This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
The intro cinematic here serves two purposes: Introducing Tess and her relationship with Joel, and giving players a goal for the upcoming level. With that done, it’s not necessary to give players other intermediate goals along the way.
Following an NPC is an excellent, tried and true means to expose players to a completely new world to discover. Tess plays the role of a learning tool, and it’s precisely once players have learned enough about survival in the game that she dies and leaves room for the new relationship between Ellie and Joel to grow. This is an absolute classic process - death aside - used in a great many third person games from Uncharted to Prince of Persia, Enslaved and many others. FPS games also use this technique, but to a lesser degree as following an NPC in first person is often a much more arduous task. Half-Life 2 famously used Alix Vance that way, mostly in non-combat spaces. More recently, BioShock Infinite also followed the same model but made the entire game about that NPC.
Once outside, players are immediately presented with a good combination of narrative and level design. Tess mentions the curfew that will hit in a few hours, while in the same frame, players can see once again in yellow, the sign that mentions the curfew hours. Attention to small details like that is what will make an entire world more believable. The use of red and white bricks for these buildings adds contrast and depth to this scene, and with Tess going around the corner, helps imagining the path forward.
Messages painted across walls is as fundamental a narrative design technique as any, but great games will make use of them sparingly, and at the very least won’t reuse the same message more than once per section, so as not to destroy the immersion they’re designed to create. It’s the same thing for talking NPCs, designed for very specific situations, so their speech doesn’t get repeated.
During this entire level Tess keeps waiting for the player by staying idle on a few of the nodes on her scripted path. This is of course so she can keep being the player’s guide. Notice here however that the implementation of that system is just the bare minimum expected in today’s games. In reality, follow missions are few and far between in this game, as NPCs usually trail behind the player in non-scripted ways. In a game where the NPC is as essential as BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth would have stopped her scripted movement, retraced back her steps to the player (or been teleported behind him) only to resume her script from there. This is a good example of the limitations borne from early creative decisions that dictate the systems developed for the game. It’s entirely normal, but something to be conscious of when creating levels.
Following on to the main street, where a scripted camera takes over and introduces the new playable zone. This sort of introduction is a dead giveaway of a Naughty Dog game, and is most useful in locking the player in place while the army vehicle passes left, preventing the player from reaching the far end gate and exiting the playable area. With the camera locked in this way, the vehicle may very well simply disappear once passed.
Arriving in a large area is often a good occasion to introduce more exposition scenes, and in this case two well-constructed ones. Right in front of the player as he arrives, the first scene presents survivors waiting for their weekly ration in a line, behind fences. The fences here work great with the theme of a post-apocalyptic world, but the wall they form is absolutely necessary in scenes like this to limit player interaction and bugs. We find the exact same use of containment barriers in the scene that follows, with the extra touch of the military personnel pushing then killing Joel if players venture too far. Inside closed spaces, most games generally use windows, which we’ll see in The Last of Us later.
The arrival at the checkpoint is a textbook example of how to center player attention with a dynamic element. On this crossroad, the first semi open area in the game, players may very well be tempted to go either way, but the arrival of the armored vehicle against the player’s direction, the closure of the gates, Tess's placement near the checkpoint and the yellow sign above all point the player effortlessly to the left instead. Naughty Dog manages to seemingly open the game much wider, while remaining in a narrow exposition corridor.
Another textbook example, and a difficult one to achieve, the quick return tutorial. The narrative scene that introduces it is meaningful as it introduces the Fireflies for the first time in the game, but it also pits the player right against a fence in a position of danger. Just like in the combat tutorial, the necessity to move away from this fight makes it ok to block player controls and require a specific command. Players rarely question this.
As a side note, some of you will have noticed that the main street had not been gated yet in the game, and Naughty Dog made sure it was by adding this little scene of police blocking the street.
When addressing player accessibility and teaching, it's important to make the distinction between the two learning models players can be separated in. The first type, Explorative Exposition, describes players who learn by doing; while the second type Experimentation Exposition describes players who by fear of failing expect to have a maximum amount of information given to them before they try. Designing tutorials for these two types of players is very hard, since their learning methods are diametrically opposed.
Naughty Dog chose here to address both types by designing tutorials for either type and alternate between them. The more complex tutorials, those that either require a huge amount of information given, like weapons for instance (see The Shiv in part 3) or would demand a very expensive and convoluted setting (like this health kit) are designed for the second type of players, stopping the game and giving them everything they need to know before experimenting. The intention of showing the time it takes to heal is well convened here. And to make sure the player actually sees this most important item, Tess gives it away instead of having it placed on a nearby table. Perfect introduction of the mechanic and it reinforces their relationship as no one else would ever have given this for free to Joel.
As much as accessibility is often separated in three stages (exposition as seen above, validation and challenge), players often find these cobbled together. The second stage for instance is largely unnecessary when designing for a core audience that is already very used to these game mechanics and gamepad controls.
Follow a few textbook examples of light placement inside this exposition corridor, with inviting diffused lighting that propel Joel forward. At the end of this sequence, we find the first of many trademark moves by Naughty Dog when Joel jumps down a hole. This kind of transition keeps showing up in Naughty Dog almost invariably to transition into a cinematic mid jump (we’ll see that later in the second combat) or to be used as a loading screen to the next level. It also helps segmenting big levels into smaller pieces where NPCs won’t travel large distances back and forth, limiting bugs.
On the other end of that tunnel comes the first introduction of the “vault over” move, which will be reintroduced at a later point as well. All move tutorials in Naughty Dog games are introduced a number of times in slightly different combinations so players learn by doing more than once. It’s rare enough in games to notice how good they got at it; in reality this entire level is a mixed sequence of tutorials.
Immediately after this “vault over” move, Joel is presented with his first “safe zone” to pick up his weapons. In the rest of the game, this workbench will allow him to upgrade his weapons. The more interesting part is the left hand side “boost and pull” move, which uses very strong warm colors. Once again the use of the yellow signifies interactivity/where to go. All third person games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Prince of Persia, etc. use specific colors on their palette to orient the player, particularly at the start of a platforming sequence. The move itself is gated to players having picked Joel’s backpack on the workbench, and the combination of both tutorials in the same room is not by chance, it’s the only move in Joel’s arsenal that can be disabled given it uses a prop and an NPC.
We’ve already seen “jumping in a black hole” as a gate, and lifting this door here is just another example of subtle gating mechanisms used to unload the previous part of a level and load the rest dynamically, so as not to require loading screens, or the strict minimum. It’s now so standard that we’ll soon forget it’s a rather recent addition to the arsenal of level designers, created when dynamic loading became possible with PCs and consoles becoming more powerful.
This leads us into the first puzzle space in the game. Notice the multiple ways to leave this interior space, including the first crouch position to the right. We’ll see the move introduced on the critical path afterwards, but it’s not unusual for Naughty Dog to include such moves before their tutorials are introduced. A few hints give us the direction the player should head in. First the busted up ground is a good tool to shape the ground in the general direction of the gameplay, and make the space visually more interesting (less flat) and more interactive with the player needing to repeat the “vault over” move to get out. Another tool is the direction the crows fly in when leaving the hood of the car. Finally, the red bricks and vines uniformly applied everywhere is a giveaway that the exit is not necessarily straight forward.
Notice the rug over the destroyed wall, accenting the solution to this first puzzle. This tutorial is a great example of puzzle design, where the problem needs to be presented front and center, so that the discovery of the solution leads to a minimal amount of attempts once found. Portal is the most recent game to have perfectly followed that credo. Of course, this is here simplified to its core essence, but the same principle follows in the rest of the "ladder-based" puzzles. A sign that you have a great game mechanic on your hands is the ability to design variants of the same puzzle throughout the entire game. It means it's a deep enough mechanic, and not a gimmick.
After picking up the ladder, Joel enters the very first exploration space where he will be able to pick up game resources. Seen as this type of loot is what the entire game economy is based on, it makes sense to present them exactly in the opposite way to the narrative elements of the rest of the intro. Meaning shrouded in darkness when important narrative beats were placed in brightly lit areas. The lighting in this area is worked so the cabinets are mysterious, so that adventurous players learn this classic challenge-reward combination.
After reaching there and turning around, players can then notice glimmering the very first Firefly Pendant located in the room beyond, with a nice Firefly symbol placed on the wall as a final hint. The placement of that desk in this room is studied to allow that to happen. You can safely assume that this is the easiest of all Firefly Pendants. Having presented the first resources and the first collectible separately is a good move to make sure players understand their different role.
Jumping down (once again, a gate), Joel enters the first spore-infected area in the game. Tess is once again used as justification, by stopping Joel and putting her mask on. Players immediately understand the nature of the threat and that they won’t ever have to put the mask on themselves. The change in lighting and visibility also preface the incoming danger, immediately shown in a safe situation moments after hitting the spores. The relationship between the spores and dead body are made perfectly clear, and this example of narrative design through environment art is perfectly paced.
Just like the doors to Joel’s office in the prologue, here is a great example of using interactive objects to place the character in a specific situation and justify the camera transition to a cinematic. The plank, with its forced interaction, is only here to make players notice you can go through the door by squeezing through. In fact, even the dialogue is designed with that n mind. Once in this position, the camera is entirely scripted. One should always expect a narrative element on the other side of that type of sequence, particularly when entering a brand new space. Using this type of contrived cinematic moves has become a main fixture in Sony titles, noticeably in God of War and Uncharted, and in competing titles such as Tomb Raider. BioShock actually was one of the early titles that always tried to justify camera placements. These sequences also sometimes serve to limit the speed of movement of the player, particularly to help loading times in and out of expensive areas. But there are sometimes ways to include these delays in gameplay itself. For instance some of Elizabeth’s lockpick animations were gated to the loading of the area beyond the gate she had to open. In these cases, conversations between her and Booker would also be timed to the necessary delay.
Once clearing this filing cabinet, a perfect camera takeover to introduce the shooting tutorial. A conveniently placed hurt human (still target) offers the chance for a quick headshot if camera is left untouched. Nearby the ammunition pickup ends this gameplay loop and makes most players come out on top ammo wise. It also offers the game’s first active choice, as are all combats in this game (choice of resources and sometimes tactics). Notice right after this encounter the use of dialogue to justify the next camera takeover and introduce the first combat against infected. The piece of wood falls down just as Tess speaks up, while Joel indicates the need to remain silent. It’s as dynamic an introduction as one can make it and flows superbly.
Please notice the placement of these infected. Them being tutorials, it’s only logical that they are as scripted as they are. The first one plays to the stealth nature of the combat, reinforced by the action and placement of the two other infected. As you can see above on the first floor, they actually are a landmark for players to orient themselves. Most landmarks are used as large objects in the background of a scene, for instance Half-Life 2’s citadel in City 17’s skyline, and in the case of The Last of Us, the hospital Joel and Ellie reach towards the end of the game plays exactly that role, but in tight corridors and encounters, level designers can reverse engineer an NPC as the landmark, and plan their geometry around. In this case carving up the floor just so the infected can be seen below. Near this location, on the bottom floor and the top floor, two exploration spaces that make good use of this gameplay loop (challenge-reward) offering loot just after clearing the combat.
Once again outside, this seemingly uninteresting transition area between the combat tutorial and the upcoming puzzle is made interesting by the basketball hoop that provides a clear sense of direction to the immediate space, and the busted up concrete perpendicular to the court adds a layer of depth to an otherwise flat surface. Notice once again the color yellow used in Mel’s Home Hardware store sign, and its placement over the exit.
Next up is the second "ladder-based" puzzle space that follows the basic rules of great puzzle design. First the exit is presented to the player in the same frame as the problem, and the solution once found (“aha! moment”) only takes one try to complete. Notice how the blue tarp provides a good visual clue in this tutorial as to where the solution is, just like the rug in the first case.
Leaving the puzzle area that shows that the best game mechanics can be used in multiple variations, the same yellow color is brought by lighting through the window. Around the corner, a little reminder about exploration, with a health pickup dropped on the far end of the ladder.
Down yet another gate and Joel now follows Tess through a back alley. This otherwise uneventful place sees the addition of yet another reminder of the “vault over” tutorial, as another way to require a button press from the player and keep him/her engaged. This however no longer requires the UI indication on screen.
Just around the corner lies the second Firefly Pendant. “Hidden in plain sight” is a good way to introduce a second collectible, after having given the first one essentially for free. This one perched in the trees, and the puzzle before it tease the elevation changes of gameplay taught in the subsequent combats. You’ll notice the LD work that went in creating the blockage under which Joel must crawl, which reveals through its branches the glimmering Firefly Pendant.
Forcing the player to continue through a building serves multiple purposes. The first, and smallest is it helps justify the placement of gun ammo on the table, as opposed to having it just lying there on the streets. The second, the door that Joel closes behind him, is yet another gate for the upcoming NPC – heavy survivors camp, which can even be loaded during the third and final purpose, introducing a small child in a narrative sequence with Tess. These windows here give just the right amount of light in and allow the heavy contrast between the two areas to have the animation read a lot better. This room could have been there simply for optimization purposes, but Naughty Dog managed to turn it into a whole lot more.
The survivors’ camp is another gameplay loop closing in on itself. After the initial exploration and learning came the tension of the spores and the challenges of the first fight and puzzle, the camp is a narrative reward for having made it this far, and a chance to pick up another two collectibles. However as it’s not the end goal of the level, tension should still be a constant theme, hence the more and more violent scenes one after the other, that also introduce the upcoming fight with humans. Notice the little girl playing with her stuffed bear in the far corner. She and the little boy earlier are nice ways to feature children in action games where rules dictate that no human child should ever be killed on screen. Emphasis on human; children that do get hurt are often already dead, possessed or otherwise sick (School bus in Prey, Little Sisters in BioShock, etc.)
This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three