During the “Storytelling in Video Games” panel at PlayStation Experience Naughty Dog Writer and Director Neil Druckmann tackled a few interesting topic about storytelling and The Last of Us.
Druckmnann mentioned that initially Ellie was supposed to be a lot more innocent in The Last of Us, and she would start fighting and kill someone just close to the end. Then the developers decided it wouldn’t make sense for her character, and players wouldn’t relate to her. So they gave her a gun much earlier, and created mechanics to fit the new situation, making her take cover close to the player.
Through those gameplay mechanics players started to feel closer to Ellie, so what initially conflicted with the story turned into something that supported it.
Additionally, he mentioned that cutscenes are a last resort, and Naughty Dog tries to put as much as possible of the narrative in the gameplay. Of course there are certain moments that wouldn’t work in gameplay or would be lessened. For those moments the cinematic camera is used to show facial expressions or nuances you’d miss with the gameplay camera.
By alternating those two ways of storytelling, even when you go back to gameplay after a cutscene you can picture those expressions and nuances even if you don’t see them.
Druckmann also tackled the common ludonarrative dissonance criticism, mentioning that he always tries to make sure that writing and the game fit within the context of each other, but games have certain rules: in an action game you’re probably gonna kill more people than you see in a film.
He has seen that kind of criticism for instance for Nathan Drake, but like when Indiana Jones kills a bunch of nazis, it’s a stylized reality, part of the action and of the fact that it’s a fantasy. In the end you have to “kinda find where your comfort zone is, know the tone of what it is that you’re making, and kinda stick to your gut and ignore NeoGaf as much as you can.”
Druckmann then explained (from here onward there are spoilers, so if you didn’t play the game yet, don’t read further) that he always knew that Joel would lie to Ellie at the end of The Last of Us. but in the initial draft Ellie believed him and the ending was a lot more hopeful.
Then, when the team got close to recording that scene (a week before), since Ellie had demonstrated herself so smart and able to detect “bullshit,” it just didn’t feel right, so the scene was rewritten and it became much more ambiguous.
The ending of The Last of Us was also supposed to be a long cutscene, but a designer kept arguing that it should be playable. The whole animation was scrapped, even if bits of it were still used. It was a sacrifice made to turn it into a better experience.