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The new cinema of Naughty Dog

How the developer arrived at The Last of Us, and where it's heading next.

With Naughty Dog, you often get more than you asked for. When the Sony-affiliated Santa Monica developer set about creating a light-hearted jaunt for the PlayStation 3 with Uncharted, it created a dynamic and impressively filmic brand of interactive action. As the last generation came to an end and it set about a fusion of the survival horror of Resident Evil 4 with the emotional heart of Ico, it flourished a post apocalyptic genre piece with a tale of human warmth: a story about adolescence interrupted, adulthood and parental responsibility, as well as the countless lies we tell each other every day just in order to survive.

So it's no surprise that a one-on-one interview with The Last of Us' game director blossoms into something else. When Bruce Straley strolls into the Sony lobby he's flanked by both his cohort, creative director Neil Druckmann, and Naughty Dog's co-president Evan Wells. The three are together in London ahead of this year's BAFTA awards, at which The Last of Us would go on to win five awards, including the top honour of best game. It's one of many remarkable achievements in what's been an incredible year for the game, culminating in the release of the Remastered PS4 version this week.

You suspect that to have been awarded in the same forum that has honoured the likes of Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and Powell and Pressburger in the past must have had a special resonance for Naughty Dog. The story of the developer since the turn of the century has been of it reaching for a new blend of cinema and games, where human stories told with Hollywood production values propel players' interactions with lush digital worlds.

Naughty Dog's early habit of doing three games followed by a kart racer sadly hasn't been continued in recent years. I'd still love to play Unkarted, though.

Straley joined Naughty Dog when that push began in earnest, though of course he's not solely responsible. Founded in 1989 by Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, two childhood friends who began working together as enthusiastic teens in the mid-80s by creating an unofficial PC port of Nintendo's Punch-Out!!, the Santa Monica developer's reputation was forged by the hugely successful Crash Bandicoot series on the original PlayStation. After close to five years working with Crash, and with a new PlayStation console looming, Naughty Dog decided to move on.

"Jason and Andy pretty much took a vote, and there was a consensus that everyone was tired after four projects of Crash, they were tired," says Straley, who joined Naughty Dog at the time of the last in the Crash series to come from the developer, Crash Team Racing. "They weren't so much looking to the future as there being an exhaustion with that franchise. There was a sense of it being nice to move on and seeing how you could spread your wings with a new IP."

Evan Wells, who had worked alongside Straley at Crystal Dynamics before joining Naughty Dog, chips in. "Looking at the new hardware, you could do so much more. Crash, being what it is, limits what you can do, and we wanted to push story as a bigger element, telling something that's a bit more meaty with real character performances. That was a big incentive to move in that direction."

Jak & Daxter was to the PlayStation 2 what Crash Bandicoot was to the PlayStation before it, although the art had evolved: the wide-eyed stare of that early mascot was replaced by characters whose emotions modulated beyond simple joy, and as the worlds Naughty Dog made became more complex, so too did the characters. There's a gentle evolution there, from the soft slapstick matinee action of an early PlayStation platformed to the slightly more nuanced Saturday morning cartoon dramatics of Jak & Daxter.

Both series would follow a similar path under Naughty Dog's gaze, and Neil Druckmann joined the company as it prepared its farewells to the Jak & Daxter series, coming straight from an entertainment technology masters at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon to an internship as a programmer on Jak 3. The bond between Straley and Druckmann that's at the heart of The Last of Us - and, it would emerge soon afterwards, Uncharted 4 - took time to form.

"This guy got hired, and he wanted to get into design," says Straley. "But I was mostly in the art department, so he'd come by and ask me if he wanted to get into design more, what advice would I have. So I was like, learn Maya - get into 3D. We were making paper maps, but if you could just do stuff in block mesh as designers, it'd help the pipeline out. You don't have this extra step in the process, and designers could start playing their levels instantly. He'd do level layouts, and we started talking about the layouts."

Concept art for Druckmann and Straley's Jak reboot shows its darker edge.

Druckmann's first design job was on a PSP Jak & Daxter game that didn't spend long within Naughty Dog's walls. As work began on the developer's PlayStation 3 debut, the portable project was shifted elsewhere. "All the talent was taken from the PSP to come to work on Uncharted," says Wells. "The Jak & Daxter game, High Impact came and finished. They took our design and scrapped most of what Neil had done. Sorry Neil."

Druckmann, sitting silently in the corner as he nurses a throat infection, doesn't seem too bothered. A few years later he'd be given free reign with the Jak & Daxter series, though again it didn't work out - and before then there would be Uncharted.

"Again, we'd done four Jaks, and everyone wanted something new," says Wells. "Again the hardware was a motivating factor: when we looked at what we could do with the PS3, we don't have to do something cartoony, we don't have to do something stylised, we could do something set in the real world."

"With the early prototypes, the natural inclination was to try and match reality, to try and see what this technology could do and push ourselves," adds Straley. "Before there was even a directive of Uncharted, there was still a human as the protagonist, a playable character in a prototype world. We were already pushing for how we could make a human more human with our technology."

When Naughty Dog was preparing Uncharted for PlayStation 3, its taste for the cinematic lead it, unsurprisingly, to Hollywood. "At the time we hired a load of movie people, and that's where our eyes got bigger than our stomachs," says Straley. "And it turns out that production cycle and the way they structure things is very different from games, and that was a learning curve for us."

Someone programs a water simulator for a ten second shot in a two hour film, and they take months upon months to figure out the technology behind that, the shading for that then the rendering then the post-processing, this whole offline process just to get those ten seconds. In video games we're trying to do that stuff live, dynamically," he adds. "At the time, we thought no-one had in their hands what could test the limits of what this thing could do, so we thought speculatively it's going to be amazing, it's going to be like film, except we're going to do it real-time. So we brought in the people that would have that experience from film. Then, when we tried to put them in the development cycle and say, okay, this has to run at 30fps and we have a deadline coming up next month - those kinds of parameters."

The flat hierarchy of Naughty Dog - where there are no producers, and all employees are invited to constructively criticise each other's work - didn't sit well with the working methods employed in film, where a more rigid structure is in place. Flirting with Hollywood ultimately cost the studio almost a year in lost work. "When you're dealing with a linear medium like that, you have a much more predictable pipeline that's been established over many many years. We're a much younger industry, and with the rapid change in technology we're pretty much starting over every generation, while film's been much more established for much longer. Having the talent come in at that time - it just wasn't quick enough."

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The first Uncharted would see Naughty Dog having to find its own solutions to how to create a better cinematic approach to games - one that wasn't so reliant on technology, but rather on method. "Uncharted definitely pushed us into realising that we needed to actually analyse what it was to create good characters and good stories, and what it meant to be a character-driven story, and how you can create compelling gameplay based on having good motivations in your characters," says Straley. "It kind of made us look, as we were setting up this pulpy adventure genre and looking at the tropes of this genre and breaking up the pieces, it's almost forcing us to look more closely at what composes those tropes, what composes those characters, what composes good cinema."

Some of these ideas came together in one explicit moment, in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's fourth chapter, that would help define Naughty Dog's approach. It's a simple, blink and you'll miss it incident, a single red barrel on a jeep that can be shot to open up a new route through the level. "That little moment, even though it's really small, that was the birthplace of the action cinematic experience that was Uncharted 2. This is something that happens dynamically in-game. If you can make that driven by character motivations, then we're starting to get this interactive medium being mixed with this character-driven cinematic medium, and that's something novel."

If that moment was bare bones proof of concept, Uncharted 2 gilded it with aplomb. Among Thieves' cinematic action, breezily delivered through intricate craft, was a high watermark for the series, and for the action genre as a whole. The follow-up Drake's Fortune, as accomplished as it was, understandably existed within the shadow of its predecessor. Within Among Thieves, though, was another kernel, an idea that would go on to be explored further elsewhere.

"We'd go to dinner a lot during Uncharted 2 and challenge each other on this kind of eco-concept of how can you tell a story through only gameplay," says Straley. "What if you didn't have any dialogue. Could you build a relationship, build a bond with zero dialogue, and cry and emote and relate to those characters? So we came up with this mute girl concept - and we were thinking about Drake at the time - and through gameplay she wakes you up, you climb up this rotten alleyway and this rooftop and she shows you her city and you can see the pride in the people and this place."

The idea of a central relationship between an older man and a young woman stretches back to a pitch Neil Druckmann threw George Romero's way before he'd joined Naughty Dog.

The mute girl idea was dropped, but in its place came the character of Tenzin, a Tibetan explorer unable to speak English - the idea of non-verbal communication fully explored in Among Thieves' standout scene. "You meet the villagers in an ice cave, it's a down moment, and there's this comedy that builds to tension when you see Lazarević has attacked that village that you got familiarised with. We hoped that through all that, and that you don't speak this person's language, and it was through the actions and seeing that Tenzin is the local village badass, and he's kind of the equivalent to Drake in the Himalayas, hopefully you can relate to that and see that he as a character sort of is about with his village, so when you see Lazarević attack that first punch that you threw had some emotion to it."

With Uncharted 2 complete, Naughty Dog moved towards a two-team structure, with one maintaining the Uncharted series while another, headed up by Druckmann and Straley, would explore new ideas. Their paths had crossed numerous times at Naughty Dog in the past, but a bond soon emerged between Straley, the pragmatic, practical artist, and Druckmann, perhaps the more impulsive of the two.

"I don't think we formed a close bond until Uncharted 2," says Straley. "We started talking on the first Uncharted."

Druckmann croaks a rare interjection. "When you threw the controller?"

"Well, I was usually angry at Neil's design," says Straley. "I guess I had a bit of an ego complex too of what I thought of design. There was definitely a battle, so to speak."

Druckmann and Straley began by returning to the world of Jak & Daxter, exploring ideas for a new, darker spin on Naughty Dog's popular universe. "We started with that franchise initially," says Straley. "Then we thought can we do the stories we want to do with that world and that universe? We were constrained by those characters in a way that would make it hard for the kind of drama that we were interested in. We kept asking Evan, what if we made Daxter not talk, what if we created an extra character? He'd say yes to these things, but we realised we're not really making Jak & Daxter. any more."

With Wells' permission, the team moved away from Jak & Daxter and started looking towards new territory. "We started looking at other genres that were compelling to us," says Straley. "We both share an interest - some of our favourite games were Ico and Resident Evil 4, we'd talk about those. And the media we'd share outside of that - we saw No Country for Old Men together, and we walked out jaw agape and said I'd never played a game like that, I want to play that. We had a lot of common interests, so it was really easy to brainstorm."

There were dead-ends - Mankind, an early version in which several of The Last of Us' key elements were in place, had the cordyceps virus infect women only, a somewhat misogynistic premise thankfully balanced out in the feminist undercurrents of the final game - although the reference points remained the same. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is perhaps the most explicit, and most widely picked up-on, and David Benioff's 2008 novel City of Thieves was cited as another inspiration when The Last of Us was revealed at the 2011 Video Game Awards.

It's the cinema of the Coen brothers that leaves the biggest imprint, though. It's there in the gruff, southern drawl of Troy Baker's Joel - he cites Josh Brolin's performances in both True Grit and No Country for Old Men as one of his inspirations - as it is in the quietly observed, softly human relationships between the characters that are interspersed with moments of brutality. Indeed there's a neatness to the fact that Sam Raimi, who gave Joel Coen his break as an assistant director on The Evil Dead and later collaborated with the brothers on The Hudsucker Proxy, is heading up the forthcoming film adaptation of The Last of Us.

The more brooding, furtive nature of the Coen brothers' oeuvre is a world away from the fast-talking, high octane thrills of the Republic Pictures matinee classics that informed Uncharted, though - the leap is as large as that between Crash and Jak, and coming within the same hardware generation, too. Was there ever a concern that this darker aesthetic would jar with expectations?

At the heart of The Last of Us' tough world is the very human relationship between Ellie and Joel.

"We had several conversations on what's the line we're trying to thread, the seriousness and the gravity we're trying to pull these characters down by," says Straley. "We needed to contrast that with the levity. We were trying to find the voices of the characters, and it really seemed like Ellie - especially because we know what Joel was going to be - Ellie needed to be that contrast so she really pulled out the levity."

Creating a new IP was tough - creating one that was a world away from what the developer had done before, even tougher. "It's the hardest thing that any developer is every going to face," says Straley. And then when you have the standards of Naughty Dog over your shoulders, and you know you need to perform and you want to be proud of it and you want the team to be proud of it. You don't want to waste your time for a couple of years. We had our own perfectionist expectations lumped on top of that. It's a lot. You don't know what the pacing is, what the core mechanics are going to be. You know tonally what you're after - we knew we liked the survivalist genre, we knew that it could have extremely compelling character moments and dilemmas, but what you were doing moment to moment with the pad, we knew we wanted to go more systems based... It's the hardest thing ever."

"We'd made Uncharted, which is all about these epic over-the-top set-pieces, and at the time the industry was going that way too with bigger explosions and larger scale everything," says Wells. "With the Last of Us a lot of it is a lot more nuanced and subtle. You're hanging everything on the emotional connection the player has with those characters. It's very different from what we were doing, and what we were seeing other developers doing."

Naughty Dog pulled it off, of course. Since the release of The Last of Us, it's been recognised as one of games of its generation, and now its found its way to the new age of hardware. There's the desire for a sequel, shared by the developers as they explore new ideas. It's just a case of finding time to do them justice - since the release of The Last of Us, Druckmann has found himself working on the first draft of the film adaptation, while the emphasis within Naughty Dog is now firmly on Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, which Straley and Druckmann are now heading up. There's some concern that the grim overview the two have immersed themselves in these past few years will bleed into the more typically bright world of Uncharted, but the studio's confident it can keep it two brands separate.

"Uncharted is a completely different franchise, and appeals to its audience for completely different reasons," says Wells as our time draws to an end. "I don't think The Last of Us marks a new direction in tone that all of our future games are going to take on. We'd alienate a lot of our Uncharted fans. We want to keep it a light-hearted romp. I think from a technical standpoint we've learnt some things from the Last of Us that will feed into Uncharted - in fact it strengthens our desire to keep them distinct."

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