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  • Subverting Player Expectation Part II

    [04.13.21]
    - Pete Ellis

  • Focus testing

    After a lot of iteration I had a layout that was pretty similar to the final version that shipped in the game.  The rest of the iterative process was spent fine-tuning how much context we gave in the environment without foreshadowing the event.  We got the workbench ambush into the game and I watched the focus test videos of the public playing this level with keen interest.

    The additional guideline/rule I added to this topic during my Develop talk, was:

    • You should give context before the event so that the player doesn't feel cheated by something that doesn't fit into the world

    To give an example of what I mean by context; if you were in a new, clean, office building and you went up the stairs, if the stairs collapsed so you couldn't get to the exit you'd feel it was out of place and the event was a bit of a cheat.  If, however, you were in an office building that had been long abandoned and it was falling apart, and you went up the creeky stairs only for it to collapse, that would be fitting with the world.  The context was there to say the stairs were not structurally sound and so a breakage doesn't seem out of place.

    For the workbench ambush apartment, I added living plants as one of the main signifiers that this space was currently occupied.  I did this even in the blockmesh phase before any art was introduced as it was super important to give the sense that the space was lived in.  Usually I wouldn't dictate how a room should look down to the props, as I like to give the artists on the area the freedom to inject their take on the visuals here, but I had great discussions early on with one of my incredible artists on this section, Ben Springer, about what we needed to include in order to sell the space without being too obvious; I didn't want to run the risk of foreshadowing an ambush and sapping the drama from the event.  The living plants by the window also had one of my favourite arrangements of contextual pick ups; a trowel (blade ingredient) and some fertilizer (explosive ingredient) to not only draw the player over to see the plants, but to also show that someone was currently tending to these plants as a food source.


    The inspiration of a food source came from the film "The Survivalist", which Neil Druckmann had recommend for me to watch when we were talking about inspiration for The Last of Us Part II, where seeds were a bargaining chip for survival in that post-apocalyptic world.  It reminded me of what the most important things in this world were and what people would immediately start doing when they set up a new place of refuge; get a food source.

    The end result of the context in the final game to show that the apartment was being lived in worked really well, thanks to the careful detail in the art work.  Many focus testers would comment on the plants, in particular, looking healthy and generally out of place in the desolate Last of Us II world, to then recall them being suspicious after the ambush.

    This level was actually used as the ‘Press Preview' demo a month before the release of the game, and it was awesome to hear some of the previews mention not just this ambush moment, but the context prior to it as well.  Aofie Wilson of Eurogamer had the exact experience I intended, of it being noticed but not being foreshadowed, and said in her preview:

    "At one point during the demo, we found ourselves taking a detour into an old apartment block.  In one of the homes there were a suspicious number of resources scattered around, surfaces looked wiped down and tidy, there were even some leafy green tomato plants sunning on a windowsill.  All the signs were screaming at us to stay alert, but without spoiling anything, we didn't get the memo in time."

    Early positive feedback

    After one of the early focus tests, Anthony Newman, one of the Co-Game Directors, walked up to my desk and said he'd just had Evan Wells, the president of the company, call him about the workbench ambush.  My heart sank - oh god, what could this mean??  Did he hate it?  Have I wasted my time?  Am I fired??  Maybe I'd become accustomed, from previous companies, to a company meeting or a phone call from the studio head often meaning that people were being made redundant, as I had a mild panic.

    But this panic was short lived, as Anthony continued with the next sentence - "Evan loved it and it's his favourite part of the game so far, so nice one!"  Oh my word, I couldn't have been happier!  What a result that was!  The president of the company had played it and enjoyed it so much he'd actually called one of the directors to compliment it.  That was not the reaction I had expected, but boy was I glad it had turned out that way (and not just because I could keep my job!).  This gave me more energy to pour into this section, and I was straight off to the desks of the people who were working on it with me to tell them the good news and to share the praise.

    In fact, it was getting such positive feedback that Derek Mattson even put the effort in to extend the standard workbench script so that any workbench in the game supported being attacked during systemic gameplay as well.  If at any time in the game there are enemies present in the same space as the player whilst the player is using the workbench, they can potentially be attacked and kicked out of the menu.  An area this was most likely to occur in was the Capital Hill area of Seattle, just after the Eastbrook Elementary school fight (another level of mine and Alex's!), where you can interact with a workbench inside a petrol station and then some enemies enter the area on patrol.  Spend too long upgrading your weapons and you run the risk of being attacked.

    Overstepping into foreshadowing

    The early focus testing with the public was going well, but it wasn't super obvious to every tester as to why the ambush had happened or where the enemy had been.  There were a few confused experiences or comments, and occasionally the odd negative reaction.  Although it was still early in development, I wanted to make sure that every tester was having the desired experience; one where they were caught out by the enemy, but understood what had happened; the enemy had been hiding in the locked room and had previously been occupying the apartment.  I started to look more at the context prior to this event to see what could be improved.

    I had been discussing with one of the audio designers working on this section with me, Jesse Garcia, about wanting some audio cues to give more prior context as to what happened.  One of the things I really pushed for was the muffled sound of a door closing when you approached the apartment; something Jesse had delivered exactly as I'd intended on his first implementation!  The player had either smashed a window on the second floor to gain access to the building, or triggered a sound trap of hanging bottles downstairs if they approached through the laundry room on the ground floor.  These two noisy entrances were being used as the reason for the enemy hearing the player approach and then hiding in the locked room to protect themselves.  This muffled closing door was a great audio cue that people could think back to and realise that they'd heard the evidence of people occupying the space.

    One thing Jesse had discussed with me that I kept thinking about was the idea that Ellie could get her gun out and go into an uneasy tension mode/animation when she heard the muffled door closing.  I'd thought about it for some time and it was really interesting, but I also wasn't sure if it was too much; would it foreshadow the event and thus remove the element of surprise if the player character was expecting it?  I had thought it was a cool idea though, and I'd been inspired by it, so thought it was worth trying out as I wasn't sure what the outcome would be.  One of the fantastic things we do at Naughty Dog is constant focus testing with new players, so I asked my extremely talented scripter and teammate Alex if he thought it was worth trying to see what the result was.  He said it was super easy to try out and we implemented it on my machine with a couple of lines of script he knew.  It looked great having Ellie get her gun out in reaction and go into a new tension mode, as well as an additional line of dialogue to accompany her tension change, and I was giddy with excitement that it had been that easy to try out.  We watched the following focus test eagerly.

    I was totally wrong however, and it worked against us for what I had been trying to achieve.  We had oversteered too heavily into foreshadowing the enemy, so much so that some testers were throwing bricks into the apartment and entering listen mode, just to see where the enemies were hiding.  It made the inevitable workbench ambush feel like a cheat as these testers had combed the whole apartment making sure it was 100% safe before upgrading their weapons.  Thank goodness it was only a couple of lines of script and within seconds of us seeing the results, Alex had already stripped the lines out.

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