In the new PS3 apocalyptic survival game “The Last of Us,” an unlikely pair of survivors wanders through a future ravaged by zombie-like creatures. Joel is hired to smuggle a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a quarantine zone, but their personalities clash as they traverse the once-familiar terrain of Boston, which has become all plant life and crumbling buildings.
For months, the Naughty Dog title, overseen by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley (2009’s hit “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”) has been generating intense interest among gamers, not simply for its sleek visuals or its end-of-the world action.
What’s setting the game apart is the way it attempts to build intimate character moments between its two leads.
“If a player doesn’t feel that a bond between Joel and Ellie has been formed, then we have failed,” said creative director Druckmann.
Due this June, “The Last of Us” aims to marry the tension of Danny Boyle’s action-thriller “28 Days Later” with the diligent doom of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” which examines the relationship between a father and son trying to survive in a tattered world overrun by cannibals.
To achieve the balance, “The Last of Us” takes an unusual direction for a major video game: It slows things down.
“We felt negative space is missing from a lot of games, and especially games in this genre,” Druckmann said. “They’ve been moving more and more toward action, wall-to-wall action. Music is blasting; the creature makes loud, scary sounds.”
On the surface, the infected humans in “The Last of Us” sound far more benign than the average zombie, part of a conscious effort to dial down all the tropes of the survival horror genre. Those infected, for instance, gradually become blind; rather than moaning, they make clicking noises, using sound waves to navigate.
Rain and shadows create a foreboding atmosphere, as does the game’s score, penned by Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”).
Each character offers a different perspective on what’s become of the world around them. Joel, voiced by Troy Baker (Robin in “Batman: Arkham City”), remembers the time before the pandemic hit. Ellie (“Growing Pains” actress Ashley Johnson) was born in a quarantined zone.
“She has a very different outlook on the world,” said the game’s director, Straley. “It was an interesting thing to see someone born into a brutal world, something that has a stark reality. Can they still be innocent? Can they have childlike qualities to them? Seeing the two of them together was an interesting contrast, not only in character and storytelling, but just for dialogue and play.”
When it came to the pacing for “The Last of Us,” Druckmann and Straley drew inspiration not from other games, but from the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Joel and Ethan Coen, specifically the Oscar-winning 2007 drama “No Country for Old Men.”
“We went to see ‘No Country for Old Men’ together, and we walked out of the theater, jaws agape,” Druckmann said. “The audio landscape was sparse. The shots were long. There’s a fight scene in the middle where the tension is palpable. Everything served a purpose.”
Production on “The Last of Us” had been underway for years when the title was first officially unveiled in 2011, and at the 2012 edition of E3, the game received the loudest cheers of any Sony project.
Early teasers have positioned the title as something of a survival western — degenerating vistas get more emphasis than the infected, who largely appear in shadow.
At this point, Druckmann and Straley are excited by the effect the game’s success might have on the industry. At a moment when convention is shifting — even Lara Croft has been retooled to become a more realistic heroine — “The Last of Us” might help push big-budget games to embrace emotion as a driving narrative force.
“There’s a wide array of feelings we want to explore,” Druckmann said. “We think the interactive medium allows you to, as the player, be there with them and touch those feelings.”