The Last Of Us interview: “I really think it’s gonna turn the model of the hero on its ass”
In Naughty Dog’s darkened Santa Monica offices, two teams are at work – one on what will almost certainly be Uncharted 4 and the other, led by Uncharted 2 veterans Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, building Naughty Dog’s first new IP since Nathan Drake’s debut, The Last Of Us.
What makes it even more interesting is that it looks so dark. Eyebrows were raised when Naughty Dog left behind the bright cartoon style of Crash and Jak in favour of Uncharted’s grittier realism. Compared to The Last Of Us, Uncharted is a smiley face of rainbows and sunshine. This is no treasure-hunting, laugh-packed riot: it’s a story of survival on a ruined Earth, a post-apocalyptic drama of a civilisation torn apart by disease. And it’s all Sir David Attenborough’s fault.
Well, kinda. There’s a new and unexpected addition to the great broadcaster’s long list of achievements. Alongside inspiring a generation of documentary filmmakers and having more letters following him than most people have in their actual names, Sir David can also claim to have inspired a blockbuster videogame. Because the basis for the aggressive infestation that decimates mankind in The Last Of Us came from the BBC’s Planet Earth series, which in 2007 showed a fungus called cordyceps as it infected the body of an Amazonian bullet ant.
It takes control of its host – its properties are sometimes described as zombifying – and forces the insect to climb into the open. The parasite then overwhelms the ant and transforms the corpse into a fertile platform for growing new spores. The programme went on to show the eerie remains of a whole series of other insects that have succumbed to their species’ specialised strain of the fungus, alien shapes protruding from shrunken bodies. “The more numerous a species becomes,” warns Attenborough, “the more likely it will be attacked by its nemesis: a cordyceps fungus.”
Somewhere around this point, a huge lightbulb flashed in the mind of Druckmann, creative director of The Last Of Us, who had finally found his villain. The trailer shows the results: the infected are skulking, violent half-men, their faces erupted into swollen growths. But despite the strength of this plot hook, Druckmann tells us he’s not making a regular end-of-the-world action title.
“It’s a love story,” he says. “Not a romantic love story – a love story between these two characters.” Those characters being Joel, a lean, bearded survivor of around 40, and Ellie, his 14-year-old companion. This is what Druckmann and Straley are confident will set their game apart from the other, ostensibly similar tales of post-apocalyptic survival: Naughty Dog’s story- and performance-driven approach.
“It pretty much fell in our laps, that no one else is doing character-driven survival action games,” says Straley. “That’s really what it came down to. And we love that genre – we love playing it, we love watching it, we’re influenced by it. If we can do what we do with Uncharted in this other genre, nobody’s doing that.”
“When you look at film, or comics, or any other medium that deals with this content, it’s all about the characters,” continues Druckmann. “It’s all about the pressures of the world forcing them to make really difficult decisions, and you learn something about who we are as human beings. And with games – and there are fun games in this genre, we’re not trying to say they’re bad games – but no one’s approaching it from the character side. It’s all campy, over-the-top violence…” “…how much more blood? How much more gore?” Straley picks up with a sarcastic relish.
“How much backstory can I get in there about the science?” counters Druckmann. “The conspiracy of the government!” blurts Straley. “Who unleashed the virus – bleurgh! It has nothing to do with the characters.”