I had the chance to talk to Jakob Minkoff, lead designer on The Last of Us, and was keen to discover what made Naughty Dog tick. Was there more to the studio behind Uncharted than cinematic violence and a quick quipping protagonists?
From the teaser announcement, the tone of The Last of Us was immediately darker. Library footage of riots quick-cut with burning cities felt uncomfortably close to scenes from recent newsreels. Whatever this game was about, it set its sights high, seemingly intent on addressing topics of society, survival and salvation.
Since then we have seen rendered footage, live game play and cut-scenes that offer a better idea of what the game proper will be like. Mechanics-wise this is Uncharted, albeit a gun-starved, more gritty version of Nate, Sully, Chloe and Elena’s world.
I asked Minkoff how The Last of Us was different, and interestingly it was the the people in the game he instinctively talked about. “It’s a personal emotional journey between two characters: Joel, an older survivor, and Ellie, a young teenage girl, who has grown up in a harsh world.” Although this may not sound like the most obvious territory for a videogame, it’s not unusual for Naughty Dog who focused their talk about Uncharted as much on story as on the action. “She’s his chance for redemption,” continued Minkoff, “and that is what this is about — a father-daughter love story of loyalty and redemption.”
This is the big challenge for The Last of Us, though, slated for release on December 31 on Amazon. Can they marry the story of personal salvation to the action in the game, while at the same time taking the narrative to interesting and unexpected places?
The danger is that for all the effort to interweave the shooting, exploration, survival moments and storytelling, the characters won’t have a genuine arc that an adult can relate to — they won’t escape the prescribed limits of what happens in a videogame. I found this in Uncharted, games I’ve played many times over and rate among my favorites, but they never quite delivered for me in terms of character development: Nate never really questions himself and the ending is never in doubt. For all the tension in the narrative, a new wave of enemies arrives and the shooting continues.
I asked Minkoff how they resolve the tension between the shooting and action elements with the more human story. “One of the reasons why we created the world of The Last of Us was to create a brutal harsh environment where you buy the stakes of what these characters are up against. The person you are killing is someone who would kill you for a few bullets and a bottle of alcohol.” Certainly from what we’ve already seen of the game, it looks like they are on track to achieve this.
“It’s been very important to create a story where the violence is in service of the larger narrative and the moral goals and the emotion. We were very influenced by the movie No Country for Old Men, which is a very brutal, violent movie, but it’s all about the human condition about what real people do to survive. We want you to feel that all the people in this world are real people trying to survive.”
Here is the biggest potential weakness for The Last of Us. Is the violence really going to be in service of the narrative, or has the narrative defaulted to one where violence is always necessary? While it is great to hear Minkoff talking about films as inspiration for the game, it feels that a videogame’s reliance on violence for its action may eclipse more interesting story directions the game could take.
While a film like No Country for Old Men is similarly if not more violent, it provides space for its protagonists to escape the violence if they so wish. Retaliation isn’t the only option, even with such an unrelenting pursuer. I would relish the thought of Joel renouncing all the violence halfway through the game in favor of an entirely different way to meaningfully survive.
I asked Minkoff whether Joel is able to find a way forward without perpetuating the violence. “No, no no, because now he’s [Ellie’s] protector he’s teaching her to survive in a harsh world. He’s making her more and more capable so she is able to fight off the things she needs to fight off in this brutal world.” It seems a shame that all Joel has to offer Ellie is survival, a perpetuation of kill or be killed. Has this aspect of the game been dictated by assumptions and limitation of what video games are, rather than the story or emotional journey that Naughty Dog wants to create for the player?
Minkoff pushes back though, and underlines how seriously they take the killing in the game. “When you kill someone in the game we want you to feel remorse. That’s why we make the enemies feel human because we want you to understand that human life matters. You are forced to kill someone because there’s no other choice, but that is never a good thing.”
He also suggests that you can avoid shooting in the game to some extent, although it seems unlikely to be an ongoing option. “You can avoid combat, sneaking around guys. It’s a risk-reward. If I avoid combat I’ll be safer but I’ll give up these supplies.”
It’s a well thought through perspective, and an approach to game development that typifies how far games have come from mindless shooting. “We want to handle the violence responsibly. Games get the mature rating but they are not mature, they are still handling the violence in a very silly immature way. We are trying to earn the word mature.”
However, maturity is not only about handling complex subjects like death and violence and sexuality with respect, but finding space to imagine previously un-thought of ways to move these topics forwards. I applaud Naughty Dog for the care and attention they lavish on their characters, game play and story — something that sets them apart from other developers. But until they manage to escape the limitations of current video game thinking, the experiences they deliver will be marked as much by their predictability as anything else. Fingers crossed, The Last of Us is the moment they escape these pitfalls.
The Last of Us is available to pre-order from Amazon for $59.99.
The Uncharted games are available from Amazon from $19.99.