Thursday, October 10, 2013

Game Translation: The Last of Us

Drama, Action, Zombies...

The Last of Us is an action-adventure survival horror video game which follows three Joel, Ellie and Tess (for a time) as they cross a post-apocalyptic city and later town in 2033 - twenty years after a mutant Cordyceps fungus has turned human beings into fungal zombies that have reduced the population to a few isolated settlements.

This is a pretty good game to consider as the basis of a videogame campaign because it just has so many options as either a sandbox or a quest-based campaign. It also manages two useful NPCs alongside the character you actually control which gives you an idea of what kind of obstacles you can throw at a three player party, at least. While Joel and Tess are the main combatants, Ellie's pretty good at scavenging first aid kits when necessary and can squeeze into hard to reach places or be lifted over walls in order to unlock doors and let the others through. While normally children, even teenagers, aren't generally thought of as worthwhile characters to roleplay, Ellie certainly shows hot it could be a powerful and interesting experience.

Due to the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, it's often important for Joel to sneak around behind cover or in the darkness, distracting creatures and people with broken bottles or bricks, and attacking them from behind with a choke hold that ideally doesn't draw the attention of the others in the area.

This is understandably tricky to do with mechanics. If you're a fan of miniatures and a dab hand with quick terrain, you could model the situation and then have the players choose where they will move their characters while you move the enemies and declare stealth checks like a chess match but that is a lot of work for your average session. It also won't fit every situation. You could use a Jenga-type situation where each round requires the removal of a piece without the whole thing toppling but you'll still need a decent map with miniatures if you want to get the players thinking tactically and trying to succeed with a minimum of moves. Generally you'll just need to come up with a variety of obstacles and hope your chosen system has more options than just Stealth and Athletics skills otherwise the PCs may all end up kind of looking the same in their ability to be useful (or have one or more become utterly useless). Even just Move Silently versus Hide skills can provide a little diversity in ability depending on the situation.

Unless you rely on miniatures it can also be difficult figuring out how to determine line of sight with creatures like the Clickers who, in the videogame, can't see you so long as you don't get too close to them and don't move too quickly. Then there's the issue of timing.... How do you model that on a round by round basis? In the Last of Us you have clickers who move about in patterns (which actually makes sense in this situation given the fungus) and it's important to figure out their movement patterns before trying to attack them. You could make some sort of Intelligence-based roll to see if the PCs figure it out but that's a bit hit and miss. Either one PC makes the roll or none do. All or nothing situations just don't work well in stealth.

So what do you do? To be honest, I haven't figured out a way to use enemy movement patterns in a roleplaying game in any way that doesn't come off as totally false beyond rolling a dice in secret and determine that they have that much time before a creature passes close enough to them to spot them..

As for making the stealth side of it more interesting, you could describe the situation and have the players devise a plan and then assign modifiers (or a difficulty class) depending on their plan. That'd certainly get them to pay attention to what you're telling them. Especially if the modifier range was quite large and could mean the difference between success and failure. It also adds more to the narrative interest of the situation although you need to take care that a single failed Stealth check doesn't doom them all. The more players you have rolling, the higher the statistical likelihood that someone will fail after all. Perhaps pre-assign a number of allowable stealth failures (with suitably tense reactions on behalf of the briefly alerted enemies) before having the enemy spot them. You could even roll a dice to see how many stealth failures you're willing to allow.
With scenes like this you wouldn't think there was an apocalypse.

The other important aspect of The Last of Us, perhaps the most important, involves relationships. Take care when creating your NPCs to ensure that they are fully developed and richly imagined with their own needs and goals. Don't just give them a surface 'self', a basic personality, but consider the inconsistencies within them. Perhaps that stoic figure can't stand small spaces and is quite claustrophobia. Perhaps the emotionally charged figure is quite capable of moments of calm when push comes to shove. People are quite complex and so if you want to make your NPCs feel like people you need to make them complex.
While characterisation is always a nice addition to a game, if you want to approach the magnificence of this game's emotional appeal than you need to create complex, sympathetic NPCs more than ever. You also need to encourage your players to do the same. The last thing you want is for a player to create an idiot brute who likes to shout: "Face Meet Fist!" before hitting people. This means supporting their characters, as well, and figuring out how to tie them more firmly into the world around them. As an example, Joel lost his daughter twenty years ago and now he has to escort a 14-year-old girl. The game wouldn't have held nearly so much depth if Joel's entire story focused on killing the man who stole his guns.

Doing a bit of research into disaster situations and what might happen to a given city without human maintenance will also add greater richness to your game. Think about your setting. Is it a place like The Last of Us where you can conveniently steal their environmental conditions? Or is it in a desert-like place such as Las Vegas? Or the scrublands of Australia? Do some research into what the area was like before people arrived there and then do some reading and ideally some brainstorming on what it might be like after twenty years of neglect.

A good way to do this is to run some scenarios in your head. If the drains get blocked up, what would happen? What would that mean to the wildlife? The buildings? How might that impact on your PCs? After all, it's all very well to know everything there is to know about the neglected sewers but unless that affects your PCs in some way then it simply doesn't matter.

Which might be true.

Anyway, a campaign based around The Last of Us, or including elements of it, should appeal to just about everyone.

Tacticians will enjoy figuring out the right way to take down the enemies unseen and with a minimal loss of resources. They may also get a kick out of improving settlements, setting up barricades and traps, and otherwise settling in. Ensure that there are enough surprises to keep them motivated but not so many surprises that all of their hard work becomes worthless.

Action Heroes may enjoy the odd tactical moment but they really do live and breathe the occasional fistfight, sniping, and riding away fast in a ute as zombies throw themselves onto the bonnet. Let them live large occasionally but remind them every so often that this is still a survival horror game. It might be worth establishing some in-game cues as to whether this is one of their kinds of moments by pointing towards a gassed up car or a lone zombie for them to pummel.

Explorers will love this. Here is a world so similar to their own and yet so different. They will want to explore these similarities and differences. They will want to luxuriate in it. What would a city look like without people in it? How would it feel? How might a person survive without modern technologies but with modern knowledge? This is truly an experience for them.

Investigators will want a mystery. They will want the chance to uncover something. Ideally something ghastly. It might not be the reason behind the zombie outbreak, though that will doubtless be a passion of theirs, but there must at least be the odd hidden secret or interesting location that harbors some odd question in need of answering. Remember that there's no reason there couldn't be an out-and-out murder mystery in the apocalypse. Just think of a husband purposefully infecting his wife in order to murder her.

Communicators are an odd bunch. They love the richness of character development and are inspired by the intrigues that arise between people but sometimes they get so swept up in getting to know people that they forget the goals behind that knowledge and so grow bored. Give them space to ensure that there's enough development but push their characters out of their safety zones and force them to confront real changes beyond their sense of control.

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Cat Lady, Outlast or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Project Zero or Gears of War.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.


  1. Project Zero or Ocarina of Time please!

    1. I'll go with Project Zero as I already have a few thoughts in that direction.

  2. Another good post :)
    I'm just thinking about the tactical elements now. One idea is to make analysing zombie movements give them a modifier for the rest of the encounter.

    The simplest option is just to grant a bonus or penalty. Maybe a success grants a +1 bonus on future rolls where it’s appropriate, and an extra +1 for every additional success/5 points of Skill check/10%.

    You could also say you’re going to treat it as a sort of skill challenge, so it’s not a straight-up fass/fail. You could use analysis as one of the rolls, or have it adjust the number of failures allowed. Maybe successfully analysing the challenge (if you have time to do it) will make things substantially easier. As well as straight-up stealth stuff, Acrobatics lets you slip through a small space, or Athletics lets you vault over a wall and duck down before it sees you. If you do things this way, I might suggest not having hard numbers of rolls needed but treating it a bit more loosely, because I’ve heard a lot of skill challenges peter out disappointingly because people run out of things to do that make sense in context.

    As a sort of alternative/complementary system, you could use a kind of “alarm level” and have some of the skill rolls modify that. Again, analysis might offer a bonus to rolls. Stealth and Hide rolls let you slip past without increasing Alarm. A Will roll might let you stay calm while you wait for the creature to quiet down again after a noise, and so reduce Alarm. You might call for Athletics or Acrobatics if people end up trapped in uncomfortable positions, and are trying to cling on or balance silently while the creature noses around (hanging off a windowsill or ladder? Balancing on a ledge?) On the other hand, you might use a distraction to draw it away, which helps you succeed but also raises Alarm.

    Or you can nick Dan’s Parkour Murder Simulator rules, of course!