Spoilers ahead for The Last of Us Part II.
It’s June 2018 and 20 cynical journalists pack into a small demo room behind Sony’s multimillion-dollar booth at E3, the influential, annoyingly crowded downtown Los Angeles game expo. They’re here to watch a reveal for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, the follow-up to an award-winning 2013 production that has sold over 17 million copies. It’s a bloody page-turner of a game in which protagonist Ellie, 19, avenges the death of Joel, her close friend and father figure. But here, the group is shown a softer moment. Ellie (Blindspot’s Ashley Johnson) looks longingly at her longtime friend Dina (Westworld’s Shannon Woodward) from across a rustic Wyoming dancehall. Eventually, they dance. They sweat. They embrace. You feel their attraction completely. Finally, Dina tucks Ellie’s hair behind her ear, leans in, and kisses her tenderly.
Sniffles are heard around the room from game critics young and old. Historically, it’s been a grail for game-makers to move players to tears. That was the dream of Trip Hawkins, the legend who founded Electronic Arts in 1983. He didn’t see it happen during his tenure. Only during the last 15 years have the writing and the facial expressions become on par with the lifelike blasts of fire and shimmers of ocean waters that games have rendered so well since the 1990s. And The Kiss felt like a breakthrough in video game realism. Everything in the scene — the eyes, the mouths, the emotions, the kiss — seems so startlingly lifelike, a result of the combined power of the writing, acting, and game technology.
In this 30-hour epic that has taken the studio seven years to produce, The Kiss was one of the most complex scenes to create, says game director Neil Druckmann. “We wrote that scene over and over,” says co-writer Halley Gross (Westworld), who weighed the balance of drama, humor, and cynicism in the scene. After morning table reads, rewrites and blocking, it took three days to shoot while ensconced in a sprawling Playa Vista motion capture studio made primarily for Naughty Dog’s use. The Last of Us II takes place in a world embattled by torturous militias and a rampant fungal strain whose victims are called The Infected. Within this universe, the makeshift dance hall itself is meant to offer “some small sense of security and peace,” says cinematic animation lead Eric Baldwin. They needed a celebratory atmosphere within a community that feels safe in the fortresslike enclave they’ve built. The scene includes a dance troupe, the crew, and the cast of actors — over 20 people all told.
Ashley Johnson, who red-eyed in from New York after a long week of filming on NBC’s Blindspot, stood alongside Shannon Woodward, both wearing hot, sensor-ridden motion-capture outfits (think high-tech wetsuits) with awkward helmet cameras attached. Having thought about Ellie for nearly eight years, Johnson knows her complexities — the part that’s soft and loving and the vengeful side that makes Killing Eve’s Villanelle seem like a casual criminal by comparison. Ellie, says Johnson, is “quiet but confident. I wanted her to be like a cowboy in a Western.”
Druckmann knew Johnson wouldn’t need much directing: “All she wanted to know was what happened to Ellie before the scene.” But the technology that would move people to tears presented issues. The same helmet cameras that hyperprecisely track Ellie and Dina’s faces to help animators make them so lifelike also cause Johnson and Woodward to become entangled when they try to physically kiss. Woodward requested gloves with cutoff fingers so “I could at least touch Ashley’s neck and hair.”
Druckmann shot the scene in two other ways: The actors passionately kissed without the helmets on, and then they kissed the air to create reference points so animators could see how their facial skin moved. It didn’t help that the Velcro on the actors’ mocap suits got stuck and made ripping sounds, causing extra work for audio editors. “Nothing sucks more than having an incredible performance with the sound of Velcro over the audio,” complains Druckmann, vowing to create silent suits “if we make a third game.”
Physically, however, The Kiss was one of the least-demanding scenes in a game that is filled with punching, jumping, falling, rolling, attacking, crawling, and choking. “It was scary-physical,” says Johnson, talking about the bruises and shoulder injury she incurred. Woodward’s diaphragm “went into spasm,” she says, after doing hours of required crying.
Moving the 3-D data obtained from the dancehall scene into the game is a painstaking process, says Baldwin, because of the minute facial details involved in programming the work in the graphics software, called Maya, and various Sony-made proprietary programs. The animators’ tasks included changing “the flushness in Ellie’s cheeks to convey embarrassment or excitement,” Baldwin explains, and moving “dynamic hair strands that animate as Dina pushes Ellie’s hair behind her ear.” The team used approximately 350 “joints” — points that connect to other points in a 3-D animation program — to mimic facial movement. The goal? The highest fidelity in games today, closely mimicking “the natural interactions of two people” about to fall deeply for each other.
Originally, the kiss scene was meant to open the game. But once the scene was shot, Gross and Druckmann realized players wouldn’t get into gameplay for 25 minutes into the game. “That never felt good,” says Gross. It would run the risk of boring a player who’d jonesed for seven years to once again inhabit the character of Ellie. Ultimately, Druckmann and Gross decide it should come near the end as a flashback. Ellie has been a killer since the first game, but by the second game, she is uniquely vicious. By the time the kiss scene rolls around, players may have decided to hate Ellie because of the crushingly monstrous deeds she’s done in her single-minded obsession with revenge. Ellie will leave the love of her life for the sake of an almost genetic need for retribution. In this milieu, The Kiss has “far more impact,” says Gross, than it had as a stand-alone scene or at the game’s beginning.
After 28 hours, you are part of Ellie, and if you’re going to die in the next two, it may as well be with this poignant recollection of perfect attraction. Even if love’s been lost, even if you’ve hated Ellie for what she’s done, you can cling to memories of chemicals intermingling, love, and trust as you’re ensconced in the fight of your life. What’s most important, says Druckmann, is to remind you of the good, “even [in] people who have wronged you the most.”