From the post apocalyptic wasteland of Boston to the reclaimed streets of Salt Lake City, we review and explore the world of Joel and Ellie as they journey from the East Coast to the Beehive state encountering landscapes familiar and alien, creatures fantastical and of nightmares. Gather the kindle, prepare the stones and take your place, around the bonfire as we review The Art of The Last of Us.
As an artistic medium, video games have transformed from their inception as a base simulation of existing media and activity to there present existence as a means to convey an emotional state, an environmental predicament beyond our comprehension and awareness. In a similar transformative process to that seen in video media which itself has benefited to a large degree from the advancement in artificially generated graphical imagery, so the scope and complexity of gaming has seen a similar exponential growth to the degree its presentation now surpasses that on occasion of its equivalence on both the small and large screen. Where previously the narrative tended towards the fantastical, the greatest environment of its generational cycle being the Mushroom kingdom of the Mario franchise utilising environmental elements in their simplest presentation against the backdrop of bright and bold colours, as digitization and presentation have evolved so has the capability and ability to present the routine to a believable realised level of detail. Now with the means to create these environments with ease, so the scope of the narrative has progressed, familiar structures and buildings shaped and evolved in their entirety and on occasion their degradation based on a plot need. Towards the end of the previous generation, software titles confined in their ability to a degree by hardware limitations shaped their narrative around a confined set path, creating the illusion of freedom and expanse whilst allowing the user to follow a set path emerged and engulfed within but never straying beyond the limitations enshrined in the design of the game.
Whilst the post apocalyptic environment has been explored extensively in various media styles including video game software, the means and ability to portray these fantastical and terrifying worlds to a sufficiently believable level has only been fully realised in the last generation, with certain limitations in place to restrict your means of exploration. Certainly whilst the likes of the Fallout and Metro series allowed certain levels of interactivity and exploration with the progression of graphical prowess and ability towards the end of the last cycle of consoles allowed titles like The Last of Us to bring a world, rich in detail and design to the forefront of cultural awareness. Not only characters fully realised and acted but also a world built from the ground up in their pristine state before being degraded to various forms and levels to find the optimum level of presentation consistent with the narrative. The enemies that blight the world experienced by the user an assortment and array of beasts and creatures from the recognisable humanoid infected with the viral strain to more aggressive animatistic approximations. Having witnessed a presentation of a small degree of the development process at the recent Video Games exhibit that explored elements of the design into this specific game, an assortment of the developers notes and logs in addition to development footage the supporting art book provides a far deeper insight into the design of the worlds and characters experienced.
The exhibit, currently residing at the Victoria and Albert museum in London until early next year was a focus on the creative development of a series of titles across the current gaming spectrum, focusing on specific software that had a profound impact on both their respective genre’s as well as the larger gaming platform. To that extent, the portion of the exhibit focusing upon the Last of Us was a brief overview of the design work as detailed in the supporting art book with a greater focus upon the artificial intelligence design as well as the character movement and motion capture, a process which objectively would be a fairly static presentation and being afforded the chance and opportunity to see a greater focus on this area above and beyond the character design was a welcome treat. Two of the videos on display at the exhibit at time of writing were a focus on the artificial intelligence programming of Ellie, elevating her portrayal and appearance in the game above and beyond other supporting escort characters experienced in other contemporary games. Probably the nearest direct comparison I would draw would be that of Ashley in Resident Evil 4 who as Leon you are assigned to escort and protect as the core narrative. With the limitations of the hardware this became a chore and at times, a hindrance as her programming would often result in the character adopting unrealistic positions and locations. Whether this was a direct inspiration or consideration, given the familiar narrative structure of the experienced central hero escorting the young female target, isn’t mentioned or referenced but certainly watching the footage and reading the information provided would indicate a considerable level of attention and detail was focused on ensuring she behaved in a realistic fashion, taking cover, providing assistance where possible but allowing your focus to be upon the objective at hand.
One of the more intriguing static displays on show was the timeline board as used by the developers to trace and plot the various narrative points experienced within the game. Utilising a fairly linear seasonal approach the general beats and encounters are plotted methodically with the small deviations or choices colour coded to signify the choice but ultimately the same structural beats designed to be played out. Whilst this breaks elements of the sense of freedom present, it does reinforce the sense you are following and playing a fairly structured narrative, similar in that respect to the developers other more acclaimed Uncharted series and in contrast to the present generations predication towards more expansive and open world environments, even that found in titles earlier in their generation such as Fallout 3 and its sequel New Vegas certainly the world experienced is a richer and more detailed one to experience, passively if not to the same degree in areas discovered and explored. As a stylistic choice, subjectively I found no great issue with the choice to use the corridor methodology in exploring the world of Last of Us, this approach in my other highly rated game Resident Evil 4, an effective choice in presenting an aesthetically detailed world without the requirement to provide depth to the buildings and structures on the periphery of vision. As hardware limitations have eased and programmers become more adept at creating fully immersive worlds and levels so these same restrictions may perhaps no longer be as acceptable to the user but in this instance its a workable approach and one I found enjoyable to experience. However, as a choice of direction, if you are going to confine your user to a relatively set path with only a small degree of freedom you need to have a well-developed narrative to follow and experience, certainly judging by the presentation present this was taken into consideration with the main points detailed, the impact on the characters thought out and considered resulting in the game experienced by the user.
The character of Joel, from inception to realisation had a similar creative path and development to the world and environment presented in their final stage. Certainly from a surface perspective, the clothes, weaponry and equipment as shown here both graphically and from experience in the gameplay were consistent with the environment and degradation of time and circumstance you would come to expect. These level of details in truth I would come to expect so as to create a consistent representation. Going deeper into the creative process for me was the effort to design Joel’s physical appearance to fit the narrative, a range of age and physical states considered and conceptualised before the final appearance was decided upon. Certainly the reasoning and rationale are perhaps available to analyse in some form of media or back story, purely from a review of this book it was simply a series of drawings and styles showing the various aging process. This, subjectively I would imagine allows you to draw your own conclusions why this version, this age of Joel was chosen, perhaps to maintain a certain level of resonance or connection to Ellie that would be stretched beyond believability, given the predicament they find themselves in. The surrogate daughter narrative so prevalent, Joel being physically capable to protect Ellie in the environment they find themselves a crucial plot element. As to how his character will be portrayed and evolved in the sequel will be revealed at a later date, certainly given Ellie’s growth and central focus as the game’s protagonist would suggest Joel’s more aged appearance and design will perhaps be revealed.
In contrast, Ellie had perhaps a more consistent design going by the design models and character sketches shown within both the supporting art book and that displayed at the exhibit at the museum. Ellie’s character within the game serving as both the prism for the contemporary audience to experience this hostile environment as well as the contrasting attitudinal view-point to Joel’s more cynical and jaded attitude and persona. The design and portrayal of this pivotal character was as crucial as Joel’s, despite being fundamentally a non player character for a large proportion of the game and acting in a supporting role to his main protagonist status. She was effectively his contrarian counterpoint, simultaneously both a connection to the daughter he had lost whilst designed with the opposing features and traits of his appearance. There is an innocence and naivety despite the environment prevalent, fundamental to her design, the paternal bond ever-present in the design sketches of the characters interactions that induce a protective and caring mentality towards this character. As the seasons pass and she ventures beyond the confines of the walls of Boston experiencing the post apocalyptic landscape and impact on society so her attitude and features change. Given the violent nature of the game certainly you can imagine some discussion was had to portray a character of this age range where other titles have been reticent to tread however it is testament to the maturity of this title and the confidence in their writing and portrayal the developers went with the final design and age of Ellie in the first title. As with Joel, given the time between games there will be a growth of character that will be interesting to see in its realisation.
The presentation of the north American states as shown during the central narrative, from the encampment in Boston to the medical facility in Utah show the societal impact of the viral strain in the various forms and how within the gaming lore society has begun to restore some element of normality comprehensible to the user. Using a technique I first personally discovered when looking at the world creation in Horizon Zero Dawn, a title released many years after Last of Us the developers and programmers created a digitized impression of many notable structures and buildings, creating them to a degree instantly recognisable to the user then began the process of aging and predicting a level of degradation and neglect upon their exterior to arrive at the time and state Joel and Ellie find themselves traversing as they leave this city. My subjective dissonance felt with the world during the gameplay and subsequently when exploring the world of New York when traversing Manhattan in The Division was almost a static shell, almost a three-dimensional canvas, certainly with moving parts and elements to interact with but one where both your actions and direction have no visible or direct consequences on the world around you. Within The Division certainly this feels like a limitation of the state of the game as an online experience and any fundamental change or impact would create dissonance between the user and others entering their shared world. The apocalyptic nature of the world as portrayed in Last of Us is one of society, ravaged both historically and in the present context by the effects of the virus and the conflict between the various tribe elements that comprise the world. As such when studying the drawings, the sketches of the world ravaged by time and circumstance, the world is an abandoned place that subjectively for me at least doesn’t quite conform when societal elements are introduced, certainly a functioning community of individuals.
Purely from the aesthetic perspective I adore the attention to detail that goes into the design and creation of these worlds, whether they are a fully interactive and immersive open world genre or these more confined path led structures. Regardless of the game type, a significant artistry and dedication goes into the world creation, as mentioned previously the attention to create a perfectly realised city as we would comprehend than charting the stages of degradation and destruction, elements of nature such as the foliage and moss creeping over the concrete structures. The impact of the elements on the floor and surroundings directly playing into the game narrative at critical junctures for example pathways where Joel is forced to enter water and submerge as the building gives way, is reclaimed by nature. Both visual media and gaming do well to present a visualised depiction of a world, ravaged not by war which one would theorise would take the form of nuclear destruction but instead the gradual decimation and reclamation of our societal norms and structures. Seeing vehicles, police cars, school buses now ornaments, obstructions to climb over and overcome. In contrast to Horizon Zero Dawn where by the passage of time has progressed to a state these metallic monoliths recognisable to the player alone, The Last of Us is still a world we can recognise, their purpose and use narrated by Joel on occasion to an inquisitive Ellie. There is perhaps a greater focus in the art book on the concrete structures and urban cityscape in contrast to the more basic wooden buildings encountered during the characters traverse through the mountains during the winter sequence. Certainly there is a balanced perspective between the digitized realization of the game and the development sketches with a great emphasis on the design work. From a personal perspective I do greatly appreciate these views into the design work, it doesn’t push into the photo realistic perspective instead adopting an approach and style almost between an oil painting technique and a more muted watercolor finish. Perhaps not in the technique or application which visibly does have a significant attention to detail in the lines, the architectural finish of the building but certainly in the vibrant colour palette used.
Whilst sharing certain predication with other creatures and enemies used in the wider gaming medium, the villains from this title have been designed, as with the buildings and wider world featured, to show the impact of nature reclaiming and having an impact on society, often in a graphic and gruesome fashion. The central narrative featuring a fungal infection that has ravished society is an interesting take on the aggressive enemy trope you encounter on your travels. Whilst there is a fascination with seeing the world building design as equally there is a morbid curiosity in how nature overtakes humanity, how the design team created various sketches to show the progression from figures still very much identifiable as humans with a degree of mutation to the more substantially transformed creatures you encounter towards the end of the games experience although interestingly at no point do these creatures become to fantastical or divergent from the finalised sketches. There, I would have imagined, been a temptation to design and create more elaborate creatures relying on certain gaming tropes and trickery that very much encompass the medium as a video game. To its credit, although admittedly seen as a possible negative the game throughout its entirety ensures it maintains a consistent approach to the enemies, no great mutation discovered or variance depending on your location. A partially infected enemy has the same appearance, physically speaking whether in Boston or Utah. It creates a level of consistency that whether by design or circumstance sets the title apart from other games that may have been tempted to create more elaborate creatures as you move across a geographical region.
Of equal weight and measure is given to the enemy human tribes encountered during the games narrative. Perhaps not to the same degree in terms of the design element although subjectively, arguably this is perhaps the game being a victim to a degree or constrained by the setting and environment. Without pushing into the fantastical the tribes and human enemies would feature the same residual clothes and technology as that worn by Joel and Ellie. In a game that predominantly uses distance shooting as its main action set pieces there is no great incentive to apply as great a detail to the physical appearance of the human enemies. The games strength is the set piece design where by the user is required at times to navigate, even circumnavigate directly around enemy creatures responsive to sound and sight. There is a greater requirement, seemingly to have these be the central focus of the design and as such you do see a great level of detail that goes into, for example how the fungus infection has inflicted the victims as opposed to a human enemy firing from the distance. This isn’t necessarily a critique on the design work or the game in general only a recognisable constraint in a post apocalyptic world there would be an undeniable similarity between the villains and heroes in the world they inhabit.
As a gaming franchise, The Last of Us was a startlingly contrasting departure from the more optimistic and cordial environment and world of the Uncharted franchise, a bleak, violent and challenging take on the post apocalyptic environment and world required to differentiate itself from its peers and contemporaries. Certainly on its own merits and strength of design it accomplished this feet. One of the games legacies is its impact on cultural media beyond the core game. In collaboration with Dark Horse Comics the games creators commissioned a series of comic books that transpired before the events featured in the main release, deciding to go with a slightly more softer and welcoming design. Ellie, the supporting character who flourished during the main campaign is the central protagonist in the comics which in turn was touched upon during the downloadable content available after the games release. Ellie is instantly recognisable and yet I found it interesting to see how the design team worked to transform her into this characterization. There is a sweetness and innocence in Ellie with a touch of the anime in her portrayal, the artists sketches showing the experimentation in the emotion and vulnerability. Often, there is a temptation to approximate the design in these supporting titles to that of the main game, appealing to the core audience to a degree but subjectively not having faith in your own ability to portray the character in your own style. Here, I enjoyed seeing how the design team took this character so memorable on the user and found their own creative path. She is Ellie, we know the girl she will grow to be but equally it was an interesting process to discover the person she was before the events of the game.
Overall, a thoroughly informative book, my first from the Dark Horse Comics publisher exploring a video game that had a transformative experience on a number of users and truely signified a change in approach that games could portray a level of maturity and growth once reserved for more established media. In relation to the book itself it follows interestingly a similar liner path of progression mirroring the games own, the characters revealed as those encountered in the game, the worlds and environments more so at least how it came across to me. There is a great deal of detailed sketches and design that went into this title, mirroring in my own personal opinion the level shown in Horizon in designing and creating these worlds then degrading them in the post production phase. I adore the level of detail shown, quite simply for a game of its merit there was no great compulsion or need to release a book of this type however for the gaming community it does provide a substantial look into the design and creation of this game. In addition as we eagerly await the next chapter you see some of the genesis in the character creation that could carry forward and beyond.