The Last Of Us: the definitive postmortem – spoilers be damned

Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in The Last Of Us.

In a podcast we were listening to recently, there was a discussion about when it’s ok and even prudent for parents to lie to their children because there’s an aspect of life that they’re not yet mature enough to process. Yet Ellie is too savvy to be persuaded by Joel’s denial in those final moments. She clearly knows what the score is and why she was important.

ND: We were talking about this between ourselves yesterday. Ellie’s got a good bullshit detector, which is why she knows something is up with David from the moment she meets him. She doesn’t know what, but she knows there’s something off.

You were asking earlier why I thought the game would be polarising. There are people who hate the ending with a passion. Because we have focus tests toward the end of production and we do these exit interviews, and there are people who have said, ‘I love the game, love the mechanics, love the combat, but you’ve gotta fix the ending, you really have to fix the ending.’

BS: Yeah, just wanted [Joel and Ellie] to save the day.

ND: I think the most painful comment from a focus tester was, ‘Because she kind of reminds him of his daughter, he’s going to sacrifice mankind? Whatever.’

AJ: But not everybody’s going to be satisfied with an ending.

ND: I’d rather people be passionate about it either way than shrug and say, yeah that was good.

BS: But it’s different, even from a movie, right? You’re so invested because it’s you with the controller pushing this thing forward. You get to that point and there’s an identity that you relate to Joel and Ellie, and I think in stereotypical games, the ending would be, everything’s good, we saved the day and everybody’s happy, and we’re all, yay, awesome! But this is two flawed characters in an ambiguous situation, the world is a dark world, hard choices have had to be made.

ND: The journey was kind of for nothing, but at the same time it was for everything.

BS: Yeah, this beautiful relationship has been formed and these characters have completely changed. Ellie’s completely capable and both characters have completed an arc. It’s an interesting thing that it’s different, but not intentionally trying to be different.

ND: The original ending that for a long time we discussed is Ellie would believe the lie and you’d see them walking off to Tommy’s town and the camera would track up and you’d feel like, they’re going to be ok. It was about a week before we shot that scene and we thought, this isn’t honest, this doesn’t feel right, Ellie would know, I don’t buy it, we have to change this.

This is an Ashley thing but no matter what the acting direction is, she’s going to nod her head and be like, ‘ok…ok’. And throughout shooting, a lot of her improvisation for Ellie involved saying, ‘ok’. And I thought, you have to end on that. Whatever it is Joel tells her, she has to just be like, ‘ok’.

So Ashley, when you’d say that to Neil, you weren’t being glib, it really was a matter of trusting his direction. Is that the same feeling you wanted Ellie to communicate to Joel?

AJ: That’s how I was playing it. Obviously she has a bullshit detector, she clearly knows he’s lying, but she says, alright, let’s see where this goes.

ND: And it’s also like, how do you approach that? Would she start asking very detailed questions? Why would they release me before I woke up? Why wouldn’t I talk to someone before leaving? Was Marlene there? No, she would just ask the one obvious question: are you lying?

In a Sony press briefing at Gamescom 2012, Troy Baker alluded to a particular scene that was really excruciating to shoot and wasn’t producing a take you were happy with. What scene was that and why was it so difficult?

ND: It was the scene where Joel’s daughter dies. It was toward the end of production when we shot that scene, and the mistake I made is that I prepped him for hit. I told him, we’re going to do this really heavy scene, it’s going to be your daughter dying and stuff, and I built it up so much that when it came time to shoot it, it was just so big. His reaction to it was just so big, I was having a difficult time bringing him down.

We went in circles a little bit, and then by the end we’d done I think eight or nine takes, and I was like, ok we got it. It came down to a point where I felt like we had it. Maybe not in a single take, but I felt like we could cobble something together. And then we did, and I was looking at it with our editor and our cinematographer, and it’s just not there. It was like, it works and it’s a better scene than I’ve seen in most games and I think most people would feel for the daughter, but something about it just didn’t feel right. I felt like we could do more with less.

Troy invested so much of himself into that scene. Between takes, he’s really crying and he’d have to leave for a few minutes and come back, and the girl that was playing it, Hannah, every take she’s fully crying. If you watch the behind-the-scenes video, you will cry just watching them, it was so intense. It was so intense that we had a stunt guy on the set who said, I can’t watch this anymore, and he walked off the set. He was like, I can’t watch another take of this.

So I’m shooting some other scenes with Troy and I don’t know how to break this to him because he’s sure this is his best performance ever, and I’m like, remember that scene with Sarah dying? He’s like, yeah, and I said, we’re going to reshoot it. We’re so sarcastic around the office that we have this gesture to say we’re serious [Druckmann wags fist with thumb and pinky extended]. So I tell him we’re going to reshoot the scene and he looks at me and does the gesture, like he’s silently asking, are you serious? And he’s like, no, fuck you. And I’m like, no we need to do it. And he says, why? I’m like, well I feel like we can do something better. So at this point he’s upset, he’s visibly upset with me. And he’s like, dude, we can’t, it’s so good. And I tell him, it could be better.

So we schedule everybody to come in and reshoot it and he’s just pissed off at me. We do a few takes and he’s, again, throwing everything he has into it and I’m trying to get him to forget what you think this scene should look like. It doesn’t need to be big, and I try to tell him, don’t think of it as your daughter, think of it as your best friend, it just happened to your best friend. And he’s like, that’s stupid. And I can’t get him to get in that space so, eventually, I just tell him, here are the things you need to do: I want you to walk over to her, don’t worry about emotions at all, just walk over to her, check her wound, calm her down, whatever you need to do to calm her down, start picking her up, look around to decide where you’re going to go next. It became very mechanical in that way. Just think about the next step you have to take. And then we got it. It was this really beautiful, subtle and – I felt like – really honest performance.

You’ve talked about your choice to respect the player’s intelligence. The way the scene plays assumes they have the emotional IQ to realise this is a crushing blow. It doesn’t need to be telegraphed to get that point across.

ND: Watching it now, after removing myself from the process, there are these moments where you feel Joel breaking. He’s in denial for a long time in that scene, he’s saying don’t do this to me, which sounds like a selfish thing to say since she’s the one dying, but that’s what I would say: you’re killing me by doing this.

As strong as the acting performances were in that scene, Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score does a fair amount of the emotional heavy lifting. That man is a genius. How did you pull off the coup of convincing him to sign onto the project?

ND: Bruce and I were both drawn to his stuff. We were putting a folder together of music that was inspirational to us. A lot of it was Carter Burwell’s work on various Coen Brothers movies but half of it was Gustavo Santaolalla. At some point we said, why don’t we reach out to him?

BS: I think it was a joke. We actually said it in passing as a joke to one of our sound guys from Sony who makes all the connections. He has his own recommendations and stuff. We would do these previs little vignettes of how we’d like the gameplay to play out before we even had the engine or AI running, just as touchstone videos. And we did this walkthrough video and we put music to it and it always had this same feel. If it wasn’t Gustavo’s music, it was something exactly like Gustavo’s music. It had the exact same quality – organic instrumentation, minimalist, dissonance and resonance with the sounds. That sound guy from Sony said, if you could have anybody, who would it be? And we were like, well, it would be Gustavo. And he was like, ok, we’ll reach out to him.

ND: It’s funny because our music guy was resistant at first, saying, I don’t know, he has a very Latin sound and this game is more Americana. And I was like, it’s perfect, I don’t know what you’re talking about. It sounds like it would fit the story we’re trying to tell.

BS: What’s amazing is that in development there’s a moment in the game that’s under construction and you know it plays well, and you know it looks good, the dialogue is right, everything’s right, and you feel ok but for some reason it’s just not hitting. And then two weeks later Neil will work with our sound designers and I’ll play it after that two-week timespan when the music’s in, and all of a sudden my heart’s pumping or I’m choked up a little bit. Suddenly it has this whole other dimension that didn’t exist. We were on the same page, we knew what it was supposed to be doing, but it wasn’t there, and then the music always added this extra element that you can’t achieve even when all the other elements seemed perfect, it was still missing something. He might even just come in with one note or this really simple melody and it’s just so simple and beautiful and it pulls everything together.

ND: It would also help create these connections. When we did the VGAs, he composed a much simpler version of the theme that we played right before we showed the trailer. And trying to figure out what music would play when Joel picks Sarah up off the couch, he just played this really simple thing and it was the main theme. And of course now that musical theme has come to symbolise that relationship. So whenever he has that first moment of connection with Ellie, he wakes up and she’s telling him, I’ve never been outside. And we play this same theme and it’s just slightly changed. And it’s like, subconsciously you can’t help but think of his daughter.

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