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Episode 107

The Indoor Kids

The Last of Us with Bruce…

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The Indoor Kids #107: “The Last of Us” with Bruce Straley

Today the Indoor Kids are joined by the Game Director of The Last of Us, Bruce Straley, a guy who has been with Naughty Dog for many years, to discuss everything about directing a video game, the challenges of a game like The Last of Us, character development, and much much more. We loved this interview.

**SPOILER ALERT: AT 51:30-1:10:20 ABOUT END OF GAME**

GAMES:

Lots of Naughty Dog games including Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot, Crash Team Racing, and The Last of Us. Also Resident Evil 4 and Ico.

MOVIES:

No Country For Old Men, Jurassic Park, There Will Be Blood, and Tremors.

TV:

Planet Earth and Life

COMICS:

The Last of Us: American Dreams

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Follow @indoorkids, @kumailn, and @thegynomite on Twitter! And email us at theindoorkidspodcast@gmail.com!

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24 comments

  • Let me just say thank you to Bruce for producing such a difficult interactive story with an even more difficult ending. The fact it hasn’t produced a reaction like ME3 is a testament to their fantastic use of both foreshadowing and character building.

    Brav-(the frick)-O.

  • Do you remember how proud Ken Levine and company were when they discussed the AI of Elizabeth, and how she interacts with her environment, especially in Battleship Bay? They featured a whole video showing off her AI patterns and the things she does as she moves through her environment. While I love BioShock: Infinite immensely, I think it’s interesting how Naughty Dog didn’t really tout the AI of Ellie in the game, yet her AI is 1000 times more complex as Elizabeth’s (which you guys touched on a bit). Her random environment interactions were scripted so incredibly realistically; her reactions after a particular vicious beat down, the way she crawls under Joel’s arm when they hide behind environment assets, all the hidden dialogue… it was sheer splendor. People throw the word ‘genius’ around a lot, but I truly think Ellie’s AI was completely fucking genius. I’ve never felt a more realistic AI as far as character and she emanates such a concrete feeling of presence and self that I feel she is one of the best fleshed out video game characters EVER. The only problem was how the good guy AI was completely ignored by the bad guy AI, but that’s a problem with ALL escort-type games so it’s not their fault…

    I’m probably going to post several times in this thread, because this game… oh, God… Naughty Dog is always amazing, but Jesus Christ this game knocked it out of the park. I am already salivating to see what these guys do on the new hardware.

  • This is the first game you went all spoiler about that I will most likely never play. (When you do these types of episodes I listen to them later after playing the game.) Partly because of Zombie fatigue (i am tired of the theme as it is in board games, video games, and movies). But the bigger reason is because I don’t have a PS3. I can only really afford one system. I have a 360. Sounds like a mostly cool game. I’d love to try an Uncharted Game, but again not going to happen at the moment.

  • @Josh this game isn’t really a ‘zombie’ game. It’s more like The Walking Dead (the TV show, not the video game), in that it’s more about man’s inhumanity to man in a post-apocalyptic setting where there are virtually no laws. You are really only fighting the Infected about half the time; the rest of the time you’re fighting gangs and individuals just trying to get food and weapons, like you are.

    The game is simply an intense lesson in pathos. That’s the reason people who’ve played this game come away feeling emotionally sapped. It is bleak, for sure, but the story is so compelling and so well voice-acted (especially by Troy Baker as Joel – after his Booker DeWitt, and now this, he might be my frontrunner; sorry Nolan North!), that it is without a doubt an experience wholly unforgettable in video games.

  • This game hit me in a really hard way. I’ve always valued story over gameplay, but never really thought about how playing a game could make you care about a character so much. I loved Ellie and she’s probably one of my favorite characters of any story videogame or not. Halariously, the thing that affected me most was a coincidence. I am fourteen years old, and my name is Riley. I just sort of spaced out for the rest of the cutscene and had to look the rest of it up on youtube. Thanks for the great episode, it’s one of the best in my opinion!

  • *SPOILERS* – I’m so glad that Bruce asked how you felt while playing through those last moments of carrying Ellie through the hospital. Obviously I was pretty shaken to begin with, but I actually took a wrong turn and ran into a group of soldiers who in a terribly moving cut scene took Ellie away from Joel and shot him to death as he pleaded for her back. Not knowing that I had taken a wrong turn, the cut scene was done so well that I actually assumed that THIS WAS THE ENDING OF GAME. It was incredibly upsetting, but it kind of felt justified as I had just performed horrible acts myself.

    Needless to say, I was very surprised when I suddenly respawned and was running down the hallways of the hospital again. Overall, I loved the ending of the game, but I think that Joel dying in the hospital is the only other satisfying ending they could have come up with.

  • @Aaron Thank you for the additional insight.

    I might very enjoy it. I wonder if I would have been more excited for it, if it didn’t seem to be released with a couple of other recent zombie releases.

    i do like getting strong attachments to my characters in games.

    Like I said I would love to have played Uncharted or at least try this game but I don’t have a PS3.

  • @Aaron First of all, great name. Secondly, very well-said. Infected, zombies, whatever. The game is about what makes us human when we strip away all the nonsense. This game gives the answer – the ugly parts and the inherently good.

    @Joshua If you were to grab a PS3 in a year or two once the price has dropped significantly enough, I’d recommend grabbing Uncharted 2 first. If you loved the storytelling aspect of that game, then get The Last of Us (obviously all the Uncharted’s are fun, but 2 is best). TLOU is different from Uncharted, but they both put a high priority on character development and good storytelling in a way that is uncommon for games. The only thing in the same ballpark for me was the Mass Effect series.

  • I am an Xbox and PC man. But for this game I borrowed a PS3 from one mate, the game from another and at the last minute had to even find a 3rd friend to borrow a controller from, all just to play this game that looked incredible.

    I spent a weekend playing through this and loved every moment. Honestly I think it’s a masterpiece. The actual gameplay element itself may not have been original but the sheer level of immersion was just incredible. I’ve never had so many wow moments in one game.

    Such a well told story, now I have no idea how I am going to play the DLC… crap. Ha ha.

  • First off, I don’t get how people can keep saying that a game that features “Fungus-virus zombies” is not in B-movie terrain. I mean, I understand that for a videogame the story here is really good. But compared to entertainment (movies, comics, literature) as a whole, even this is still just a B-movie story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just stop pretending we’ve reached literature.

    Second, and this is more about games in general not just Last of us, I’m kind of getting sick of all the post-apocalyptic stories being set in the US. See, if I search every home in my neighborhood the strongest weapon I’d find would be electric garden-tools, kitchen knives, etc. A game set in Europe would not be about killing, but about survival (finding food, not dying from exposure, handling wounds and illnesses). Yes, that would make the game much darker and probably more cerebral, but that might just be a good thing.

    Third (again more of a general comment on games), I’m also getting kind of sick of the “Mad Max” apocalypse in games. History has shown that in earth shattering situations (cultural collapses, natural disasters, wars) people will instinctively try to rebuild some semblance of society. Yes, you’ll have your madmen, but most will try to hang on to their old lives. Something rarely seen in these kinds of games.

  • @Peter, rather than broadly relegating STORIES into alphabet lists, it is more productive to assign alphabets to execution. Quentin Tarantino took a shit on many haughtier yet hackier artists with Pulp Fiction. Shakespeare did the same with Romeo and Juliet.

    History does not provide as clear an argument as you might think. You might be exposed to survivorship bias, which would be enhanced by geometric population growth. When successful societies propagate, they tend to do so in historically large amounts, i.e. the world is at a peak population and will probably be so in 20 years, and 20 years again, etc… That can create a bias that social groups will always recover regardless of the form of external shock. But then we don’t have the details of the end of the Myceneans and the Minoans. We can only guess what happened on Roanoke Island. It’s too much to assume that, regardless of the type of exogenous shock, society will slowly revert to the pre-shock era. More likely, there will be some path dependency, but when the old leviathan fades, the path to a new leviathan is bloody.

  • Love you guys but I’m going to have to leave this one until after I’ve played the game! Not technically a spoiler, but even hearing about moments like Joel explaining the coffee shop is something I’d rather experience myself. Really looking forward to getting back to this after I’ve played it though.

  • @aaron uhhh number two. Is there any other games you would suggest for PS3? I might get the PS3 when it gets insanely cheap. it is high praise for me to compare it to the Mass Effect Series. I love that series. I had a PS1 and PS2. What got me to switch those years ago to X360 were the games. The first Bioshock and Mass Effect. Those are still one of my favorite games.

  • @Joshua: What am I, chopped liver?! Just kidding.

    I’d be willing to bet, come the PS4 release around November, you’ll find kids with no jobs willing to sell their old PS3s on craigslist for a song. I’d wait until then to grab one.

    Then, you’re going to want to go immediately to the Playstation Store and buy the game “Journey”. Thank me later.

  • @Joshua: I want to be clear. I’m not comparing the Naughty Dog games to the ME series as much as I’m drawing a comparison to the level of quality. I just think both Uncharted/TLOU and ME are fully realized creations unto themselves on a level that elevated my standards for what video games can be.

    @Aaron Pierson: Clearly the hierarchy of Aaron’s has been established. : p And Journey is another awesome recommendation.

  • @Peter: Not sure if you’re trolling, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt…

    To address your first paragraph… Who’s suggesting games have reached literature? Games are games, books are books. Cite your source, please because I didn’t hear anyone say anything like that.

    But about the B-movie thing: sure, one can be reductive and boil the game down to a simple one line descriptor. But that descriptor being that it is a B-movie plot is incorrect. All of you guys need to get off the ‘zombie’ thing… they are the catalyst for the events, indeed… but they are not the story here. This is a character journey of how Joel finally forgives himself for the loss of his daughter 20 years earlier. If you had played the game you’d realize there is much more exploring the environment while getting to know Ellie and meeting new characters with their own unique stories than actual zombie-combat. Stop being so reductive and judgmental of something you only know from what you’ve gleaned off of a few game combat trailers.

    Second Paragraph: I’m just going to say “Metro:Last Light” and “Metro 2033″. Two games (the prior just released in May) based off of critically acclaimed novels, focusing on a post-apocalyptic society in… wait for it… Russia.

    Third paragraph: Again, it’s obvious you did not play this game. There are no Mad Max elements to it at all (e.g. you don’t see crazy people driving around in war-outfitted vehicles, nor do you see people fashioning clothing out of car parts). You will craft a few makeshift weapons from less-than-optimal parts, but that hardly makes you Mel Gibson. If anything, this game feels (in its environment) exactly like the movie “I am Legend” with foliage growing everywhere as nature reclaims the forgotten cities. In the game, people in fact are rebuilding the world as best they can. That’s why everyone lives in ‘safe’ quarantine zones and have ration tickets for meals. It is an improvised system to keep society functioning… it is hardly battle on the highways.

  • @al Sure we don’t know for sure how an apocalyptic scenario would play out. We do however have lots of data of more recent events (the tsunami in Asia, both World Wars, nuclear meltdowns, but we could even go back to the black plague) that show people’s reactions as being aimed at restoration.

    @aaron I’m not trolling, but you may have misunderstood my meaning. First note that at no point do I say anyone has said it was literature. What I meant by my first statement was that we, as gamers, tend to lift up stories that seem to stand out from other games. Like the Bioshock series or The Last Of Us. And these stories do stand out. However, they only really stand out because the rest is … well … shit. The stories like The Last Of Us and Bioshock (I say Bioshock and obviously mean both the first game as well as Infinite) should be the norm. The games that stand out should be able to compete with the story telling of other more matured fields (like movies and literature). Having said that, I still believe that if you placed games with outstanding stories within their genres (Bioshock in the sci-fi genre and Last Of Us in the Horror genre, for instance) they will still fall in the below average group unfortunately. (this does not, by the way, mean that I think these games aren’t still brilliant games, this is merely looking at it from a story telling standpoint)

    As for your second comment, I did not say all games take place in the US, but let’s be honest most do. I’m just hoping for a good post-apocalyptic game where fighting madmen and monsters isn’t the main goal. I’m guessing that placing the story in, say, Belgium or the Netherlands or Denmark, etc. would create a good setting for this.

    My third comment actually mentioned that it wasn’t really about The Last Of Us, but games in general. Due to the fact that a shooter is an easy to implement mechanic (mostly because it has been done so much) a lot of games opt for game mechanics involving shooting (this is true for The Last Of Us, the Metro games, just about every zombie game, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Alan Wake, Bioshock). When I refer to Mad Max I obviously don’t mean that world literally. I mean a story where the main plot device is combat (and this is to a point true for The Last Of Us as well, since you can carry around quite some firepower and a lot of conflict is/can be resolved by putting bullets in it). Again, I’m mostly hoping for a post-apocalyptic game that doesn’t take that same route just because it’s easy.

  • The Last of Us is a masterpiece. It feels like such a cohesive, singular vision. The gameplay, the visuals, the acting, the soundtrack… it all snap together amazingly well. A real testament to the team at Naughty Dog. I could quibble over the gameplay/story balance, there were maybe one or two fights that felt a little forced into the plot, but I was pretty much fully engaged throughout.

    Bruce spoke a bit about the seriousness the team approaches storytelling and it shows. Joel and Ellie aren’t just great characters “for a video game,” they are great period. The emotional gut punches throughout the game land so hard because these characters feel real. I think there’s a real maturity to the way the plot plays out and it’s exemplified by that ending. Holy cow. I couldn’t shake that ending after I turned it off, and the more I thought about it the more I liked it. Can’t wait to see what this team does next.

  • @Aaron P … you are not chopped liver. No way, Jose. @Aaron number 2 again thanks for the clarification.

    I really love Mass Effect series.

    i will remember that Aaron is a name for a helpful dude. Thanks again.

    I will keep Journey in mind if I find a super cheap price.

  • *SPOILERS*

    I absolutely loved the end of The Last of Us.

    After finishing it I really wanted to see what others thought about the game and looked around for stuff that’d been said about it.

    What I found was a little frustrating.

    Though most folks praised the game to high heaven, almost all seemed to fall in line with Kumail’s original anger at Joel and his actions in the end. The words “villain” and “selfish” kept coming up over and over.

    I just want to give my own take, not that the internet gives a shit, but maybe, just maybe, someone else with a similar take will feel a little catharsis in reading this. It sucks when you think you’re the only one that “gets it”. The podcast touched on a lot of what I was thinking, especialy Bruce, who I’m sure isn’t interested in telling people what they’re supposed to think about the ending, and yes, it’s open to interpretation, but at the same time, come on, obviously he and Neil and others had *something* in mind. Anyway, here goes. Apologies for it being kind of disjointed and ramblee.

    The Last of Us is filled to the brim with people doing nasty shit to each other.
    People, like the hunters, prey on the vulnerable and justify this as “doing what it takes to survive”.
    Similarly, people murder for “the greater good”. See the Fireflies.
    Sometimes people abandon each other to possibly grizzly fates rather than risk their own lives by trying to help. Joel in the Prologue. Henry later.
    People violently defend themselves when others try to make them into prey. Like the first group, they’re killing to survive, but much more so since they are literally fighting to prevent their own murders. See Joel and Ellie throughout.
    People seek vengeance on each other for what they think are past wrongs. David’s people, if not David himself.
    While each of these actions can end in nasty and brutal things happening to other people, I think that not all of these actions are morally equivalent.
    What’s interesting is, how many of these directly involve the infection?
    How many of the problems infesting the world of The Last of Us are largely attributable to humanity’s willingness to sacrifice others for “survival”, or to shrug and look the other way when their fellows are in need? How much of the problems at this point come from the infected, vs, uninfected guys with guns?
    By the time the game ends, the infected are basically just a mindless inconvenience. Go around them, or trick them into bunching up and toss a molotov. Whatever. They kind of stop being scary.
    The virus was the trigger, but mankind’s selfishness and lack of compassion is its true undoing. Joel’s “just drive on, just drive over them” mentality at the beginning of the game it turns out is hardly unique to him, and we see what sort of world 20 years of this thinking and worse can engender.
    We are told that in those years, Joel has lived on “both sides” of the hunter/prey divide. For our part in the game, Joel pretty much only kills in self defense. He takes out people that are trying to take him out. Of course, the world being what it is, we can’t really blame people for assuming Joel is a threat. It’s a dangerous world. Better safe than sorry. It’s basically the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes taken to an horrific, personal level. The fungus is killing to survive, and so, apparently, is everyone else. When 2 strangers meet out in the wilds there is a good chance that they are going to try to kill each other whether either of them really want to or not.
    Yet there are a few oasis of decency, kindness, and self sacrifice amidst all of this. Henry and Sam. Henry’s decision to abandon Joel isn’t nobel prize material, but it isn’t murder, either. Ish sounds like a great dude. His “fuck it, what’s life without people to laugh at your dumb jokes”…THAT is who you want with you when shit goes down! His little (eventually doomed) sewer community is like a mini version of the burgeoning community being rebuilt by Joel’s brother, which is presented as perhaps the most hopeful, idyllic thing in the game. Ellie and her willingness to repeatedly risk her own life to save Joel. These last stubborn little clinging bits of decency, these are IMO humanity’s true hope, not some vaccine. Though a vaccine certainly would help!
    Don’t get me wrong; obviously it’d be a hell of a lot easier for people to not treat each other like shit without all those blood thirsty zombies and zombie creating spores all over the place. But it’s not like a vaccine is going to wipe out all poverty and disease and solve all of mankind’s problems forever. Maybe 10 years later a new pandemic will come along and make Ellie’s “sacrifice” seem worthless. I mean, for thousands of years people have been butchering each other left and right, and that was before the infection.
    Joel is damaged goods. When we meet him after the prologue, we see that he’s learned to keep himself guarded and emotionally unavailable. This holds especially with Ellie; he probably feels he’s somehow betraying his daughter’s memory if he allows himself to in any way grow close to this new girl. He has survived by being ruthless and brutal and by out-fucking-over anyone that steps to him. But by the end of the game he’s grown to care for Ellie immensely. He loves her, and she loves him, and they’d both die for each other. I think that he also maybe begins to agree with Tess’s assessment about him and her being “shitty people”. He knows he was wrong to have preyed on the vulnerable. That justifying his actions as “doing what it takes to survive” was some pretty vile shit. That not murdering innocent people is basically always the right thing to do.
    Speaking of murdering innocent people, the Fireflies never ask Ellie to sacrifice herself in order to cure the infection.  She probably would have agreed to do it, but she was never asked. So what they are doing is murdering her.
    What if Ellie was being butchered just to grant immunity to 1 person, instead of a general vaccine?  
    Would that be just?
    What about 2 people?  3?  
    At what point does it become ok for you to “sacrifice” others regardless of their own will, for the “greater good”? Is murdering someone when you are starving, so that you can eat them and take all their stuff really justified? Is it really morally identical to murdering someone that is trying to murder you and take all your stuff?  What about murdering someone to prevent the likely future deaths of lots of other future people?  Is it moral to engage in arithmetic with human lives, wherein minus one over here but plus seven over here evens out? It seems likely that as long as people are willing to murder each other for noble sounding reasons that fall short of actual, literal, self defense, the world will remain a pretty fucked up place.
    Will curing the infection make everything better?  Are there other ways of dealing with the infection, that don’t involve murdering Ellie? Joel’s brother seems to think so.  
    If I try to kidnap and murder your daughter, regardless of my reasons, how would you react? I think one of the points that the game really nails, is that when it’s you or someone you care about getting “sacrificed” by others, regardless of the supposed nobility of their reasons, you’re like “fuck you.” Killing or fucking over innocent people always, always is horrible for those people. You might think it’s just, but don’t expect them to go along with it.
    I understand that it’s not an easy moral question. Would you murder 1 innocent (and in this case awesome) girl to potentially save the lives of millions? Opinions may vary, but I think an argument can be made that, you go down that road, you’re kind of a piece of shit. Because you fucking murdered someone. Fuck you and your reasons. Denying the Fireflies their chance at the vaccine may result in many many more infections down the road, but that’s not quite the same as actively murdering those people. There are other ways to combat the infection.
    Of course Joel probably wasn’t thinking half this shit. He was like, “you are not killing Ellie. Fuck you.” But either way I think he’s kind of in the right, personally.
    Anyway, mad props to Naughty Dog.  What a game!