The Last of Us is generally regarded as one of the best games ever made, having been showered in awards for both technical and narrative achievement by gaming and writing associations alike. The game was made by Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment’s premiere first party studio. The company has a long history of making games of high quality, from the story to the gameplay to the visuals and the sound. Featuring one of the most talked about stories in gaming, The Last of Us was bolstered by new hotshot director Neil Druckmann, along with more than their fair share of talented voice actors. The two leads, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, held a panel at MomoCon 2014 this past weekend in Atlanta.
Having seen several interviews with the duo, I was not prepared for how emotionally draining the hour-long panel would be. Especially considering that the host, IGN’s Greg Miller, is known for his class-clown antics. One moment, they’re discussing how lighthearted their time on set could be despite the darkness and heaviness of the script. The next? Ashley’s crying, Troy struggling to put his thoughts together. It was apparent throughout the duration of the panel that the project means a lot to the two actors, who describe each other as brother and sister.
First and foremost, Baker, who plays Joel in the game, described his experience in joining the project. After auditions had concluded and the parts were handed out, Baker recalls telling Johnson that “if this game fails, it’s because of us.” He reasoned that the game’s script, Druckmann’s vision, and the pedigree of the studio were all rock solid. He knew from the beginning that The Last of Us was going to be a “benchmark game.”
He went on to praise Druckmann and co-director Bruce Straley for being very open during the process. There was a lot of time spent on “conversations offsite and after hours” working on the characters. Recalling the shooting and subsequent reshooting of one difficult scene, Baker said that he was “eternally grateful to Neil” for showing him “what kind of actor [he] could be.” He says that it was one of the greatest moments for him as an actor. With great conviction, he concluded by claiming that Neil Druckmann was “the best director [he’d] ever worked with.”
Switching gears to the “Left Behind” downloadable content for the game, Ashley was asked if she always knew that her character, Ellie, was gay. The answer was no — she didn’t know until about halfway through the production of the game. She had never factored in the “sexual preference” of her character. That said, she was very supportive of the decision. Ashley’s emotional moment at the panel came when she described a YouTube video in which a fan said that, had the game come out when she was in her teens, it would have helped her get through tough times. To lighten the mood, she jokingly blamed the autograph schedule – and the similar stories she had heard just prior to the panel – for her emotions coming out.
The toughest moment for the panel – and the crowd – came when a father of three approached the microphone during the Q&A section. He began by explaining that the game was given to him as a father’s day present; the horror on Troy’s face said it all. The man then went on to say that the game had profoundly affected the way that he approached his role as a father, asking Troy if it had done the same for him. Baker, uncharacteristically, fumbled over his words before agreeing.
I can’t even begin to describe how enlightening this panel was. Everyone in the room had been, in some way, affected by the game, the direction, and the performance of the actors. If there’s ever any question about the validity of gaming as a story-telling medium, this is the answer.