“Vengeance,” says Anthony Newman, co-game director of The Last of Us Part II, recalling a theme of the survival horror game releasing this month amid the coronavirus pandemic. “What it means, what the costs are, how much you might have to give up in order to pursue justice and the loss of humanity it entails.”
The developer recently spoke to THR about the “most deeply systemic game Naughty Dog has ever made” and the ways it pushes boundaries creatively, technically and thematically.
Continuing Joel and Ellie’s story from the original 2013 title, the new game “at its core is about humanity,” continues Newman, “and those deeper truths about what makes people do the things they do are only revealed under pressure.” Elaborating, but not delving into any spoilers, he identifies that pressure as being that of “this dire world and the intense consequences for every misstep.” In those moments, the real priorities of certain characters are exposed along with their true nature.
Newman, who became passionate about video games in college when he played first-person shooter Half-Life, goes on to say the pressure, so prevalent in the game, is exactly what makes for an exhilarating combat and gameplay experience. He cites the A.I., which has been further developed in this game to exhibit a broad spectrum of awareness states along with the ability to communicate among one another and to call each other out by name.
“That puts the player in Ellie’s shoes, realizing that they’re fighting against real people who will respond in anguish when their friend dies, but also know that they have an understanding of where you are from a hint as subtle as a glass breaking or a bottle being thrown,” says Newman. “That intelligence of the human enemies heightens the tension and the pressure on both Ellie and the player.”
In Part II, Ellie rather than Joel is the main protagonist, and she sets about pursuing vengeance against people who have wronged the survivors’ settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. As she sets forth on that mission, she suffers the consequences of that reality and internalizes the hardships. “I think what’s great about the game is there’s a kind of fractal structure which each layer — the personal and the global — is centered around expressing this theme of the cycle of violence,” says Newman.
One thing Newman is particularly excited about — which was teased in Sony’s State of Play last week — is that there are two warring factions in postapocalyptic Seattle, where much of the story takes place. “They are locked in this struggle of never-ending retribution, and it has a great cost to both sides, both in terms of loss of life and a high moral penalty,” he says.
Not only will this game be the “grandest in scope” that Naughty Dog has ever attempted, Newman explains that it is also the most intricate systemically. Ellie is able to express herself and interact with her environment, such as squeezing through tight spaces. “This is great because it makes you feel like you’re a real person with arms and legs rather than a cylindrical capsule which you can frequently feel like in a video game,” says Newman. She is also given plenty more options in combat, whether to flank her enemies or evade a clicker who’s about to nab her. She can go “prone” — which means crawling on the ground underneath a car or obstacle — and be knocked to the ground by enemies.
The gameplay, Newman explains, is approached in a way that is intuitive and realistic. “You can get thrown over a countertop, break through some glass, now you’re on the ground, and you can have that Reservoir Dogs-esque moment of aiming up at an enemy above you and trying to save yourself from them.”
As well as being attracted to the game for its powerful story, Newman, who was a combat designer on the first game, emphasizes the tactical elements that drew him to the project. He explains that there is a broad array of options to use, both in how individual combat encounters are tackled — one can approach stealthily, or skip as many enemies as possible and get to the exit, or a combination of both — but additionally, the weapon upgrade system has been overhauled so that each choice feels significant, and many actually unlock new abilities like holding your breath when steadying your aim in order to nail head shots.
“What’s cool about that is that it not only makes you explore, it really makes you bind to Ellie. Because at the end of your playthrough, my Ellie based on my choices could be extremely different from your Ellie, and feeling a greater personal connection through the gameplay choices also makes you link up with her emotionally,” he says.
Speaking of emotional notes, the romance between Ellie and Dina, Newman explains, introduces a new dimensionality to Ellie — not only is she an agile, tenacious fighter, but the moments of tenderness expose an extremely authentic relationship. “There’s so many moments between Ellie and Dina that remind me of moments I’ve had with my own wife in our early courtship,” he says.
He adds that Dina is a very capable fighter in her own right, and so when she’s involved in these combat situations with Ellie she’s very much her equal in terms of abilities. “She can rescue you when an infected has you up against a wall, and she’s able to use a variety of weapons just like the player is, so you have this feeling of, not only is this someone I care about emotionally, but as you’re interacting in these scenarios, you’re feeling a utility in combat. That marriage of the plot and the gameplay heightens her importance to you as a character.”
Heading toward the launch, Newman — who recently played through the 30-hour game and experienced every element in its absolute polished state — acknowledges that it’s a little “eerie” to be dropping the game amid a real-life pandemic. But, he clarifies, the pandemic in The Last of Us world is much more of a backdrop to the story of these characters than it is the story of the game.
“The pandemic was 25 years ago from the time that you start playing, and really this is a ruined world where everyone is really under pressure to survive,” he says. “It’s a beautifully ruined world, where nature is starting to reclaim the city of Seattle and the outskirts of Jackson in this combination of the dark terror of the infected threat, mixed with the lush beauty of a river running through where a highway used to be or a deer scampering off as you’re searching an abandoned building for supplies.”
Recalling an early memory from his video game past, Newman remembers a scripted moment from Half-Life when a huge monster begins terrorizing people: “For the first time, it was like, this unique moment is actually playable. Traditionally, that type of moment would be a flat, non-interactive cut scene.” Bringing it back to the DNA of Naughty Dog and specifically The Last of Us Part II, Newman alludes to a key factor: having deep control in those story moments.
Looking to the future of games, Newman continues to draw creative inspiration from how the arts have advanced through history — black-and-white films and then color, the written word and then comics, films and then games. He acknowledges that there are still plenty of new horizons in terms of a sense of presence or a sense of smell or tactile feedback, but to him, the most critical one is interactivity.
“If you look at fantasies about a simulation of real life that is so immersive that you have trouble divorcing it from reality, at their core — whether it’s Holodek [the fictional device from Star Trek where characters interact with virtual reality environments] or Westworld, these are games,” he says, “And I can’t imagine a more exciting thing to explore than a media that can so thoroughly simulate every dimension of our actual lives.”