The Last of Us Level Design Study

Hello! My name is Nathan Kellman. I am a passionate game designer specializing in level design.

I have always been an adoring fan of Naughty Dog’s level design practices. For my games, I would look to their GDC talks for the best ways of guiding a player through a space using shapes, negative space and narrative. One game that did an excellent job of this was The Last of Us. The combination of exciting gameplay with a compelling narrative had me playing for hours on end, and left me more excited for The Last of Us Part II. After playing the game, I wanted to complete a case study by recreating a level and breaking it down to better myself as a level designer. I was inspired by level designers like Jon Hickenbottom and Ovidiu Mantoc, who recreate levels from games to learn more about why a level was designed the way it is. I wanted to rebuild in Unreal Engine 4 to learn more Visual Scripting and get better with using BSP brushes for blocking out levels.

Research

To begin with, I had to figure out which level to recreate from The Last of Us. This was difficult especially since so many of these levels were created with such precision and care. I decided to pick “Bill’s Town” because of how the level was paced. It was one that I kept coming back to since it was where I had the most fun. Since the level was split into four parts, I wanted to focus on “The Woods” section because of its pacing.

As I played through, I took many screenshots to get an idea of the scale and composition . I would also sketch out the level in my notebook to get a top-down view of it as I played.

Blocking Out

Below I tried to recreate the level section using a combination of BSP brushes in Unreal and Maya to understand the ideas of scale and composition for this space. I did visual scripting with Blueprints to have objects move and some AI reactions.

More Than Shapes

As I played throughout the game and developed the level, I realized how strategically the designers were building out the level. They use many instances of shape language, composition, sound and color to maneuver the player throughout the space.

In the first part of the level, Joel and Ellie come into the woods with trees obscuring the sky and framing in a bird down a hill. Once the player gets below, they observe the bird that flies off to the left towards the water tower. Joel even talks about the water tower saying this is where to go. Utilizing elements like this is a huge part of level design because it can enforce where the player has to go and they won’t be confused.

The sound was also a significant part of the design. Players would get into an enemy encounter and would detect them before being seen. In this level, the player would detect the sounds of clickers and then use listen mode to identify their location. In the last section of the level, you can hear a runner banging on a door. While this is optional, the banging and movement of the door draw players in to identify what is going on. As they explore the house, a runner ambushes them. After killing it, they next find a note explaining what happened.

Shape language and colors are a great way to inform the player where to go without actually telling them. Players hate having their handheld through a game. It’s all right to do so during tutorials and introducing new mechanics, but throughout an entire game would irritate people.

For centuries, we would look at shapes and colors to tell if there was danger or safety. Even today, we associate certain shapes and color with products, people or other things. With this knowledge, designers have been able to instruct players where to go without them even recognizing it.

Tension Beats

“The Woods” does a great job of building up tension throughout the level and overall the chapter. There are a limited number of enemy encounters but it keeps the player on their toes. In addition, the ending provides a big climax where they have to fight for their life.

There are only five enemy encounters with this section. The first encounter is two clickers in an enclosed environment. The player can silently slip through the clickers or kill both. Sneaking past them is not that hard as all you need to do is keep going to the left, but players may take the risk to collect supplies. This can entice players to play cautiously, so they do not alert the clickers because those are instant kills if they get their hands on the player.

The second and third are also clickers. However, the second is more of a jump scare where the clicker comes around the corner and is blown up by a trap. Once past that, you collect a bow and some arrows then you encounter a sleeping clicker which they can kill with the arrow.

The fourth enemy is optional, but it is hard to miss. Close to the end of the section, there is a loud banging on to the left with the door moving and dust being kicked up. Once the player enters, they hear the infected race upstairs then as they explore the area, it runs out and ambushes them.

The climax of the level is when Joel and Ellie are in the warehouse where Joel is upside down and fighting off a wave of infection.

With these level encounters, a player is cautious because clickers can kill them with one touch. However, there is a sense of power because they can be sneaked upon and killed with little drawback. Then the climax takes that power away from them, suspended upside down with infected from all-around attacking while Ellie is trying to free the player from the trap. This climax reminds the player that they are still a hostile world and some things are not in their control.

Conclusion

The Last of Us continues to be a great example of developing levels that deliver beautiful narrative and stressful combat mechanics. After rebuilding this level section, I understood levels didn’t have to be complicated or huge for a player to have fun. What matters most is the pacing within to keep the player engaged and how you allow the environment to tell the story. Using environmental storytelling, sounds, and art to direct the player is excellent because it feels more natural and disguises all the arrows that inform them where to go. It isn’t just the level designers’ task for this to come to vision. It takes artists, sound designers, testers, writers and many more people to bring a level to life.

After this study, I learned that rebuilding my favorite levels was the best way to continue building my level design knowledge. I discover better ways to pace a player through narrative elements and enemy encounters. I saw the buildup of tension to the final climax was why I enjoyed it so much. I would encourage anyone who wants to pursue level design to rebuild their favorite levels and try to apply them to their games. I plan on continuing studies like this because of the fun I had and all I learn!

Feel free to play games I have worked on by going to my website here. Any comments you have for them or my blogs, my contact information is on my website as well.

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