Thursday, January 30, 2014

Annie Award's 2014 Video Game Nominee: The Last of Us Interview

Mike Yosh
Lead Cinematic Animator, David Lam and Lead Gameplay Animator, Mike Yosh chatted over the phone with me for their nomination of The Last of Us, a gripping dystopian tale with a heart. You play as Joel, protecting your "daughter" Ellie from zombies and humans. The game has been praised high and low over the internet with all sorts of accolades. Now it's after an Annie for Best Animated Video Game.

I started by asking the two gents  about how realistic the game looks, losing the anthropomorphic animals from earlier Naughty Dog games.

Mike said, "I don't think we could deliver this story with the same impact in a cartoony or stylistic way. I mean, I think the way it was written, if we wanted to get across gritty and visceral we needed to go pretty realistic with it, so people felt what was happening."

I shifted over spines getting ripped out and faces being eaten and how hard it might have been to animate such painful moments. What could have led to them getting the blood just right?

"Oh, man in the beginning we would do things like smash watermelons on high speed film. Yeah, we would smash watermelons on some high speed film to see what that looks like. We found out the human head isn't really built the same way, " Mike casually said.

I started to laugh.

Mike continued, "We didn't throw in violence for the sake of violence." Continuing, "There's no heads being torn off, there's no call for it. We leave a lot up for the imagination, we feel that's a lot worse then showing anything."

Baffled I said, "You're telling me you held back in this game?"

 Mike continued, "We actually had more things that were more violent and we decided to pull a lot more of that stuff out because it wasn't necessary. It doesn't get us anywhere."

David went, "Yeah, there's a threshold after the point there's no pay-off to you beyond it."

David then backtracked over the realism of the game. He was saying the characters called for realism. David wanted them to be everyday people not superheroes, people you could connect with and could run a gambit of emotions.

"Games tend to always be about the basic human emotions like angry, sad, upset and we wanted to go a little bit more. So like, sometimes it's insecurity, fear, doubt, worry."

David continued about the subtly of Joel,  the character you play as, and how even though as a broken man and a mercenary he still missed his real daughter. This was shown by him caressing his watch, a birthday gift from her before she died in the outbreak.

Mike came back with enemies showing off emotions and how their just trying to survive in the zombie future, "So when you kill them, you see fear in their eyes as well."

I abruptly wanted to thank them for the father daughter relationship created in the game now giving a reason for Dads to take their daughters to cons and cosplay as Joel and Ellie. Mike and David laughed and credited the creative director and writer of the game, Neil Druckmann, for making the game.

What about the face tentacles or was there anything else hard to animate, " I asked.

Mike told of a segment of gameplay where Ellie was angry at Joel. If you were busy playing you might have not noticed how angry she was with her scowls and crossed arms at him.

David switched over to how the faces took time. Saying how tough it is to capture facial movement. Then having to address technical issues using a game engine compared if it was just filmed.

What did you two reference other than watermelon? Go out to a seafood restaurant and say this is a good enemy?" I asked.

Mike, "For look of the story we had No Country For Old Men, Children of Men and what was the ..."

Me, "Another title with men?"

Mike, "28 Days Later, and The Road." He continued not in terms of events, in terms of feeling the mood like the way you would watching the films.

"So just bleakest futures possible?" I chimed in.

David, "One thing particular was Children of Men's cinematography, that played a huge role." Reacting and participating with the camera he echoed.

Mike, "In addition to that, the bleakness that we put into the game; in contrast to that we wanted to show off the game in a very beautiful way. There's other moments where it's just beautiful in contrast to; Oh my G-d that was bleak, I just saw a lot of guts everywhere."

David chimed in praising the art team doing a great job and that the game was very director driven. Then brought up the "Giraffe Scene".

What was this "Giraffe Scene", I asked. I assumed it involved giraffes or a Toys 'R' Us filled with zombies.

"There's a part of the game where you live through Hell, " David explained. You end up in area without enemies surrounded by wildlife. A bunch of Giraffes are walking around in a reclaimed nature area. Fans seem to enjoy it.

Next, I asked David and Mike if they'd be happy with an animated series for The Last of Us.

Mike laughingly went, "I don't think the style and the content lends itself to a cartoon show."

David agreed.

We then joked about how Journey didn't pick up it's award last year in the same category, they vowed they'd be there.

We moved into being a nominee for the Annie Awards. David, "Just being considered is a plus for us." David was both humble and happy for his team to be recognized along side Diggs and Tiny Thief, mentioning them by name.

Then I congratulated them on their game, and wished them luck.

Thanks to Eric Smith from Sony PR for getting in contact with Naughty Dog for me.