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Ellie aiming a rifle as she talks to Joel in The Last of Us Part 1 on PS5

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The Last of Us Part 1 considered every detail — it’s not just ‘beauty for the sake of it,’ say co-directors

Ahead of The Last of Us Part 1’s PS5 release, co-directors speak on what they added — and what they didn’t

Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

After publishing The Last of Us Part 2, the rumblings of a remake started at developer Naughty Dog. “What if we could remake The Last of Us?” asked creative director Shaun Escayg. What if people could jump between The Last of Us and Part 2, with no visual dissonance and all on the same console?

Soon, new and older players will be able to. The Last of Us Part 1, a remake of the 2013 game, is slated for release on Sept. 2, making the Sony classic accessible to more players, both on the PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. Make no mistake, Part 1 is a faithful remake of the original game; the story remains entirely unchanged. But technological leaps in both combat and cinematics have added even more depth — more watery tear ducts and darting eyes, more sneaky and intelligent AI, and more female runners.

That’s the difference between a remake and a remaster. A remake gives developers the space and technology to make major changes, but the real beauty in that design is knowing when to hold back, according to Escayg and game director Matthew Gallant, who spoke to Polygon in an interview Tuesday.

Ellie looks perplexed in a screenshot from The Last of Us Part 1 for PS5 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Polygon: I think I might be the only person who hadn’t played The Last of Us before the PlayStation 5 remake. Who did you make this new version for — is it for new players like me or fans of the original? Will these two different groups get different things out of The Last of Us Part 1?

Shaun Escayg: For me, it’s for both. It’s for existing fans and for new players. We treated The Last of Us Part 1 as our love letter to the franchise, to our fans, to ourselves. It put a lot of pressure on us to make this game, because the original was arguably one of the greatest games ever made. You’re coming into Naughty Dog legacy — gaming history and legacy — when touching such a franchise.

We really wanted new fans to have the ability to play Part 1 and Part 2 continuously without the large gaps in technology or visual fidelity. We also thought it was pretty important to expand our accessibility features into Part 1 from Part 2 so more fans can enjoy the game. Ultimately, we wanted to stay faithful and true to the original core experience, preserve everything we loved about the original game, and just use all our artistic abilities — all our recent technological advancements — to just enhance and heighten every aspect of this.

Matthew Gallant: I think there’s stuff in this game to serve both audiences. [...] When we’re looking at The Last of Us Part 1, we know that there’s going to be lots of people like yourself playing it for the first time. There are people whose first PlayStation is a PlayStation 5. There’s the PC audience that we’re looking forward to. We’re also anticipating that there’ll be some interest in checking out the video game for people who watch the HBO show.

For all of these different new audiences, we didn’t want their starting point in the series to be going back two console generations to play this game. While it has held up very well, and in many ways is timeless and is still a treat to play, it’s visibly aged in a lot of ways. The technology constraints that we had back then were very, very limiting in a lot of ways. We had to be so creative to kind of desperately load things in front of you, unload things behind you.

The memory on the PS3 was just a hard constraint to work around constantly. We didn’t want players who were getting into the series for the first time to come in at one console generation and then immediately jump to The Last of Us Part 2 — it’s kind of a jarring experience and quality jump. It just wouldn’t feel continuous. I think bridging that gap and giving people a really great starting point in the franchise was one of the goals.

But the other goal — for returning players, they’re going to find a ton to really appreciate about The Last of Us Part 1.

One of the ways that Shaun and I split directing this game was that he was doing the cinematics. I got to experience those upgrades purely as a fan. I just got to enjoy them — I didn’t have a hand in them at all. I was watching some of the cinematics and there’s a scene where Joel and Tess are discussing what to do about Ellie. They aren’t sure if they’re going to commit to taking her to the Fireflies. Joel is wanting to give up on the whole thing and take her back to Boston. On the exterior, he’s presenting as very gruff. There’s a very cold demeanor. He’s just like, Take her back. Whatever. I don’t care. But if you know the overall arc of the story, there’s a subtext here. There’s an interior to the character that’s coming from a place of hurt, fear, pain, and sadness. Watching those cinematics that have been redone, they more closely matched the original actors’ performances, where all that nuance existed. You can see that conflict. You can see the person saying one thing and feeling another.

Ellie pulls back a bow in The Last of Us Part 1 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

I know changes extend to the combat, too. Can you talk a bit about how players will experience that?

Gallant: The core set of abilities that Joel has are very faithful to the original game. But one of the ways it’s changed is that we’ve got nine to 10 years of technology improvements in our AI. When we were originally developing a combat encounter, we didn’t have as good tools for managing the flow of combat. There were some encounters dealing with limitations on the number of enemies we could have alive at the same time. We were constantly despawning enemies behind you, spawning new enemies ahead of you, just trying to maintain the illusion of a larger fight.

We didn’t always have to do that in the remake. We could have more enemies alive at the same time. Not only that, but the way our combat AI encounter manager level stuff works is that it had to be a lot more hard-scripted back in the day. [...] We had to hand-sculpt a lot of that, because there wasn’t any alternative back in the day. In the intervening decade we’ve developed a much more flexible AIO where we can mark up a space with different strong positions to defend. It’s more about having an ecosystem of things that can happen. AI is going to try to surprise you and flank you and engage with you a lot more dynamically.

When you play a really dynamic encounter, like the bookstore fight in Pittsburgh, if you try different tactics in that fight, we’re hoping the AI will respond to you in more dynamic ways. They’ll be flanking you, coming in from angles you don’t expect. They’ll be coordinating and trying to respond to what you’re doing in a more intelligent way.

Let’s go over some of the accessibility options, too. Are there any that, in particular, stand out to you? Which are you most happy to see in the game?

Gallant: We got to build off the accessibility options from The Last of Us Part 2. At its core, it’s enabling players who are blind and have low vision to be able to play through the entire game. They should have barrier-free experience in playing this game. And for one, that’s really exciting, because a lot of these players got to be fans of The Last of Us Part 2. They never played Part 1. They didn’t have all the context for these characters in the story, so just even opening up that experience for them is really exciting.

In terms of new tech and new accessibility options that we have in The Last of Us Part 1, there’s two I’d really love to highlight. The first one is that we’ve added audio descriptions for the cinematics. And what that means is that for a blind player or player with low vision, they can’t see what’s happening in a scene. They don’t know the unspoken interactions between the characters. They can’t see that one character is aiming a gun at another one, and they don’t have the context for what’s being said.

So, cinematic audio descriptions — what that means is, in between those little breaks in dialogue, someone has gone in and now a narrator says what’s happening in the scene, like sets the scene of what is on the screen, what are the characters doing. This is something we see in movies and television to make those accessible for blind people. We partnered with Descriptive Video Works, a professional company that does this service for movies and television and game trailers. It was really great partnering with them. There is an artistry to finding those perfect, terse little descriptions that just happen to fit in between the dialogue that gives you the information you need in the most condensed way possible. This was something that came about partly as feedback from our blind accessibility work on The Last of Us Part 2. Like, yeah, we’ve removed barriers from the gameplay experience, and players could finish the game. But there was a lot of story, context, and environmental context — the richness of the world — that still wasn’t accessible to blind players.

The other accessibility feature that’s new that I’ll briefly touch on is something that is enabled by the DualSense. We added this new feature that allows players to hear the dialogue as vibrations, haptic vibrations on DualSense. This was a prototype idea that we tried out. Our accessibility consultants and play testers really enjoyed it. The idea here is that if you’re deaf, you have the subtitles that tell you how the line is being said. The way you can feel the line, you can get a sense of where the emphasis is. How was this line delivered? What was the emotion behind it? When you can feel that on the controller and read the subtitles, it’s opening more of that story context and that richness to players with disabilities, specifically deaf players.

Joel leans over in a still from The Last of Us Part 1, captured on PS5 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

So much has changed since The Last of Us originally came out. It was a time where we saw a lot of dads in games, and the fatherhood-like relationship between Ellie and Joel was a big deal. And it was major that people could play as Ellie, even for a few parts — now we have this whole game where we play as her. Do you think of how the world has culturally changed when redoing it?

Escayg: We approached the game with certain pillars that we didn’t want to break down from the original experience that our fans truly resonated with. However, there were a lot of options on the table that we wanted to take from Part 2 and bring into Part 1. But our guiding light pillar was, “OK, does this add anything new to the experience? Will this detract from the experience?” Again, this is arguably one of the greatest games made. We’re always putting on gloves as we approach these decisions and are being very deliberate about what we choose to keep and lose.

Most of our approach was about how we punctuate. How do we raise the bar and really dig deeper into the emotion? Even in non-cinematic moments, just playing in spaces and getting to relive those spaces so that they feel more visceral. There’s more of a sense of realism or dynamic movement and life in those worlds, like landing on a vehicle and it shakes. Or you’re attacked in combat by a [military] truck and you take cover by a bookcase that splinters, or a car that rolls on its chassis when it’s being bombarded by these bullets.

In our cinematics, you start to see that amalgamation of things. New lighting, new environments — but also characters that emote and express in a much more deep way than we could have previously on the tech we had.

There’s a scene that, if you have the opportunity to play the old one and compare, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s where Ellie and Joel are having this argument when she runs off into the farmhouse at Tommy’s. You can see her eyes flutter, her face go flush, right when it dawns on her that Joel is about to abandon her. When Joel gets angry, spit sprays from his mouth as the argument intensifies.

Or when Ellie and Riley are dancing on the display in the mall, Ellie stops and has this moment where she realizes, “Oh, my best friend — the love of my life — is going to run away with the Fireflies. I may never see her again.” You can see that conflict behind what’s spoken. You can see it in these micro eye darts and the conflict happening in her head. No words are spoken. It’s just in there. That’s how we elevate and bring more to our fans today. Even if you’ve played this game a hundred times before, look at it now in this context, and see how much more layers of emotion and subtext is in or behind these characters.

Is the creative and technical process different between working on a remaster and a remake, and making a new game?

Gallant: The first thing I can touch on is just, like, what is the difference between a remake and a remaster, at least from our perspective, because we’ve remastered quite a few of our games, and explain typically what that means. A remaster is much more of a programming and tech art endeavor. It means taking the original assets, the original code, porting it to the PlayStation 4 and then pushing out the log distances, increasing the frame rate, exporting the textures at a higher resolution, and that sort of thing. You don’t go in and fundamentally reconsider the design choices you made. You’re kind of just making numbers bigger for it, to put it maybe inelegantly.

For a remake, we get to really go in and reconsider those fundamental decisions. One of the advantages we had for The Last of Us Part 1 is that we knew a lot of the decisions that were made on the original The Last of Us were limitations that were driven by the hardware that was available at the time. Shaun and I both worked on the original games, and a lot of the creative leads also worked on the original game and also worked on Part 1. We knew intimately that the reason this room is pretty simple and plain wasn’t a conscious choice. It wasn’t something we did deliberately. We were out of memory. The area before it and the area after it were more important, we wanted those to be spectacular. So this kind of transition space was pretty plain, and we got the opportunity to go back and go, “Well, what could this space be? How could we build in environmental storytelling here? How could we make the world feel richer and more detailed?”

The example that I feel really illustrates this is the State House museum in Boston. It has these back offices that in the original game were unremarkable. They were just kind of generic offices. We went back, and we thought of it at the concept art level: “What could this space have been? What would you have in the back rooms of a museum?” We added an art restoration station. We added all the tools and the brushes, the framed pictures that they were restoring. We ended up with busts of colonial figures that they had in storage, that sort of thing.

Another one is just, it’s silly things like, in a lot of these encounters, we can only have so many looks loaded at the same time. There might be a fight in the original game that only has male runners, because we couldn’t afford to have the female runners loaded in at the same time. We can now go in and have more look variety in those fights, that sort of thing.

It was also stuff like foliage. Foliage is kind of notoriously very expensive. It’s lots of little details, and it’s very complicated to render. One of the key elements of The Last of Us is just the beauty of the natural world and the natural world reclaiming these spaces — the beauty, but also the danger in that. If you look at areas like Pittsburgh or Bill’s town, those areas we got to go in and just make them so much more lush and detailed, have this beautiful foliage that’s totally overgrown. And that really honors the original creative vision.

Escayg: I would say the approach is measured. When we come into a remake like this, it’s a lot of what we don’t add that makes the difference. Having all the technology doesn’t always mean that if we added something, we’re going to get this better game, right?

We’re always kind of measuring everything against the original. “Does this actually make this fight better? Is this exploration better? Is this cinematic better? Or is it distracting? Is it beauty for the sake of it?”

There’s this constant, very deliberate back and forth, a tug of war between wanting to go crazy and or make it look more beautiful than it needs to be. I’ll give you an example. The quarantine zone is a military city, right? You’re in a quarantine zone. It’s safe. Narratively, it’s supposed to be safe. I mean, it’s seedy but safe. It’s a stronghold of humanity. Right? But it’s also cold and devoid of life, outside of human life or humanity. It’s not lush, but it’s safe. There’s a juxtaposition of being outside of the walls of the quarantine zone, where everything is overgrown and beautiful and lush, but dangerous, right? Sometimes you’re inclined to go, “Oh, let’s just, let’s make this beautiful tree in the military city.” And it’s very easy to go overboard, like, “Let’s put a lot of canned foods on the shelves,” — but no, resources are slim. How are you supposed to feel at this moment? And are we actually helping, or taking away from that experience?

I would say the biggest approach for making a remake in this particular case was restraint. How do we control our desire to just go overboard, and use very selective improvements to make this resonate?

Ellie looking up as Joel in the background drives a car in The Last of Us Part 1 on PS5 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

What’s Naughty Dog’s strategy with regard to remasters and remakes? The studio does a bunch of them. How does it impact timelines and business decisions? Do they operate as a way to retain talent between larger, new IP projects? Like a less busy time, restful time? Is it different because you already know what the game’s supposed to be?

Escayg: It’s a yes and no answer. In the case of our approach to the remake, I would say, after Part 2, as early as that, there was this sort of rumbling in the studio, like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could [do a remake]?” There was a lot of, “Hey, I would love to play Part 1 and Part 2 together, with the same graphics, the same fidelity.” That was sort of a motivator behind this remake. Is it restful? Absolutely not.

One thing I love about Naughty Dog is just the passion that the studio has. It’s like nowhere else that I’ve worked. Artists give everything into these products to make them amazing. And that’s exactly what happened. It was probably one of the most difficult challenges we’ve had. But we felt the responsibility to make this and craft this with the detail and the tension of a Naughty Dog game today. There was a lot of very careful and thorough care on that approach.

As for business decisions, that’s above Matthew and myself. But I can tell you this was a blueprint of an original game, but it’s almost the same effect of the team, because now we have the expectations to live up to it. And it was reaching for that and exceeding that, that pushed the team to where it is.

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