Having the classic video game The Last of Us as one of the headline houses at Halloween Horror Nights is a groundbreaking moment for the iconic annual event.
“This is the first time in my 18-year history with Halloween Horror Nights that we’ve ever done a house solely focused on a video game,” explained John Murdy, Executive Producer of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. “The closest thing we ever came to it before was when we did Silent Hill over a decade ago, but that was based on the movies that were out at the time. We’ve been approached many times about doing different video games, but we never really felt it was right.”
All that changed when Neil Druckmann, the Co-Studio Head and Head of Creative at Naughty Dog, the brains behind the PlayStation game, reached out via Twitter two years ago.
“I think he had just gone to our park in Orlando, and he asked his followers how he could get a house at Halloween Horror Nights for The Last of Us,” Murdy continued. “Of course, our fan base, as they are, immediately glommed on to that and started going nuts. Suddenly, my feed blew up, and I wondered, ‘Why am I being so popular? Oh.'”
The rest is history that brings gamers and scare fans to 2023, where they can experience The Last of Us, which has sold over 37 million copies worldwide in the last decade as of December 2022, up close and personal.
The immersive attraction focuses on the Pittsburgh section of the game, set in a post-apocalyptic United States decimated by cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated fungus.
“When you approach, the first thing you see is the military quarantine zone checkpoint. One thing that was important to Neil was that we follow Ellie and Joel, the main characters, just like we do in the video game,” Murdy revealed. At the entrance, guests are greeted by actors mimicking a voice track, which also provides the house’s first Easter egg.
“These characters are so important to this franchise, and so beloved by the fans, that we wanted to pay them off, so we got the talent who did the game, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who voiced those characters, to come back, and I directed them, and they voiced the script for us.”
One of the biggest challenges for Murdy, who has created 106 Halloween Horror Nights houses during his tenure, was making the maze look lush and alive when they usually make the attractions look the opposite.
“We have so much stuff we’ve accumulated over the years that we have a separate facility off-site that is like a giant prop warehouse, and we have tons of foliage. What we have is all dead-looking, like yellowing grass and stuff, because we’re usually doing graveyards and spooky horror stuff,” Murdy laughed. This was a very tight collaboration with Naughty Dog, to the extent that I had the Art Director for the whole game come down here last week and take a look. As we went through the house, he said, ‘It needs more foliage,’ but I promised him it was coming. We had to order all new greenery for this house and had huge crates of it show up for weeks. “
That was one of many firsts the team had to manifest and deliver on to ensure the house was as close to the game-playing experience as possible.
“In the bathroom section of the house, Joel comes in here in the game, and he’s got a flashlight that you can see moving around and can hear clicking on and off to reveal dead bodies,” the creative revealed. “I wanted to replicate that. I gave that as an assignment to our lighting team, who has been with us since day one, and they invented a new kind of light fixture. They took a flashlight, hardwired it, and attached it to a movable arm that can be programmed to switch on and off and scan the area. It’s really cool.”
As with all of the houses at Halloween Horror Nights, which runs through September and October, the scares are critical, so timing is everything. Even the shock-free moments have to be spot on.
“If you’re a performer, even like the Joel and Ellie out front, you probably lip-synch the dialogue something like 200,000 times during the entire event run,” Murdy explained. “Halfway through rehearsal, they were spot on because it’s just that repetition; they get really good at the timing.”
By his estimation, The Last of Us house involves around 22 scare actors within the attraction at any one time, with approximately 40 people passing through the house simultaneously. Murdy confirmed that it’s about the same size as attractions that have used that Lower Lot spot behind The Mummy in previous years, such as Saw and The Exorcist, but what’s different is “the twists and turns.”
“There is more linear square footage of wall in this house than there was previously, but it’s because we’re trying to make it claustrophobic and keep you in this intense environment so that we can replicate the game’s feel,” he said.
As always with Halloween Horror Nights, the devil, or in this case, the contagion, is in the details, and every house requires something unique to make it work, even down the specifics of making the scare actors look the part safely and comfortably.
“The Runners are done with traditional makeup; everything from Stalkers and Clickers are all masks, but the Bloaters are head to toe, fully sculpted creature suits,” Murdy revealed. “We’ve had to create a way to deliver air and have a line hooked up to it so we can cool them down. We are trying a few things because some of our stuff is outside, but some are inside a soundstage where we have air conditioning. That’s not the case here.”
Part of the development process also involved Murdy watching countless 12-hour-long play-through videos that gamers had posted online so that he knew every nook and cranny of the reality inhabited by The Last of Us.
“Naughty Dog sent us hundreds of files to work from for design stuff, but I also wanted to understand the world from a gamer’s perspective, so I had to immerse myself in it from the get-go with the videos,” he recalled. “I had about two to three weeks to research and develop a fully written 100-page treatment that would be the Bible for what we create.”
“If you think about some of those early movie adaptations, Hollywood couldn’t figure out video games for a long time. You can’t just assume it’s like any other property, and there’s a reason gamers love what they love. The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood have been hugely successful this year because of that attention to detail. I didn’t work on Super Nintendo World, but I know the people who did and the lengths they went to get it right.”
Murdy concluded, “Games are so successful as a business that they pretty much dwarf almost every other form of entertainment. The big test subject for Halloween Horror Nights is whether this works. When we were putting this together, as soon as I started walking through this, even with the lights on, I was like, ‘This is going to be good.’ It opens up a world of opportunities, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our brand at this stage.”
The blood red carpet gets rolled out for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood on select nights from Thursday, September 7, 2023, through Tuesday, October 31. The Halloween Horror Nights event at Universal Orlando Resort is underway and runs through Saturday, November 4, 2023.