The Last of Us Part II, Downtown Seattle
For 2020 I wanted to use #Blocktober to go into the creation process of a professionally made level in a bit more detail. When Blocktober kicked off in 2017, I asked people to share screenshots of their level blockouts, which were rarely seen outside of game studios despite being a fundamental part of the level design process. What’s difficult to discern from a screenshot however is the iterative process that goes into a level’s design in order to give it that quality that differentiates it most from simply being a piece of environment art: interactivity.
My experience as a level designer on The Last of Us Part II was pretty incredible and represented, for me, the culmination of over a decades worth of experience in level design. After completing my work on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy I had shipped a couple of levels already at Naughty Dog and was up to speed with the technology and team dynamics. I felt pretty comfortable about being able to produce good work, but I wanted to find ways to push myself as a designer and further develop level design concepts that I’ve been formulating since the start of my career. I was lucky to work on several long stretches of the game and I wanted to explore a different challenge and paradigm for each as much as I could within the brief given to me by the directors and the games overarching design philosophies.
I was also able to develop each level I worked on with a liberating level of autonomy, as far as level design is concerned. The infected “hive” in Abby Day 2: The Descent, for example, was something I introduced when exploring ways to get the player back down to ground level from the crane bridge they had just crossed.
On The Last of Us Part II I was responsible for designing the following levels:
- Ellie Day 1: Downtown
- Abby Day 2: The Shortcut
- Abby Day 2: The Descent
- Abby Day 3: The Island
- Abby Day 3: The Escape
Ellie Day 1: Downtown was probably the biggest single level I had the privilege of designing, so I’ve decided that it would be the best one to kick off my #Blocktober 2020 with!
I’ve put a full list of the developers that worked directly on the level below, but the co-owner of Seattle Downtown in the design department was Mark Burroughs who did the scripting on the level and who was a massive reason the level turned out so well (at least, in my opinion it did!).
Ellie Day 1: Downtown
Every level we worked on for TLOUII began with a simple brief. Some were simpler than others, and in the case of Downtown the brief was “Following the trail of Tommy then discovering the murdered WLF soldiers”. We had already explored the downtown area of Seattle in early level prototypes but we needed a larger space to accomplish some high level goals we also wanted to achieve.
Downtown: High Level Goals
- Theme: I wanted to deliver on the most realized version of the fantasy of having an empty city to explore. Since this is a driving factor of a lot of post-apocalyptic media, I wanted to nail as much as possible that feeling of melancholy mixed with excitement and mystery that you feel at the start of something like 28 Days Later. I also wanted to bring on a little personal experience of growing up in Scotland and poking around in ruins or abandoned places in the wilderness that was right on my doorstep.
- Traversal: Our early prototypes of levels on horseback were linear and while these are effective for urgency and giving the sense of traveling large distances, I thought there was room to explore different ways to capitalize on this form of traversal. There’s a sense of freedom in being able to traverse on horseback, so I wanted to develop a level that honored that, inspired by games like Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. We thought it was important to have a large space that warranted multiple revisits and criss-crossing where the player would need to rely on the horse to travel quickly, but also felt fun to ride through.
- Pacing: At this point in the story, while the characters are reeling from a catastrophic event, we are still early in the journey. I wanted to offer the player a space to reflect in, a place to take things at their own speed and enjoy unraveling some light narrative threads. This also offered a chance to be introduced to Seattle, it’s history in our fiction as a Quarantine Zone as well as an opportunity to get to know the character Dina a little better. I wanted to achieve this by giving players the freedom to approach objectives at a pace dictated largely by themselves.
- Objectives: Agency in objective order was important to make the player feel like they had more authorship over their experience. Autonomy in this way contributes to the sense of freedom we were going for, it also helps build more substantial payoffs to mystery in the environment. For example, a player who explores the far reaches of the map and then actually uncovers some major plot point or goal will be more engaged with the principles of exploration as the discovery feels more natural, as though they stumbled onto it purely of their own volition. I didn’t want players to be restricted to a linear route through the level and I strived to maintain the multiple choice objectives for that reason. I also wanted the outside space or “overworld” to feel just as full of content as the interior “dungeons” that housed some of the objectives, instead of just being a place to ride through on your way to another sectioned off space.
When dealing with a level set in a real world location the first thing I do is jump into Google maps (other map based services are available) and fly around checking out the location.
As I mentioned we had done some explorations of downtown already as a playable space. Mark Davies, a fellow designer at Naughty Dog, had put together the freeway that runs parallel to downtown and once we decided to expand into more of the built up area I inherited the freeway space from him. From there I started to build several of the blocks that surround the freeway.
I didn’t really try too hard to stick to the actual layout of downtown Seattle at first. At one point all the buildings were scattered away from their original locations. Through a series of iterations, I found out that I was actually only a couple of changes away from matching the real world layout exactly, so I made some changes and we shipped with something very close. We also managed to maintain the ordering of the street names (Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine) which, I was informed by Seattleites, is extremely important.
When I composed the skyline of the space originally, I noticed that the main discrepancy between what I had in game and the layout of buildings in the real world was a building called The Mark, which is a skyscraper that I hadn’t placed in my level. I’d not planned to build another skyscraper in the level, so I was willing to just go with the design that worked instead of matching the real world. However, I remembered Google has a time machine built in to its maps feature and checked out the space as it was in 2013, on Outbreak Day in our fiction, and the skyscraper wasn’t there! Perfect.
2013 on the left, 2019 on the right
I even used the real world reference of it’s construction site in 2013 to inspire an infected combat area.
Initially a lot of the exploration into the space focused around how to execute on the high level goals we’d established. I put a lot of time into investigating the boundaries of the space we’d require and the shapes that we’d want to focus on to drive exploration. Since we knew this was a level where you’d be riding on horseback, I laid out a space that I used to test the traversal and get some good metrics for spacing out obstacles.
At the early stages of level design we try not to go into too much detail, as you’re just as likely to completely cut a piece of geo as you are to keep it. I follow the mantra of fail early, fail often when it comes to design and so I keep my shapes as simple as possible early on.
As I was also working on levels that took place in other locations in Seattle, I was able to ensure the player had line of sight to other parts of the game. Not many people notice this but you can actually see the “shortcut” crane bridge that Abby crosses right at the start of the game from this location!
The point of entry into the large open section of the level was intended to provide a feeling of vast openness that invited you in. I wanted it to feel like a postcard version of Seattle as it appears in the world of The Last of Us. From this position your main objective locations are all visible, even though you’re not aware of what those are yet. This was a big “Welcome to Seattle” moment.
To help pay off this vista reveal, I contrasted it with a tight trek around a claustrophobic winding bit of forest before the player steps out into the open fields of downtown.
The key objective locations changed a lot throughout production as we iterated, made changes to narrative flow and playtested. As players found their way through the space or, as was more common early on, got lost, we would shift pieces of the level around and make adjustments often. The total number of iterations made to a level this size would be in the hundreds, if not thousands, and the end result that you see in game is drastically different to the early drafts of the space.
We always made sure to maintain that initial view. I moved the domed building (a synagogue) closer into view as I found it really helped the flow of exploration. It was the most commonly visited first location statistically and I used that to gently push players into discovering secondary locations such as the ruins traversal puzzle and guitar store by placing them between the start position and the synagogue. The way the curved dome stands out amongst the square skyscrapers makes it feel inviting and goes a ways to adding to the buildings somewhat peaceful interior experience, so to make sure you could always see it I created a field in front of it.
Points of Interest
I wanted the outdoors space to be as much of a playable part of the level as the “dungeons” you went in to. As I said previously it was important to me that the open space between dungeons wasn’t something you just rode through on your way to your next objective. To that end we added content like small puzzles, hidden areas and mysteries to discover at multiple points of the level. These helped keep the level feeling persistent and added a level of ambiguity between where content could be found. This helped keep a broad weight of interest between points of interest and players were more frequently spending time in the outdoors exploring as well as jumping in to the interior dungeons.
Spacing between these points of interest was important. As we were iterating on the space we had to make sure the map was evenly populated with things to do, to reduce any sense of “dead” areas. Sometimes a specific location was a great fit for a piece of content and other times we had to shift whole buildings to maintain this spread.
One major consideration that all levels face in The Last of Us is the ability for players to piece together the history of a space just by observing its visible attributes. With downtown, we had to layer up the histories of Seattle from Outbreak Day to the day Ellie arrives.
We started by building a timeline for the level. With the city in 2013 as its base, we had to consider the events that occurred on Outbreak Day, then the collapse of society as we would have known it, the establishing of the quarantine zone, the eventual collapse of that quarantine zone and finally the influence of the Infected and WLF (the faction that presently inhabits the space as you arrive).
We utilized these multiple layers of history to create pieces of environmental narrative and storytelling that would broaden the sense of place within the level and make it feel more tangible to the player. The player could also read the environment to learn more about Seattle and its history.
While we often build to the requirements of narrative, this is not always the case. In the example of the collapsed building above, I liked the idea and the imagery that a fallen building could evoke in the level. Once I had the layout set the way I liked, we would have a concept artist do a paintover on top of the layout to establish the idea before an environment artist came on to develop it.
The final element of this level’s design that I want to touch on is how we used open ended exploration and rewards to guide players through the space.
I was a big fan of the games Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Her Story before starting this level’s design and I was excited about the prospect of letting players gather pieces of narrative information out of order that, when studied, would reveal some interesting thread or story. To guide players between these pieces, we made sure that each held information about where the next new piece of information may be found. We also placed them in key locations the player was sure to travel. For example, in the synagogue, which is a critical location, the player will find a note leading them to an abandoned safe house. There they can find another “breadcrumb” of evidence that would lead them to a hidden stash in Barko’s. These items can be found in any order at any time by the player, which also has the added benefit of eventually injecting them back onto the critical path, preventing them from getting too lost.
These breadcrumbs also tell multiple stories, such as the story of how the WLF overthrew the FEDRA forces within Seattle, giving them more than just a mechanical reward but a narrative one too.
There were several of these threads for players to discover, and they were all trackable via the player’s map which was also a unique mechanic for this level. They all added to the high level goal for our objectives which was to keep the open spaces as interesting as the interior dungeons the player would step into.
I was incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing team to work with who made all this content possible and who I am privileged to be able to work alongside at Naughty Dog.
To give you an idea of how many dogs had to come together for this level, below is a list of most of the developers that worked on the level directly.
- Emilia Schatz – Design
- Mark Burroughs – Design/Scripting
- Andrew Frost – Design/Scripting
- Mark Davies – Design
- Todd Foster – Environment
- Chad Russ- Environment
- Jon Schmidt- Environment
- Jose Vega- Environment
- Santiago Gutierrez- Environment
- Philip Weisfeld- Environment
- Reuben Shah- Environment
- Antoine Deschamps – Lighting
- James Guard – Lighting
- Wendy Pham – Lighting
- Mari Kuwayama – Lighting
- Michael Fadollone – Props
- Charlotte Francis – Props
- Jane Mullaney – Props
- Sylvia Chambers – Animation
- Aaron Juntunen – Animation
- Laura Swartz – Animation
- Michal Mach – Animation
- Sabrina Phillips – Cinematics
- Beau Jimenez – Audio
- Neil Uchitel – Audio
- Josh Scherr- Narrative
- Emily Scrivner – Narrative
- Wataru Ikeda – FX
- Mark Mayfield – QA
- Ashleigh Dale – QA
- Wadah AlHasen – QA
- Maxence Gomez – QA
- Sam Schoenfeld – QA
Not to mention the other leads, directors and producers that oversaw development!
I haven’t touched on the actual interior spaces themselves in this blog such as the bank, the synagogue, the infected courthouse or the guitar store where Ellie plays “Take On Me”. While I would love to keep going into detail about all the areas of the level I haven’t covered yet, I need to keep something for my next Blocktober blog!