GROUNDED Making The Last of Us — Review
“My favorite video game is making video games.” -Anthony Newman
Documentaries cater to something of a niche market. Except for award season, when the promise of anatomically inaccurate gold statuettes briefly reignites the entertainment industry's passion for artistry, film is largely seen as an escapist medium, where the romantic and the fantastic are presented to their target demographic like a set of keys jangled before an infant, enticing us to forget our troubles and enjoy the shiny things and funny noises. Documentaries may claim to tell moving stories with cinematic verisimilitude, but the average person still knows when someone's trying to educate them and they're not having it, even if it's being shown in the exact same theater where they enjoyed Smurfs 3: The Smurfening. Since documentaries face such an uphill battle when it comes to arousing interest they need to promise something beyond CGI, air conditioning, and the tacit promise of being able to dump as much popcorn on the floor as you damn well please. They may offer an incredible and compelling real-life story, such as The Stories We Tell, King of Kong, or Searching For Sugarman do. They may promise to untangle complicated schemes and expose public wrongdoing, like Inside Job or Mea Maxima Culpa. They may offer portraits of fascinating individuals who haven't been intimately profiled before, like The Fog of War or Exit Through The Gift Shop. Grounded, a documentary by Area 5 about Naughty Dog's production of The Last of Us, is none of these.
Area 5's website describes Grounded as follows:
A feature-length exploration of the game's creation, GROUNDED: Making the Last of Us is a love letter to the trials of exploring new territory. There are no road maps or guide books for creating a new world. The only way through is to fail—over and over again. This is the story of how a team of artists, musicians, programmers, writers, actors, filmmakers, playtesters, and a lonely UI designer—came together and pushed each other to build something larger than themselves.
As its opening chyron attests, Grounded is not intended for public consumption, but deliberately engineered for those who played The Last of Us and found the experience compelling enough to merit a feature-length documentary. If you haven't played The Last of Us, this may seem like hubris. (One imagines the Call of Duty Ghosts documentary going something like this: “What we did was, we took the title Black Ops 2 off of Call of Duty Black Ops 2, and replaced it with the word Ghosts. There is also a dog.” The End) If you have played The Last of Us, this probably seems more like prescience. I'd like to know when in the design process Naughty Dog realized they were making something extraordinary enough to merit such documentation, since Grounded opens with Naughty Dog co-president Christophe Balestra and lead game designer Jacob Minkoff talking about how incredibly difficult building a new Intellectual Property is. Grounded makes it clear that a certain amount of irrational faith is fundamental to the design process, since nothing resembling a functional video game is going to emerge until the final weeks of years of toil.
As Grounded begins Christophe Balestra explains that he tells employees his job is to be able to trust them, and their job is to merit that trust, articulating the kind of veiled threat that's ubiquitous in corporate culture. Grounded doesn't show us what happens to the people who fail to live up to Balestra's trust; one presumes they were culled from Naughty Dog a long time ago. The kind of office politics and social Darwinism needed to assemble a team formidable enough to even attempt a game like The Last of Us are left unaddressed in Grounded, which depicts Naughty Dog as more of a freewheeling artist's collective than a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment. This lack of candor doesn't make it a bad documentary, but it does make it a less human one, narrowing its appeal to those who are concerned with the artistic minutiae of video game creation. If you're like me and you both loved The Last of Us and read fictionalized accounts of video game development for pleasure, you'll enjoy Grounded a great deal, but the fact remains that it could've been a more revealing look at the conflicts and symmetries that emerge when art and capitalism leap into bed together. Many of the elements that make up good documentaries—candor, intimacy, trust—are undermined by the tenants of scripted interaction that define video game journalism, tenants that shape Grounded's style. The higher up you go in Naughty Dog's corporate hierarchy (And Naughty Dog does have a corporate hierarchy, no matter what Grounded would have you believe.) the more people tend to speak in sound bites recycled from PAX and E3. Your enjoyment of Grounded will hinge upon getting over the fact that much of it plays like a particularly slick corporate video (Which, of course, is exactly what it is.) and the fact that many people—myself included—won't even have to try is vaguely disturbing. Grounded's quiet assertion that weeks of unpaid overtime are worth it to be able to wear ironic t-shirts and zip around on Razor scooters at the office is insane, but it's so well integrated into the film's vision of corporate utopianism that it doesn't occur to you to question it. Why would you question it, this Disneyland for nerds, this silicon Shangri-La? I loved The Last of Us, but it would be a mistake for me to extend my love to Naughty Dog, which can't return my affection because it is a corporation, not a human being, no matter if the law says otherwise. Grounded is an excellent step-by-step depiction of the creative process. I have no reason whatsoever to question the business practices of Naughty Dog. And with films like Grounded, I never will.
Grounded begins by outlining Naughty Dog's open corporate structure, providing slightly raised pans over their decentralized office space while Lead Programmer Travis Mcintosh says “We believe in iteration, we believe in collaboration and we believe in the people making the game working directly with each other.” This segues naturally into a discussion of how The Last of Us was conceived, how revisiting Jak and Daxter was considered before they settled on a new story in a post-apocalyptic setting about the developing relationship between two people. Game Director Bruce Sterley outlines his ambitions for using mechanics to tell story: “We feel that the interactive medium has an untapped potential to touch the feelings of the player. You have that connectivity, the fact that I'm actually in the world and participating in what's happening on the screen in front of me, gives us some sort of advantage to make you feel connected with what's actually happening. At Naughty Dog that's what we're trying to do, is pair story and gameplay together. If we can make you feel like you're actually with these characters on a journey, and you're invested in those stories and those characters, then you're feeling, in theory, the same thing that they're feeling.”
The characters of Joel and Ellie are outlined with creative director Neil Druckmann explaining how Joel and the player's relationships with Ellie are designed to develop in concert. There's a great deal of praise heaped on the character of Ellie, which is only right, but serves to illustrate how incredibly impoverished the discourse on female characters really is. The term “strong female character” is tossed around a lot, in spite of its appropriation by the powers that be as a meaningless buzzword that's mostly used to justify revealing superheroine costumes. Why not “good female character” or “complex female character” or “dramatically rich female character”? Why can't Ellie just be a good character? What are we gaining by charging her with the task of redeeming thousands of years of crappy fictional females?
They go on to discuss how the idea of the infected took shape, how the possibility of there simply being a plague that wiped out vast swaths of humanity was considered before they settled on the infected, whose violent annexation by nature mirrors the condition of the cities Ellie and Joel wander through. The life cycle of the fungal infection is related in full, with Neil Druckman explaining “It all kind of made sense how each stage flowed from one to the other. And that's hopefully how we've created a world that you can kind of look through it and understand the science behind it and say 'I could buy this, I could get into this.' ” The same attention is lavished on the environments, with concept artist Aaron Limonick saying “We have another level of OCD, of the logic [that] goes into some of these environments: water damage seeps in and that creates a little moss growing on the floor or a tree radiates energy from its base and that, over time, starts to melt the snow around, and that's the reason why you'd see those rings of leaves showing through in the snow, that gives it that extra believability.” and discussing with fellow concept artist John Sweeny exactly where to put piles of dead foliage in an environment, and precisely what color they should be.
Grounded then moves on to how Ellie & Joel were portrayed by live actors whose vocal and physical performances were recorded in a motion capture studio, with particular focus on how much of herself Ashley Johnson brought to the role and Troy Baker's struggle to portray Joel's pain. Ashley Johnson's charisma shines through immediately, making her the obvious choice to portray 14 year old Ellie in spite of their incongruous ages. The story of how Johnson's humor, humanity, and ovarian fortitude made Ellie a richer character and led the designers to change the game to give her a more prominent role illustrates the enriching force of good feminine influence infinitely more than the empty phrase “strong female character” ever can. For those of us accustomed to how Joel looks the appearance of Troy Baker will be a shock, since he embodies a kind of aquiline Nordic beauty that's usually reserved for Bishōnen anime characters or bad guys in 80's action films. (He's very handsome.) Grounded gives every actor who portrays a significant character an opportunity to speak, and they seem to overwhelmingly prefer working with other actors on a mocap stage to recording in a booth. Animation lead Shaun Escayg talks about adhering to the language of film in order to make The Last of Us feel more real, and although I'm sure Escayg himself knows it, I feel obliged to point out that filmmaking style is itself fantastical, it only seems natural to us because we're exposed to it so thoroughly, and it's twisted that video games should feel obliged to imitate an unrelated medium to have their stories resonate. Although many of the tenets of live action filming carry over to mocap, the differences are enormous: Editor Ryan James has much more flexibility in post-production, actor Jeffery Pierce says Neil Druckman's free-form directorial style would be impossible in a more rigorously controlled medium like television or film, and cinematics animator Marianne Hayden shows us how animation fine-tunes motion capture. I won't say there's no comparison between film and video games, but there's really nothing to be gained by it, it only serves to provide artificial restrictions.
After covering all that goes into recording the actors' performances and integrating them into the game, Grounded moves onto Gustavo Santaolalla's musical score. Santaolalla offers a brief summary of his emigration from Argentina then delves into his artistic style, a holistic approach to musical composition that's remarkably similar to Neil Druckman's directing style. After covering music Grounded introduces us to the intricacies of sound design, an audio department that was charged with the particular task of keeping the infected's alien nature familiar, a problem audio lead Phillip Kovats articulates as “How do we make [the infeted] sound human, but not human?” From sound Grounded moves to lighting, particularly the fabrication of natural light since, as concept artist Aaron Limonick says “It is a master's course unto itself of how to deal with ambient lighting because I've never had to use it so much.” Grounded doesn't shy away from the nitty-gritty of game design, including things like the torturous process of balancing environmental design with a 30 FPS frame rate and developing a quick and intuitive user interface, and there's a sense of camaraderie between Naughty Dog's staff emerging from their all working together on such a profoundly difficult project, an esprit de corps that can't help but rub off on Grounded's audience.
Every employee depicted in Grounded envisions their role in creating The Last of Us differently. Lead artist Nate Wells tells us “This engine is really driven in a way towards a very high level of cinematic control over each frame, and hopefully if we achieve our goal you'll see it is beautiful, there are these truly beautiful moments amid all this chaos and destruction.” while User Interface Designer Alexandria Neonakis says “Nobody loves UI, if we're being honest.” but Grounded makes it abundantly clear that obsessive attention to detail is what makes the difference between elegance and crap, whether it's having Joel crouch down when he moves past a window, imagining what particular items would be likely to survive the collapse of civilization, or having a traumatized Ellie hesitate to help the player get a ladder, it all contributes to The Last of Us' greatness—even if, as single player quality assurance manager Damon Buteau-Anderson says, “It gets so diffused throughout the iteration that you're just kind of adding your genes to the gene pool and seeing what happens.”
Perhaps it's appropriate that the creation of a video game as profoundly humane as The Last of Us should be portrayed in a film as slickly corporate as Grounded—even if it's oddly silent on the topic of the game's ending, and even if Gustavo Santaolalla's score is ridiculously inappropriate to play over scenes of people in an office toiling at computers. After all, The Last of Us is a game full of paradoxes: the clashing of civilization and nature, beauty and horror, love and wrath, all interspersed with oh-so-fleeting moments of transcendence. One such moment comes in Grounded when the camera settles on cinematics animator Marianne Hayden at her desk. There's a peculiar power to seeing an animator working at her desk with glossy photos of her kids tacked up on the cube wall and tubes of moisturizer and hand sanitizer on her desk. It provoked a kind of revelation in me, something along the lines of “Oh right, the people who make these games are humans like me, not just drones I hurl abuse at when they're tangentially involved in something crappy.” It was a startling oasis of unselfconscious humanity in a desert of talking heads and buzzwords. In spite of it's incredible depiction of the technical aspects of game design, I wish Grounded could have more moments like that.