The Last of Us: giving us something to believe in

Wednesday, 15 August 2012 18:10 GMT By Dave Cook

The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog views acting as a crucial element in this tale of a world gone wrong. Without believing Ellie and Joel’s strife, that world decays. VG247’s Dave Cook spoke with the studio and lead actors to find out more.

Naughty Dog’s community strategist Arne Meyer explained that The Last of Us is “a game of contrast.” Joel was born before the fungus pandemic that wiped out most of the global population, and Ellie was born after the fall of humanity, forced to grow up inside a small, isolated quarantine zone.

They’re two wildly different people, yet they share a common goal: Survival. As Meyer points out, “People resort to very dark places as a means of survival”, and stressed that throughout the game’s narrative, his team wanted to show, “The best and worst of mankind.”

“The beating heart of what makes The Last of Us unique is its cast. With the city streets devoid of life, and with only each other to depend on, their special bond grows and shifts throughout the story”.

That last line is important to today’s gamescom session. In this instance, Joel is the worst of mankind, forced to do terrible things to survive, while Ellie is the inquisitive, innocent mind, wandering into a harsh new world she knows nothing about. She’s fascinated by the city around her but Joel doesn’t turn his back on it for a second.

To deliver a believable air of tension between the two leads – be it a loving bond, or a sense of parental guardianship – Naughty Dog looked to actors Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker to bring Ellie and Joel to life.

Shooting scenes for almost two years and counting, Ashley’s background is in television, while Troy is a darling of the game circuit, having starred as Batman: Arkham City’s Two-Face, Final Fantasy 13’s Snow Villiers and many more characters.

After an introduction to the cast, we were shown an in-game cinematic that was first revealed at Comic-Con. It begins with Ellie, Joel and an older man named Bill rushing inside a safe house after escaping from a pack of infected enemies, barring the door behind them.

Bill – once a long-time friend of Joel’s – turns on them, handcuffing Ellie to a wall and turning his gun on them both, demanding to know if they’ve become infected, screaming at them for an answer. Joel diffuses the situation and together they venture out into the city again in search of car parts.

It’s not a new clip, but Naughty Dog then shows us the scene being filmed on one of the studio’s many ‘cages’, which are essentially motion capture spaces on the studio floor. We see Ashley and Troy acting out the scene just as we saw it, shouting out every line as it sounds in the game.

The scene then slowly build ups – through basic character model skins, textures, backdrops, shadows, lighting and many more intricate, precise and painstakingly created elements until the scene is playing out just as it does in-game. It’s an incredible thing to witness, made all the more surreal by having the actors sitting in the same room.

Both Troy and Ashley then discuss their involvement in greater detail. Ashley reveals that she was the first choice for Ellie, and that Troy was cast as Joel after many actors failed to make the grade, but that both stars fully believe in the script.

We hear stories of how both actors are gamers, about how they knew what was asked of them before they accepted the role, and that this understanding of the medium – which was also discussed last year in Nolan North’s Uncharted book – is is key to elevating them from being good game actors, to outstanding, unforgettable leads.

The beating heart of what makes The Last of Us unique is its cast. With the city streets devoid of life, and with only each other to depend on, the focus of Naughty Dog’s harrowing tale is in their special bond that grows and shifts throughout the story.

The Last of Us – gamescom 2012

It places pressure on the lead actors, but it’s a challenge they relish. Troy was especially keen on a line in Joel’s character bio that called him a man with, ‘Few moral grounds left to cross’. It’s something that he found difficult to grasp at first, being a man who lives in the relatively sane real world.

The Last of Us has been a gruelling project for them both, but their trials are our gain, because their acting bleeds enthusiasm, as well as real chemistry, which comes from Ashley and Troy becoming the best of friends throughout the game’s production.

Why have they succeeded where many actors fail to register? Both Ashley and Joel took to the roles by asking far reaching questions about who the characters were as people – just as we will ask questions of them when we get to play the game next year.

Why does Joel fight to live when his life seems so awful? What was the downfall of humanity like to live through? Why is Ellie so fascinated by the decay and death all around her?

What does it mean – to them – to know that they are among the last of us?

The Last of Us is a PS3-exclusive expected sometime next year.