Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Design choices: 'The Last of Us'

[accessed 26th February 2014]

Although I have not played 'The Last of Us' (the reason being it is out exclusively for the PS3) I came across this enlightening documentary about Naughty Dog Studios and their journey in creating a brand new IP.

The only initial premise when the studio set out to create a new game, was that they wanted something post apocalyptic. They began by looking at the book 'The World Without Us' by journalist Alan Weisman, which explores what would happen to our surroundings if humans were to suddenly disappear. Apparently water is pumped out of the New York Subway systems daily and if this were to stop, within a mere two days the streets would flood, causing vegetation to grow around the buildings. Lots of the research into how temples ruin undertaken for Naughty Dog's 'Uncharted' game series was applied to modern urban surroundings in 'The Last of Us'. This discussion of how nature consumes unmaintained urban environments shows the importance of research in creating a believable world. This comes through strongly in the concept art phase, where concept artist Aaron Limonick discusses water damage and the shifts in colour through vegetation's lifespan. Similarly to the narrative in 'I am Legend' this virtual world adopts the idea that animals have perhaps escaped from zoos and re-colonised the now rich consumed urban surroundings. There is a constant balance in this IP between beauty and suspense:

As mentioned in the title of this post, I am really interested in the design choices that determine narrative and playability. There is a constant 'Ying and Yang' relationship between how the story reads, and the game being fun and immersive. Initially the team wanted to keep the game grounded in reality, meaning that the idea of a zombie survival game was rejected. However, the idea of an infection and macabre creature-like enemies was eventually brought back in. This presents the team with the challenge of creating a whole new alien enemy. Many great design ideas come from nature, and the infection in 'The Last of Us' is inspired by the Cordyceps Fungi:

[accessed 24th february 2014]

This fungi infects insects, destroying their brains and sprouting fungi from their bodies which then spread spores, further infecting their population. Their are thousands of different species of the fungi, each specialising in one species of insect. The design team with Naughty Dog established different phases of the human infection. The final phases involve the face splitting into brutal fungi like caps. This presented the team with the question: How do they navigate if most of their facial sensors have been torn apart by the infection? The answer was to have them echolocate like Bats. This also added to the IP, giving the enemies a chilling and distinctive clicking sound as they stalk their surroundings.

Again, this theme of fungi added to the balance between beauty and terror. The final stage of the infection where enemies die and grow into their surroundings often add a sense of vibrance to the virtual environments, illustrated by this concept art piece:

There are stronger examples of the fungus adding saturated colours to the environment around the fifteen minuet mark of the 'Grounded: making of' video

Although this relates more to the game's narrative and written elements as oppose to aesthetic design choices, a final point that 'The Last of Us' appears to be notable for is its refusal follow convention, particular when it comes to the portrayal of female characters. Sadly in gaming, female roles are usually put in to place to act as overly-sexualised damsels in distress or love interests for the strong male protagonist. This Game however shows signs of strong female characters making crucial calls, particularly with the dual protagonist role of a young teenage girl. A scene is discussed where young protagonist 'Ellie' stumbles across a girls diary while exploring her abandoned bedroom. She criticises the trivial superficial worries expressed in the words, in comparison to the harsh world she is having to navigate through.

This shows promising signs, as perhaps with 'The Last of Us' setting the standards, AAA titles will be challenged to break convention and look for deeper more philosophical and even liberal narratives in their titles. Perhaps in the future we will look back at some of our recent titles to this date, and see them in same light as exploitative pulp media of decades past. This prospect is very exciting for someone like me hoping to work in the industry.

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