A couple of weeks ago I went to Auckland for the New Zealand launch of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s last hurrah for the PlayStation 3. I was lucky enough to chat to game designer Ricky Cambier. Here’s a condensed version of our interview (I’ve edited out stuff that didn’t seem to add much to the interview). Enjoy.
I’m playing the game at the moment and narratively, it’s one of the most harrowing and compelling games I’ve played. Naughty Dog really knows how to create moving and believable characters.
Ricky Cambier: “Yeah. That even came up a little bit last night in a conversation [Cambier was in Australia before flying to Auckland], where we were doing this panel discussion and people were taking about that. I think there’s almost Naughty Dog DNA.
“You go back to Crash [Bandicoot] and you can see some Crash in Uncharted, you can see some Jak [from Jak and Daxter]. You start to see us exploring ideas and take it to its potential then be like, ‘You know what about this?’.
“I guess you could say that The Last of Us came out of a sequence in Uncharted 2, where in part of it you have Nathan Drake [the hero in the Uncharted series] partnering with this character called Tensin [a Nepalese guide].
“It was just a couple of chapters where you were solving these puzzles, but it was really cool because you didn’t share the same language. So you had this different perspective. But a bond was formed – at first they didn’t really know or trust each other – and we remembered how much that resonated and we liked that.
“So just as an idea, we thought we’d explore something like that over the course of a game: Bring two people together who are from different perspectives, who don’t really know each other, who don’t really trust each other at the start, and work out how we could grow a relationship between them during the game play.”
I guess the big difficulty for a game like this is that you’ve got two characters, but you don’t want one of them becoming a burden on the other. You don’t want it to become just a huge escort mission. So what was the thinking so that it would not become a traditional escort mission?
“Ah, be aware of that from the very beginning and to understand that. We’re gamers, we know, we don’t want to play that game, right? So we’re going to make the game we want to play.
“This meant taking a look at our buddy AI system, our ally AI system and be, like, ‘OK, we’ve got to define some goals for Ellie so she can feel like another person trying to survive out there’.
“She’s only 14, but she’s more capable than you’d expect.”
The post-apocalyptic environment is fairly common in video games, so I guess you had to be cautious not to fall into the traps other games did?
“We made it so we could explore the themes we wanted to explore and it becomes an interesting backdrop.
“So you have this essentialised society, because it’s no longer about our day to day. It’s about surviving. So people are forced to make interesting choices about how to meet their needs.
“This person wants to be alone, this person wants to be in a group and then you get to fill in this world, which just becomes the backdrop.”
Something that amazed me – I think it was the section where Joel and Ellie arrive in Lincoln looking for Bill and Ellie comes across fireflies – was that Ellie behaved in ways you would expect a 14-year-old to behave. What was your thinking behind creating that believability?
“Talking one time with Neil Druckmann [the game’s creative director], he said something like, ‘Just make an interesting character. It doesn’t always matter about gender or age, just make someone interesting’.
“It doesn’t really matter if you’re 14. I remember the first time I saw fireflies.
“This is the first time I’ve been to New Zealand – my head was sticking out the window, looking around and stuff, and I’m not 14 – but it’s that sense of wonder and it becomes a really important part of this world where everyone has forgotten wonder.”
Now, am I right that the fungal infection that has hit the population in The Last of Us is based on some real-world fungal infection?
“Yeah, it comes from watching the Planet Earth series with David Attenborough – an amazing series – but there is a section where we go into the Amazon and he’s talking about these insects, about this strain of that infects an insect and then some amazing things happen, where the fungus alters the behaviour of the insect, so it essentially mind controls it.
“So the ant now leaves the hive area and finds a place beneficial to the fungus so it can grow and spread. The insect bites down really hard on a leaf or something, attaches itself to it, then the fungus starts to grow out of the insect, killing it and sprouting out and infecting other insects – and we haven’t started to make anything up yet!
“This happens in our world. This is real.
“As a designer, you look to the real world to see what you can use, so it was: ‘What would happen if I applied this to my craft?’ and ‘What would happen if a strain jumped to mankind?’
“Then we got to play and imagine how it could change a person’s behaviour – how it could evolve.”
You have a theatre background, so how did you use that background in the game?
“For me, we’re telling a story in a pretty long format, so pacing is always key.
“In theatre and in any storytelling where you want to capture someone’s attention, pacing is critical to create those high and low moments.”