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How Score and Sound Design elevates The Last of Us

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Music in most modern videogames is not as integral a component as it once was. A number of games today skirt by with soundtracks that are passable, but do no aspire to be anything other than just that. However, just two decades ago, this was not the case. Games such as Banjo Kazooie were received well not only for simple and entertaining gameplay, but also for their excellent scores that weaved the music into the very identity of the game (props go to Grant Kirkhope on that one). While the art of a good soundtrack isn’t as important for most developers today, there are still plenty of games where the music is a crucial aspect of the game. The Last of Us is one of few games in recent memory that relies on its music just as much as it does on its gameplay and story to create a unique and memorable experience for the player. In this paper, I will analyze the technical methods that composer Gustavo Santaolalla used for the audio, as well as his incorporation of thematic elements from the story to create a haunting soundtrack.

The Last of Us uses a lot of diegetic sound in its gameplay, and it is without a doubt one of the elements of the audio that this game does best. Characters make sounds for just about any action they undertake, whether it is their breathing, the sound of glass crunching underfoot, or the sounds of clothes shifting on a characters back. The audio is mixed so that the game world, like the real world, has excellent dynamic range. Trucks that pass by do not make a contained loudness, one where you can still hear characters speak over them. They are loud like they are driving by you on a busy intersection. Gun shots ring through the air, bouncing off the walls, trees, cars and buildings, and will startle the less attentive player if they weren’t expecting it. Not to mention that the game utilizes 3D audio incredibly well too. You can hear enemies running up behind you in your headphones, trying to grab you by the neck. This aspect of the audio design is particularly effective because it creates an awareness of ones environment that allows the player to find enemies based on sound alone. All of these elements of the audio further convinces the player that the world they inhabit behaves realistically.

Another great element of the audio design is the use of adaptive audio. There are five different game states in The Last of Us, exploring, stealth, action, scripted sequence, and the fail state. Each one of these game states has different bits of music that accompany them, and the transition between each game state is smooth. For example, in the games natural “exploring” state, there is no music initially. Music can and will be triggered in this state however when the player inevitably crosses a trigger line that starts a short countdown that starts the piece of music, which usually leads into the “scripted sequence” state where the plot or gameplay is progressed/altered in a stand alone event, accompanied by its own music. The transitions between these two game states are so natural that it is usually very hard to tell they are about to occur unless you pay close attention to the music. The game’s transition between stealth and combat is also very natural. In the “stealth” state, there is rarely music, unless an enemy is looking at you, in which case a foreboding humming with start to play. If you stay in their sight for too long, you enter the “combat” state on a stinger, followed by wood drums that activate a primal instinct to survive within the player. If you die, the “fail” state music, a set of high pitched ascending strings, will likely strike fear into your heart, and serves as a good reminder of what will happen if you fail to rise to the challenge. It seems so simple, but most games get these elements of audio design wrong that when it is done perfectly, it is a huge benefit. However, none of these smooth transitions compare to how perfectly done the score is.

The music in The Last of Us feels empty. Now, that word, empty, has been used to critique many games over the years, but I do not mean that as a con, rather I think it is a great way to begin to understand what the music in this game is trying to do. Most of the game is a quiet hike with gunfights punctuating that hike. The music is there to help set a tone for the player, but it is so sparse that whilst playing you may forget it has music. A lot of the game is spent in silence with no music, and only quiet, diegetic sounds coming from the characters and the environment. As a gamer that is used to hearing music underscore most of their endeavors in a videogame, I noticed that this begins to cultivate a sense of emptiness in the atmosphere. Not only that, but the lack of music for longer periods of time almost mimics reality, and immerses the player into the world. When the music does come in, it is somber and minimalist. Sad melodies, like the recurring themes of “The Last of Us”, “Vanishing Grace”, and “All Gone” almost seems to echo off of the walls of the derelict buildings that you are exploring. And I found myself feeling even more alone than I did when there was no music. That’s what the score is so good at doing; making the player feel alone in an empty world. The lack of music works so well because it primes the player to feel the echo of the world around them when the music does appear, and the melancholy, painful melodies only highlights how hopeless and lonely the world is.

What helps the world feel so lonely is no doubt the way that composer Gustavo Santaolalla uses unique instruments to create an expansive, haunting score for the game. Most of the instruments used in the game are familiar, but played to detached melodies on detuned instruments to produce and incredibly unique sound. For example, one of the main recurring pieces of music is “Vanishing Grace” The beautiful, somber piece incorporates only a piano, but the piano is distorted with reverb and sounds poorly bit-crushed as it echoes frequently, seemingly losing tune as the track goes on. It plays in a beautiful location in the game, but one that is also a perfect picture of life without civilization. It’s bittersweet, and in the context of the game is highlights the theme of decaying beauty that the game had been touching on up until that point. Most pieces of music do touch on themes that are prevalent in the game, which only further deepens the experience. The tribal, wood drums that play during combat sequences activate this primal instinct to survive, regardless of who or what you are surviving. One of the main thematic conflicts of The Last of Us is that our nature is to survive, but in doing so we hurt and disadvantage others. We give up what we define as good and evil because in desperate times, desperate measures are necessary to survive. There are no swaying pieces of music when an antagonist is defeated in the game, only depressing, minimalist music that emphasizes that how violence, death, and the struggle to survive eats away at you until there’s little left of what made you human in the first place.

Santaolalla wanted the music to sound as fragmented and decaying as the world that the game takes place in, and it is reflected in both the music and the instrument choice. The detuned slide guitars, Ronrocos, Jew’s Harps, and Wood drums all fit into the game world, where it is likely that the only instruments people would have to play would be whatever they had that still worked. This dedication to the music fitting into the game world perfectly reflects and deepens the games themes about survival, decaying beauty, the collapse of civilization, and human nature. On a technical level, the audio is incredibly well designed and polished, using many tricks and techniques to immerse the player in the game world and make the gameplay intense and frightening. The music is the connective tissue in this gesamtkunstwerk that enhances the themes in the plot, the brutality of the gameplay, and the emptiness of the human experience after societal collapse.

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About Drew Stuart one of us since 3:19 AM on 12.22.2015

Drew Stuart (aka, Load of Bollocks) is a writer, thinker, hijinker...and uh, sandwich maker? He is a writer for both Destructoid and Flixist, and loves to tell jokes. Sometimes they're good.

When he isn't writing online, Drew's pursuing his Journalism degree at College. He wants to get into Games Journalism full time once he graduates, so that he can type loudly and sit proudly at his desk.

Writing in third person is weird. I can't keep this up.


This beauty was created by the always wonderful Daangus Targus

Look, I'm a gamer from Washington who loves to write, and I'll be doing it ad infinitum. I'm way into FPS', RPG's, and a few flavors in between.

Here's a list of my favorite games in no particular order.

Prey
Metal Gear Solid 3
Dark Souls
Bloodborne
Banjo Kazooie
Fallout: New Vegas
Dishonored 2
Half Life 2
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Bioshock
Halo 3
Mass Effect 2
The Witcher III
Pillars of Eternity
Yoshi's Island
Resident Evil 4