Alex Zemke: Animating Ellie's Kiss in The Last of Us and Portal: Companionship
Because it bears repeating every time the subject is brought up, The Last of Us was the best game of 2013. Recently we saw the story continue in the downloadable expansion Left Behind, an inspiring addition to the main story that was so good that it's prompted me to replay the whole experience over again.
Left Behind follows Ellie in two time periods. One occurs after Joel is severely injured in Salt Lake City and she is forced to fend for both of them while holed up in an abandoned mall in the dead of winter. These constitute the action portion of the expansion, offering up a chance to explore a new battle mechanic that allows you use baiting the infected with distractions to take out human raiders.
Outside of the action was a flashback to one last wonderful night between Ellie and her friend Riley. Riley had left the youth center where they were all training to be soldiers in order to join the rebellious Fireflies. Guilty that she had left without saying goodbye, she visits Ellie in the dead of night and they break into a different old mall and spend the evening playing video games, perusing an old Halloween shop, and dancing together. Ultimately, the two share a tender and unexpected kiss right before the infected flood in and they're forced to flee.
"Yeah, a lot of people were caught off guard by the kiss," said animator Alex Zemke, who worked on the sequence from when Ellie stopped dancing to when Riley fired her gun. "The day after release I saw people gushing about it, and it was great to see it go over so well. I wish that it weren't such a controversy, and that so many people weren't trying to pretend it was anything less than what it was, but it's a worthwhile step forward in how game characters are treated, so I'm very glad to have been involved with that scene.
The sequence took a couple of months to complete, which is a long time for game animation, but SCEA wanted to get it just right. Zemke saw huge changes made over the course of animating, and animated multiple versions before the team landed on a performance that conveyed the right tone for the moment. An incredible amount of tweaking went into perfecting the finer points of the shots. Little eye darts, the almost imperceptible twitches around the mouth and eyes to showed off the conflicting emotions underneath.
This kiss come to be a pretty major step forward for same-sex portrayals in video games to life. Zemke had been in contact with people involved with the game at SCEA from the first moment he heard about The Last of Us, pleading to find a place in the production. Conflicts on scheduling almost prevented him from joining, but an animation supervisor finally managed to sneak Zemke into the animation work in the closing months of the development, even scheduling work on the kiss sequence specifically until Zemke could return to San Diego to take a crack at it.
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