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The Last of Us' Joel and Ellie on the secrets of game storytelling

By Andy Robinson on Wednesday 30th Jul 2014 at 3:50 PM UTC

Asked to identify the secret to The Last of Us' narrative success, Troy Baker, voice (and body) of The Last of Us' gruff Texan protagonist Joel, recites the origins of HBO drama series Deadwood, the TV Western which was originally pitched as a Roman epic, but had its setting changed upon request of the network.

The themes of the story - in Deadwood's case, community, capitalism and corruption - remained untouched despite the drastic changes to period and setting. Baker tells us it's these "universal truths" - not aesthetic tropes - which define all good stories, and he insists they're "the currency" behind The Last of Us too.

"It sounds amazing and incredible that [Deadwood writer] David Milch could just flip the script that suddenly, but he understood the currency of the story he was trying to tell," Baker says.

"There's a universal currency to The Last of Us too and it's, 'what would you do to save the world?' What we get to do is redefine what 'the world' means. it's not necessarily about this post-apocalyptic world, but people struggling to survive - and that's an element that I think anyone can relate to.

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Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson during a recent press tour of London.(Image: PlayStation Blog)

"No matter what your walk of life is, you've encountered some circumstance which if left unchecked will kill you."

Ashley Johnson, the TV actress who won a BAFTA for her role as Ellie, agrees with her co-star: "The relationship between Joel and Ellie could be set anywhere. Players can relate to these characters because they're not just soldiers or superheroes - they're strong but also vulnerable and that feels more real."

The Last of Us is not a flawless video game - moments of clumsy AI and dips in level design see to that - but its writing standards nevertheless elevate it from its peers. It is a memorable, moving and mature take on game storytelling, which has lead to many critics hailing it as a pinnacle of the medium.

PlayStation's painfully bleak story of loss and fear stands out for its delicate character development and beautifully elaborate vistas, but it's the richness of lead characters Joel and Ellie, and their evolving relationship, which lingers in the mind after the credits roll.

Since its release in June 2013, The Last of Us has enjoyed phenomenal critical acclaim (we count more than 70 awards) and sales of some 7 million. However, Troy Baker - who's worked on more than one hundred games including Titanfall and Batman: Arkham Origins - believes that public response to The Last of Us is unique from similar success stories.

"The games audience is growing up... there is demand for better stories in general."

"It's interesting because before it came out there was a lot of hype, which is typical of any game," he said. "But then after it came out people started coming up and telling me about their personal experience with the game, which you don't get a lot. Usually I get people saying, 'oh I can't wait to get all the Trophies and Platinum this', but it's not like that with The Last of Us.

"I had fathers coming up to me saying they have a deeper relationship with their children, and people saying they wish they could've played it earlier because they were struggling with some of the topics covered in the game.

"In the press, a lot of mainstream publications took note [of games] when Call of Duty sold millions of copies. I applaud what Activision has done and its success, but what's interesting about The Last of Us is that it garnered more press attention because of the content rather than the accolades or anything else, which is different."

Ashley Johnson, whose career spans film and TV, says she sees how The Last of Us can reach out to people who wouldn't consider themselves traditional gamers.

"There are a lot of people that I work with in film or television who don't play video games but have heard of The Last of Us, and they tell me, 'damn, that makes me want to play video games'.

"I love video games so if this can be the gateway for people to take the medium more seriously and see that they can be really positive, then I think that's a great thing. The audience of who's playing games is growing up now - it's not just a certain age demographic or gender. It's a more discerning group and there's demand for better stories in general."

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For those who didn't play the first time, the Remastered version of The Last of Us hits PS4 this week, with visuals boosted to 1080p resolution and a bunch of extras - including the excellent Left Behind DLC - lining the package.

The update is the result of just a year's work - even less of which Naughty Dog describes as "heavy" development - yet it succeeds in delivering the definitive version of a very fine game.

Beyond the aesthetic improvements and additions of DLC, Photo Mode and audio commentary, there are no story or gameplay changes in Remastered. Baker tells CVG he's glad the studio resisted the temptation to "pull a George Lucas" and mess with the game's ingredients:

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"I remember when there was a trend of colourising classic black and white movies and there was a temptation to add a lot of tech. It was almost didactic because you're used to seeing It's a Wonderful Life and Jimmy Stewart in black and white - technically it was better in colour, but it lost a lot of its original charm.

"What I love about The Last of Us on PS4 is that philosophically there are opportunities to change gameplay, but there was a decision made that we would use technology to better represent the game. Even though you can definitely tell the difference, it's almost something that you feel more, because that world is so much more immersive."

"I think people that just try to make a movie with some interactivity are missing the boat"

Behind the scenes, Naughty Dog community strategist Arne Meyer tell us the studio's still undecided on the future of The Last of Us franchise ("it's a very real possibility this might be it"). But Ashley and Troy have their own ideas for how video game narrative could improve.

"I would say that writing is where it starts - and that's the entire process," says Baker.

"Neil [Druckmann, creative director] is a good person for this, because he asks, 'why are you making this game now? Why is this the game that you're making?' If you're making a game because it's like another game that's very successful and you're trying to capture that market as well, then maybe that's not the game you should make.

"Writing is where it starts and everything else falls into place from there. Once you have a really good story - which is what we had - then you'll attract people who want to commit to it, and when the chips are down those are the people who are going to make it the game that it can be."

Ashley suggests that world building is one aspect games can do better than other mediums:

"The most obvious advantage [games have] is the fact that you have more time. And the other thing that movies and television can't do is immerse you in the story, in the sense that you feel within it yourself as the character. In some ways you're making decisions which decide the outcome of what happens - you can't do that in movies or television."

The caveat, both say, is that video games need to remember what they are; interactive entertainment.

"I think Neil and everybody else and Naughty Dog really figured out a way to move the narrative along through gameplay, not just cut-scenes," says Johnson. "The story keeps going even outside of a cut-scene. I think that's going to be the connector that we're going to see more of."

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"I love video games so if this can be the gateway for people to take the medium more seriously and see that they can be really positive, then I think that's a great thing."

"Nobody wants to play a movie," adds Baker. "There's a very precarious line that you can cross and end up making a cut-scene with occasional button pressing. It's a game - let it be that.

"I think people that just try to make a movie with some interactivity are missing the boat a little bit because they don't trust their game enough. Story and gameplay need to support each other, and there were moments on our game where we cut levels because they didn't need to be supported, or we cut scenes because the gameplay could stand by itself.

"They're two parts of the same body; you don't cut out one organ just because you want to make a cinematic game."

Once video games master that balance, claims Baker, then the medium will eventually become as accomplished at storytelling as TV of film.

"Movies are a passive medium and games are a very active medium. I feel that's one of the reason we're starting to see this medium rise more to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with everything else - but in some ways it's a step above.

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"Not to disparage TV - because there are incredible stories there right now, purely because of the amount of time that they're allowed to develop characters and story arcs.

"But there's just something unique about storytelling in games. When I sit down to play The Last of Us, I am Joel or I am Ellie, and I have more at stake in this world because it's my decisions that are affecting the outcome. You feel the resonance in the aftermath of your actions and that's something that you just don't get anywhere else."

The Last of Us Remastered is out now in North America, and August 1 in Europe. Read our review.

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