commit acts that make us uncomfortable across our moral lines and maybe get us to ask questions about where we stand on righteousness and pursuing justice at...ever-escalating costs.
So it seems like it’s never just, Oh, this is a sweet head kill. You’re not making Doom; you’re making a narrative that involves violence because the narrative leads that way.
ND: I mean, our aesthetic approach to violence is to make it as grounded and real as possible, and we watch — sometimes uncomfortably — a lot of videos from the world, right? The world that we know, and trying to say, Okay, we don’t to make it sexy. How do we make it real? How do we make it uncomfortable because art at times should be uncomfortable? With the story we’re trying to tell here, it should at times make you uneasy to move forward, and yet you’re so invested in the characters that you are moving forward, and hopefully you’re reflecting on the actions that you’re taking part in.
Yeah, there’s that moment when the woman dips her head below the car and you see her in frame for a second and then you shoot her and her face changes immediately. It goes slack, and the first time I saw that I was like, Whoa, that’s a very effective, very small thing. It’s just BOOM.
ND: A lot of that— our co–art director John Sweeney, when we did a similar scene like that, we had a lot of gore and stuff shoot out of the back of the head, and the thing he kept fighting was, That’s not realistic. Actually it’s very subtle and the blood doesn’t start pouring until you hit the ground. And there’s all these things that make it real and make it more disturbing, and that’s really what we want to capture.
Yeah, well, it’s in there for sure. So in terms of a friendly competition with Sony Santa Monica, it looks very much in this demo that you’re using the single-shot camera that God of War used throughout. Is that something you can comment on?
ND: No, uh, you can see in the opening cinematic where sometimes there are long shots and sometimes where it makes sense, like when the two girls are dancing with each other, we cut back and forth. So it’s really, What is the best tool to tell this story that we’re telling? So we have the breadth of cinematic language, and it’s very specific to The Last of Us, which has a very different cinematic language than something like Uncharted. But that’s something we’ve kind of been developing since the first game, and this is a continuation from that.
But it’s very seamless the way that fight scenes seem to transition from your standard third-person shooter to a more intimate confrontation where the guy is on top of her. So I guess that’s what I mean when I say the single camera is that you never sort of lose track of where she is in the frame, or...
ND: Oh, I see, yeah, yeah. That’s something that we started with the first game. ... With Uncharted, a lot of it is bombast and spectacle, and the whole approach with The Last of Us as a franchise is to try to make it as intimate and small as possible. So that’s like a mini set piece of someone being on top of you, you’re feeling the desperation of your character and how you fight out of that. So, yeah, we want to make that as seamless as possible to the more systemic gameplay that’s all around those kind of more "set-piecey" moments.
Part of my theory of what makes a good or effective postapocalyptic world is the sense that the player has of the passage of time since the inciting incident. Like, how overgrown are things? Like you said, you juxtapose the way things were with the way things are. So can you talk both from a writing and design standpoint about how you mark the passage of time, and do you agree that's an important element of creating a postapocalyptic world?
HG: That’s an interesting question. Um, well, this story is really about Ellie and change, and this traumatic event that happens and how that changes her. So of course there is going to be passage of time because we want to see how this event evolves her not just in the immediate aftermath but throughout...a journey of a certain length? [laughs]
ND: And one of the things that Halley and I talk a lot about, as Ellie goes to different locations, Seattle being a prominent location in this game, is what is the history of this city? When was it a quarantine zone? When did it fall? We show this new faction called...
ND: ...called the Seraphites, who are this religious fundamentalist group that exist within the city. And what’s their history? How did they come about? How did the events of the outbreak influence them? And, uh, well...other things that are spoilers.
What was the one thing you wanted players to walk away from after the first game? If it has changed, what is the overriding sense that you want players to have after playing this game?
ND: You’re kind of talking about the ultimate message of what the game is, right? With the first game, it’s that sense of irrational, unconditional love a parent feels for their child and how they’re willing to sacrifice everything for their child, right? The whole kind of game was built around that concept. With this game, a lot of our conversations are about hate, but it’s a more complicated, kind of nuanced thing, which is— I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve witnessed an atrocity. You’ve seen someone torture an animal, or they’ve pushed you too far and, for a second, your mind goes somewhere...primitive, where you want to hurt someone. And with this game, we’re like, How do we explore that? How do we make you feel those feelings and lean into them, and then make you reflect on them? And I can’t say more than that without kind of spoiling the whole story. But everything we’re constructing, the situation we’re putting the characters in, is to explore that basically.
Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity