Monday 24 June 2019

E3 2018: 'We don't want Ellie to feel like Nathan Drake in The Last of Us Part II'

Naughty Dog designer Emilia Schatz tells Ronan Price about the new skills to expect in The Last of Us Part II and defends its extreme violence

Ellie is the lead character in The Last of Us Part II
Ellie is the lead character in The Last of Us Part II
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

THE Last of Us was just about the most bleak game you’ve ever played. It took the post-apocalyptic nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and stitched in a layer of deadly zombie-like ‘clickers’ for good measure. Hope was in short supply, not least in the ending.

But five years on with its sequel, Naughty Dog offers both optimism and despair in equal measure. The Last of Us Part II made headlines for its noticeably darker tone on its reveal in 2016 and in last October’s trailer, the latter in particular being singled out for its grim violence.

At last month’s E3, however, we saw a different side to main character Ellie, revealing her as a young woman flirting with her lover at a town-hall dance. Life has achieved a semblance of normality, albeit one in which attacks from bandits are an ever-present danger.

However, the E3 trailer segued very deliberately this tender love scene into a shocking and gruesome throat-slitting killing by Ellie. Naughty Dog remains unapologetic about the searingly explicit gore, maintaining it’s integral to the storyline.

In an interview at E3, Last of Us II co-lead designer Emilia Schatz explained: “You saw with our cinematic, where we showed Ellie has had the opportunity to grow into a teenager and build relationships, that it’s very much part of her character. What we’re especially interested in is the cycle of violence. Violence and hate begets additional violence and hate, and it just continues and continues.”

When pressed about how the trailers seemed almost to fetishise the violence, Schatz is insistent: “We often get questions about that, specifically after our last trailer that we showed (in October). The thing about The Last Of Us universe is that the thing we’re trying to portray is that it’s a very dangerous, visceral sort of place. And a lot of times we feel that if you pull back from that, if you don’t show the actual consequences to the violence, you’re not being honest about the repercussions of your violence. We want you to feel nauseous about seeing that gore. Because if it’s not, then it doesn’t feel real.”

The E3 interview at the PlayStation booth follows immediately on from a repeat of the earlier presentation at Sony’s press conference before the opening day of the expo, which consisted of a trailer followed by some gameplay. Oddly, the assembled journalists crowded into the small, darkened room are treated to an exact replica of the earlier presentation, even though a developer appears to be playing the game live. We immediately grow sceptical because it’s a frame-perfect re-run down to the last action beat.

Emilia Schatz, co lead designer of Last of Us Part II at E3 2018. Photo: Ronan Price

Schatz declines a suggestion to play it again in a fractionally different manner and argues the similarity is down to the skill of the developer holding the controller.

Whatever the motivation of such a replay, it’s obvious TLOUII diverges from the original in some significant ways – not just in the town-hall glimpse of normality but Ellie’s increased athleticism. Naughty Dog is the same studio that brought us the peerless Uncharted series and it’s clear the developers have been influenced by their work on the antics of the acrobatic Nathan Drake.

“In Last of Us Part I, there really wasn't any jumping,” says Schatz, who has been working at Naughty Dog since 2010 on Uncharted 3. “You'd go to a section, there'd be a small gap or something maybe about 10 times in the whole game – and you'd be prompted for a button and you'd mantle over.

“That is not the case in the Last of Us Part II. There's quite a bit of complicated traversal, leaping across large gaps and some platform jumping.

But she’s adamant TLOUII will not end up just an extension of the Uncharted franchise. “The Last of Us Part II, like part I, is a more grounded experience,” says Schatz. “Nathan Drake often stretches the ability of what a normal human would be able to do. He’s almost a superhero sort of thing.”

Nonetheless, it must be difficult to get into a different mindset because the production team work on both TLOU and the Uncharted games.

“Pre-production for the Last of Us Part II began essentially right after Part I ended,” remembers Schatz. “That went for a little while before the whole studio went into Uncharted 4. But once Uncharted 4 was done, we put together a small team to return to that and basically run with it while most of the team went to Uncharted: Lost Legacy. Then everyone came back.

“From the very start as far as gameplay is concerned, we were very happy with how the TLOUI turned out and we wanted to make sure that this one had a lot more to experience. We were worried, however, that it would be hard to top while staying with the grounded roots.

Jokingly, she says: “I guess we could have added a double-jump or something. But that doesn't fit our game.

“But we had to explore what is The Last of Us Part II as far as gameplay goes. We did a lot of early prototypes and a lot of things came out of it – the prone crawling, the squeezing though small gaps, just doing more traversal. We were just trying to figure out what are the boundaries for how much traversal was enough and grounded. But we don't want Ellie to feel like Nathan Drake.

“Early on, differentiating the two games was definitely a problem, especially when we were trying to figure out traversal and so on. Can Ellie climb up a rock wall? Does that fit her character? How far can she jump and not feel she's like Nathan Drake! That took a lot of experimentation early on where we had stuff and we were, like: ‘No, this really doesn't fit, we gotta pull back’. We need to figure out what works for her but we still wanted her to feel like a realistic person going through this environment.

“Our combat in Part 2 tends to be a lot more strategic, like setting up a chess board, instead of Uncharted, where you had so much more mobility and the ability to, sort of, screw with the NPCs. Setting up a TLOU battlefield was all about trying to instil a sense of pressure and fear.

“In The Last of Us Part I, we wanted to create a sense, a feeling of vulnerability in the character. We want to describe this very dangerous world.

“What I really like is that even with the character of Joel, whom you play in the Last of Us Part I, he's a big strong guy but he's a very vulnerable character because when enemies have the numbers, they have the firepower, you're a very weak character in the whole scope of the world. What I love about that is that once you're able to overcome that through stealth mechanics, through playing something strategically, it feels like the player has achieved something.”

• The Last of Us Part II will be released on PlayStation 4, probably in 2019 or 2020.

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