The Last of Us took the industry by storm last year, and now it’s back in its PlayStation 4 Remastered Edition to remind us all exactly why we fell in love with it.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Emilia Schatz, long-time game designer currently taking the world by storm at Naughty Dog, to talk about her journey through gaming — from designing Uncharted 3 to falling in love with The Last of Us.
Before we start, can you explain a little bit about your history in the industry?
ES: Yeah, sure! I’ve been designing games for twelve years. I originally started in Dallas at a company called Terminal Reality – they’re well known for BloodRayne and BloodRayne 2. They also made Ghostbusters, a project that turned out to be really fun to work on. But after Ghostbusters, I needed a change, so I sent my resume out to all my dream studios. I applied to Double Fine – never actually heard back from those guys.
Darn you, Tim Schafer.
ES: You know, I actually have a friend that’s there now, so it’s all right!
Well then, bless you Tim Schafer.
ES: Haha! Along with Double Fine, I sent a resume out to Naughty Dog, and I didn’t hear anything for a little while. I almost kind of forgot about it until they called. They were in the middle of making Uncharted 2, so it was the last push at the end – that’s why it took such a long time to get back to me. It was really cool. They brought me out there and took me through a very, very rigorous design process and test. In the end, it worked out great. They gave me an offer, and I came out and started working right at the start of Uncharted 3.
So you’d consider Naughty Dog one of your dream studios?
ES: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, the games I grew up playing and loving were actually more Nintendo games – I was a huge Nintendo fan. Mario, Zelda – anything on the NES. I wasn’t that interested really in Sony in general until the first Uncharted. I played it, and I really felt that there was something special there, you know? To this day, I still love going back and playing it. I played Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot, and I really appreciated the cinematic angles they went for even in those days – like the cinematic story they tell of when you die.
It was so delightful.
ES: Exactly! Daxter jumps over your face and starts just, “what’s going on, Jak?!” You know, it’s really wonderful to meet and work with the same people that did that. So yeah, when I was looking at studios, I told myself that it would be really great to work there. At the same time, I still want to make the Mario games; I still want to work on Zelda and things like that, you know? I would love to be able to design in a less realistic universe as well.
Realism is very in.
ES: Realism is very much in. It’s how you sell games, and I think Naughty Dog understood that better than anyone. I wasn’t there at the time, but that transition from Jak and Daxter to Uncharted was huge.
You still enjoy the realism factor though, right?
ES: Oh, yeah. I did the very last area of Uncharted 3. I don’t know if you ever played, but it’s Sandlantis — actually, I say that because the internal name for it was ‘Sandlantis’. I don’t even remember what the name of the city is that was actually in the game, because we all just nicknamed it throughout development.
I will forever call it Sandlantis. No one can tell me differently.
ES: So you know it. You play through the end, and there’s all these platforms coming down the sand. I did the prototype animation, and then we had real animators build them. I sort of channeled a little bit of my love for Mario platformers and stuff like that.
You found a way to sneak it in.
ES: Yeah, definitely!
Game Designer is such an important job, but one I feel goes a little unappreciated, at least in the sense that a lot of folks don’t exactly know what you do. What’s a day in the life of a designer like?
ES: A designer, especially at Naughty Dog, is very much like what an Assistant Director would be on a movie. We have a director, a creative director – that sort of stuff. But they’re all very busy looking at the big picture. They break it down to this particular level and tell us, “okay, this is the story we’re going for, these are the emotional beats.” We go over the process, the flow of the level, and what they’re thinking, then they give it to me and I run with it.
Is that normal in every studio?
ES: I think it’s very different with Naughty Dog. I think a lot of other studios have a lot more oversight for their developers. We actually, for the longest time, didn’t have any producers – which is unusual. It was because we tend to hire very experienced people that are self-motivated. Scheduling is always so difficult for us because if you do have a set deadline of next Friday, that sort of puts you in the mindset of “what can we accomplish by next Friday.” instead of, “what can we possible make that’s awesome?” So we start with that, and sometimes it gets us into trouble because, it’s something Bruce Straley says a lot, “you can’t schedule design.”
“Realism is very much in. It’s how you sell games, and I think Naughty Dog understood that better than anyone.”
It’s so frustrating and so difficult to make an overall plan for a game, because you iterate. You make a design, have people play it, then you iterate more; you keep doing it. So at what point does it actually become shippable? Is it fun? When can I hand this off to an artist and they art it up? Those are sort of really iffy questions.
Is it ever done?
ES: It’s done when it goes out the door. You keep working on every little thing, but it’s never really done, you know? I oversee individual parts of the game. I have ownership of this level or this aspect of gameplay. We have combat designers who specialize on all the gunplay in the game, we have a melee designer that specializes in that, and we kind of flow back and forth. We have people who mostly do scripting, so the code for a game is often done with level designers sometimes in correlation with programmers.
We do things like, ‘what happens when you walk through a doorway’ and ‘where do we spawn the enemies coming in’. The designer’s responsibilities really change throughout the dev cycle. We start with stuff on a whiteboard, then we start prototypes of areas where we talk about exactly what we want to improve in very small settings. Once you get all those in protoype phase, then you can start thinking about where they go. It’s bunch of theoretics. It’s all layouts and getting the characters in. I almost forget how to script by the time I get back to the end of a project. It’s like a have to learn how to program all over again, but I love all aspects of it.
You’re basically everywhere and everywhere.
ES: Exactly. I’m never a complete expert in anything except design, but I need to know how to program, how to do art, and how to work with people. That’s pretty much what I do.
I’ve read that you specialize in level layout and puzzle design, making you far more analytical than I can ever dream of being. What do you think drew you to that specific area of design?
ES: I think that it’s just the games that I grew up loving. Zelda is all about puzzles. Every time I go and design something for Uncharted, I’m thinking Zelda. I have to pull back from block-pushing puzzles and stuff like that because in the Uncharted universe, it’s challenging to make a puzzle like that that fits into the context of the game. You don’t have magic elements, or at least overt magic elements. You generally have to think that every puzzle you make has to be plausible.
If you go and find this puzzle working underneath the Château, for instance, in Uncharted 3 — why is it still working after all these years? What are the mechanisms that actually make it work? You stretch it a bit, but you try to make it as realistic as you can. I think that anytime where you can make it so that the player doesn’t realize they’re playing a game, where we don’t have to keep reminding them that they’re playing, is good.
You did that a lot with Uncharted.
ES: Yeah. So many times in Uncharted we made it so that when we have cinematics, it flowed naturally in and out of gameplay. Try not to cut camera, don’t take player control away unless you absolutely have to. A lot of times when we do a cinematic, we do it on a player action. So when the player comes to a step, you have to press a button to climb up. That’s when they go into cinematic, but it feels like the player did it. Or if Drake jumps and stumbles, he’s out of control himself, so it’s okay to make the player feel like they’re not able to control him. But as soon as he comes back and stands up, you need to be back in control.
Eesh, sorry. I’ve gotten a bit off topic.
No, please! The process is fascinating.
ES: Puzzles are very, very difficult to do, honestly. It’s because of the fact that you’re designing for so many different people for so many different things, and some people just don’t like puzzles. How do you make something that’s rewarding for them, too? Or people that like puzzles, some of them just don’t get it. Everyone comes at it from a different perspective. It’s not about being smart of not being smart. It’s funny! When you can’t figure out a puzzle, it’s because you’re missing something that the developer thought was very obvious, but obviously it’s not. It’s so interesting sitting in play tests, time after time watching someone play your puzzle, you’re just like “No! Just look! Turn over to your left, it’s right there!”
And when you figure it out as a gamer, you feel bad that it was so obvious.
ES: But that’s what’s great. A puzzle is special because it’s sort of a mini-game in a contained world, and I can make up the rules for that. I guess the best games give you the tools; you know what you need to do to get through the game, and then you apply those tools to solve the problem. You push and pull back and forth. You experiment with something, and the gameplay pushes back.
This goes for layout design as well?
ES: I think of layout design very much as a conversation between the player and the designer. When you enter a space, what do I want you to see? I generally start from the egresses of it, the nodes. Where the players makes their decisions, you need to stop and look around and say, “there’s the tower you need to get to, here’s a road that sort of goes in that direction.” You’re informed that maybe you take that path. It’s very much a game in psychology. You need to figure out what your environment is telling the player, and figure out how you can give the player as much information as possible so they feel very informed – but at the same time influence their decision to be the right one. It’s really fun.
I love that one of the big things we focus on at Naughty Dog is the emotional journey. At any moment in a level, we make the decision to include things that relate to the feeling of the game. For instance, the shapes in one area could be nice and round and flowing, so the area is going to be very comfortable. You can feel like you can explore without getting killed.
No enemies scaring the living hell out of me around the corner.
ES: Exactly! Then you take the contrast of that area to the next area where there are enemies and jagged stuff around; playing with that contrast back and forth and thinking about how the player is emotionally throughout the level… it’s just something I really enjoy.
So could you say that if we get mad a puzzle now, we can just come and blame you?
ES: Oh, yeah! Probably. I had a hand in a lot of the puzzles in Uncharted 3. The Château was all my level, so if you get frustrated with that… yeah, that’s my fault. I think now I’m one of the only people that really focuses on puzzles for the series. So when you play Uncharted 4 and you’re frustrated with a puzzle, I probably have something to do with it.
You’ve worked on an impressive list of critically acclaimed games, including The Last of Us. Did you and your team at Naughty Dog ever think it was going to make such a lasting and exemplary impact on the industry?
ES: Honestly, no. That’s kind of the way it always goes for our games. It always feels like a hot mess until the very end. I think there’s always some point towards the very end when things are coming together and people are playing the game that you start to realize that you really worked on something special.
“You can’t schedule design.” – Bruce Straley
I think for The Last of Us, I don’t think that moment was until the very last week. We were crunching hard, and there were so many areas that had to be redone. For Uncharted 2, from what I’ve been told, it sounds like their presentation at E3 got everyone excited, and the whole studio was like “yes!” It helped them push to the end – they knew they were on to something cool.
I remember with The Last of Us, I didn’t work on it from the start. I was on Uncharted the entire way. I would play the game with the rest of the design team in the studio – we don’t separate when it comes to projects. We want the team together; we don’t want an “us vs. them” dynamic. We want to share ideas and play testing. I remember playing some areas of The Last of Us, and just thinking that maybe it wasn’t really my thing. I felt badly that there were a lot of things I liked about it, and some things I didn’t. I didn’t exactly know what was going on. I was brought on to the game in the last few months – the entire company stopped everything else to focus on it.
What exactly was your role in The Last of Us’ development?
ES: I didn’t necessarily design anything from scratch. I picked up what other people started and finished it. Well, I suppose I did. You know that armored truck that shoots machine guns?
Oh, do I.
ES: When it chases you down the bridge, and Joel kind of stumbles and stuff… that whole segment was my design.
ES: Haha! That gets into that challenge where I wanted to make it feel like your knuckles are white. But at the same time, I didn’t want you to ever have to replay that sequence, because the more you replay it, the less impact it has. If you can have that white-knuckle sort of experience the very first time, and you make it through like, “ah, oh my god,” then that’s where the impact happens.
I screamed at my television through that entire sequence.
ES: Perfect! You start out with ‘bang bang!’ and the vehicle comes through the doors, and it’s getting closer and closer. You lift up the door with Ellie and get in, and you think you’re safe. Suddenly it shoots up the door, and you go from that into thinking that you’re safe on the bridge, but it breaks through again and you’re like, “Oh my GOD.” As you’re heading on there, something blows up and we took perspective back. That was a difficult thing to set up. We didn’t feel like taking player control away too much, so that took a long time to get right. I was very proud of that one.
I also scripted the area where you carry Ellie out of the hospital; that was designed originally by Peter Field – very talented designer. I sort of took it from him so he could work on other things and finished it. Oh, was I answering a question?
I don’t even know where we are. Let’s just go with it.
ES: Oh! The Last of Us being special!
ES: Honestly, I really didn’t. I had faith in it because I had faith in my co-workers, but I really didn’t know how I felt about it. It wasn’t until the very last week and I started playing through and I started seeing the game start to finish. I sent out and email to the team saying, “hey, I just want everyone to know that I’m so proud of working with all of you.” I realized that this was something that people were going to be talking about for a while. I don’t think anyone realized it. Well, maybe Neil did – maybe not. Either way, it turned out to be a bit of a surprise.
Speaking with Troy and Ashley about it, even they didn’t realize the massive impact it would have on the industry. It’s always special to know gamers, devs, and actors can share in that feeling.
ES: Oh, always.
If you’re interested in what else Emilia has to say about The Last of Us, video games, and life in general, stay tuned for part two. Also be sure to follow Emilia on twitter — she’s pretty darn interesting, you know.
Happy gaming, nerds!