We Spoke To Naughty Dog’s Lead Game Designer About All Things The Last Of Us Part II


If you wouldn’t mind, could you give us a little bit of an intro to The Last of Us Part II and what’s been going on since the first game?

So since the first game, Ellie and Joel have settled down in the town of Jackson, Wyoming and you can see five years have passed here so Ellie was 14 in the first game and now she’s about 19, so she’s becoming a grown woman and starting to understand herself and that’s really what we want to portray in the game. The sort of multi-faceted personality that Ellie is, she’s really one of the more complex video game characters out there, because, as you saw in our demo – just listening to her talk you can tell how vulnerable and slow to trust she can be and you know, as Dina and Ellie are talking about past relationships like her relationship with this woman named Kat.

This is a character that so many of us can relate to, that has trouble trusting, she’s vulnerable, but she’s also capable of great affection and love and I love how you can see that in Dina and Ellie’s relationship as it sort of starts with them like, ‘Oh, they’re friends’ and they’re out on this patrol together and they start teasing each other and there’s this subtle, like, flirting and stuff like that, and eventually it sort of culminates in, ‘They actually kissed, okay’. So, this is a character that I can really see myself in, definitely, but at the same time when you flash forward to a section of the game where we see Ellie in a very different light, she is, so very capable, so very deadly. She can be vindictive, she’s not going to stop at anything to be able to get to her goal, you know. I guess that’s what I love so much about this universe, The Last of Us, because it’s a world where, you know we’ve already set the stage like – the apocalypse has happened, right? The zombies are already here! But really what that does is makes it so that it’s really hard to put your finger on the black and white, the evil and the good, because everyone is in such a desperate situation, it’s a matter of life and death. So, when something bad happens you can’t just run to the police you have to take it into your own hands, what does that do to you? Anyway, it’s a very fascinating universe – we’ve got a lot to work with.

Was it always sort of, on the table, the idea of making a sequel to The Last of Us? Was it borne of the overwhelming fan reaction to Ellie’s character that the team decided the time was right to explore that more?

We really take our games one at a time, and focus on the stories that we want to tell. So, The Last of Us, or as it’s known now, ‘Part I’, was a game where we were trying to tell a particular story. It wasn’t until after release that, you know we didn’t feel especially pressured to make a second one, but you start to think ‘Oh, where could it go? Do I want to see that?’ and eventually Neil got to something that kept sticking in his head where there is this extra story to tell. That then, sort of, blossomed into something that we really wanted to get behind and start thinking about ‘Okay, what gameplay do we want? Where did we not go in The Last of Us Part I that we can go with this? What gameplay would we want to add?’.

So things like, adding new traversal, there’s so many more ways that you can move around in Part II. A lot of the environments in Part I were very limited in size and also in how much verticality there was. In a sense when you break those down and analyse them, they were very much set like they were a chess board. The enemies would come from this direction, they’ve got their flank path here, it’s all very precise, you know? And that makes a lot of the combat scenarios so tight and strategic and we didn’t want to lose that coming in to Part II so it’s like this challenge of, you know, as a level designer I really like to give the player a lot agency in how they can approach any sort of setup and the narrow something is the less agency they have. So it’s like, how do we expand these environments out but still keep that sense of constant pressure that the enemies are putting on you? So, when you play the Seattle suburbs that you played earlier it’s like ‘How do we get the pressure on the player?’, and part of that comes with the addition of new enemies. So for instance the dogs have different ways that they can perceive you, they can track you over a larger distance, they can draw other enemies toward you. There’s also more of a social connection between the NPCs. You may have heard [during the demo], when you shoot one they call each other by name, when they’re saying ‘Hey I’m gonna search here’ they’ll actually use those names as well. Just in the way their AI works, they work a lot more in concert.

In The Last of Us Part I it was mostly like, they search over here and they just try to keep away from each other so they spread out. Now it’s more about, like, ‘How do we cooperate in order to effectively search this place and not lose each other?’ So a lot of times they’re very paired together. With two humans it’s harder to take down one without alerting the other so that adds a lot of challenge to it, and what you end up with are these huge, wide open environments where you still feel like all these enemies are able to eventually flank your position if you’re not careful. Each of the sort of ‘microcosms’ across the environment sort of sets up it’s own little chess board, and you’re like ‘Oh crap I’m getting overwhelmed, I’m gonna run over here, and now I’ve got this other, sort of,chessboard to play with’ So each is designed so you sort of, jump back and forth so you get that intimacy, right? Between the enemies and you, and your mastery of the mechanics, but you still overall have a sense of agency.

Something I noticed about the original The Last of Us is a lot of people who weren’t necessarily gamers really enjoyed playing it, obviously for the story and the characters and everything, but I feel like the general linearity and those really tight encounters you talk about made it a little bit more ‘accessible’ to new players. Is that something you’re thinking about with this and trying not to overwhelm those players too much?

I guess, like, we’re not really changing who we’re targeting here. We think that our game has a really wide appeal, and the game that you played today was on the ‘Normal’ difficulty, which we’re still balancing, but the game will ship with a variety of difficulty settings so that you’ll be able to tailor the challenge to how you want to play. So I think that a wide range of audiences are going to be able to enjoy this game.

So with these two slices of gameplay that we’ve played today, in terms of the overall structure of the game – is it similar to the first game where it’s this very directed narrative or are there any, sort of, more ‘hub’ type open areas?

I don’t want to speak too much of what’s not in the demo but we tend to have a very story/narrative focused direction for our games. We tend to be somewhat linear but on top of that we want to give the player as much agency as possible within those setups.

Something new that I did come across in the demo – The Shamblers. What’s their deal? I hate them so much.

[laughs] They’re wonderful! Especially from a from a game design perspective. Any time we’re designing new enemies, like I was saying with the dogs, we’re always looking at like, ‘Where are there holes that we can fill within the overall scheme of how the enemy challenges the player?’ So the dogs fill a hole of perception, of being able to draw other enemies to you, and they’re also very fast as well. For Shamblers, they’re very armoured, they’re hard to take down, but also as you play the challenge increases more and more because they negate different parts of the environment as they move around, like they have this sort of acid spore cloud that pours out. What that means is essentially I keep getting shunted into smaller and smaller corners and the pressure is going up and up, so even by themselves, and if you played that area where you drop into the basement they can be quite a challenge. When you pair them with, a Runner or two, or a Clicker, they work in this really nice harmony of being able to quickly making it that the environment is a dangerous place to be and it’s really hard to get away from all of them, you know. The Shamblers shove you around the environment, the Clickers are these ‘one hit kills’, extremely dangerous and scary and then the runners can see you and are very fast and can chase you and they all work in tandem.

When I was playing the last part of the second demo area it seemed like the encounters themselves were playing very differently depending on what actions I took compared to what I saw some other people doing. Is that something that’s built into the AI where the encounters change depending on how somebody plays them?

From the very start we’ve always wanted to create combat setups that support any playstyle that you want. So just about every combat encounter you can try to ‘ghost’, which is very difficult but you can definitely sneak past. You can try to run, and that has its own challenges as I’m sure you found. You can sneak through and be as stealthy as possible or you can go out shooting, you know, or you can jump between all of those and so all of those modes of gameplay are things that we really want to have all players jump between. Really kind of figure out, you know, for this particular environment, for these particular enemies, which of those strategies works the best? What do I want to do here? We want the player to always be thinking and realising, ‘Okay I could make this decision and it could be a bad decision but I could always go back on it’ There’s no penalisation for ‘Oh, I break stealth’ because you can just kind of mould it do a different type of gameplay, you know? So the enemies essentially have been built from the ground up to adapt to those different types of gameplay, and sometimes depending on how the player’s doing we help a little with scripting like we’ll maybe spawn some enemies here or there just to support that but for the most part the AI takes care of themselves.

With some of the other PlayStation exclusives that we’ve had this generation and just the sheer level of quality coming from Sony’s World Wide Studios, is there much communication or support between Naughty Dog and those studios for The Last of Us Part II?

I mean we obviously have a back door sort of conversation going, and a lot of times when we start a new project we do a lot of research and part of that research will be talking to our sister studios. Sony Santa Monica is actually really close to where we are so we share a motion capture studio and stuff like that, and of course I think more than anything they’re games really inspire us and we inspire them and it’s a very great relationship that we have with those studios.

Thank you very much for your time Emilia! It’s been great.

Thank you!