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The Last of Us 2 trailer was the best thing I’ve seen at E3 in years, this is why

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Naughty Dog put together a spectacular presentation for E3

Violence isn’t enough.

And it never was. You’re going to get players that think you’re releasing torture porn if you rely on shock to get your point across. Naughty Dog stumbled on this fact with the early marketing for The Last of Us Part 2, but the E3 presentation was one of the most exciting demos I’ve ever seen.

Let’s break down what made it so good, and what other trailers can learn from it.

The characters

The old writing adage of “show, don’t tell” is always good advice, but it’s an area where most trailers and demos fall down. There’s still a perception that unless you tell the viewer or player something in a game or demo, they will not understand what’s going on. The Last of Us Part 2 presentation doesn’t fall into this trap.

The Last of Us 2
Ellie and Dina feel like real people
Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Think of how much heavy lifting the entire presentation is able to do without beating you over the head with it. We learn so much about who these people are, what they care about, how they act, what they’re scared of and what they’re capable of in just a few minutes.

And it’s all done through their interactions with others and each other. We very quickly know who these people are, even if we don’t know everything about them. We know people like them. They seem real, in all their capabilities and insecurities. And the demonstration does all this in 11 minutes.

The shift from normalcy to violence

It’s not that this trailer toned the violence done, it just did a better job of setting it up and made you feel it even more, due to the shift from what looked like a teen romance to Ellie killing an unnamed man.

And that jump doesn’t just work dramatically, it ties into the theme of the game itself.

“It’s a game about what you would do and the lines you would cross in search for justice, and we’re seeing a side of Ellie, a part Ellie that we haven’t seen before,” co-director Kurt Margenau told Polygon. “And without talking too much about the story, it makes you think about how did she get here? What is the context with the situation? Which is kind of the point of it — to raise those questions in your mind. And what the game broadly addresses is that question in conversations about violence, presenting it very contrasting way for E3.”

Ellie hides under a car in The Last of Us Part 2 Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

This is key. This is the whole thing right here: The violence means something, and it’s set up by the entirety of the demonstration. It’s important to the tone of the trailer, and the story that’s still mostly a secret. You don’t always need to swing the tonal needle that far in a trailer or video — plenty of good marketing for games consists of a single, effective emotion — but in this case the whiplash works.

That kiss!

Getting animated characters to kiss without it looking like an awkward mess is a touch challenge, and Naughty Dog pulled it off spectacularly.

This was a technical challenge as much as a creative one
YouTube via Polygon

The company updated its methods for capturing facial performances, and the actors had to work through takes with the full cameras. This means they had to to turn away from each other at the last moment, kiss the air, and then pull away without damaging the equipment. It’s not the most natural way to act out a scene with a lot of subtle emotions, and when the filming itself was done the teams of animators had to make it all work with the in-game models.

There is often the mistaken idea, spread by behind-the-scenes videos that leave a lot of the process out, that motion capture starts with the actors and ends when you bring the data over to the game’s character models. Someone acts it out, the character does it. Simple, right?

The reality is that there is are steps requiring the very hard work of very talented animators to bring it all together, and it’s nice to hear Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann praising their work onstage. This is a part of the process that’s sometimes glossed over, but when you see something as natural looking as that kiss, it’s important to remember that it’s the hard work of what is likely a very large team to make it happen. This scene was made with facial capture, reference footage, it was shot multiple ways and then people had to put it all together into a shot that worked flawlessly.

This is the sort of thing that costs time and money to do well, but Naughty Dog decided to do it the hard way. The result speaks for itself. We see a lot of violence at E3, we very rarely see intimacy that feels honest and real. The Last of Us Part 2 delivered that, and it absolutely helped the trailer stand out.

We know what the game is!

So many reveals, demonstrations and trailers looked OK, but failed to make the case for why you would want to buy the game. Some never bothered to explain what the game actually is.

The Last of Us Part 2 seemed to show actual gameplay for a large chunk of the demonstration, and it looked great. These things are carefully choreographed and planned well in advance to make the game look as good as possible. But you do get a sense for the action and feel of The Last of Us Part 2 while watching this, and it helps sell the game.

So the demonstration set up the characters, explored a variety of emotions, shared a moment of intimacy and showed the game itself. And it all worked very well as a stand-alone experience; Naughty Dog clearly cared how the demonstration came together and wrapped up, and stayed in control of the viewer’s emotions the whole time.

None of this is easy

Creating a presentation that’s 11 minutes long and combines this much character interaction and footage from someone playing is hard in the best of circumstances, but creating something this effective is next to impossible.

This presentation likely sold millions of copies of The Last of Us Part 2, and it caused my own feelings to move from “I’ll look into it” to “day-one purchase and taking the next day off work, or maybe not because this is my work, so actually working hard the next day holy shit what have I done with my life.”

The team at Naughty Dog put together a fantastic presentation for The Last of Us Part 2, and I can only hope the full game lives up to it.