The Last of Us has no shortage of challenges to players' survival, and perhaps none are more severe than the various Infected Joel, Ellie, and others who encounter them. They are all iconic in their own right, but one of the most famous is the Clicker, which is the first Infected player to encounter in The Last of Us Part I.
The Clickers are not to be taken lightly whether you encountered them when The Last of Us was first presented on HBO or recently experienced them in The Last of Us Part I on the PlayStation 5 console starting March 3 or April 3.
After a brief look at The Last of Us' original TLOU and Part I's how to make these Clickers, we spoke to the Naughty Dog team's creators about how they brought the tension of TLOU combat to life.
Creature is a living thing.
When introduced to players, The Last of Us' clickers pose an immediate danger, but they had to understand the story's unique perspective on a post-pandemic world.
“It was very clear you're going to oppose other groups or other humans as they're attempting to survive,” says Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann.
The Infected germ was initially considered keeping The Last of Us so grounded that it would only have human enemies. However, as soon as an additional enemy type might help demonstrate the idea of what brought mankind to the brink, it did not emerge fully.
"We've always been wary about how to distinguish ourselves from zombies, because there's been a lot of zombie movies and a lot of zombie games, and we might easily fall into the trap of just being another additional zombie thing without having a fresh perspective," Druckmann said, adding that a particular piece of artwork during the brainstorming phase became a model for the team.
"He took these fungal growths, these photographs, and this person that was slumped against a wall, just covered in fungus, you couldn't even see their face," Druckmann said.
The team kept iterating and refining this core idea of who the infected might be, including the idea that the Cordyceps infection at the heart of this outbreak would grow into a person's brain and split open their heads, resulting in what eventually became a famous Clicker's head.
"We wanted to be true to the Cordyceps' idea and concept," said Art Director Erick Pangilinan. "We were attempting to connect that to the Cordyceps' idea via the Clicker bloom. It was definitely an 'Ah, ha!' moment."
Every step the Clicker takes is one frightening step closer to it discovering you, as Nam's original notion.
"Whenever I was animating a Clicker, I thought, for instance, that these are alive human beings that have something tugging their strings," Wilson explained. "That's why you get these movements where, while they are moving in the correct direction, someone's pulling them in that direction."
And, as All Of Us players will know, the clicker's introduction is a striking moment.
"It's a jump scare that works because, at this point, we've only talked them up. You've seen regular runners before, and this is the first time that you see [a Clicker] that's been out there for a while in the wild."
What you hear before you see it is what players will likely know, and that's what gives it its name.
Click, click, and click.
The Clickers are named for a reason – without sight, players use these sounds to not only enact fear in the player, but also to sense their surroundings and track their prey. But the team knew it had to find out what it was.
"We wanted to make the soundscape as human as possible," said Sony's Senior Sound and Lead Audio Director on the original The Last of Us, Phil Kovats.
"We weren't sure what we'd need." Kovats said of hiring four or five actors who spent some time on the stage with them to observe their abilities and figure out what they can do. "She's amazing, and she does this back of the throat, kind of dolphin sound," according to the other.
As the other members of the Naughty Dog team worked with Lee on what he and the group intended for male Clickers, Kovats realized that pitching it down or changing the audio didn't sound quite right for what they intended for male Clickers. The answer came from a surprising place: Kovats.
“I discovered that I could make the same sound,” Kovats said, noting how he differentiated his performance a bit. “It was a lot of fun,” he said, noting that his back of his throat would trigger this tailing whine as well.
The Clickers' vocalization is powerful, but what they will not be able to tell future players is how dynamic they are. Their soundscape is clear and distinct, and that's deliberate and achieved through collaboration across departments.
"We had to create all of these stages and then work with the animation teams and the AI teams to script this as if it were dialogue," Kovats said. "These sounds were treated as dialog of a character."
Delivering that authenticity required providing enough depth and believability to the various states players might find a Clicker in, from more supportive (but still dangerous) moments to how they would behave in the midst of combat encounters.
"We would add little things that would happen like that randomly in this to make it appear quite organic and natural," Kovats said.
"And as it began to move...if it was unaware, we would have very quiet vocal tones, nothing that sounded particularly dangerous, but still trying to enrage the player," he said. "And once it knew something was wrong, it would be more aggressive, as well as higher clicks, louder clicks."
This variety of sounds of course not only increases the likelihood that the Clickers will perceive themselves as more of a threat, but it serves an essential gameplay function – as players choose whether or not to hide these foes secretly, knowing how they are positioned relative to you allows the player to plan more effectively against one of The Last of Us' most famous threats.
And that threat continues to linger all these years later, a legacy created from the efforts across developers and departments at Naughty Dog to bring Clickers to life, most recently via The Last of Us Part I, now available on PlayStation 5 and available for pre-purchase on PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store.
"We worked on it together, and we tried to make it perfect," says Kovats. "Then moving forward into the second game, Beau Jimenez came in later and changed a lot of the sounds for Part I."
Bringing the Clickers to life
The second episode also marked Druckmann's television directorial debut, allowing him to bring the franchise's most iconic Infected to life in a new medium during a museum Clicker encounter.
“It's one of the biggest differences in an action sequence.” Druckmann said. “In a game like this, we want to make the player feel the danger,” says the character.
Joel, Ellie, and Tess in the TV show notice the Clickers, but don't immediately confront them.
"We're going to see glimpses of them," Druckmann said. "It's frightening, especially in that medium, to see the character's fear."
The scarcity of the Clickers and the tension it elicits in the television version add to some of the problems the creators were confronted with in the various mediums. In the game version, players want to have multiple encounters and test their abilities while engaging with stealth and combat mechanics.
"Action sequences should be singular," said executive producer Craig Mazin. One of the topics we discussed in the program was the role of action, and our belief that we would appreciate the action moments more if each one was unique, separate, and separate from each other, each one of them directly influencing the narrative in a very clear way.
When it comes to adapting action to television, the creative directors had to pay attention to one mechanical aspect in particular: they can't have characters healing as often as players.
"We had to do things differently than the game," Mazin said. "Games have healing mechanisms, but on television, healing doesn't work quite that way. You can't just crouch, bandage, you know, and be fine."
A shift from video to television requires a shift in the choreography of a sequence like this. Viewers don't need to be taught combat or stealth mechanics as players do, and so the manner in which the characters behave can also be altered to suit the scenes' objectives.
"We don't want Joel to sit there and say, 'Oh, this is what happens." Druckmann said in the game: "We wanted to make it very clear what those mechanics are." Here, we can say, 'Okay, let's do it in a very cinematic way with no dialog."
Action, in general, marked a significant difference in mediatic thought.
"You need to have enough action for mastery of mechanics to connect with the characters," Druckmann said. "Up until this point, Ellie is really connected to Tess. It's an effort for her to ask him questions."
The Last of Us is a game that brings to a head the world's tensions, emotions, and themes through every interaction. And the Clickers themselves represent Naughty Dog's development team's effort to bring a frightening, but true-to-the-world adversary to life via Steam and the Epic Games Store until its release on March 3.