This week Sony gave us the opportunity to speak to Naughty Dog Game Designer Ricky Cambia who is currently down under on a promotional tour for The Last of Us, which is looking more and more like a Game of the Year title.
Set twenty years after a apocalyptic pandemic that has wiped out 90% of mankind the game focuses on not only surviving against the infected but against each other as those remaining few fight for the scarce remaining resources. It’s a brutal world that our two main characters Joel and Elly must learn to live in, and trust each other as they journey across the US.
Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and what role you played in the development of Last of Us?
Sure, my role was that of Game Designer on Last of Us, I was involved with a section of the game where I spent a lot of my time in the crafting environment, figuring out what parts the characters would go to, what places they would visit. How to make sure that all of that was contributing towards the story vision and pacing of the game. I also worked on some of the script writing to overall make it better.
Where did the concept of the ‘fungal mutation’ come from?
That came from the Planet Earth series where we were watching this video narrated by David Attenborough where there was a section that talked about this Cordyceps fungi which infects these ants, alters their behaviour in a specific way that is beneficial to the growth of the fungus that makes the ant go and crawl somewhere specific and then sprouts out the back of their brain killing them and spreading to other ants. We just thought that was amazing, when you describe it, it’s incredible but it’s real. It is happening right now in our world. We wanted to create a really grounded game and that means all we had to do was ask the question; what if this jumps to mankind? Once you read and learn about these diseases you discover that 60% of these come to mankind through animals so we just thought that was a great place to start off.
The game appears to be more than just surviving this apocalyptic pandemic event? The focus appears to be on the brutality of man in their efforts to survive.
Yeah we knew that we wanted to create a world where you would be forced to make interesting choices, so we knew that we had to create this really great external pressure where humans are under a lot of pressure and become desperate and how do they handle the often hard choices they have to make. So twofold, we had to make interesting creatures that led us towards the brutality of the infected; you know if they get near you they will kill you – to make it feel believable. These things have already wiped out 90% of the population. Then we also wanted to shine light on how people were surviving, what choices they were making so when you come face to face with another survivor you know they are there because of their desperation and they know the same about you so often brutality is required.
There must have been a lot of learning’s from the Uncharted series, what stands out as the most important?
We really spent a lot of time on the Uncharted series refining our performance capture process and how we integrate the actors into the game. So using this we were able to approach the characters from a new angle to a slightly darker theme. Nathan Drake is this wonderful example of an Indiana Jones pulp action everyday likeable rogue which we loved exploring, it was such a rich world. Here for Joel it is really about you or I, an everyday guy that is forced to make really tough choices and has decided he will do anything to survive.
The game rating (R18) has gone up another level, was this a conscious decision before the development of the game began or did it just turn out that way?
When we started getting into this world, we thought about how people would survive, how they would cope with the infected and we realised we would need to make a mature rated game and that was relatively early in the process as we knew that if we wanted to tell the story that we really wanted to tell it would need to have some pretty dark things and that was the start of it and that led to what we have now.
Third person vs. first person, were there any thoughts to creating a first person experience?
No, we built on the Uncharted engine and it is the type of game we like, we feel you can relate more to the character, you can see more of what’s going on around him. We did explore the impact of moving the camera in closer; we wanted to help capture that feeling of survival so by bringing the camera in close during the action each punch feels more real. You feel more like you are down there with Joel and Elly so we hope that this helps separate it out from other third person games and gives it a unique feel.
What do you want the gamers to take away from this experience?
We want to give them a glimpse of what it would be like to survive in a post pandemic world, to really feel the tension and really feel what it would be like to make hard choices in that world. You are going to have to face things and you are not going to have a plethora of ammo and items to help deal with it. You will have to sit and make a plan and sweat and find a way to deal with it. We want to capture that with the characters and be moved by the journey.
The genre you describe as ‘survival-action’ is something new. What was the reason you decided to try this out as opposed to the more popular purely action games?
We felt there was an area that we could explore and bring something new. There are great games out there that feel like survival but we wanted to bring the Naughty Dog approach to it, we wanted to be able to bring exploration to the aesthetics of the environments we created where nature is reclaiming. To be able to take a city street which was once something that you and I might recognise as downtown with a coffee shop that we may visit every day that feels familiar but has now been overrun by nature. A sense of familiarity, a sense of loss but also of death because mankind is gone, but there is also this beauty, this dream of new life coming back.
The multiplayer element, can you tell us a little more about what to expect?
We really think we captured something special with the third person tone, once we put that into a multiplayer setting it was exciting, unique because of all the things in the game, the crafting the high lethality. The tone of the game and then there is this clan that you are trying to build to survive within the matches.
There appeared to be a campaign aspect to the multiplayer, how does that play out?
There is this idea of can you make it 12 weeks, can you start a group of people and can you survive in this world. So during the multiplayer there are scenarios that play to this.
The main character Joel is this protector figure to Elly but there is a dark side there, how much of this will be revealed during the game? Or will this be in part 2?
We set out to tell a complete story, we know the part that Joel will play. We know what they will have to face, but it will be up to the people playing it to know how dark it will get and what details will be revealed about his life. We really think it’s a rich world, so we will take a break, see how the fans respond and see what the feeling is for what’s next.
There have been a few ‘Last of Us’ mini fan films hitting the internet, are there any hopes of creating a TV series or even a movie?
Way too soon for us to think about that but we just hope people love it, we do have the comic book and that does a great job of filling in some of the history and more of the world. With that regard we will see how it goes. We think it is really flattering seeing people dressed up as infected or Joel and Elly, it’s just great – it’s why we do it. We spent 3.5 years making it and we love the feedback of people just enjoying the world we created.