The Last of Us: Legitimate horror

By Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

Are video games art? The Last of Us designer Ricky Cambier says the argument ended long ago. Photo / Supplied
Are video games art? The Last of Us designer Ricky Cambier says the argument ended long ago. Photo / Supplied

Ricky Cambier is still afraid of the plagued mutants that stagger and lurch about in the dark in The Last of Us.

Granted, most players who are working through the PlayStation 3's new survival horror adventure might shrug their shoulders and say "yup, me too" - but they haven't been immersed in the game's post-apocalyptic environment since the early days of its development.

A private event for The Last of Us, in which an old house was dressed up to simulate the game's more horrific vistas, was held in Auckland prior to the game's release this month. The ambience was more than enough to unsettle Cambier, part of the design team behind Naughty Dog's first original title since the Uncharted series.

"It was creepy, and scary. It had that tone," Cambier told nzherald.co.nz over an early breakfast the next day.

"In the dark alleyways they had some lights and they hid these speakers around the corners, and they were playing the Infected sounds.

I know I've been working with those sounds for a while, but it can still resonate.

"It reminds me that even just the sound applies that pressure. You could imagine you were in that world and when you hear that sound out in the darkness, it's freaky. It's scary."

Cambier said the game's atmosphere helped accomplish a goal for Naughty Dog: to force players into an uncomfortable and dangerous space with no choice but to traverse through it and survive.

The Last of Us, which should be guaranteed to scare you senseless, been earning rave reviews and perfect scores from a range of publications this month - including a five-star rating from TimeOut's Chris Schulz who said it was a "violent rollercoaster of a ride" that may compel you to take cover "under your duvet" during the scarier parts.

"There are still moments that freak me out," said Cambier." You know that there are awful things out there, and you've got to do it."

The Infected are the game's main enemies, having suffered the advanced effects of an aggressively virulent fungus. The sounds they make (particularly those of the blind Clickers that use echolocation to "see" obstacles and prey) help to drive the horror aspects. The game's emotional engines are propelled by the voice acting and by the musical score, composed by Gustavo Santaolalla.

Cambier said Naughty Dog believed they would struggle to attract the two-time Oscar winner (for Brokeback Mountain and Babel) but when they were searching for a composer, Santaolalla's work kept coming back to them and it was a partnership they simply had to pursue.

He said his team's passion was attractive to the composer, and a solid link with Sony - with whom Naughty Dog collaborates as a first-party publisher - helped to seal the deal.

"We said 'we're in love with the stuff you do with the films, particularly in No Country for Old Men. The musicianship is just there and it's so powerful, but subtle. It's part of the world'."

Cambier praised the game's stars, Troy Baker (BioShock Infinite) as the rugged hero Joel, and Ashley Johnson (Ben 10) as the brave and resourceful teen Ellie, saying their dedication exceeded Naughty Dog's expectations.

"You get, on one level, their skill and ability to bring a character to life. Top notch. Their chemistry is what the game needed.

"Then they go even beyond that. They didn't just show up to the set and do their thing, and then forget about it. They were messaging (co-director) Neil Druckmann with ideas, re-taking scenes. They did one scene - they had nine takes, they did it and they were gone. Two weeks later, they were like 'we think we can do it better, go back in, and really capture it.' It was incredible."

Johnson, who provided the voice and motion capture for Ellie, didn't have to be asked twice to participate in The Last of Us, said Cambier.

"Ashley tells a story about her agent calling her, 'how do you feel about trying a video game?' and Ashley's response is 'hell yeah, what do you think I do with my time?'.

Having top-flight voice actors, and an Academy Award winner on the credits list has pleased Cambier greatly.

"What an exciting time. There's legitimacy now. People are still wondering if this is an art form. To me, that question has been out the window for a while. It is a legitimate art form, for sure."

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