The Last of Us is a survival action videogame currently in development at Naughty Dog. We attended a presentation at gamescom 2012 where Naughty Dog community strategist Arne Meyer facilitated a panel discussion with Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, the two actors who play Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. Not only did we get a fascinating look into how the actors prepared for the roles and how they feel about being involved with this project, but we also got an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at how the performance capture was done for the game.
Before we move on to discuss the performance capture process and get a glimpse into how Ashley and Troy feel about their roles, let’s find out a bit more about the inspiration behind the story and emotional themes from Creative Director Neil Druckmann and Game Director Bruce Straley, two Naughty Dogs who unfortunately could not be at the presentation but gave us more insight into the game by joining us through a recorded video.
The Last of Us is the story of Joel and Ellie, two very different survivors who are trying to make their way through a United States that has been ravaged by a pandemic. Another important aspect of the game is the story about how Joel and Ellie learn to trust each other over time, as well as the evolution of this bond, a relationship which the development team really wanted us to see over the entire course of the game.
Straley explained that The Last of Us is also a game about contrast, from Joel’s character being born before this pandemic hit and took out America as we know it, to Ellie being born after so her viewpoint of the world is very different from Joel’s. Another contrast can be seen with the art style, the abandonment theme in the game comes into focus with what we know of the familiar, for example, an everyday coffee shop that is now flooded and overgrown.
Naughty Dog are also striving to show the best and worst of mankind, which is another form of contrast. They want to show us the different factions and that each faction has a different way of dealing with infection, the people who are infected and the lack of supplies. According to Druckmann, we’re going to see some people resorting to really dark means of survival, through killing and violence, and some people who are more focussed on trying to bring society back to how we know it today through an agricultural means of survival and by forming bonds.
Neil and Bruce both share a love for comics, novels and movies, and so looked to bring something from these other mediums into the genre, with inspiration coming from 28 Days Later, Children of Men, Walking Dead and The Road. The duo found an opportunity when brainstorming ideas for a new project at Naughty Dog to bring what they had learned, the Naughty Dog method of true character development and characters that resonate and have depth and conflict with each other. Straley believes that we’ll feel that tension that Joel and Ellie are feeling, that we’ll feel that pressure being applied to them and that we’ll be with them moment to moment, because we are there trying to survive just how they are.
Naughty Dog is looking to evoke certain emotions from the player in The Last of Us, and they do this by giving the characters a lot of dimensionality and depth so that players can buy that they are real people who are forced to make these difficult choices. Part of the process of bringing these characters to life was casting Troy and Ashleigh, who Naughty Dog believe have imbued these characters with so much personality and emotional range. They also believe that the chemistry between Troy and Ashleigh translated to the chemistry between the two characters, Joel and Ellie.
The emotional themes that feature in the game are love, loyalty and sacrifice, which are pretty hard themes and emotions to sell in any medium. Naughty Dog felt that the only way players could get into this kind of emotion was if they bought into what is at stake for these characters. Druckmann explained this is why they have approached tension and violence in such a realistic level. The violence is to show you that there are real consequences, which plays into strategies for the player and gives a lot more opportunities in what is one of the most system-based games ever made at Naughty Dog. This led to a discussion about how everything in the game has weight and consequence, which allows Joel and Ellie to create interesting choices, which in turn allows you as a player to strategise differently throughout.
Druckmann and Straley then went on to chat a bit about Ashley, who they believe has really thrown herself into the role of Ellie, and has become Ellie. It’s because of this that when Naughty Dog is thinking about dialogue they listen to Ashley and how she speaks, and then this is almost directly translated into how Ellie speaks.
The role of Joel was a bit more difficult to cast, because he’s a tough character who has gone someplace really dark in his life and has become a survivor in this world. Naughty Dog went through a really long casting process to find Troy, they saw dozens of actors and were initially sceptical when they got a headshot of Troy. Yet he threw himself into the role at the audition and when he auditioned against Ashley they knew they had found their Joel.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our behind-the-scenes look at The Last of Us, where we’ll take a closer look at the performance capture process for the game. Until then you can find out more about the game by browsing through our previous coverage, including our first impressions from E3.