Uncut Interview - Ricky Cambier (The Last of Us)


Uncut Interview - Ricky Cambier (The Last of Us)
We talk to the game designer about levels, playtesting, spoilers and the reaction to that devastating ending
The Last of Us is very much out and you can find more of our thoughts on the game here.

Post release, we were very lucky to get the chance to talk one of the designers on the game, Ricky Cambier. He joined Naughty Dog during the development of Uncharted 3 and worked extensively on many elements of The Last of Us, with a focus on level design.

During our lengthy interview, Cambier touches on his favourite moments of the game, the challenge of leading players through levels in subtle ways and digs into how players have reacted to the harsh realities of the games ending.

Needless to say, this interview contains SPOILERS.

[this interview was conducted by phone on the 26th of June 2013]

Here's Ricky!
Here's Ricky!Enlarge Enlarge
CLICK: What does a game designer do on a title like The Last of Us?
RC: Yea design can cover a lot of ground. We cover things from story to level layout to combat. And we’ll have a different designers sometimes focus specifically on things like combat, like from the melee side to general combat setups. So we’re kind of just the vision holders across the board in terms of any of the features within the game.

CLICK: Did you specialise yourself?
RC: I was level designer so I owned a section of the game and I worked with Neil [Druckmann writer] on some of the story.

CLICK: Can you remember when you first heard about this game?
RC: It’s been around for a while. The first I really heard of it was even back actually when I joined Naughty Dog. I was working on Uncharted 3 and it was still kind of glimpses of what it would be. Because it’s been worked on for three and a half years.

CLICK: What shape was it in - just an early idea or fully formed?
RC: It was early core ideas – characters, world. How it has gotten there, how it would be, getting some AI in there and getting a feel for the combat. But still pretty young.

CLICK: Did you have any kind of early reference material, from other games or books or movies?
RC: Yea early on in that ideas phase we were reading a lot of material that’s relevant from things like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and also the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men. And then things even like David Benioff’s City of Thieves which is just a really interesting book about these two characters that are developing. And obviously the Planet Warth series was as huge factor just in terms of exposing us to the idea of the Cordyceps fungus. And we based a lot of the fiction around that.

CLICK: And were there any visual references that stuck with you in particular?
RC: Well it was amazing to get like the amount of visual resource in terms of buildings being overrun by nature. It’s just kind of astonishing how many photographs there are of that out on Google that you can see. These amazing places and really fascinating to see, to get into that world of what it would feel like with nature trying to reclaim. Some of these places you would look at first I would try to guess how long it had been abandoned for and I’d be thinking like 30 years or 60 years. Because our game takes place 20 years after the fall. But you look at some of these things and it might be six years or four years and you really start to get that feeling that as humans we’re just pushing back nature. I even was doing some press travelling for the recent release in Europe and when I got back from my trip there was this blade of bush coming up my porch. And I just found that, when I got home, a little funny and a little shocking and you’re like ‘oh man, it’s right there!’

CLICK: So will your next game be about invading vegetation?!
RC: Well the vegetation was here, we spent a lot of time putting it into The Last of Us, how these places changed from something familiar to something else. Because nature feels very familiar to us and these streets were very familiar as well but when you put them together it creates something new and trying to tell some of the stories about how we think nature would behave in these environments was definitely something that we put a lot of time and effort into in The Last of Us.

CLICK: Naughty Dog seems very committed to any project they take on, was it a long process to decide that The Last of Us was going to be their next title?
RC: I wasn’t there right at the earliest decisions of it. There were a few other options because we know once we start down this road. But it was just a few pieces coming together that made this feel like the right direction. And once we go into that, and get the commitment from Sony then we plough forward and try to get things on screen immediately and start exploring the world.

CLICK: It’s certainly your darkest and most mature game to date - was that something the company wanted to pursue?
RC: It just seemed like a really interesting story to us and that’s the starting point. When we get questions about – will you continue Jak and Daxter or will you continue Uncharted? And it really comes back to that thing of we feel like we continue to be successful when we’re continuing to challenge ourselves. And we continue to find new IPs and investigate interesting stories then we’re happy to visit them. Jak and Daxter was a contender for another project when we were debating it. But we were looking at the current state of survival horror and felt like we could bring our own take, do it Naughty Dog style. And when you combine that with these characters we started to dream about and the fungus, it just felt like the right project.

CLICK: We’re finally post release, was there a scary period when you were waiting for the first reviews? Even for a company as successful as Naughty Dog?
RC: Of course. We love it and we got it to a point where we were really proud of it and it was the vision that we wanted to execute. But there’s a lot of new stuff in there, a lot of new ways of playing. We’re asking the player to take on and really experience the survival aspect, with this high lethality and slower combat. I mean to put tutorials in there that explain you might often just have to run [laughs]! And trying to get the player to buy into that fiction and that world. So we were nervous right up until we started to get the early release and glimpses into some of the reviews. But still any time you put new art into people’s hands, every playtest you feel a bit nervous when you try something. And sometimes we had to even hold our ground when we would get some negative reaction from a playtest and we would decide that we still thought it was a good direction.

Horses! (not new stuff)
Horses! (not new stuff)Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: Was there any element you were particularly worried about?
RC: I mean we were worried about the ending for sure. There were moments when we’re trying to get infected combat and how to get the right balance of lethality and how the Clickers play with the Runners. And I know we had a press demo the next day, this was back in January. And they weren’t feeling good to us yet and we worked all night and finally got the press disk ready and I remember at that event, because it was the first time we let people fight with the infected. And everyone had previously focussed on the action elements of the game we were showing in the trailers. When they played that section the most common response was – ‘we didn’t realise how scary it was going to be!’ And that comes from the mechanics of the Clicker’s but even just their sound. Which at this point we hear a lot of feedback of it being exceptionally terrifying [laughs]!

CLICK: Did you guys celebrate when the reviews started to arrive?
RC: It’s kind of a funny thing with game design and development in that the celebration comes for us at the launch party which is after a lot of the stuff that’s happened. Because there’s isn’t really a clear moment – my work finishes and no one really knows because you print the disk and now it has to go off to manufacturing and even programmers have more to do. So there’s this moment where you’re like ‘ok, I’m done!’ and then you get that time period before anyone plays it where you’re in this limbo. But the celebration comes for Naughty Dog when we get to do our launch party and we get to sign some of each other’s games and some of the reviews are in by then.

CLICK: It’s quite an achievement in terms of the review scores, but it’s also been getting rave reviews from users. Do you find that more gratifying than critics scores?
RC: [pause] It’s hard to say. They kind of go together; it’s hard to say one is better. Obviously the critical one is so important, these are people who it’s their job to analyse these things and they have a depth and breadth of knowledge of the industry. You hope that they do! But then to see those moments of players… that’s the best. On the touring we’ve had a lot of kiosks and a lot of demos and getting to walk around the room and seeing people talk and react and then later hearing them talk about things – like ‘how did you get past that part?’ ‘Oh I crafted this thing’ and ‘Oh I stealthed through it’ and ‘You could stealth through it?!’ and just seeing people viscerally reacting to the game itself for me that was better than any of the reviews. Just as isolated experiences – seeing people have this unique experience.

CLICK: Do you have much ability to track how players are tackling the game?
RC: You see that a bit in Reddit – there are such strong forum communities these days. You see that earlier in the playtests, you see the moments that are really working and others that aren’t and you might have to rethink some of the sections.

CLICK: Any moments that you’ve heard post release people found particularly hard?
RC: I think there’s like some of the early infected fights when we’re still teaching you, it takes them a couple of tries. But then after that you start to see that because of some of the time and effort that we’ve put into these moments, that the tone really gets set I think well right away. Even in some of those little details of – like in the quarantine zone you’re walking past some of the guards and you push them. They’ll shove you down and they’ll tell you if you do that again they’re going to shoot you. And if you do it again, they’ll shove you down and kill you. And there’s these details in the world that help right away to tell players there are different rules here, a different tone. This is a very lethal place. And all of that kind of informs the gameplay and once they settle in there they start to see how to take advantage of the crafting system and the scavenging and all these things that can now start to play together to lead to your success.

CLICK: The world feels more open than Uncharted but it’s also quite linear – can you talk about some of the methods you use to lead the player through the levels? Without feeling like you’re leading them.
RC: There was a section that I worked on a bit with the deer, when you hunt the deer. And I was seeing some great feedback about how some people were thinking it was just this great open deer hunt. And yet in the end I guide them directly to this building that they go through. And it’s really just about keeping the player invested in the experience so that they’re kind of doing what you want and you can set up those views and those vistas. A lot of this comes out of way back in the day on something we talk about so much in Uncharted and game design in general there’s the idea of the Weenie. Which is back to the Disneyland example of how when you’re walking in Disneyland you can see the castle off in the background and you wander and do rides and you can still see it and its getting closer. And you keep going. So we found little ways of having that macro goal always out there but getting the player really invested in the micro goal – to they’re immersed in this new place or this action scene. So: ‘I was just hunting this deer and following this blood trail through this forest that was huge and then I happened to come to this building and this mine shaft…!’ But we led you there! In a very specific way and if you step back the space isn’t as big as probably you thought but because of the layout or the way we put the trees and the view and the vistas, we’re just crafting this experience.

Ellie does some good huntin'
Ellie does some good huntin'Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: I read an interview with one of the developers that talked about three points where playtesters frequently cried – can you tell me when they were? Obviously these are going to be spoilers…
RC: At this point you’ll have to, some of this material is definitely spoilerish. But with the product out it will be up to you to decide whether you need to warn people.

CLICK: I’ll be sure to label it!
RC: [laughs] Well I think some of the key moments – the opening is definitely key.

CLICK: That was devastating
RC: Right. When you get a moment with Sam and Henry later on. That was definitely a pretty critical moment. And of course at the end. And then you get like surprise moments. I was watching a podcast with Greg at Up at Noon and he was saying he finally broke down when he was reading a collectible that was talking about this man and his son going off and letting their dog out into the world. Because things were going too bad and they wanted to give the dog a chance to survive. And he was sitting there playing with his dog or something and for him all that tension that had built up before, getting a glimpse of this little intimate moment and that was what we wanted to do with some of these things that were out there. Giving you glimpses of how people were trying to survive.

CLICK: Were there any big lessons learned from the focus testing?
RC: Yea I mean I can’t praise playtesting enough I think. It’s so critical to get balancing and just to get data, to watch people actually play the things. We do that early on just with everyone in the office –grab a designer and have him play this section or an artist to get that initial feedback. Because in the end you’re making an interactive piece, this is what’s unique about games when compared to books or film. You need to make sure they understand and can move and interact with the world in the way that you expect.

CLICK: Do you make changes to story based on playtesting or mostly just gameplay?
RC: I think you’re going to lean towards gameplay. We have to check in with questions about the level of investment and whether they understand some of the things that are happening. Can we make things clearer or more subtle? And it just gets into how far we want to push and where we want to stand our ground and say – no this is the story we want to tell. Because there has been some strong reaction to the ending. And we kind of had to stick with what we thought was the right ending and right for the characters.

The Clickers were tough to balance. They kill you in one hit.
The Clickers were tough to balance. They kill you in one hit.Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: Well I did have a strong reaction to the ending. There came a point in the game where I almost wished there were branching storylines, was that something you ever considered?
RC: No. Strictly because being a character driven narrative, this is the arc for these characters. And as soon as you put this branch in here, at the end you’d have two different characters. And that was just never the idea.

CLICK: For me the real turning point was when Joel was forced to kill the doctors – that was the point that really pushed me over the edge I think! Did you always want to do to that very bleak place?
RC: Did you kill all three of them?

CLICK: I did, did you not have to?!
RC: No!

CLICK: Oh God, now I feel worse!
RC: [laughs] – No you didn’t have to. So you definitely got into a…

CLICK: I got into a mode there!
RC: Yea! So I mean for us Joel was in that place. And some people will throttle back right there but that’s the place I think Joel was in. so for us to get you into that right that, that’s kind of the goal [laughs]!

CLICK: So you could actually just kill one of them and then walk away!?
RC: Yea!

CLICK: Oh god, I shot them all in the head. I feel terrible…
RC: [laughs]

Now I feel sad like Sam...
Now I feel sad like Sam...Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: Anyway sorry! Did you have any negative reaction to the ending?
RC: I mean along those lines of people being struck by the lengths that Joel is willing to go and we’re standing by and saying yes that’s what he’d do. And this is what was required of the situation.

CLICK: What element or moment or character or set piece is your favourite?
RC: I mean there are so many moments! Ellie is pretty incredible and I definitely have a personal fondness for the sections where you play as her, I was directly involved with some of those. The David boss fight, those moments with the pull between Ellie trying to survive and Joel trying to come and save her. And she ends up having to save herself. But across… there are so many moments, I can’t! It’s tough! Everything like the acting, the music, the things that can now just hear some of the music and thin about the beginning and that opener with Joel and Sarah! Powerful character moments.

CLICK: Is it difficult now to think start thinking of another project?
RC: That transition is always hard/exciting. We’re still just getting this out, we’ve announced DLC. So our focus will be on supporting the game. And yea you take a little bit of vacation and some time to reset. And then get excited about new ideas.

CLICK: And beyond DLC can we expect any return to this world?
RC: We haven’t really made any announcement regarding that. We think it’s a pretty rich world and if we think we can find a story in here that’s worth exploring and we can challenge ourselves then yea.

Maybe a game about horsies!?
Maybe a game about horsies!?Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: Naughty Dog franchises have become progressively more realistic and mature. Would they consider returning to simpler times and colourful platforms in the future? Something lighter?!
RC: [laughs] Uh… hard to say. Personally it gets into those ideas – if we can deliver something unique. If we were to look back at a Jak and Daxter or even a new IP and see what we can do here now. What can we do that would push the industry forward and challenge ourselves. That becomes the starting ground. I think the tone is still pretty interesting, the whole setup of people being in desperate situations is the core of what exposes what people will do. So I think that the world of The Last of Us is pretty fascinating.

CLICK: Does it make it harder to make a lighter game now that you’re synonymous with something bleak?
RC: Yea I mean it’s interesting to see. We’re also still synonymous with Crash, and people still ask when the next Crash or Jak game is coming. So I think we’re fortunate in that regard and I think it puts us in a position where hopefully we can keep putting out surprises and things that can excite people.

CLICK: Finally do you have a message for the millions of fans who have experienced The Last of Us already?
RC: [laughs] One last message! Obviously thank you, I hope you made it through ok, I hope you can sleep! And we continue to appreciate hearing the thoughts out there in the forums and thank you for all the support. We do this for the fans!

The Last of Us is out now exclusively on PS3. Read our review here.

Uncut Interview - Ricky Cambier (The Last of Us) on ClickOnline.com
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