Designing the Last of Us: How American cities crumble, and become temples for natural light
The Last of Us is a bleak, often oppressive game about trying to survive in a hostile, post apocalyptic environment. That description may sound familiar, but this is Naughty Dog, a developer that has the knack of taking well-worn tropes and gaming clichés and creating something human and interesting. It’s one thing to try to survive by yourself, using whatever you find along the way. It’s a very different thing to do so while trying to protect a 14 year-old girl who often sings to herself, or wants to talk about the various things you find in your travels.
Ellie has grown up in a quarantine zone, you see. Like us, she’s seeing much of the world for the first time. Unlike Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, Ellie is worldly, assertive, and sometimes violent. She has her own personality, and will interact with you and other characters in surprising ways. She’s much more of a well-defined character than Elizabeth, and she’ll often do more than run around and throw you ammo. The relationship is much more equal.
You control Joel, who has seen much more of the world outside of the quarantined zones, and it’s your job to keep Ellie safe. The world you explore throughout the game is much more than your standard post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the sense of history and weight of these environments adds to the realistic feel of the game. I sat down with Erick Pangilinan, the art director at Naughty Dog, to figure out how that was done.
Ants, fungus, and the destruction of man
“The art design started with this video from National Geographic about cordyceps, this fungus that infects ants and controls their brain, and infects other ants until it reaches the nest and infects the whole colony,” Pangilinan said. “Starting from that we tried to create a world where human life has been decimated, and it’s been a continuous wave of infection, and how humans would contend with this new reality. Different areas, different factions would deal with it in different ways.”
The game takes place 20 years after humanity has been pushed to the margins of survival due to the infection, and research about what cities would look like under those conditions can be hard to come by. They looked at industrial areas that have been abandoned for only five years and were shocked by how quickly they become overgrown. In fact, they had to pull back a bit from the reality of what structures would look like after 20 years. It would be hard to create a fun game where the world is nothing but vines, foliage, and destroyed buildings. The game features more structure than you’d find in 20 years of real-life neglect.
Unlike most games that take place in a bleak, dead world, they wanted to keep the feel of the game distinctly American. “In many of our games we’ve globe-trotted around the world, but here we’ve brought it back to America. All the things that are very American, the way things have evolved because of our history and how new things are,” Pangilinan explained. The team paid attention to the style of American advertising. They created and designed American towns. They thought about where the churches would be, and would people would gather to try to fight back the infection.
This is where things get fascinating: They didn’t just create buildings and rooms that have been destroyed in the past 20 years, they wrote the stories for each of these structures. So they know why there is a pile of crates in the corner, or where a small group of survivors made their last stand. This sense of history and weight isn’t made explicit in many of these situations, but it saves the world from randomness.
You can walk around this environment and get a sense of what areas were given advanced warning, and which weren’t.
“As the infection grew, what was the barricade situation? What would be the escape route? What did the town do when they first got the infection? You can pick up little bits of the story about what happened in that town,” Pangilinan explained, ticking off the things they thought about on his fingers. You’ll run into notes left for children or spouses. You’ll walk into children’s rooms, or be able to look at wedding pictures of the family. These aren’t environments, they’re places where people lived and, in most cases, ultimately died.
This sense of history extends to the more natural sense of decay. They didn’t just draw interesting looking environments, they had to explain how each room got into that state. “If you destroy everything, it’s just noise. We wanted to balance it right, the destruction has a story by itself. When you come in you can see where the water damage began, and how the area flooded, and that’s why it’s open,” Pangilinan continued.
Another thing that guided the design of the game’s world was light, and it becomes impossible to not see this guiding principle once you understand what’s going on.
“Most of the electricity is gone, there’s no electricity, so you’re relying on ambient light and light from the sun. That’s important when you’re designing a level, because if you designed it wrong, it’s all going to be in darkness,” Pangilinan explained. “There’s a lot of consideration when we design spaces, from the layout of a room to the layout of a town.” Each of the towns is actually a temple for natural light, set up so the light spills across the town, guiding your way. Stonehenge by way of Walmart.
It was an interesting conversation, and knowing what went into the game’s design made me enjoy my hands-on time even more. I told Pangilinan I’d be playing the two Sony-provided demos a few times at home, and that I’d take my time.
“If you rush it, you’ll die,” he said. “This is a crawling game.”