The Last of Us Jacob Minkoff E3 interview
By Daniel Rutledge
Easily one of the most exciting games at this year's E3 was Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, which closed out the Sony media briefing with a bang.
To see that bang - which was a shotgun to the head at point blank range - watch the same clip here.
The Last of Us is described by Sony as a "genre-defining experience that blends survival and action elements to tell a character driven tale about a modern plague decimating mankind".
I caught up with the game's lead designer Jacob Minkoff at E3 to get a better idea about what we have to look forward to.
3 News: Uncharted fans can see some similarities with The Last of Us, but the games are clearly very different in tone. How would you describe the differences between the two?
Minkoff: The Last of Us is an extremely grounded game. It’s set in a harsh world where government has broken down, the population is decimated, abandoned cities are being retaken by nature and survivors fighting for basic supplies.
It’s about the story that can be told in this world. I hate to sound really nerdy, but it’s about the human condition.
It’s about when people are pushed to their limits – what does that mean for relationships between people? If everyone you knew died, and everyone you loved and cared about what gone, and you had to fight every day for your basic survival, could you still love someone? Could you still trust?
Then from a gameplay perspective this is our most systems driven game yet and we are developing all sorts of new AI systems.
3 News: Tell me more about the two main characters.
Minkoff: We’re exploring Joel, our main character, who’s an older survivor that has crossed pretty much every moral line he ever had through his basic, harsh survival every day. And he meets this young girl Ellie who he sees this little bit of innocence in, and he wants to protect her and help her and teach her to become more capable.
It’s kind of a father daughter love story, it’s a loyalty thing. That’s what we’re really focussing on in The Last of Us.
3 News: You mentioned the new AI system earlier, tell me more about that.
Minkoff: We’ve got what we call the balance of power AI system, where AI is aware of what the player’s doing. If the player has a gun, they’ll run away and try to hide, but if the enemy has a gun and sees the player is out of ammo, then they’ll approach.
And Ellie is using the same AI, seeing how she can help out. As we saw in the E3 demo she picked up a brick and held onto it till Joel ran out of ammo, then flanked the enemy and helped Joel out. It’s all about these group dynamics and making people act like real human beings.
3 News: So in the gameplay footage we’ve seen at E3, when the enemy advanced on Joel, that only happened because he ran out of ammo?
Minkoff: Correct. The AI will react to you as the player. In this case the player ran out of ammo, and so the AI approached. So if you hadn’t run out of ammo they would have stayed in hiding, or would have tried to flank you or break off. They’ll split up and one will try to draw your attention while the other is flanking you. If Joel hadn’t made the Molotov in that room and thrown it at that guy it would’ve been a completely different sequence that played out.
That’s another thing we’re doing, is we have scavenging mechanics, where you have to go around the environment looking for ingredients that you can use to make different items. So in the stage demo we chose to make a Molotov out of a binding and some alcohol, but those same ingredients could have been used to make a health kit, so you can play offensively or defensively.
3 News: How linear is the gameplay?
Minkoff: What we’re calling is wide linear – we’re telling a linear narrative, but between those linear narrative moments we have wide gameplay possibilities. There’s all sorts of different strategies that the player can use at any time they approach a new situation.
For instance, the player could have stealth passed all of those enemies in the stage demo, they didn’t actually have to engage any of them. But you’re making a choice there, you’re saying well I can stealth pass them, and then my risk is lower, but then I won’t get any supplies.
Those guys were opening drawers, finding things, if somebody finds something in a drawer before you do, then the only way to get it is to get it off their body. So maybe you can sneak around them, but then you’re not going to have as many supplies.
So you have to make this choice – am I going to engage, and take on the risk of battle, but potentially get supplies I need to survive, or am I just going to try to avoid them? So that’s the wide linear thing, all these different flanking paths and strategies that you have when you’re engaging with the balance of power AI.
3 News: Is there a very robust melee system?
Minkoff: Absolutely. There is a very deep melee system – you saw that you can pick up and use different types of weapons, you can use bare hands melee, there’s different types of stealth moves and human shields that you can use.
The melee moves are really interesting because I think one thing that a lot of people have been reacting to is with the way the animation looks. One thing we’re doing there is we’re doing what we call synced melee, which means the characters are both animating together rather than you throw a punch and throw a hit and maybe hopefully somewhere in that arc it connects. As soon as you throw the punch the AI is reacting to you, and they’re going to throw a block that matches your punch.
And we’re also testing all of the geometry around the player at the time. Is there a wall there? Is there a desk there? What can we use to interact with? It’s all contextually sensitive as well, so if you throw a punch against a guy who’s up against a wall, you’ll smash his head into the wall. If you take away his last hit point when he’s near a desk you’ll smash his hand into a desk.
It’s all of these things that look very cinematic and fluid and beautiful, and we have wonderful camera work, but we have systems with dozens and dozens and dozens of different animations.
3 News: A lot of people online have pointed out similarities between The Last of Us and the film The Road. Did you draw inspiration from that?
Minkoff: Well we draw inspiration from all sorts of different places, you know. We had our own desires which drove The Last of Us, we wanted to make a more systems driven game. There was stuff in our previous work where we had collaborated with capable co-op allies, and we wanted to have a game where you’re much more connected to and in fact paired with a co-operative AI ally throughout the game.
Those were things that we wanted to do, but then on top of that we’ve definitely been influenced by other media. Sometimes we’ll just be hiking and we’ll see the way the sun comes through the trees, and we’ll be like 'oh, I totally want to learn how that sub-surface scattering works'.
But yes, things we read and things we see are influences and The Road was certainly one of them. Another film we keep mentioning as an influence is No Country for Old Men. That is a movie where… it’s such a violent movie, but all of the violence is in service of the narrative. It’s all about making you feel for the main character, Llewellyn Moss. He’s in this terrible situation and his life could end at any moment, and that means something. You see how brutal and how violent and how quickly life can be snuffed out in that world, and there’s nearly no music so it’s all about the patient, tense, and then there’s suddenly brutal outbursts of combat. I think that’s one of our big influences.
We are trying to make every shot, every human being feel like they mattered. We actually kind of want you to feel a little bad when you kill somebody, because they’re just another person trying to survive.
In the E3 demo we are in Hunter City where we released the truck ambush cut-scene online a while ago. These guys lure Joel and Ellie off the highway then toss a bus at them, basically, wanting to kill them and take their supplies. So we’re in a hostile area, it’s kill or be killed and we have to do these things to these people, but we still want you to feel that each of these interactions is intimate, they are still human beings.
Then hopefully you feel the bond between Joel and Ellie more by seeing that everyone can die so quickly, you care more for them and say oh, their life is in danger and I need to protect them, and that helps build the bond between the two. So for us, you know, No Country for Old Men was a great influence because it was violence and brutality in service of emotion and narrative and character development.
3 News: Let's end with you summing up what gamers have got to look forward to with The Last of Us.
Minkoff: Well, like I said, it’s an extremely grounded, systems driven game that has a tonne of different player choices in it. I think you’re going to be really excited to see the bond Joel and Ellie build as they travel across the United States seeing all kinds of different iconic environments and meeting new characters. It’s a game we’re really, really excited about and we can’t wait for players to see more of it.
The Last of Us is released exclusively on the PlayStation 3 next year.