This past Thursday, I took a trip to a Naughty Dog design panel and spoke with a few people from The Last of Us team, who took a break from collecting awards to come speak to wide-eyed fans.
The team in attendance included Neil Druckmann, creative director and writer of The Last of Us, Ricky Cambier, a game designer responsible for much of Ellie’s gameplay and development, and Anthony Newman, the melee combat designer for the game.
SPOILER WARNING: I don’t intend on dishing every dirty secret of the game’s plot, but there are a couple of end-game details you should avoid if you’re spoiler sensitive.
1) The inspiration for clickers came from a 20/20 story about blind children, who would make clicking noises to “see” their surroundings. The designers applied this to the infected and said they loved turning a benign sound into a terrifying warning.
2) The stalkers were made in about a week. There also aren’t many because there were only a few in-game areas dark enough for them.
3) The devs wanted to balance gunplay with other fighting styles, such as melee, so that you’d spend as much time kicking infected butt as you did shooting infected butt. They experimented with making Joel invulnerable to gunshots while melee fighting an enemy, but that seemed to motivate players to run headfirst into groups and, one by one, bash their brains in uninterrupted. Instead, designers relied on limited availability of ammunition, slow gun draw time, and shaky aim to keep players off the trigger and keep combat diverse.
4) In the final chapter of the game, Joel doesn’t have to kill the nurses. The designers said that almost every play tester failed to realize that.
5) The designers often looked to the actors for character inspiration, as actors were allowed to improvise lines as well as give feedback during development. Ellie was originally more passive and innocent for much more of game, until Ashley Johnson, who played her, suggested she be more aggressive and tough. In fact, the team often took Ashley’s verbalisms and mannerisms as material for Ellie.
6) Ellie’s fighting mechanics were extremely weak at first, to the point where her knife slashes did basically nothing. Play testers wanted her to have more impact, and so the designers gave her oddly indestructible switchblade a little more oomph.
7) In one early scene, Joel finds himself against a series of enemies and a bunch of desks. The team was asked to sneak in some code that would prevent the player from performing too many, um… introductions of heads to desks. While using office furniture for violence was key in the rest of the game, the team didn’t want throw too much violence at the character so early in the narrative.
8) Though most testers really wanted to avoid killing the doctor, the devs felt it was important for the player to commit to Joel’s darkening story, moral qualms and all.
9) For a long time, the story portrayed Tess as a villain. One idea involved Tess and her brother traveling along with Joel and Ellie. Her brother would somehow die because Joel was protecting Ellie, and Tess would be left behind. Then, Tess would chase the pair around the country seeking vengeance. The team felt, for a time, that there had to be someone pursuing Ellie and Joel and providing a constant, story-driving antagonist. They even imagined Tess interrogating Bill for information, and killing his partner.
Later in the game, Tess would torture Joel to find Ellie…so Tess could kill her in front of Joel. (The designers chuckled at how ridiculous the whole story line sounded). Ellie, who was not going to have killed a human before this point, was to pick up a gun and kill Tess to protect Joel. The designers admitted it was all very convoluted and not well motivated. It made little sense for Joel to have such an early attachment to Ellie, or for Tess to spend over a year following them across the world. Instead, Tess was made an ally whose death would be Joel’s early motivation. The devs were so attached to the ‘Ellie killing Tess’ moment, and they tried twisting the plot constantly to make it happen. Eventually, they had to let it go, and allow the story take a more natural and satisfying course.
10) The game’s entire gore function had to be turned off for the Japanese version, including the head-popping, arm severing, and neck munching.
11) The clickers weren’t always walking murder machines. Once upon a time, in the early days of development, encountering a clicker didn’t entail an instant throat gorging, one-hit KO. The team didn’t feel there was enough tension in the game though, and amping up clicker lethality made the game’s dark, dangerous tone begin to…click (heh).