At a panel during GDC this morning, Naughty Dog designer Anthony Newman described how the melee system was created for The Last of Us and how developers worked to make the mechanics an extension of the in-game world.
Naughty Dog designed melee combat for two playable characters — Joel and Ellie — and for three types of characters, including the two main characters and Bill with his machete, as well as five enemy types. The team worked to make each style unique and powerful, and yet comfortable so players felt combat was realistic.
The Last of Us draws its aesthetic from its story of human struggle in a harsh and cruel world. Melee combat had to be an extension of this aesthetic, meaning it had to be brutal and tap into the theme of humanity striving in the face of utter ruin. It had to be fast, make players feel heavy and impactful, and had to be "readable" to players so they would feel like they were connecting blows and fighting meaningfully.
The combat system was also choreographed to promote opportunities for the camera to frame faces — humanity in The Last of Us is most vividly expressed through characters' faces as they speak and fight. A lot of attention was given to motion capture and rendering facial expressions, making their pain and struggle as realistic as possible. According to Newman, the melee system was developed to give players a near-constant view of combatants' faces to greater demonstrate the brutality of fighting.
Newman said Naughty Dog used cut cameras — tight, close-up shots of on-screen characters — for deaths in the game because they wanted failure to be a jarring experience. When a character loses a match and dies, the camera zooms in to show their death in intimate and gory detail. This camera move was inspired by the Chainsaw Man from Resident Evil 4, Newman said, and was added to make players disoriented and uncomfortable as they watched the character die.
The designer also said that the ability to block melee attacks was cut from The Last of Us later in development — approximately four months before the game shipped in June 2013. The melee system was getting clunky and there was no fluid way to integrate the commands into the existing set that would feel comfortable. The rock-paper-scissors system of how attacks worked remained, but the ability to avoid damage from oncoming attacks by shielding the character was picked out and the melee system retooled.
"There were a ton of different mechanics we tried to put in the game, but we had to be really careful about putting them in, in terms of elegance and being comfortable," Newman said. "You need to be comfortable with cutting them and letting go of them in order of make your game more accessible."