Naughty Dog, celebrated as the creators of such classics as Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, have enjoyed recent success with the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. There is one thing, particularly prominent in the latter titles, which makes a Naughty Dog game instantly identifiable, and that is its incorporation of puzzles into its environmental design. With The Last Of Us Part II on the way, it seems only right to focus on The Last Of Us, but everything mentioned below is equally applicable to any given Uncharted title. This article will detail how The Last Of Us highlights Naughty Dog’s ability to create significant environments.
Environmental puzzles are not a feature that is unique to Naughty Dog games. Over the years, plenty of developers have designed games that have featured puzzles based on environmental manipulation. However, Naughty Dog does not simply say, “You need to move this box out of the way to progress.” In Naughty Dog titles, the box is just part of the aesthetic. There is no detriment to verisimilitude, because nothing seems out of place.
When the player first realizes that Ellie cannot swim in The Last Of Us, it quickly becomes clear that, like many games, the player must solve puzzles in order to help their companion traverse impassable spaces. From Ico‘s Yorda, to Atreus in the most recent God of War, many games base their puzzles on the incapability of an essential character to progress further without solving something. What differentiates The Last of Us, and by extension Uncharted, from other puzzle games is how much sense the puzzles make. Due to the linearity of The Last of Us, Joel is confined to a certain part of the map until both he and Ellie can move forward to the next part. The part in question clearly contains the key to progression, so the map must be scrutinized until something alterable is discovered, which can set in motion a chain of events ending in the ultimate progression forward. The player will eventually find some debris, which resembles a sort of raft. Ellie can use it to stay buoyant and sort of paddle across narrow widths of water, allowing for her to move forward with Joel. In some cases, it is actually Ellie who must help Joel progress, as her small size allows for her to be hoisted up onto tall platforms. From these platforms, she can drop a rope or a ladder, which Joel can then climb. There is no compromise of realism at any given point in The Last of Us or Uncharted with respect to environmental puzzles. Thus the environment itself gains absolute significance as a container of objects that can potentially be manipulated.
An environment that obtains absolute significance in this way no longer contains empty space. Many games have empty rooms—a trophy hunter’s nightmare, when they have one collectible left to find—but even empty rooms in The Last Of Us are imbued with possibility. There might not be a Firefly pendant, or anything that you can interact with. They might not even find stock items in the cupboard. However, it is the act of searching the room that is important here. The player will search almost every room, be that for items, or a way forward. Due to the significance of each part of the game’s environment, the absence of something in one room directly implies the certainty of its presence in another. The player is never daunted by empty space, because empty space is just part of the larger puzzle.
This article previously mentioned that the consistency of the game’s aesthetic prevents its verisimilitude from being compromised. This, too, adds to the significance of empty space and density of environment. By incorporating the majority of the game’s puzzles into the game’s environmental aesthetic—tall ledges, narrow passages, locked doors—and, by having the solutions to these puzzles rooted in environmental manipulation, as opposed to hunting for a key, the player becomes far more immersed in the game. Every part of the map is imbued with the possibility of being alterable, or manipulable. Every part of the map that cannot be interacted with, becomes the proof that there is a part of the map that can be. As such, in a room where there are no collectibles or items, the reality faced by Joel and Ellie within their fiction bleeds through the screen into the reality of the player. A lack of items reminds the player that this world is different to their own, and empty space becomes a part of the story. Empty space is haunted space. It is somewhere the player does not wish to be, and so, they push on, pursuing hope.
There are many great stories in video games, and there are many great settings. However, it is not often that a developer uses their settings as a medium through which the story unfolds. Naughty Dog’s creation of environmental significance makes their games unique. Plenty of games feature puzzles rooted in the manipulation of interactive objects, but barely any manage to make an entire community fall in love with the seamless stitching of aesthetic with mechanics; barely any manage to have their empty spaces accentuate the significance of their full ones.