'The Last of Us' Developers Discuss Realistic Kissing, Queer Fridging, More


#1

During E3 2018, on Sony’s big stage, I saw something I never thought I’d see in a massive blockbuster game: something that looked like realistic, happy queer romance.

We talked about it a bit during our E3 podcast, but the demo for The Last of Us Part II starts off with a scene where Ellie—the protagonist of the new game, after her turn in the first—shares a sweet, sexy, realistically bumbling dance and kiss with Dina, another major character in the story.

In the scene, we cut from a cinematic featuring the best kiss I’ve ever seen in a game to a gameplay segment that is everything the cutscene is not: a grimy, brutal sequence with plenty of intense stealth and nasty killings, as Ellie makes her way through a stage of bad guys who all want her dead.

Then, as the demo ends, it cuts in on the end of the kiss, with a blushing, smiling couple, and a smash cut to the game’s logo.


Listen to our thoughts on the Last of Us Part II demo on Waypoint Radio right here. Article continues below.


I had the opportunity to speak with the game’s creative director, Neil Druckmann, and co-writer Halley Gross, on creating that scene—including all the new tech that went into making that kiss play so well—and their decision to place a romantic scene and a brutally violent one so close together in the demo.

Naughty Dog has had a very busy couple of years, with the release of Uncharted 4, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and now, the sequel to one of the most highly regarded Playstation games when The Last of Us Part II lands.

I'd like to note, as with all things we write about the studio, we don't condone the company's mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations. Briefly, an employee claimed that he was routinely sexually harassed by a lead at Naughty Dog, and was fired for speaking up to HR about his harassment. Sony and Naughty Dog followed up with a statement that left a great deal to be desired, as Patrick wrote last October when the story broke: "Naughty Dog's response hardly seemed like an lengthy investigation into the accusations, which would have taken more than a weekend to properly vet. Whether a full investigation will take place is unclear." So far as we know, no such investigation has taken place.

I didn't speak to the team about those allegations in this sitting.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Waypoint: How was the response from the trailer?

Neil Druckmann, creative director: I didn’t get to dive in too deep, and I’m trying not to dive too deep [Gross laughs], but it seems to be positive, it seems to be a really good reaction. There’s some weird homophobic stuff that I don’t care for.

Halley Gross, co-writer: It’s exciting to have it out there!

So, I’m outwardly queer, I got excited about the trailer, tweeted about it, etc. It’s a really big deal, to be at E3, to have queer women kissing be the first thing Sony shows at its big press event, and this feels like planting a flag in a way. What went into that decision to really make this part of her character and the decision to make this part of the demo itself?

Druckmann: When E3 comes up, we try to figure out which slice of the game—what would be an interesting thing for people to come away with? We’re trying, in a very short amount of time, to convey all these different things. The aesthetics of the game, how it plays, the emotional tone that we’re after.

As far as owning who Ellie is, that was a no brainer. In Left Behind, we established that she’s gay. And it felt like, if she’s going to be 19, and lives in a somewhat safe community, of course she would pursue romance. So, we’ve always wanted to explore that. And then, juxtaposing those two elements of seeing Ellie—awkward and hopeful and shy and happy! The happiest we’ve ever seen her.

Contrasted against her being desperate, a survivalist, maybe even a little sadistic in what she’s committing, and say, ‘that’s the same character.’ So that felt like a nice kind of juxtaposition, with the themes of The Last of Us, contrasting beauty with darkness in the world and how that trickles down through people.

And then once we’ve made that decision, and we had our transition how we go from the cinematic to gameplay, also we realized ‘oh, we’re going to show this kiss in a Sony press conference!’ It might be a big deal!

[Both laugh]

And then we just like, it was like this rallying thing! Like, ‘yeah, lets fucking own it! Let’s make this the best kiss ever in any video game!’ and lets put all the resources into that, because it is so important to the story.

Once we realized certain things, like ‘this is really important to the story,’ whether its this really tender moment, or an uncomfortable violent moment, we lean into that and we put the appropriate resources into it.

Can you talk a bit about those resources, because, it was the best kiss I've seen in a game.

[Both laugh]

Oh! I could try! [laughs] I’m sure I’ll miss certain technical things!

There’s things called soft mods which [affects] the way skin can move especially when colliding with another person’s skin so you don’t just get things inter-penetrating. There’s extra joints in the nose for when Ellie puts her face against Dina’s and pushes to the side. There’s new tech so that when Ellie pulls back she blushes, so her face actually, in real time, turns red.

Because we’re closer, we have new shaders for the teeth, the teeth get shadows appropriately for the lips.

Because if any one of those things go wrong, you’re pulled out of the experience. So all these things have to come together and even the sound of kissing—we had like—[Gross laughs]

What we had recorded on the stage wasn’t quite right, so we actually had a whole foley session of recording kissing sounds.

Ellie’s lips are wet, so there was a pass that was done after. So when they seperate there’s a little bit of like wetness on the lips. It’s all these subtle things you might not even pick up, but any one of them missing, you’re like ‘something was off…I can’t tell you what exactly but something was off about it.’

The hair! So that had to go through physics, to joints that had to be hand-animated, and going from hand to hair!

Did it take like, weeks?

Months!

Gross: [Laughing] Weeks, ha!

Druckmann: And even the rest of that scene, there were all the people dancing, that was an epic mo-cap session. Because we actually needed more people than we could capture at any one time. So we had to bring in a dance choreographer, a dance group, and like, do it in chunks. And when I talked to the lead cinematic animator, I was like ‘is this one of the hardest scenes you’ve ever done?’ And he was like ‘one of? This is easily the hardest scene we’ve ever done!’

So one thing I think a lot of folks were concerned about is the idea of fridging. That Dina would be killed to give Ellie dramatic motivation. I’m not asking you to spoil the story, but are you aware of the tropes, given the history of queer women in film and TV, etc.? Are you aware of that while writing these characters and scenarios, and secondarily, I imagine there’s a lot of pressure on you folks to ‘get it right.’

Gross: That’s an almost impossible one to answer!

Druckmann: [To Gross] I can ramble for a bit and you can take over! [To me] I’ll try without spoiling anything! I will say that knowing we’re in a genre that has certain tropes—and genre might just be relationship story, or zombie apocalypse, we’re constantly considering tropes.

Sometimes we lean into tropes where they’re best for the story and sometimes we want to subvert them in interesting ways. So I can tell you, especially with that stuff, there’s a lot of conversations about—not only that trope [regarding fridging] but other tropes that come from that kind of relationship.

And ultimately what wins out is what’s best for the story.

So, for example, if we’re going to have a lead female gay protagonist in the zombie apocalyptic genre, that means the protagonist will be in really violent situations, both that she’s perpetrating and that’s done to her. And sometimes there are certain tropes that might have negative connotations, but we just have to own it if that’s part of the genre. Again, without spoiling who lives, who survives, because so much of the story is about the stakes of the people you care for.

We’re aware of it, but we’re making the best decisions for the story.

Gross: That was great, I feel like he nailed it! [laughs]

There was a pretty intense juxtaposition of romance and violence that was the hallmark of this demo. What went into that decision?

In terms of showing both?

Yeah, in terms of showing both next to each other, that closely.

One of the goals for this game is to show a very complex, complicated character. By putting those two things next to each other, you’re really seeing Ellie at her most confident and at her most insecure. Ellie at her most capable, and absolutely her most confused and floundering.

So, it was really about trying to earn the confidence and faith of the audience that we are focused on story, we are focused on character, we are honoring Ellie—not just as a cool protagonist, but as a complicated woman.

Druckmann: I’ll just touch on that a little bit. So much of our inspiration for this story is actually real world events we’ve been studying. Good people, under the right circumstances, can easily tip into violence. Especially in societies where you don’t have the rule of law stopping you from doing it.

Part of our research is looking at videos that you know, you don’t normally see on American news programs. We watch very sanitized versions of events. We don’t on the team, because we feel like if we’re going to tell a story about the cycle of violence, we have to absorb some of that stuff—like, real world stuff that’s happening—as part of our research. And thereby, if we’re going to tell this kind of story, we have to lean into that stuff.

Sometimes art can make you—and should make you—feel uncomfortable. And that’s part of Ellie’s journey. Right? We’re not making the kind of game where you can imbue your moral stance and decide the moral compass of the character. We’re telling a story with a strong character who makes very specific choices, sometimes there’ll be a difference in where you morally stand, and you have to wrestle with that. That is part of the experience of playing this game.

My last question would be if there’s any major piece of feedback from the first game or the DLC that you’ve taken to heart in making Part II.

The big one I would say is AI. We wanted—we had certain ambitions with the first game—that we felt we didn’t quite hit with the AI that this was an opportunity to not only to live up to that promise but surpass it. Some of the levels are much wider and more complex, Ellie has a jump button now so there’s more verticality, and she crawls and can move around that space. Enemies have a much greater awareness of the environment than before, they can communicate with one another, they can dynamically pair up.

Even when you’re in ‘stealth grass,’—in previous titles, Uncharted 4, specifically—you were either completely hidden, or completely seen. Here, there’s an analogue nature to it, so there’s actually a HUD that shows how hidden you are, which allows enemies to have better perception of how they spot you.

So, all of those things work to make enemies smarter, more threatening and more human.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoint’s forums to share them!

Editor's note: this story has been updated to reflect that The Last of Us Part II does not have a release date yet. There was no leak, just an error.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/j5k388/the-last-of-us-2-kissing-fridging-interview

#2

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On a more serious note, hearing someone respond to a question about fridging like this, by saying yeah sometimes you just gotta have bad tropes, worries me.

Stellar kissing scene though


#3

I feel like the answer to the fridging thing might as well have been “don’t get your hopes up.” It just amplified my worries a hundred times. The way they boil down a genuine concern and problem in media to “tropes” and like, “well that’s the genre so what can ya do am I right?” just really kills my optimism from this game.


#4

The gratuitous violence they’ve shown so far really gave me no confidence that the girlfriend was going to survive this game so uh, I can’t say “we know its bad but we might do it anyway” reassures me at all. World’s Wokest Fridging.


#5

“Yeah we know but she’s still going to die”


#6

Uh… just pointing out that the release date hasn’t been announced. Probably an honest mistake on Danielle’s part and not an accidental leak, as I can’t imagine this shipping against Spider-Man.


#7

What if a AAA game had a queer relationship where the central point of conflict wasn’t one of them dying?

Come to think of it Naughty Dog has a pretty bad track record with relationship plots in most of their games (though I haven’t played Uncharted 4 I hear that’s different?)


#8

Really hope they don’t go this route with it. I remember listening to Neal say that he wouldn’t have wanted to do a sequel if he didn’t get a great idea for the story, but if the motivator in his story is “Ellie gets into a relationship but her partner is killed so she goes on a revenge spree” then maybe he should have done a few more rewrites.

Could have been cagey on giving too much detail because if he says Dina is safe, then the fans’ attention moves right to Joel being the person who is killed. That reveal trailer could have been a red herring…but I’m going to remain skeptical on that front.


#9

Upon rereading the interview, seeing them condense queer fridging down to just a “trope with negative connotations” really suggests that they don’t understand just how much of a problem queer fridging it.

That said, it was also a 10 minute interview at E3 where they both had to be very wary of spoilers of all kind, so it may be that Druckmann does understand the issue, and just misspoke .

I don’t want to assign any malicious intent, but this interview worries me.


#10

I feel like … It’s 2018, and this is a trailer BANKING on the big gay kiss being a major talking point. To not expect and prepare for this question (and A LOT better than this) from multiple sources is such a stunning lack of forethought it’s ridiculous.


#11

During E3 a friend was concerned about Dina being fridged and LiS 2 not having a queer relationship. Our other friends tried to assure her that she was worrying too much and you won’t know till they come out.

Its frustrating that the developers don’t seem to get what they’re doing with queer representation. Much as I love LiS, it seems that queer relationships in video games are exclusively used for tragedy (and usually the case in other media too). Doesn’t feel like they’re aware why people want queer representation.

Every time theres reasons for skepticism and so often the skepticism is proven right. Would be nice if it didn’t end up that way this time but those sorts of answers that dodge the questions and attempt to justify the bad parts makes that seem unlikely.


#12

I feel Druckmann and his team want to “make a statement” more than they want to say anything substantive.

The Lost Legacy featured two non-white characters played by white people doing the same colonial bullshit as Nathan Drake, but kinda worse because one of them was basically the Erik Prince of Uncharted, and it was marketed and written about like it was some sort of step forward for representation. Chloe literally remarks “they’re not holding back, huh” when a fighter jet bombs a block of tenements, and then proceeds on her merry way to steal another priceless cultural relic.

I think that’s the level of sensitivity we should expect from Naughty Dog. It’s all surface.


#13

Certainly Naughty Dog doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt in this department, but I do think in a general sense, it’s a tricky question to answer in an interview if your story involves physical peril for its characters and you don’t want to give away spoilers about who lives or dies.

What would a good answer look like there? Any answer that says “we absolutely are not going to be fridging characters” is a spoiler, right? This attitude of spoiler avoidance itself is probably a thing that should change, but it’s not something I’d expect AAA to budge on.


#14

“The shit we’re complicit in is shitty but what can ya do?” coming from a person who absolutely can do something is perhaps the most 2018 prestige white dude media bullshit I’ve heard as of yet.

I mean, this is a company who’s history includes: Dismissing and delegitimizing sexual assault allegations out of hand; jokingly calling an achievement for killing lots of people in Uncharted 4 “Ludonarrative Dissonance” because teehee critique of our decade of colonial fantasies sux amirite; dismissing sexual assault allegations; spending loads for an established white actress to be coached/mocapped to look and sound “like a black South African” because they didn’t want to hire one (1) whole South African woman; dismissing sexual assault allegations; writing all like three black characters out of TLoU to show just how uncaring this world is, man; dismissing sexual assault allegations; and I mean come on the fuckin demo for TLOU2 has hAnGinG bOdIeS iN ThE SpoOkY BaDdiE CaMp and a baddie that’s a big bald man with an axe that takes more than one headshot to down, but don’t worry about how hilarious that is, just be impressed by the jangly keys of competent camera work and novel animation blending.

Also, and I may have mentioned this already but, they recently dismissed and delegitimized sexual assault allegations out of hand.

Look, I know that the english language is not equipped to eloquently maintain context like that through a whole article or several, I know ctrl+v-ing the bad thing the company did between passages is clunky and, as much as I’d like to, I’m not here to philosophize about language shaping ideology. But man, there has to be a better way to hold them critically accountable than “Boy they were real shitty to that sexual assault victim, wish they’d own up to it. PUTTING THAT ASIDE” followed by lending paragraphs of legitimacy to an entity that devalued a victim, while the victim remains a terse preamble inconvenience at most.

On top of that, the intricacy of their kiss tech doesn’t matter much right now (hey when can indie devs do this in an accessible engine so actual queer folks don’t need to rely on the rich and distant to see as much as a basic romantic interaction between lesbians?) and is maybe more insulting when they’re already swearing that it’s only ever to be used in service of tragedy to show just how dark they can throw. They’re already indulging some next-gen Thermian Argument shit by pretending that tropes are… rules of a genre? Do they not… understand the reason that word exists or most of its historical usage?

So evidently they have no interest in speaking to the actual lived experiences of queer folks, aside from mining them to get a dash of performative nuance to the misery so they can fit the bill of privileged guilt-prestige. This will basically always be the case for any company that gets doled a large dev budget (unless a dev house someday stumbles into a big deal with Bethesda where they’re allowed to do whatever beyond anyone’s expectations, but there’s a big gulf between doing that for immersive sims and doing that for explicitly-queer-centric media), so as usual it’s far from an individual issue, but there’s more than one thing making it extra insulting coming from this studio which will be held to near-zero accountability.

As an aside, my partner says Laura Bailey can’t do a South African accent for shit, so grats Naughty Dog you could barely manage pretending you weren’t taking million-dollar shits on black people for two entire modern-ass games.


#15

I think the bigger issue is: why did you write a story where the protagonist’s queer love interest gets fridged so that the former can go on a revenge spree in the first place?

You can’t make strawberry jam out of pig shit, Neil.


#16

What if killing people the main character cares about wasn’t the only motivation in an AAA video game for once?

There are so many more interesting ways to give a character motivation in an apocalypse setting then “Bad Guy kill friend/lover me go murder them now”.


#17

I was trying to talk about the hypothetical case of some other developer who didn’t have the track record ND does. I thought that was clear?


#18

It actually was. I’m doing this on my way to work so I’m skimming.


#19

I fucking knew it.


#20

For me, a lot less what have gone a lot further. Part of the issue I have with this statement is that it clearly doesn’t understand how big an issue queer fridging is. If they had just said something like

“We understand your concerns, and while we can’t just discuss where the story goes, we want fans to know we are going to do right by them.”

That would have done a lot more. I don’t think people want to have the story spoiled for them, they want to feel like their concerns are being taken into consideredation.

That said I would respect the ever-living fuck out of any studio that would, before a game’s launch, say something like, hey this is a spoiler but we also want this game to be a safe-space for queer folk, so we’ll say up front, the gays live.