Selling the Fantasy through AI: The Last of Us Part 2

Last weekend, I dove headlong into the most self indulgent video game since Death Stranding: The Last of Us part 2. And much like Death Stranding, I loved every second of it. The game left me feeling depressed and emotionally drained from the level of empathy it forced me to feel. A big contributing factor to this was Naughty Dogs commitment to making their enemies feel like people and not just obstacles to overcome.

At face value, the game appears to be like many other stealth action games: stalk your target until no one’s watching, take them out, get discovered, take out a few more, hide and repeat with little to no remorse. That is until one of their friends discovers their corpse and yells, “They got Dana!” Wait what? That was a person with a name? No this is a video game, violence is fun, right? Remember Doom,  RIP AND TEAR? As time went on after hearing countless enemies cry out for the death of their friends and being able to put a name to the face  of my many victims, the tension of every encounter increased. 

I started putting a lot more thought into the way the AI moved and their dialogue when on the hunt. I could feel a genuine murderous intent behind every action they took. In a set piece early on, you become cornered in a basement. Smoke bombs are thrown through the windows and enemies rush in for the kill. My hands were trembling at this point. I felt so vulnerable and I could feel how desperately these people wanted to kill menot because they were programmed to do so, but because I’m the monster that murdered Dana, Alan, and their dog Lilly.

What’s even more interesting is that Naughty Dog have tried to evoke this feeling in their games for years now as one off story beats. In Uncharted 2, the final boss tried turning the player’s attention to the countless people they killed to get where they are now. In The Last of Us (part 1), the brutal finale uses the defenseless surgeons as a way to make players feel this empathy. But these moments are self contained, which allows players to shrug this feeling off easily. However in Part 2, they’ve embraced this as a core pillar and they make their players bathe in the guilt, regret, hate, and small windows of joy experienced by all the characters throughout it’s 30 hour run time. The key to this is the player experience provided by the AI design.

Puzzles: Stories Made of Gameplay

Hi, I’m Hunter Fraser. I’m the creative director at Regularly Scheduled Programming. I love all things game design and everything that surrounds it. I’ve been working on games in varying capacities for about five years now. To give you an idea of the stuff I’m into, some of my favorite games are Metal Gear Solid 2, Persona 4, and Bloodborne. Aside from great combat, story, gameplay and progression, I love puzzles. Through a year and a half’s worth of designing way more puzzles than I ever intended to, I’ve gained a pretty good grasp on how to make them interesting and feel more like a story than a puzzle.

The key thing you should avoid is designing puzzles that are the equivalent of giving the player a Sudoku book and announcing, “It’s puzzle time!” You don’t want a disjointed area with random puzzles that have absolutely nothing to do with each other slapped around, which I like to refer to as the “Room of Puzzles.” The way I’ve found to avoid this is to have an overall goal I would like to accomplish with the puzzle. This will help ensure there is motivation behind what you’re making the player do, and it allows you to structure cohesive puzzles that revolve around that motivation.

There are two great effects of this approach.

  1. It allows you to feed narrative to the player through the actions they’re carrying out and thus immerse them further.
  2. It will more then likely inspire a lot of creative ideas you would never have come up with otherwise.

A game I feel does this amazingly well is The Last Guardian. Every puzzle in that game is a vehicle to evolve the relationship between a young boy and the mythical beast Trico. The game’s opening puzzle is the story of the boy, played by you, nursing Trico back to health and gaining his trust. To get this across, Trico, who is chained up and clearly injured, has a very skittish reaction to you. The two points of interaction you have are some barrels of food and the spear stabbed into Trico’s leg. You can try feeding Trico at this point, but the beast doesn’t yet trust you enough to take anything from you.

The only thing left to do is to jump on Trico and remove the spear from his leg. At that moment, Trico isn’t happy, and he bucks you off, knocking you out. After you awaken, Trico warms up to you a bit more. He will eat the food you give him when you get a certain distance from him and make it look like you’re not watching. Once the beast receives enough food, he trusts the player enough to allow them on his back to unshackle his chains. After this scenario, trust is established and now the game can progress.

Something tells me this puzzle wasn’t just dreamt up and magically worked right off the bat. It most likely started with the end goal of wanting to forge a bond between the player and Trico. Conveying this could require research, like looking at how pets in real life react to new owners. This whole scenario is especially amazing because although it is really just a puzzle, it doesn’t feel that way due to the careful weaving of narrative and gameplay to be one and the same. This narrative context allows the player to come to logical conclusions about how to solve it. It’s like when you were a kid and your mom wanted to feed you vegetables, so she masked it in a food you really enjoy.

Where I’m really going with this is that puzzles are a great tool for telling compelling stories through gameplay, and for keeping your narrative something the player actively participates in rather then watches. When you slap puzzles about just because you think they’re mechanically interesting, they won’t hit as hard as you like because there’s no context. It just won’t feel impactful to the player.

Over the following weeks my colleagues at RSP Games will be bringing you new blog posts. Make sure to check them out, I know I’m super excited to see what they come up with. Thanks for reading!