Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of The Last of Us
 June 14, 2023

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of The Last of Us

Members of the development team for the original The Last of Us look back on lessons learned, favorite memories, and more.

10 years! That’s how long it’s been since we released Joel & Ellie and the world of The Last of Us into the wild! What an incredible journey it’s been since then!

It’s hard to describe the gratitude we have for the tens of millions of you who have played the games, watched the HBO show, and continued discussing The Last of Us to this day. Your excitement for our work continues to inspire us.

It’s crazy to think of all the hundreds of people that have worked on this series. And even crazier to think of all the people who have joined Naughty Dog over the past ten years because of this series. I’d like to send a heartfelt thank you to all of the people that have ever touched The Last of Us in a small or major way. Making art on this scale is a massive collaboration! I’m so proud (and very lucky) to work alongside such wonderful, talented people each day.

Below, you’ll hear from a few current-day Naughty Dogs about the original game’s development and get another small glimpse into the making of the game that has changed our lives.

From all of us at Naughty Dog, thank you for an unforgettable first 10 years of The Last of Us! Much more to come!

Until next time, endure and survive!
- Neil Druckmann, Co-President

What is one of your favorite memories from working on the original development of The Last of Us?

Evan Wells, Co-President: We had been working for months on a trailer to officially announce The Last of Us at the 2011 Video Game Awards. Miraculously, we had managed to keep its existence completely secret despite it being in development for nearly two years. As the days passed and we got closer and closer to the debut, we obsessively checked the internet for any possible leaks. It looked like we were going to make it. Then just days before the event, I got a call from Neil [Druckmann] who sheepishly told me that he had lost his iPad on a plane that had the trailer on it! He was sure that he had blown it, and that we'd be seeing our trailer leaked just hours before the big night. Thankfully, his iPad was locked and nothing came of it. Everything went off without a hitch, [and] it just made the anticipation for us that much more exciting!

Matthew Gallant, Game Director: TLOU was the first game I worked on when I joined Naughty Dog, so my memories of working on it are very tied up with getting to know the team and the studio culture. One thing that stood out to me immediately was the unabashed willingness of developers here to just get up and act things out. If someone was requesting a particular animation, or they wanted an NPC to behave a certain way in combat, they would just get up and pantomime their idea out in the middle of the office. Having come from a studio culture that was more reserved, this was quite surprising to me. Especially since I was mostly working on infected combat, I got to see (and do) some very interesting performances! I distinctly recall looking up from my computer one day and seeing one designer running down the hall with another designer in their arms, perhaps testing some idea for the (now iconic) opening with Joel and Sarah. It made a strong impression on me that this was a studio culture that was playful and creative, and it demonstrated how everyone on the team was pouring their heart and soul into the game.

Shaun Escayg, Creative Director: One of my favorite memories [from working] on TLOU was at the first trailer launch. I remember the trailer began and you could hear all the murmurs in the crowd... What game is this? Whose game is this? The awe and confusion at the same time. And of course, we (The Dogs) were all biting our nails; Do they like it? Love it? Hate it? Then the crowd's reaction when they saw Ellie and the Naughty Dog logo. The thrill. I had never been to an event quite like that before. It was epic.

Christian Gyrling, Vice President: The drug store [level] was our testing ground for AI early in the game's development. Figuring out the combat and AI in that area was a huge challenge. I remember the excitement when the AI started navigating around the bookshelves and the player could sneak in-between the shelves; that was the moment when we knew we had some exciting gameplay.

What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from The Last of Us' development that impacted work on future games?

Erick Pangilinan, Art Director: Setting up constraints in our art direction forced us to be more thoughtful in our decisions, ultimately creating a better visual identity for the game. For example, in lighting, we were limited to only using natural light, since most [in-game locations would have had no electricity. This forced us to design scenes with the sun's direction as a big consideration, or where the windows were placed in an interior space. This gave [The Last of Us] a more natural feel that helped [curate] the grounded, realistic look we were going for.

Matthew: On the design team, the leads and directors had this principle that, rather than bring prototypes to them for feedback, we first wander over to another department and ask someone from another discipline to playtest. As a newcomer to the team this was a daunting prospect, but it forced me to get around the studio and meet new people. Of course, the feedback we got from this process was always valuable, since people outside of the design team had fewer preconceptions about how things were supposed to play.

Eric Baldwin, Lead Cinematic Animator: We key-framed all the facial performances for the initial version of the game. We were really pushed to embrace the more grounded, subtle, yet emotional performances that we needed to achieve. It was a new challenge that we were excited about and really honed our abilities to hit the right tone and emotions of our actors and characters.

Hyoung Taek Nam, Senior Character Concept Artist: The Last of Us was the first project that challenged every design process that I used to build characters, with a deep focus on character storytelling. It was a huge opportunity to conceptualize narrative ideas as part of the design of the characters. It was a very cinematic development process, and it was a great learning experience as to how powerful and impactful characters can be in a game with a strong narrative.

What scene or moment do you most love from The Last of Us?

Erick: I love the scene where Ellie is sitting by the window in the ranch house, and the intense dialogue between her and Joel in the bedroom. The lighting, facial expressions and performances really came through and made a lasting impression on me.

Christian: When Joel is trying to save Ellie from David. Enough said...

Matthew: I love the intensity of the bloater boss fight in the high school gym. I love the flooded hotel basement with its jump-scare intro and creepy stalkers. I love how the financial plaza fight highlights how dynamic the AI is. And I love playing as Ellie at the lakeside resort, stalking cannibals in the snow.

Shaun: There are many, but if I had to pick a favorite scene in The Last of Us, it's the scene where Joel is confronted by Ellie at the abandoned farmhouse. There's something about Ashley and Troy's performances and the way our team of animators were able to capture that gut-wrenching feeling of desertion and abandonment. The way Ellie’s eyes well up when it dawns on her that her instincts were right - Joel was planning to abandon her. And, Joel's reaction to being called out. It is rare that real, human emotion is captured in 3D so precisely and subtlety. I am moved every time I see that scene.

Eric: Joel holding Sarah as she passes is just so heartbreaking and emotional, it's hard not to completely empathize with him in that moment. The title card hasn't even played yet. It sets the stage for the story and experience we're about to journey on, and it does so much to let us understand this character we're going to live through the experience with.

Hyoung: For me, the most memorable scene was when Ellie and Joel argue after Joel plans to leave Ellie with Tommy. They shared the same pains in their life, and it was the first time they truly opened their hearts to one another. Ellie’s iconic line during that scene really struck my heart. I agree we don’t need many, but it’s enough to have one true person who cares for you in life. And of course, the giraffe scene was awesome, but somehow, I loved the monkey running around even more...

Since TLOU's release, is there a particular moment with a fan or the wider community that sticks out to you as demonstrating how powerful a connection TLOU has made with players?

Erick: I've had several instances where I was eating in a restaurant, and I would overhear a conversation about TLOU from the next table. They would be telling their friends or partner about the game they just finished playing. The excitement in their voices and seeing how it affected them made me realize the genuine connection this game has made with different people.

Christian: This was more related to Left Behind, but numerous individuals reached out to Naughty Dog and expressed immense gratitude for how the game gave them the courage to come out and be the person they really were. It was heartwarming and an incredible feeling to have indirectly helped someone through such a difficult time.

Eric: I was in a checkout line at a hardware store, wearing my TLOU shirt. The young woman working the register said "Ooh, I love your shirt! That's my favorite game!" Which is always flattering to hear - I replied "oh, great! Thanks" - She stopped short and asked if I worked at Naughty Dog. "Yes" I said. She seemed to get shy while also speaking of being excited for the sequel. And before I left, she hesitated, then asked if she could get a selfie with me. That kind of stuff is for real celebrities, and in that moment it really stuck out to me what the game meant to her. It was really touching to have that normal day-to-day interaction with someone and see that something we worked on has such a place in the hearts of fans.

Hyoung: I received many letters and comments on my social media that were all lovely, and I felt very thankful to the fans. One of the most memorable things was a fanbook I received from an online Korean TLOU fan club. I realized that The Last of Us love was worldwide. I also appreciate the many fan art creations done of Clickers, and the many photos of Ellie and Joel cosplayers. They are all amazing.

Brick or bottle?

Erick: I like the solid impact feel of the brick!

Christian: Brick, all the way.

Matthew: Brock the Brick!

Shaun: Brick.

Hyoung: Brick!!!

Eric: Brick, all day, every day.

Any other memories or anecdotes that immediately come to mind about The Last of Us, its legacy, and its impact on you and the team?

Christian: During the development of The Last of Us, I was about to become a parent myself. The strong bond between Joel and Ellie triggered parental protective feelings in me. I will never forget it.

Matthew: Having spent a better part of the last decade working on a game with “The Last of Us” in the title, this series will forever have a special place in my heart. Thanks to all the players who have come on these journeys with us.

Eric: It's been a joy to see the growing exposure of The Last of Us to the world, both through the PS5 and PC releases of the remake, and through the HBO series. We always knew the story and experience of this game was something that could appeal to a broad audience, and it's very gratifying to see more people get to enjoy it.

Hyoung: I always feel lucky and proud that I was involved at the very beginning of The Last of Us as Character Concept Designer. It was all possible because we had an amazing team who were passionate and dedicated their whole hearts to making a great game.

We’re so grateful to the fans who have shown their incredible support for The Last of Us over the last ten years. It’s been amazing to hear how The Last of Us has impacted you all, and your passion for Joel and Ellie’s story helps drive us. It means so much, and we want to extend a heartfelt thank you to our fantastic community.