The entire space for this first combat against humans is built to be an action tutorial. With no elevation changes in the space, and the single red tone of textures, this is the simplest arena one could design, which foreshadows a quick and easy fight. Notice the number of crates and cover objects on the ground, and their geometrical position. Clear “camps” are established on either side. Both NPCs are scripted only to move left and right, never to flank Joel, which leaves players with plenty of time to assess the situation. This space is built to encourage players to flank these NPCS to the left (Tess crouches to the right of the player). Another visual cue used to great effect here are the electricity lines, that circle over the space. They make the space feel tighter, and add a loop that mirrors the path down below.
One also finds all three distinctive signs of a fight being over in action games: Tess stands and starts walking again (her AI state changes from InCombat to Normal), she starts a conversation with Joel and the combat music ends. In terms of scripting, these three signs are tested against the state of all spawned enemies (in this case, whether they’re alive).
At the end of the passage under the arch, another instance of the “boost and pull” move, once again the only gate short of an actual door that can be used in this game. Right after this, a typical example of an “S” shaped corridor. Historically found everywhere in FPS games a decade ago, they’re still used in today’s non open-world games as occluders and loading corridors between two heavy areas. And what occludes one way works in multiplayer too, you’ll find them in many MP FPS levels (Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, etc.) to break lines of sight and separate large areas to obtain the highest frames per second.
As a side note, and something you may have noticed all along these levels, the environment artist broke up the monotony of this flat wall by making an entrance to a courtyard, to the left of this corridor. You could for instance find this same addition of depth inside the transition building in part 2 where players first learn how to heal themselves.
As a side note, one of very few bugs in The Last of Us can be seen here, as the shader for the gameplay helpers is rendered through walls (normal behavior) but also over Joel's head.
After dropping through the hole in the fence – another typical Naughty Dog gating mechanism - a new cinematic starts as players enter the combat arena. Enemies are now scripted much more freely, with their back to the player to enforce a stealth approach. The shape of the combat space itself is built to allow NPCs to move in long straight ways. The left hand side’s purpose is actually solely for this NPC to go there and allow for more movement in stealth (added difficulty) over the initial takedown against the infected in part 2. Tess continues to help kill two of the four enemies, as long as players play by the rules of this tutorial. Both signs above the doors to the building are once again not placed here by chance; the green one indicating the ideal path inside, and the red one a sure way to get spotted. And with both signs having these warm colors, the rest of the building wears a very cold blue to make the signs much more noticeable.
This second combat also introduces dialogues between characters. Beyond their initial role as threat identification and background information, these conversations also serve as cues that NPCs are likely to change their patrol path once done. It’s therefore important to design these dialogues so they are not ambiguous when they stop.
As with the gate to the previous occluding corridor, this space also features a strong light to indicate the exit. We’ll see the same light used in all four of these combat tutorials each time to direct the player to the exit of the arena. While this doesn’t seem too necessary in these instances, players’ orientation is often confused when leaving nonlinear spaces in which they were dedicating their attention to the action rather than the environment. These help players getting their bearings again. And now that doors are used in combat spaces - wide open not to collide with players or NPCs fighting - , they’re also textured in strong warm colors to be seen better. Doors in exploration spaces in this game never bear these colors.
For this third and final tutorial combat (once again, magical game design number 3 shows up), Tess stops helping in any way other than shooting if the combat gets to that but a new mechanic is presented that offsets Tess. Joel can now pick up objects to create a diversion, essentially what Tess was doing before although she can’t be seen by NPCs. That’s a great way to progressively increase difficulty while not changing enemy type (all humans). The distance between the safe area players start in and the first threat is made longer to increase difficulty too and the same background info is given by NPCs to locate them with the help of the conveniently placed window. The orientation of the starting piece of cover also indicates the sense of direction of the upcoming fight, and where the exit will be located.
A sign of a space specifically designed for a fight is to open up multiple entry points to each zone. Here this staircase lost its railings to allow players to go over to the second floor. A simpler exploration area would most likely not have this, and in some cases would have been worse for it if it did as player exposition requires certain camera shots. Here the game moves away from being purely about exploration and makes players evolve on a two-floor loop, gated to a coop move with Tess. Many fights in this game are optional, but this isn’t one of them and the space reflects it.
As a final reward to completing all combat tutorials, Joel is rewarded with finding his very first shiv, while still inside the combat space. The shiv, much like the first aid kit tutorial (see part 2) is forced to the player as its effect is as straightforward as its game mechanics are complex (upgrades, use). Here the elevation, on top of increasing the difficulty of the fight, also serves to create side exploration spaces. Notice the color of the handrails that add a lot of depth to this scene and help players focus on one of the purposes of this tutorial: elevation.
The final combat is the fourth human encounter, second unassisted combat, and first active choice on the part of the player between “stealth” and “action”. This choice is actually shown on screen and justified by Tess’s dialogue. This fight is simply a summary, taken to the next scale, of every theme explored in combat tutorials seen this far: navigation, object interaction, enemies visibility cone, player noise and elevation (or lack thereof in this case). The choice of color palette reinforces these options, with the cold colors used on the left for a stealthier approach, and the warm yellow tones used with the sun on the right hand side to show danger and action. The right hand side approach also contains more immediate rewards (weapons) for having been bolder.
Robert being another human, there was no reason to turn him into a boss. But as Naughty Dog also needed to carry the scenario forward, it made sense to turn this fight into a chase sequence. For the same reason as Joel and Sarah move away from Joel’s office in the prologue, here the chase sequence allows to introduce Marlene much more dynamically and not have her simply appear in the middle of the previous combat space. That latter solution can usually be seen with less important characters, usually from the same faction, as waves of reinforcement.
This marks the end of the tutorial section of the intro levels. A few more mechanics will be introduced all along the game (enemies, weapons, upgrades) but the vast majority of the systems has already been presented by now. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the spoils: right after the cinematic ends, Joel is presented with both bandings and blades – the resources needed to create shivs - in two distinct locations separated by the first vista in the game, itself to be considered a narrative reward for having completed the first chapter, as well as an introduction of the destination ahead.
As Joel progresses through to Ellie, and the tutorials are now all gone, combat spaces become larger, with much longer lines of sight, introducing the many challenges ahead and giving the game its true scale. The next "co-op" take down between Joel and Marlene pushes this type of gameplay another step further by hiding one of the two enemies to kill inside the building, which shows that the gameplay itself will also take place over longer distances, not just the locations.
Another sign of the hands free design for the rest of the game, the first puzzle players encounter shows no hints at all. After another dialogue corridor designed to present Joel and Ellie’s early relationship, Tess joins them again and the adventure starts. Have fun with the rest of the game!
Thank you for reading this detailed level design analysis of the intro section of The Last of Us. For any additional question, or to discuss this further, feel free to contact me through LinkedIn.