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The Last of Us: acting out the end of the world

Wednesday, 12th December 2012 09:35 GMT By Dave Cook

The Last of Us aims to push characterisation and acting in games to new levels. Dave Cook speaks with Naughty Dog and the actors behind Ellie and Tess to learn more about the process, and the role of women in games.

The Last of Us

Releasing May 7, 2013, exclusively on PS3. Developed by award-winning Uncharted studio Naughty Dog.

The game is set on a post-apocalyptic earth, after civilization has been largely killed off by a deadly fungus. The cataclysm sees nature reclaiming the city streets, creating an urban jungle full of hidden dangers.

Gameplay rolls stealth, shooting and action set-pieces into one, and sees survivor Joel working with 14 year-old Ellie to escape bands of scavengers and infected.

New character Tess was just revealed at the VGA awards over the weekend. Played by Annie Wersching she is a black market dealer who was first seen in this new trailer.

Hands up if you’ve ever read ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’ by author Max Brooks. If you haven’t, it’s a fictional handbook that gives you all of the relevant information to make it through the undead apocalypse. While it isn’t based on any real-world events, the tips inside are deadly serious, and as a result are actually pretty terrifying. It gets more harrowing when you start to picture yourself in Brooks’ nightmarish vision of mankind’s downfall.

You start to think about crucial things like supplies, disease, and how long you’d have to last before either help arrives or the zombies starve. It’s not all about ‘Pulling a Dawn of the Dead’ and holing up inside a shopping mall for a few weeks. There are many complicated factors to consider. Most of us wouldn’t survive a few days, let alone a few weeks.

That’s the same feeling The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog is trying to convey through its latest PS3 adventure. The studio wants you to get inside the minds of its characters, to feel beaten, to put yourself in the heart of a world gone bad, where people will do anything – even kill their own – in order to survive just one more day.

Gruff survivor Joel and the newly-announced black market owner Tess are both one and the same in that regard. They will stop at nothing to satisfy their own goals, and have each done some miserable, truly despicable things to survive.

But along comes 14 year-old Ellie – a relatively unspoiled person who has lived a sheltered life in a quarantine zone – free from the horrors of the ravaged city streets beyond its borders. She approaches the world with curious optimism and wonder, throwing Tess and Joel’s steely demeanour off-kilter.

In this world – where a deadly fungus has wiped out most of the population, and has turned less-fortunate souls into rabid, mindless killers – emotions and personal attachment are flaws that get people killed. But as Joel and Ellie’s father-daughter relationship grows, it becomes evident that such emotions can give people a greater reason to survive.

Pen to paper

The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann wrote the game’s script. To realise a truly fearsome world and characters worth rooting for, he has to make you believe that Joel, Ellie and Tess are real people. The severity of the plot gave Naughty Dog scope to shake-up the perception of women in games, something both he and his studio feel strongly about.

Druckmann gave me a insight into how he approached the characters of Ellie and Tess: “I tried not to be mindful of too many outside influences, which is things like the industry, and how women are portrayed. I believe that should not affect a person’s writing. It’s about trying to find core truths in your story, and then letting that be the driving force.

“I guess Ellie started first because the core of the story is the relationship of Ellie and Joel, and the journey they go through – both a difficult journey and a journey of their relationship. Off of that I tried to develop characters that reflect back off Joel and Ellie that let us see different aspects of them and their relationship.

“They do some pretty dark stuff. I don’t know how much I can say without spoiling the story, but they’re both in the same boat, and the way they see it, there are other people who would kill them for the supplies they have. They’re going to take the first shot if they need to.”

“Then early on we came up with Tess. When the story starts out she’s Joel’s partner in this world, in this kind of black market where they deal in contraband, and she is very similar to Joel in that that she’s willing to go to any lengths to survive each and every day.”

When approaching Tess, her place as a black market dealer gave Druckmann scope to explore this idea that – even though the world is falling apart – requirements of everyday living such as monetary gain, material possession and even bare-bones necessities such as food and water don’t vanish. In fact, they become commodities over which people kill each other.

I suggested to Druckmann that Tess could embody the monopolisation of resources and those material desires we see in normal life.

“Yeah there’s an aspect of that, and also that supplies – in this world – mean the difference between living or dying.

“Do you have enough food or not? Enough weapons or not? That’s the approach Joel and Tess take in this world, in that the more supplies they can accrue, the longer they can survive, and the more power they have in the quarantine zone.

“They do some pretty dark stuff. I don’t know how much I can say without spoiling the story, but they’re both in the same boat, and the way they see it, there are other people who would kill them for the supplies they have. They’re going to take the first shot if they need to.”

Tess

I asked Annie Wersching – the actor behind Tess, who you may remember as Renee Walker in 24 – about her take on the character and her place in the wider context of the game’s plot.

“Her and Joel are partners in this world, but there are certain things she’s better at and there are certain things he’s better at.

“They work with that and use it to their advantage. She’s quite a good negotiator when it comes to making deals, and then Ellie comes into their lives. You then see things a little bit differently in terms of Ellie.”

Naughty Dog’s desire to create tangible, believable and unique female leads was part of the reason Wersching was drawn to the project, and to the character of Tess.

“I would have to say – and this was also my first audition for a video game – that I was pleasantly surprised at the level of the script, because I didn’t really know what I was going to be getting into. For all I knew Tess could have been your stereotypical cliché woman.

Behind the scenes mo-cap footage of Joel and Tess in action

“She definitely is not, and just the way characters talk to each other, and the way it was all written was just all very interesting and real. I was pleasantly surprised by all of that, and when I auditioned, I did so with Troy Baker as Joel, who was there with me. It just felt right and good, so I was surprised by that as I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

Ellie is played by actor Ashley Johnson, and it’s clear that Naughty Dog’s approach to this particular character is to create a game-changer, someone who forces Joel and Tess to view the world in a new light.

Johnson told me that misconceptions about Ellie being a shallow kid who exists to cause trouble are way off the mark, and that – like all of the flawed and varied characters in The Last of Us – there is more to her than at first appears.

“With Ellie, I know she’s 14 but because this is the only world she’s ever known. Every day, you have to survive. It’s not like she thinks, “Oh, I wake up, what am I going to have for breakfast or who am I going to hang out with today?’

“She’s not a normal 14-year-old girl. When I first got the audition and saw the scenes, I could tell she was wise beyond her years and not your average teen. I didn’t think the whole time we were shooting it, ‘I’m 14, I’m 14′. I honestly haven’t been thinking about age.

“For me I just kind of got thrown into it right away like, ‘Go put the suit on, get out there and go’. But everybody was helpful – especially Troy who’s had so much experience with motion capture – so any questions we’ve had, he was happy to answer.”

Gaining credibility

All of this effort – the full-body motion capture, the award-winning writing and the attention to character-driven experiences – have certainly put Naughty Dog in good stead. Druckmann believes that the studios work across the Uncharted trilogy has made Hollywood more accessible.

It is now easier for the studio to source actors and get talent on board, and it seems the movie industry at large really is starting to view gaming as a credible career move. The old stigmas of games simply being a play-thing are dissolving thanks to the increase of high-quality story-telling within the industry.

“From our standpoint,” he explained, “the Uncharted games won a bunch of awards for performance and story. It just opens doors to more talent, and we’ve noticed that we’re able to find more and more actors who want to do videogames.

“I think as the material becomes more and more sophisticated and as the characters become more interesting, that there’s a certain draw there. Even now there are certain actors that won’t come near it because there is a certain stigma to games, but I think that’s mainly going away.”

“I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”

The Last of Us continues Naughty Dog’s penchant for spinning an engrossing yarn, with characters you want to believe in and support. However, don’t go expecting Indiana Jones-inspired adventures and snappy quips here: this is dark stuff, warns Johnson.

“I’ve worked in films and on TV, but I feel like so much work goes into a video game. I mean, it’s been over two years now of people working so hard – all of the animators, all of the developers – and I feel like they should be rewarded for that a little better.

“Some of the stuff that Neil has written has been very dark… Some of what we’ve shot has been so dark, and has completely ruined my day in a good way, without giving too much away. It hasn’t been too hard to get into the mindset of someone who feels beaten down, and that their life is hard, because we remember everything that we’ve shot, and it’s just like, ‘Wow, we’ve been through a lot.’”

Druckmann reverts back to Joel as an example of how – even though the game is set in a fictional environment – players, particularly fathers or mothers will be able to relate to his struggle, and the way he bonds with Ellie during dark times.

“I think in this world you’re constantly – on a day-to-day basis – forced to make really difficult decisions where there isn’t necessarily a right answer. Over time it can mess you up. At the core of it, this is a father-daughter relationship.

“I know it maybe sounds cheesy but it’s a father-daughter love story, and inspiration for that comes from real life. I’m a dad and I just try to think, ‘If I was in those situations, how far would I go?’ I probably wouldn’t last long in this world by the way, because I have no real skills.

“I think the more you can draw from real life, the more you can draw from the art direction, and then your story becomes more real.”

The gender problem

Regardless of one studio’s efforts to set a new precedent in game writing and characterisation, Druckmann, Wersching and Jonson – as well as Naughty Dog at large – are growing concerned with the prevalent issue of gender portrayal in games. It is viewed as a stain on the industry that serves to undermine and push back at attempts to raise credibility of the medium.

Johnson pointed to Crystal Dynamic’s depiction of a young Lara Croft in its Tomb Raider reboot as an example of how female characters are changing in games.

“As a gamer – and as of course, a female gamer – you definitely have your viewpoints on how women are portrayed in video games.

“Typically they’re either over-sexualised, or they’re the damsel in distress, or simply there to be a love interest. There may even be one female in a game who’s a badass, as opposed to, ‘Just another male character’. It does bother me, which is another thing that attracted me to this game, and Naughty Dog games in general.

“You had Uncharted with Elena, and I feel Naughty Dog creates very real characters, especially with The Last of Us. Everybody is real and all of the characters have flaws, which I feel you don’t see a lot in video games.”

“You had Uncharted with Elena, and I feel Naughty Dog creates very real characters, especially with The Last of Us. Everybody is real and all of the characters have flaws, which I feel you don’t see a lot in video games.

“What’s interesting with Tomb Raider is yes, Lara’s vulnerable in the huge trailer they’ve been showing, and that’s cool. But we’re seeing characters now that aren’t just total badasses or the other way around, that have some vulnerabilities and flaws. I think that’s good to see, and it’ll change things for the better.”

There have been some concerns over box-art recently – including Ken Levine’s admission that the BioShock Infinite cover has been engineered to target ‘frat boys’ – so I asked the group if they had any suggestions as to why we see so few females on game covers – aside from stereotypical imagery, of course.

Johnson suggested: “I feel like they don’t put women on the covers because they’re afraid that it won’t sell. It’s all gamers really know – and I don’t want to be sexist by any means – but I get the feeling, generally, that they think game’s won’t sell as well with a woman on the cover, compared to some badass dude on the front.”

“I agree with what Ashley said,” Druckmann added. “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”

It’s refreshing to hear that Naughty Dog stood their ground on the issue of the game’s cover, and that it is making conscious efforts to raise the bar for game writing everywhere. Whether or not it will have a widespread impact remains to be seen.

The Last of Us launches May 7, 2013.

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37 Comments

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  1. Karooo

    Lovely, Dave. Reading now.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. scott_wright

    you had me at Zombie survival guide, can`t wait for this game and that kinda shocks me I own a ps3 but barely game on it.

    Played Uncharted 2 yet to get 3 Loved it very much this was on the back of Dave recommendation for it.

    So I can`t wait to get my hands on this! sounds and looks amazing.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. KAP

    You repeat a lot of paragraphs twice
    You repeat a lot of paragraphs twice.
    Don’t you proof read your shit. Good shit though.
    With that said a good read, it’s good to see that Hollywood is taking note that gaming writting is becoming more then just space marine with big guns but characters with backstory and realistic writting to go with it.

    ND is at a level not many others are at. Luv it.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Patrick Garratt

    Where’s there a repeat? I proofed it personally.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. Silent Somno

    The text in the grey boxes does not code properly for the mobile version. They just show up as repeated paragraphs. On PC it works fine.

    #5 1 year ago
  6. richiefrank

    I have to agree with KAP here. I come to VG for the gaming news, not the quality of the writing – and Dave is particularly bad for not proofing his work. So’s Stephany too. She even misspelt a word in a headline yesterday and I spotted it instantly – if she didn’t see it then she doesn’t even look at the work she’s done after it’s done.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. Dave Cook

    @6 I think that’s unfair as we don’t have a sub-editor and we’re massively hard-pressed given the volume of news coming out at any one time. This isn’t an easy job, so yes things will slip through the cracks.

    I do read my articles once they’re done – when I have time – and often that means reading them an hour or hours after they publish. We’re not your average game site, we work a little differently and I think most of our readers respect that.

    Also, we’re only human and all that yeah? ;)

    Thanks for reading anyway, all feedback is useful.

    (EDIT: also, the typo KAP is referring to isn’t a typo, it’s an error with our mobile site that doesn’t show the box-outs and box-outs. It works on my iPhone but doesn’t seem to be on whatever phone he’s using.

    Also, quality of writing ie: the context and typos are two different things. I believe our quality of writing is superb compared to most sites, even if some typos slip through.)

    #7 1 year ago
  8. Ireland Michael

    I try to keep my attitude in check nowadays, but seriously… at the people making criticism in this threat… please kindly fuck the fuck off.

    It’s not even constructive criticism. You’re being downright aggressive and degrading with your remar- insults. You’re being dicks.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. Dragon246

    Man, this game sure looks like a tough GOTY 2013 contender.
    Most beautiful console game + a truly amazing story = sure shot success

    Although like earlier, they sure released the release date early. I know ND never misses deadlines as they really are talented freaks, but man, I hope the crunch isn’t very bad like in UC3.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. Ireland Michael

    I have a tonne of respect for the quality of Naughty Dogs’ work, and I will almost definitely be getting this when it comes out, but my biggest fear with this game is that it’s basically going to end up being Uncharted with a new coat of paint. What about this really helps to seperate it from that series in your opinion, Dave?

    #10 1 year ago
  11. Dave Cook

    @10 Well, it’s not a shooter in the sense that there isn’t tons of readily-available ammo and weapons at hand. Bullets break stealth too, so you have to be stealthier in your approach, using the environment – and your Uncharted style climbing – to get around to find the best vantage points.

    It’s also about the number of ways you can thin out packs of enemies – do you create distractions to pick them of one by one, or do you raise hell with gunfire, molotovs and tons of swearing?

    I think that the inclusion of stealth and the high-risk factor of running in blindly will change the gameplay enough. I also like the Amerian road-trip vibe of their cross-country adventure.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. Dragon246

    @Dave
    This may be small but the camera angles in TLOU seems more focused on characters than UC, which I think is rather good as this is a more personal story. Am I right or just hallucinating after getting infected by fungus?

    #12 1 year ago
  13. Dave Cook

    @12 nah that’s correct, it definitely gets in and around the characters more. It feels more raw and dirty than Uncharted from what I’ve seen/heard.

    #13 1 year ago
  14. DrDamn

    @scott_wright
    I liked UC1, loved UC2 and initially took a ling while to get into UC3. Stick with it when you start it though as after a pretty poor first third the rest is fantastic.

    RE: TLOU – it looks very nice, but given the lack of emphasis on gunplay I’m hoping it doesn’t slip too far down the semi-interactive movie route UC2 did in it’s early stages.

    #14 1 year ago
  15. death_489

    @Dave Cook
    Don’t annoy your self , in every site you will see haters , every one makes mistakes , it’s we who judge the mistake if it’s meant to happen or just misunderstanding , that if you are doing a mistake , in my religion we have something says : make a thousand excuse to you brother until you know his reason when you feel that he did something wrong …

    the way they talk to you is rude if you ask me , but sometimes writing doesn’t show the real emotions so i hope it’s just an advice…

    #15 1 year ago
  16. anik_lc

    LOL, Ellie with a bow! Seriously? Naughty Dog kept stealing ideas from Tomb Raider and putting them into Uncharted and The Last of Us! Seriously?? They can’t invent something?

    #$%&%$#

    #16 1 year ago
  17. Dave Cook

    @16 stealing? How do you know which game entered development first?

    #17 1 year ago
  18. YoungZer0

    This just in: Tomb Raider invented Bows.

    #18 1 year ago
  19. Dave Cook

    @19 Mushrooms didn’t exist until Super Mario Bros.

    #19 1 year ago
  20. YoungZer0

    @19: Don’t even get me started on the jumping thing. So many people simply stole that from Mario.

    Sidenote: Why do so many bots fail at english? O:

    #20 1 year ago
  21. OnionPowder

    Bows are the new hot ticket item in games. Black Ops 2, Far Cry 3, Assassins Creed 3, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Crysis 3 and the newest Battlefield 3 DLC have bows in them.

    #21 1 year ago
  22. Dave Cook

    @22 The first Black Ops had a bow too.

    #22 1 year ago
  23. Dragon246

    I really find this trend hilarious. It would be awesome if someone starts replacing guns with bows in some army. They will easily kill their opponents … with laughter.
    Tell a sane man that bows result in one shot kills whereas guns take a gazillion rounds to do that, he will definitely think you have gone loony.
    So much for “realism” in games.

    #23 1 year ago
  24. G1GAHURTZ

    Thief.

    #24 1 year ago
  25. YoungZer0

    I love bows. I know it’s completely stupid to use one on a battlefield, but having a bow in a videogame automatically makes me ‘THE HUNTER’.

    #25 1 year ago
  26. Gekidami

    Blacks Ops had a bow? Wasnt that a crossbow? Not quite the same thing.

    #26 1 year ago
  27. Ireland Michael

    @25 Heck… Ultima Underworld.

    #27 1 year ago
  28. Erthazus

    Actually crossbows in the military is a reality.

    #28 1 year ago
  29. Dragon246

    @29
    Like which military? Romans? Or the PC overlord army? :D
    Must say that I am scared…… for them.

    #29 1 year ago
  30. Ireland Michael

    People’s perspectives on bows as a weapon seem to be severely outdated. A powerful compound bows is an incredibly vicious weapon, and if an arrow from one of those hits you it’s going just as lethal as any bullet.

    The whole point of a bow over a gun is obvious. Silence.

    #30 1 year ago
  31. Dragon246

    @31
    Yeah? Now tell me a compound bow that even matches the accuracy of a machine gun (worst accuracy among guns) and can be fired by a single personnel. First, the recoil would be downright awful and second, by the time that person fires an arrow, he would be pimped out by the guns guy who would have pumped an entire magazine into him.
    About silence, ever heard of silencers?
    Edit- This comment is referring to an earlier version of comment #31. Its really hard for me to edit easily as I am commenting using a vita right now.

    #31 1 year ago
  32. GwynbleiddiuM

    Haters gonna hate, some people are making complete asses out of themselves. You don’t like lengthy articles then you can pass up on them. VG247 is not a huge and well budgeted news agency. It’s not without flaws but the amount of hard work and sheer dedication to bring great news coverage and excellent articles to the audience is evident. Show a little respect.

    If you think you do better, by all means start your own shit. You have no working experience as a journalist and yet you’re all about criticism. Bigger media/news outlets have sub-editors, people that are responsible to go through each written piece to clean it up and pass it along for publish. VG247 is not a big and hugely funded place. They bring us news as fast as they can, while they work hard on other aspect of their work, like conducting an interview, writing an article. I’m very sure they are doing all they can with the resources they have available at their disposal. So show some RESPECT (read this in a frustrated CM Punk voice), they work hard and they interact with their readers on a regular basis. Where else you can find such great guys?

    And I have to say, I think Steph and Dave always get less credit for their work because of constant douchery shown by ignorant users around here, I take offense to that. They deserve better than this ungrateful bunch.

    #32 1 year ago
  33. Chillanuggets

    Great read, and Annie Wersching, ‘ey? Looks like we’ve got quite the cast on board, especially with the likes of William Brown on the set as well. Nice to see that the character-driven narrative will also be driven by actually great voice-acting puppeteers; so far, TLOU’s shaping up to be better and better every passing article of new details. And that final image with Ellie on the bow — damn, man. Lookin’ intense.

    @32 (Dragon246)

    ‘Silencers’ don’t genuinely exist, though. In the real world, the closest we have to those are suppressors, but even then it’ll probably be the reduced muzzle flash that attracts most people..

    Kind of have to agree with the stance on the arrow’s sudden popularity boom, though. But whatever the case, as this is The Last of Us here, and so far this game appears to be pulling off most of (if not all) the right cues, I doubt that whatever notion one may have on bows in video games will detract from the overall experience, lol. Besides, earlier you mentioned the tendency for games to give enemies a “gazillion”-bullet hit count before dropping dead (which is honestly unrealistic, but hey), but as seen in gameplay snippets for The Last of Us [as of this posting], the most bullets we’ve ever seen wasted on a person was 2; 2 bullets and that person behind the crosshairs hits the ground.

    Say what you will about realism, but when it comes to TLOU, it wouldn’t exactly be the most effective game you’d want to use as an example of realistic fallacies in modern products these days, lol.

    Uncharted, on the other hand…

    (Statin’ that last statement with love, folks, with love. ;P)

    EDIT: So, point is, I probably wouldn’t doubt the team behind this — and if the bow in this game does end up being unrealistically accurate and easy to maintain anyway, then hell, I’m sure it’d at least be fun.

    Besides, speaking of realism in games, how ’bout reloading guns? In reality it takes incredible dexterity and focus to reload guns as fast as your average game character can; and headshots as well. In a game you can pull off a headshot or two with just a flinch of the thumb, but it’s clearly not that easy in real life either, lol. Either way, though, to make such aspects of combat more realistic also has the potential to dumb down the fun factor of a game, and in the end, we all know that that’s all that really matters. :P

    #33 1 year ago
  34. GwynbleiddiuM

    @Dragon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDODyGxZrns

    #34 1 year ago
  35. Dave Cook

    @GwynbleiddiuM thanks :)

    #35 1 year ago
  36. Dragon246

    @People
    Chill dudes, I only said it was hilarious and not realistic, never said anything about fun, which they indeed are in some games.
    Tell me, don’t you find it funny when your soldier in crysis 3 supposedly has the best suit of armor ever made, and yet uses bow and arrow to kill enemies? I find it funny.
    @35
    Dude, I never said it with respect to TLOU, which frankly is one of the 2013 GOTY contenders for me. I was just referring to the sudden boom in bows in games. In a survival game, it makes sense (although handmade bows cant even kill a rabbit unless its a very lucky shot, let alone a deer), but in shooters, it makes no sense whatsoever.
    About silencers, pistol silencers work really well, with very little noise, even bows aren’t completely silent in that regard.
    And of course its not that games need to be realistic, I would not have played even a single JRPG if that was the case.
    About reloading guns, most of the characters we play as are soldiers, so it should be automatic for them. And guns like AK47 aren’t that difficult to reload.
    @Gwyn
    That video just proves how slow a bow is and how much more skill it requires than a gun, also shows they are useless in ranges beyond point blank. I am sure any person with good hand-eye coordination would have pumped an entire magazine of rounds by the time he would have loaded and shot an arrow.
    As I said earlier, its absurd how much damage points is associated with bows in games, but most games bend reality, and nothing is wrong with that. I just find this recent infatuation with bows funny.

    #36 1 year ago
  37. Chillanuggets

    @38 (Dragon246)

    My bad, bro, didn’t mean to come off as imposing, lol — think my head was a bit in the clouds while establishing my stance on your position so much so that I engaged ‘pretentious-debate mode’ and got carried away; true, you didn’t mention anything even regarding TLOU in your previous post, so that was my error. I don’t really know why I suddenly went off, too, as I actually agree with the realism-believability dissonance of bows as weapons in games, but hey, lol.

    Whatever the case, here’s to the end of that, and cheers, ‘ey.

    #37 1 year ago