Last of Us: Pittsburgh Incline

Aesthetic: Action Adventure, Third-Person

Platform: PC

Game Engine: Unreal 4

Development Time: 3 Weeks

Team Size: 1

Role: Level Designer, Gameplay Scriptor

Tasks + Responsibilities:

  • Conducting a breakdown analysis of level design structures and patterns found in the game Last of Us.
  • Formulating a level brief with high-level specifications of narrative scenarios, environment design directions, and gameplay goals.
  • Conducting an on-site research of Pittsburgh areas to identify and document their potentials for the level.
  • Designing the level layouts around key gameplay beats and pacing.
  • Greyboxing the level geometry using the Unreal 4 engine.
  • Scripting Last of Us’s core traversal mechanics and trigger events using Blueprint.

For my independent study course at the Entertainment Technology Center, I decided to take up level design as the major topic of study.

Research

During the first week, I focused the majority of my time researching Last of Us’s existing levels and player reviews to gain a basic understanding of the context I will be designing for.

 

 

When I took a look at the reviews online, I came to two general conclusions:

  1. University level is among the most popular and highly-rated levels within the game (alongside the Winter level).
  2. Pittsburgh level is among the least popular and lowly-rated levels within the game (alongside the Suburbs level).

This gave me a good start to begin researching – so I devised a strategy where I’ll study what the University level does well, and what the Pittsburgh level does poorly,

and perhaps find opportunities and inspirations for my own levels.

 

Last of Us: University Level Breakdown

I walked through the University level and recorded player’s actions as they happened in sequence.

You can see the full breakdown here: University Level Breakdown

 

Level Brief

Then, I started to reverse-engineer the design patterns found from the analysis into higher-level design directions and may have informed those decisions.

I figured this would also be a good way to reapply those design principles by drafting a level brief for my future self.

You can see the brief here: Last of Us Level Brief

 

On-site Research & Reference Gathering

With the design directions and goals defined, I skimmed around Pittsburgh using Google Maps, in search of a place that better resembles Pittsburgh’s characteristics.

So I identified the following four possible sites:

  1. Heinz Headquarters Complex
  2. Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden
  3. Steel Mill near the Monongahela River
  4. Monongahela Incline near Station Square.

To investigate these sites more in depth, I took a Sunday off and went around Pittsburgh to experience these places in person.

From this, I came to the conclusion that the Monongahela Incline site was the most appropriate choice with tons of potentials for design explorations.

So, I started dissecting the site into its primary components of interest: streets, railroads, tunnels, stations, buildings, and even forestry.

 

Having gathered these information, I started to imagine what it would feel like for a player to move through these separate nodes in a continuous gameplay sequence, and translated this “player story” into a rough sketch of the map layout.

 

Level Layout

I then took a second pass through it.

Level Walkthrough

The player story is organized into the following sequence:

  1. The player arrives at the Station Square Station, at the base of Mt Washington.
  2. Just ahead, the player sees a tunnel going into the mountain, and checks out abandoned cars and trams before coming back out.
  3. The player sees up the Incline in the distance, framed by the surrounding environment.
  4. The player approaches the base of the Incline – the Lower Station – and finds that one of the Incline Tram has crashed through the building, leaving a big gap in the half-demolished building.
  5. The player enters through the gap, and moves about the building rubble, finding that a part of the stair has collapsed due to impact. The player searches around and moves the garbage container outside to use as elevated platform.
  6. The player walks up the stairs and jumps down onto the Incline rail track. Framed by the building, the player starts to walk up the Incline.
  7. The player reaches a part of the Incline where it is severely damaged as a result of cars crashing into the Incline’s structure. The player is unable to proceed due to the huge gap. The player hops off the Incline by climbing down its structure, and using a truck as a platform.
  8. Seeing that the other side of the Incline is out of reach, the player follows the road, walks under a road overhead, and stumbles across a house in the hills.
  9. When the player enters the house, he/she finds the inhabitants brutally murdered. Here the player gathers some pickups.
  10. The player climbs up a building embedded in the hills to gain enough elevation to jump onto the other side of the Incline.
  11. As the player walks up the rail track and approaches the Upper Station, the other Tram breaks loose and comes screeching down the track towards him/her. The player jumps out of its way.
  12. The player reaches the Upper Station, where he encounters some of the Hunters. After disposing of them, the player exits the building.
  13. The player sees the mid-rise building in the distance, and walks along the cliff road towards it.
  14. The player reaches the pharmacy, and finds the medicine.

 

Blocking

Now that I had the bare bone structure of the level and its layout, I started blocking it out using the Unreal 4 engine.

 

Final Blocking

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the level is fairly rough, but it gave a lot of information about the scale and the pacing of the level.