Hey there fellow nerds, welcome back! The Last of Us: Remastered is currently being played by millions of folks on their PS4s, and with it, all the feelings they thought they had forgotten have come rushing back. It’s okay to feel, y’all. It’s okay to cry.
With all the hype surrounding the critically-acclaimed game, I recently sat down with Naughty Dog Game Designer Emilia Schatz to talk about Uncharted, The Last of Us, and her adventure in the industry. In part one, we discussed her entry into the game design, as well as her journey to accepting that the games she creates are something pretty dang special.
In this final part, I sit with Emilia as she speaks on life, Ellie, and the advice she has for aspiring designers.
What’s it like working with the team at Naughty Dog? From the outside, it seems like not only a forward thinking group, but one filled with such incredible talent.
ES: It’s intimidating. When I first started working, there were people there that I knew their names before I ever started working there; Richard, Amy, Bruce, Neil. Now I’m all of the sudden working with them, and they expect me to get results. I’m working with these amazing programmers and these amazing artists, and for the longest time, when you’re first hired there, you’re thinking, “when are they going to figure out that I’m a talentless hack?” Throw me out on the street! You just keep going with it. I stated before that we don’t really have producers, so you don’t always have someone breathing down your neck. You just have to take it upon yourself to constantly make the game better.
We really try to foster the idea that everyone designs the game – every department doesn’t work in a vacuum. We don’t have offices with closed doors; we’re very open. It’s really encouraged that you don’t call people on the phone or use email as much as other studios. We don’t write design documents; there’s no such thing. We show our design with individual prototypes. Everyone at Naughty Dog needs to be able to be self-motivated and needs to be able to take criticism. If I’m making a level, and an environment artist, a tester, a programmer – if they play it and don’t understand what’s fun about it, they should feel open to come and tell me. I want to make it better. I always get so bogged down with individual details of my level that I don’t see how it’s all coming together. I need that. It’s really great to be able to depend on so many talented people.
No one makes these games by themselves; no one person is responsible for making these games special. It’s the company culture, the caliber of the people.
The Last of Us did such an amazing job at lending positive visibility to the queer community, with Ellie and, arguably, Bill being written as gay characters. Were you excited when you found out that they were going to be queer characters?
ES: Yeah, I was definitely excited. I wasn’t in on that decision process, so I speak more to it as a fan. With Bill, you get hints, but I didn’t get it until the cinematic afterwards and he has the magazine. I realized, “Oh, that was the relationship with that guy, and that’s awesome!” The fact that that’s just a small detail of his life, an important detail, it’s so amazing to see. They’re completely round characters – they’re not one-dimensional, ‘were putting a gay character in for the sake of putting a gay character in’. These are people, and being gay just happens to be one thing about them.
“No one makes these games by themselves; no one person is responsible for making these games special.”
People ask, “what’s the decision to make this a gay character,” but no one ever asks, “what’s the decision to make this a straight character?” The thing is, in terms of human experience, straight while male seems to be the default in the stories that we tell, but it’s the exception in the world. It’s a small segment of the world’s population. I think that in order to tell an authentic story, you have to realize that there are all these other people with different perspectives around you.
I didn’t hear about Ellie being gay until the game was shipped and they were working on Left Behind. There were whispers that there was going to be a kiss scene, and I just thought that it was awesome.
I felt like it was just a very fluid, very organic progression of Ellie’s character.
ES: It’s not just something that’s shoved in there. There’s a lot of writing about Ellie that I think contributes to who she is. So it’s not really a big surprise when it happens. It’s earned, I suppose. Neil understands that writers write from their own perspective, and in order to get an authentic telling of a story, of a character, you need to do your research. You need to bring in different perspectives.
I was told a story where Neil was having lunch with a bunch of the women at the studio, and asked about movies they watched growing up. Afterwards, he would go and watch these movies. The next day, they’d come in and talk about it. He was really trying to understand perspectives. He looked for the common ground.
[Editor’s note: I was also told that Neil and those same women went to watch Blue is the Warmest Color together when it came out. Make of that what you will, nerds.]
Now, I understand you recently came out as a trans woman to your team at Naughty Dog. What was that like for you?
ES: Terrifying… but it was something I had to do. Trans people struggle with that idea. Sometimes people tell me, “oh, you’re very brave,” and in some individual parts of it, yes. But it was something I had to do. When you’re in a case where you either do this or I don’t know what, it’s almost like you’re not being brave, you’re just being yourself. I had no other choice. Writing the letter that I was going to send out to the whole company, sitting there with the mouse above the send button thinking, “okay, okay… click.” That was hard. But I came out to my family and friends years before, and by the time I came out at work, I had already transitioned in all other aspects of my life. I was female all the time at home; just at work, I would dress up in drag as a guy.
I started talking with Sony HR anonymously, asking what the diversity guidelines are like, worrying about my job. But I knew it would work out okay. There’s a lot of protection nowadays, especially in California, for LGBT people. I started telling a few of my coworkers, and it was a shock at first, but they were so amazingly supportive. I really felt that it was nice to start coming out to my friends and get such a positive reaction.
About six months beforehand, I went and spoke with our Head of Operations, and came out to her. I told her I had a plan; in a few months, March 14th, I am going to send out a letter to company and say that I’m trans, and that I’m going to be transitioning my life to be the person that I always felt I was. I’m still the same person I always was – the same person you came to rely on — and we took that to our Co-Presidents and then finalized the date.
Was it an easy transition inside the studio?
ES: Behind the scenes, they started getting things ready so that when I sent the email out, the very next week when I returned – I sent the email out and ran! – they immediately had a new email set up for me with my new name. They ordered business cards, they switched all the various places in the company where my name was listed, they changed my picture out; I got back and it was all ready, and people just got it. That’s one thing that’s really special about gamers. Everyone single one of my coworkers, as well as my friends and family, have played video games where they’ve played as a person very different from themselves. That seed of empathy is there, they’re able to get that. It’s been great.
Was that a surprising reaction?
ES: I think the industry gets a bad rep due to all the negative content and comments online. But I think devs that have been around for a good while, like the team at Naughty Dog, they know you for your talent, and that’s it. They’re very open, very progressive. I was terrified — it’s always a one-way door. You tell people and you can’t go back. I knew that most of my friends would be fine, but I figured I was going to lose lots of people and lots of family. But that just hasn’t happened. It’s been really amazing. I get nervous telling someone, but as soon as I do it’s great. You could say I’m always surprised for the better.
You design them, but of course you must play them. How long has your love affair with video games been going on?
ES: Since elementary school… probably third grade. I had an NES, so I always played Nintendo consoles. I didn’t have any idea that I wanted to make them professionally. I was making them on my own; I had a graphing calculator at school, and I was making little RPGs on them, and programming them in high school. In college I was making flash games, never thinking “maybe I should make games for a living?” But at some point, I think playing Ico did it for me.
“I think that in order to tell an authentic story, you have to realize that there are all these other people with different perspectives around you.”
I was in college, and there was sort of a moment in the game where you lose her. You’re running across the bridge, and there’s the free world! At one point, the bridge breaks in half, and she’s on this side and you’re on the other. The rational thing to do is run to freedom. And every time I thought about it, I told myself that I would just run to freedom. But it’s in that emotional moment where I see her fall and I’m like, “no!” I turn around, and for that little bit, I am a hero; I become a hero. I think that’s what makes games special. Who do you become? I did finally figure out that at the end, it is one of those gates that you need to her open, but it’s just funny that I never try. I don’t even think about it.
You never realize you invest so much of yourself into a character. Bringing back The Last of Us, the scene where you find Ellie on the operating table. For that entire sequence, I wasn’t myself; I was Joel. I didn’t care. I was shooting everyone. I took a shotgun to all the doctors.
ES: You gotta save Ellie!
I didn’t even care. No, you don’t touch her!
ES: Get away from her!
Exactly! I realized that I may have gone a little overboard, but it’s amazing that we can invest so much of ourselves in these characters.
ES: And maybe Joel had those thoughts, too. And in that moment, maybe it’s exactly what he had to do. It’s exactly like when I played Ico in college. There was something special that I wanted to be a part of. I want to have that moment at some point. I want to design that moment when players make a choice they would never, ever make for themselves if it weren’t for the emotional journey they experienced through the game.
Do you think working as a dev, you tend to be more critical when it comes to technical aspects of games? Or do you just sometimes like to go along for the ride?
ES: Definitely. It’s very hard to play other games without ripping them apart. It’s harder to enjoy games, unfortunately, because I’m always in the mindset of ‘how can I make this better’? Only… you can’t make it better. It’s already shipped. It’s on disc! You’re just going to make someone mad if you email them, like, “you know, you could change this and this.” People put so much of their life into these games. Different studios have different focuses, and at Naughty Dog, we really focus on the small details. So yeah, it’s much harder.
Could you pick your favorite game of all time?
ES: I think it’s probably The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Oh, a great choice.
ES: SNES games sort of have this halo around them for me. A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Legend of Mana, Chrono Trigger – it felt so great. I always played Zelda thinking that Link was a girl.
That’s what’s great about the progression of Link over the years. He’s gotten more feminine, allowing almost anyone to really step into his shoes however they see fit.
ES: Yes! I was actually really excited at the idea that there could be a female Link. I’m really excited about the open-world Zelda; I wanted my Zelda to be like Skyrim. Playing Twilight Princess, I felt very disappointed. I just got done playing Oblivion, and I wondered why Zelda was stuck in this old convention of Ocarina of Time, where you’re in these tiny channels. So I’m looking forward to a more expansive world. I wanted a female Link, but from what I heard, it won’t be just yet. I’ll still call my Link Emilia.
Your job demands so much brain power and innovation. How do keep on the cusp of learning – how do you stay so creative all the time?
ES: Oh… I don’t know! It’s sort of that drive to get that Ico moment. I want to make that. So we keep trying, and maybe we fail, or maybe we succeed a little bit. I try to get to that point where I feel like I have something to say to the world… but I haven’t quite said it just yet. I think it’s really important for game designers to immerse themselves in other mediums, because the more we focus on games, it gets to be kind of an incestuous sort of thing. It’s why we often end up with so many tropes. I try to get other life experiences. That’s that main thing.
We’re just about wrapping up. Do you have anything to say to fans out there, or folks looking to follow in your impressive footsteps? Advice, comments, concerns, Uncharted 4 leaks, anything?
ES: Haha! I’ll say this: no one is going to hand you what you want – you have to fight for it every step of the way. The only person really looking out for you in the end is you. When you go to college, when you’re studying games, things like that, don’t think that they’re making you into a game designer or developer – you’re there to learn and hopefully teach yourself. Always put in more than they expect. You’ll eventually get there. It’s a hard industry to get into, and the way you get ahead it by doing it all the time.
You make games and you fail. You make levels and you fail. You keep doing it and eventually you make something good. Hopefully.
I’d like to extend a massive thanks to wonderful and talented Emilia Schatz and the inspiring team at Naughty Dog for taking the time to open up about video games, creativity, and life inside the industry.
If y’all didn’t know, Emilia is one of the most enjoyable and passionate devs I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. If you beautiful folks have twitter, you’d be smart to follow her there. With Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End currently in the works, we’ll be hearing more from this Naughty Dog designer – there’s no doubt about that.
Happy gaming, nerds!