The Last of Us – get to know Joel and Ellie
Get to know Joel and Ellie a little better ahead of their survival adventure
Over the past months we have been treated to a trickle of information and gameplay footage of Naughty Dog’s next action adventure epic, The Last of Us. The game takes players on a journey through a world ravaged by a fungal pandemic which wiped out most of humanity, and by all accounts, it’s shaping up to be quite a harrowing, visceral survival-horror experience.
By now, gamers are likely acquainted with the protagonists, the tough-as-nails pre-epidemic survivor Joel, and his companion, the 14 year-old Ellie, born post-epidemic in a quarantine zone.
During a Gamescom 2012 presentation, Arne Meyer, community manager at Naughty Dog, introduced us to the acting talent behind the characters: Ashley Johnson as Ellie, and video game veteran Troy Baker as Joel.
Joel and Ellie are cast together after Joel makes a promise to a dying friend to take care of her, and help her to escape. The pair heads west across the United States, and must learn to work together to deal with hostile environments and enemies. Along the way they will come face-to-face with the brutal necessity of human survival.
It is for this reason that the relationship between Joel and Ellie is a pillar of the game; without a convincing delivery from the two characters, players will not feel vested in their journey. There is a focus on character conflict to immerse the player in the survival process.
Through the game, we will uncover the characters’ arcs; with Joel’s life to this point having a heavy cost on his psyche, he sees Ellie as a chance for redemption. Starting out relatively naive, Ellie will quickly learn from Joel that survival is a brutal and emotionally harrowing ordeal. The two characters will conflict and influence each other throughout their journey, with the outcomes obviously yet to be discovered by the player.
Baker said that one of the most poignant elements of Joel’s character was that he is a man with no moral lines left to cross. He will do whatever it takes to survive, and keep Ellie safe.
The emotional themes, are of love, loyalty, and sacrifice. Players need to buy into what’s at stake, hence the reason why the violence is so realistic. Everything that happens in the game has a consequence.
Johnson and Baker discussed the contrasts in the characters. Ellie was born after the pandemic and has only ever known the quarantine zone; the adventure into the outside world is quite exciting for her, filled with the awe of new discoveries. Joel on the other hand, saw the destruction wrought by the fungal pandemic, and is a jaded survival veteran with a decidedly different view on the world.
During their journey, the pair will see the best and worst of mankind; lack of supplies leads to dark means of survival. Joel and Ellie have contrasting reactions to the situations presented.
Johnson described how there was an organic relationship between the actors, Neil Druckmann (creative director), and Bruce Straley (game director). While there was obviously a script in place, having spent over a year and a half working with the characters, Johnson and Baker were part of the creative process of discussing how the characters would react to situations through scenes and dialogue, creating a believably natural experience, as delivered through the game characters.
This extends beyond the cutscenes, where a lot of the narrative is delivered, but also into the gameplay portions. The reactions of Joel and Ellie to their environment, and the short conversations held between the two serve to flesh out the story of the world, and the characters. The actors did not have to force narrative information into the gameplay, as the whole package works in concert to deliver the story.
An example can be found in the latest gameplay video, in which Ellie asks Joel how he knew about the ambush. Joel replies “Because I’ve been on both sides.” This short dialogue sequence reveals to the player a little more about the back-story of Joel, adding to his character without getting bogged down in detail.
Below you can see images of Johnson and Baker in their motion capture suits. Each scene was captured and converted into 3D, while reference cameras focussed on the actors facial expressions. A facial animation artist would then painstakingly analyse the facial expressions scene by scene, and animate the in-game characters.
The Last of Us is set to release sometime in early 2013, exclusively on the PS3.
Read all of MyGaming’s Gamescom 2012 coverage.