Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Last of Us: A Masterclass in Game Design

…and I am back ! …after a week of being submerged in a world so captivating, soothing, disturbing, thrilling, challenging, intoxicating, mesmerizing and so magical that returning from it to the real world leaves me just wanting to go right back into it :)! I am talking about absolutely stellar game by Naughty Dog called The Last of Us ! Need I say more? Its time to dive in .......:)

The review scores all around had already prepared us all for a great game but the game’s geatness is far beyond what can be just measured by review scores or journalist reviews. This is a labour of love, a tale as much of the two protagonists as it is of the absolutely fabulous team of people who conceived it and brought it to life. Each and every room, scene, dialogue, expression and sound has a story to tell, and exists as a robust and independent entity supporting the other entities as aptly as possible. To find faults in this game is a waste of time, not because they are obvious or because there are none, but because that time will be much better spent in appreciating and learning from what the game has successfully achieved ! The game is what I would call a masterclass in game making and game design. Each level, each dialogue and each game mechanic has a specific and precise purpose and combined together they create a very specific mood which you cannot miss or not feel.

Since there are so many learning experiences in this game and each element interdependent on others , its difficult to put them in points, but lets try to list them in a bit of organized manner:
  • Building a bond with the characters using gameplay: The biggest marvel of The Last of Us is its ability to make you feel for and cry for the characters within its first 10 minutes of game time ! Yes, stories and games make you go through hours of cut scenes, tears and extremes to make you feel sadness or love for a character. Shadow of The Colossus made you feel for Agro, but it took half of the game to forge that bond. MGS3 made your throat choke, but it took the full game to set you up for that end scene but the Last of Us accomplishes it in 10 minutes ! How? I think the answer lies in the apt use of gaming medium itself. First of all, the very first character you play as is Sarah ! Not Joel but Sarah. Its a brief segment, but it makes the player instantly connect with her. Had she been just a cutscene character there would haven't been the same impact of her death on the player. They used the medium,the controller, the ability to be a character in a game to intensify the impact manifold. Also, you watch all hell break lose as Sarah, as a victim, but as soon as the fear or tension starts building up and you feel the need to act, as a gamer, they instantly shift you to playing as Joel, the Dad, the guardian. You carry her in your hands through the apocalypse. You feel the fear as Sarah but you act as her Dad, so you are the victim but the responsibility is also yours. That controller in your hand ensures you feel that whatever will happen will be a result of my actions. And you do it, you save her and take her away from harm, a satisfaction in your heart and then......the final punch arrives : Sarah isn't killed by the infected but by humans ! You saved her from the apocalypse only to be killed by a human!  Even the part in cutscene is handled superbly. You first see that Joel is safe, free from harm, only to realise that it means its Sarah who is hit ! The same feelings are re-invoked at the end by making you play again as Joel carrying his daughter in his arms again trying to save her from , not infected, but the humans again. There was no way I would not kill Marlene or the people in my way. There's no way I would let it happen again to my daughter ! The very beginning was preparing us for the end of the game. The point to note is that all of it was done using the strengths of gameplay as a tool. This was not happening in a long cut scene. Instead, the medium's strength,the ability to interact, was used to amplify every impact of the story. This, my friends, is wonderful Game Design and superb use of the strengths of a medium chosen to tell a story!
  • Foreshadowing of gameplay mechanics: We all know about foreshadowing in stories and movies but ND has gone one step further with foreshadowing of gameplay mechanics. Every gameplay feature or mechanic that they expect the player to use or be familiar with in the next segment of gameplay or the next level is foreshadowed casually in the segment previous to it. They make sure the player is already aware of  the new feature before he is expected to use it or be aware of it. For example, before the boss fight with David, we were made to roam around in that same room without any danger and introduced to the broken cutlery on the ground. We walked over it , learnt that it makes sound and breaks stealth, but it was introduced in a non lethal environment where we can learn about it without any punishment. Later, when David tries to find us in that room we are already aware that we are supposed to stay clear of the cutlery on the ground removing any chance of failure due to lack of info. If you fail, then you know you were careless, you never feel cheated.. It might seem very simple but most games would just go by the "learn by death" mechanism rather than explain in it by incorporating it in gameplay in a previous section. Its a detail which dictates level design and hence, can happen only if it is incorporated in your roots of game design. Another example is the light stealth section when you just cross outside the wall, before the actual use of stealth against the infected in the downtown area. The whole purpose of that section was to inform you that outside the wall, the enemy is overwhelming in numbers and force. So learn to hide as much as you can. This could have been said in tutorial message, like in most games, or via an NPC dialogue but ND knows actions speak louder than words. What better way than to present a situation where the enemy isn't as deadly as what is about to follow, but it forces you into hiding. Every gameplay mechanic has a similar foreshadowing in The Last of Us. This is brilliant game design and shows amazing detail in planning levels and mechanics.
  • The Goal is always in sight: Be it the Capitol building, the Bridge in Pittsburgh,the Radio Tower, the Science Lab in the University or the Hospital in Salt Lake, the goal of the level is always in sight whenever you turn a corner or come out of a building.
    Now this is a very small touch in game and level design but one which makes a huge difference. You are always aware of where you need to go, without the need of any UI message or an in-game compass. Not just that, you feel invested in the game all the time as you always have the goal in sight. Ok, thats where we are going ! and designing each level in such a way that every now and then you get a visual of your goal doesn't happen automatically. It means ND invested a lot of time and effort in making sure it happened every-time you jumped out of a building after scourging for supplies. At a time when developers put markers every 20m to keep the player guided in a linear mission, ND achieved the same without any obtrusive UI and it feels so natural that you might not even notice in the subtle way you are being guided around the level. And it isn't just limited to visuals. In the level where we wade through a snowstorm in David's camp, since the snowstorm made sure we weren't able to see anything, ND made sure the bells ringing loud in one the buildings provided you with an aural landmark, so that you could guide yourself in the snowstorm using the sound of the bells !
  • Storytelling during gameplay:  Just like the opening sequence, ND uses gameplay moments to tell most of its story. A particular moment which stands out is how Ellie turns quiet and sullen after her encounter with David. When Joel and Sully reach Salt Lake city, Ellie doesn't respond to Joel's gameplay prompts as she is preoccupied and disturbed after what David tried to do to her. Joel has to go and talk to her to prep her up.Due to the fact that it happened during gameplay, it got noticed by the player and made an impact. Hence,the Giraffe scene that followed had a much greater emotional value as Ellie got back to her own self after that encounter.
    There are many more examples, like when Henry reveals his story during gameplay moments as we walk around in a suburban town. Also, the behaviour of Ellie changes from a talkative teenager to a more quiet survivor during winter to a grown up coming to terms with life and relationships by the end of the game. Another example is how Joel refers to Ellie as "the girl" during the initial sections of the game. It changes to "Ellie" during the mid and to "Kiddo" after their Father-daughter relationship gets cemented ! You can literally feel their relationship while playing the game !Also, the death of Tess doesn't happen in a cutscene, but during gameplay ! They could have simply extended the cutscene by a minute and added Tess's death and Joel teeth grinding histrionics into it, but instead , when the sacrifice of Tess became inevitable, they handed the control back into your hands. You were Joel, when Tess died ! You went over to the upper floor and peeked over the ledge to see Tess lying below. It wasn't just some character, it was you ! Whatever reaction that evoked in you , were yours. Had it been a cutscene, the reactions would have been of Joel, not yours, and hence the impact would have been lesser. These are small storytelling touches that add up to the masterpiece we experience in the game.
  • Down-times were never so enjoyable: Most games, including ND's previous ones, use downtimes to provide breathers between heavy action sequences and I was expecting the same here, but boy was I in for a surprise ! The downtimes are the game here ! Yes, it is the combat segments that feel like they are there to provide break from the downtimes. We spend sometimes around 30 minutes without any action, scavenging for supplies and roaming the beautiful levels, but those are the times when the game's some of the best moments are.
    You soak in the environment , the game world and its stories during those serene times.Ellie would start talking to you about her and your past while you are exploring. At one instant I was inside this house and She and Sam sat down on the sofa and started talking, it felt so natural, so real ! Then there are times when we are prompted for conversations during these downtimes. Add to that the stories that are littered around in the form of notes you find in houses, settlements. Some of them were so moving that you actually felt you had just played a mini story inside the main game.For example, Ish's story, the settlement in the sewers where the mother killed all her children to prevent them from getting infected and left a note on the ground saying "They didn't suffer" for the Dad to find if he ever comes back ! To give him the 'comfort' that his children did not suffer in death! It was a chilling tale that was delivered during gameplay spanning around 30 minutes via notes, messages and children's drawings on the walls. There was even a hint in the next town that Ish might still be alive ! The exploration is full of stories and conversations you would just miss if you didn't have these downtimes in gameplay. Not to mention exploration is also always rewarded with collectibles! Me likes them shinies ! :)
  • Razor sharp combat gameplay: 'Perfect' is the only word to describe the balance of gameplay in The Last Of Us. I played on Hard, with Listen mode turned off, and I always had just enough supplies to scrape by. Never had too much to feel confident and never too less to get stuck. Always barely surviving ! That shows how well the game has been play tested by ND and balanced accordingly. All the levels are open areas with multiple strategy options depending on what you have in your backpack at that moment.  If you have Shivs, time to go stealthy and grabbing people. If you have run out of shivs or can't stealth around enemies, there's the Bow, a fantastic stealth alternative. If you have run out arrows, which you won't as you can recollect them after a kill, you have the melee weapons, which can be upgraded for one hit kills. If you don't like stealth, there the whole arsenal of guns. Ammo is limited, but that can be overcome by crafting extra holsters for quick-swapping weapons. Change weapons quickly and you aren't out of ammo so soon. There's always a way to play. In fact, I found the combat as addicting as Demons Souls' combat. They are very different yet very similar in the sense that both have extremely well balanced gameplay, where if u pay attention, you can win any situation.
    If I may compare, I find The Last of Us' combat more rewarding and engaging than Demons Souls'. Tackle one enemy, run, hide...find something...craft ...tackle another, run....hide...wait ...LOU combat is also long drawn and tense like Demons Souls. One wrong move and your chances of survival go down exponentially. In fact, if you don't run often you won't find the supplies that are required to make it through. Running away is an integral part of the combat system, which itself is a unique mechanic. Demons Souls' combat is more about memorising and dodging correctly, whereas LOU combat is more about finding right moments for crowd control and using what you have to your advantage in a split second decision. The sudden fights and the panic decisions that ensue are so unique to The Last of Us that they provided some of the most memorable moments I have had in games. In Demons Souls fights tend to have a pattern whereas in LOU no two fights play out the same ! The magic of LOU is indeed fantastic !You are never stuck and you are never overpowered either. Kudos to the designers who could manage such a balance and could produce such an unpredictable AI. OH, and the perennial decisions: Molotov or Health Kit? Shiv or a nail bomb ? the thrill is amazingly well balanced.
  • Stellar sound design aides gameplay: The amazing sound design supports the gameplay perfectly. I chose to play without the Listen ability, which meant I had to rely on sounds to make out enemy positions. Many a times it was only the sound that provided me information about my next move. Whether to turn this corner or not. Should I go upstairs or stay below. Each decision was aided by perfect audio information. The gameplay could have fallen apart if the audio processing was not precise as it is now.The fact that I could easily complete the game without the Listen mode, shows that the sound feedback is perfect in this game. Every little sound made by the enemies provides proper positional feedback even on a stereo headset. On a 7.1 channel headset, the experience is sublime !  The thunder in Downtown, the sounds of nature in Lincoln, the eerie underground Infected levels and the open spaces, all resonate with a perfect audio cues.Add to that the surreal sounds by ND and the music of Gustavo Santaolalla, this is one unforgettable aural experience.
  • The little details, Crafted with Love: I won't talk about the details in the characters faces or models but the little touches like moving clouds. Yes, its not a big deal, but even though we could see these were just skyboxes, the 2D clouds subtly and slowly move if you care to look up and just gaze at them :) ! Ellie tells you little jokes if you care to linger around her. Also, the fact that Joel protects Ellie by shielding her body with his own, whenever they crouch in cover during gameplay shows extreme attention to detail. 
    Not to forget all the small colour ques to guide the player through an environment, like yellow always means explorable area. Also, the movement of Rats always shows you where to go next! The state of the dead bodies you find always dictates which kindof enemies you will find in this area. When an enemy strangle Joel, his nose starts bleeding and the blood spreads on his face. When Joel kills an enemy, his blood spreads n the shirt and the stain grows. Also, when you switch on your flashlight, the FOV changes just a bit, objects appear just a bit closer, to give you an better illusion of things being more clearer than before !The amount of little details in unbelievable ! I am not even talking about the absolutely sublime ambient lighting and the real-time GI cast by your flashlight.Whether the player notices it or not, these details are always there for him to immerse him in this world. To make him suspend his disbelief. These small touches, little details show the developer's attention to detail, dedication to the experience and the love for the medium they are working with. One feels honoured to have played such a gem of a videogame !:)
  • A Masterclass of story telling: The prologue itself is a masterclass in revealing the plot.I will just recap how the apocalypse was revealed to us in the prologue. First a phone call indicating something is wrong. Then a newspaper report about an infection, then a TV report about something wrong(nothing about infection), an explosion right outside the windows,Sarah is scared now, Dad is missing and then finally we see a infected enter the house! Now that we know there's an infection,we are shown the magnitude of the problem increasing as we ride in the car and then later we are thrust right into it running and screaming only to realize that it is not the infected who the story is about, but it is the humans...as it is a human who kills Sarah, not any of the infected ! In an indirect way the game makes it clear right at that moment, that this is a story about humans and their decisions, not the infected. A typical video game would show a TV report showing zombies rampaging the streets and be done with the introduction.But then would it be the Last of Us :) !Also, something people might not have noticed, that after every tense or heavy situation, the game always changes the mood to relief and puts a subtle smile on your face ! That is fantastic to experience: to smile right after a major tragedy! For example, when Joel gets wounded badly, the screen fades to black with a sense of dread about what will happen to Ellie now ? But the very next moment, after a pause , you see bright snow-scape with Ellie trying to hunt a deer. Like a child you run after it here and there, smiling at this play of life. Yes, life is back, the fear of death faded away the story moves forward :) ! Similarly, after the dreadful encounter with David, as Ellie weeps and reveals that David tried to abuse her, the screen fades away and we are left with a dark sense of an innocence lost to this dark brutal world. But the very next moment, after a pause to let us feel the pain, the screen comes back to life with the bright colours of Summer ! :)  Life is back and our goal is near, the Salt Lake city! The story telling was special in yet another way too: no one was a hero here, and no one a villian, the whole act of "Winter" was to showcase that our every heroic act towards Ellie was as villainous as any other enemy we encounter on our way. The entry of David in the story showcased the cruelty of our "Heroics" and made us see the other side. It also foreshadowed the 'end' of the story where Joel turns into a villian for the whole mankind while being a hero as a Dad. No one was a hero, no one was a villian. Yet we saw every journey with empathy and concern. We invested in every character as much as we invested in Joel and Ellie.
  • Subtlety : I believe that was their keyword for the whole game! Except for the brutality of violence , everything else is done in the most subtle way possible. The acting is subtle, never over done, not in the case of a death scene. Take for example, Sarah's death or Tess' death. No emotion was overdone, yet we grasped the weight of the situation. The dialogues are short and subtle. Subtlety also seeps into the hints provided during gameplay. They are never loud, just subtle enough to be noticed. Characters talk bare minimum during interactions, yet convey a lot. The music , the fantastic music, is so subtle and minimal that it sets the whole game apart from anything else we have played before it. ND lets players' minds fill the gaps while providing just enough information to spark the imagination ! The best example for this point is the end of the game : Single-handedly the most mature and subtle end to a game ever. Very suggestive, sets your mind on fire and simply and gracefully fades away while leaving you thinking while a smile of satisfaction, as well as , "how long will this lie hold?" spreads on your face slowly :) ! Naughty Dog sure had the guts and the talent to bring this end to life in such a convincing way.
This is a game where I found myself watching the whole of the credits to honour the people who gave me such an amazing experience ! This is a game I found myself replaying the moment I finished it ! This is the game of which I will be telling my kids about , one day ! This is a game I will keep playing till I imbibe all that Naughty Dog has put into making it ! This game is my masterclass of Game Design ! :)

and while I leave you, to my mind springs a prose about The Last Of Us :

A tale was woven and a world sprung around it ,
A life was stolen and another lived without it,
An Innocence was lost, another hadn’t found it,
As a story unfolds, there’s a fire, gather around it,
A tale was woven and a world sprung around it !


Nishant Malik said...


Renegade said...

Thanx a ton buddy :) ! Do share it if you like it ! ALso check out the article on my suggestion for a new MP mode ! :)