Inside Out 2’s Lance Slashblade was inspired by a real-life secret video game crush

Pixar Animation Studios’ Inside Out 2 takes the audience back inside the mind of a young girl named Riley, expanding beyond the scope of Pete Docter’s original 2015 movie. The sequel, directed by Onward’s Kelsey Mann, takes Riley into her teen years, adding new emotion characters and the physical manifestation of her sense of self as she navigates major changes in her life.

But outside of the drama Riley experiences around her friends and her social ambitions, the new Pixar movie also has one of the best video game character gags since Tron.

[Ed. note: This post contains some spoilers for Inside Out 2.]

A new emotion, the aquamarine-skinned Envy (Ayo Edebiri), takes the console in Riley’s head and responds to something off screen with huge eyes and a beaming smile in Pixar Animation Studios’ Inside Out 2 Image: Disney/Pixar

About half an hour into the movie, Joy (Amy Poehler) and the rest of the original Inside Out emotions — Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness — wind up in a deep, dark vault of secrets, where they confront the manifestations of some things Riley has locked away inside herself. This includes Bloofy, a Bluey-type character from a children’s cartoon Riley still secretly, shamefully likes, and a large, shadowy character known as Deep Dark Secret.

But more importantly, the vault contains Lance Slashblade, a melodramatic video game character Riley knows from the in-universe equivalent of Super Smash Bros. Riley has a big ol’ crush on him, but he’s locked away in the vault because, despite his debonair good looks, Lance has one of the lamest power attacks in his game, which makes Riley embarrassed about liking him so much.

With his pixelated anime-style hair, huge sword, and comically serious voice (provided by veteran video game voice actor Yong Yea), Lance looks like he could fit right in with a lineup of Final Fantasy characters. And he’s absolutely the sort of character a 13-year-old would have an embarrassing crush on, after only knowing him from a team-up game. (That was Marth in Super Smash Bros. Melee for me.) According to director Kelsey Mann, Lance was the brainchild of story artist McKenna Harris.

A low-poly video game character dramatically bending his head as he grips his massive sword with one hand, purple hair billowing in the wind Image: Disney/Pixar

“They came up with this great idea of having a crush,” Mann told Polygon at a junket ahead of the movie’s release. “I had a crush on cartoon characters at this age, and you kind of don’t want to talk about it. We came up with the idea […] and we got so excited.”

Harris told Polygon in a later interview that in order to create the character, they dove deep into their 13-year-old secrets. As an avid gamer, they were drawn to what they call “mysterious figures” like Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7 or Auron in Axel from Kingdom Hearts.

“I distinctly remember feeling, though, that amongst all of my girlfriends at junior high, I knew no one who was into these games, knew who these characters were, much less would admit to have feelings about these characters,” Harris says. “So right away, I was pitching: ‘What if Riley has a crush on a video game character? That might be fun.’ It came from a very authentic place.”

All of the vault characters — Bloofy, Deep Dark, and Lance — blossomed from the first brainstorm the filmmakers had about Riley’s suppressed secrets.

“I did a drawing of all three of them,” says Mann. “And Lance was always there. We always knew he’d be a warrior. Somebody’s like, ‘He should have a giant sword. Huge one.’”

As the storyboards progressed, story artist Jeff Cole asked Harris for input on Lance’s design, since he was unfamiliar with the touchpoints needed for an “emo beautiful boy.” So Harris homed in on three specific notes.

“He needs incredible hair, impractical armor, and Maybelline-esque beauty,” Harris says.

A PlayStation 2-esque video game character with billowing purple hair and a massive sword. Image: Disney/Pixar

Lance’s visual look absolutely has a lot of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts to it. But what makes him stand out isn’t just his design — it’s how he moves, and how he looks in relation to the rest of Inside Out 2’s world. His gestures and his walk are a bit janky and stilted, just like an old video game. (Or like some of the 8-bit-inspired characters in Wreck-It Ralph.) Even though he’s an epic warrior, he’s limited by whatever retro video game he hails from.

Animator David Torres tells Polygon that the animation team had to deliberately lower their visual standards in order to craft Lance. That meant keeping the frame rate lower, focusing on minimal motion and animation, and having Lance hold poses longer than the other characters.

“One of the things we knew we had to do — which was really difficult as an animator that’s worked at Pixar for so many years — is to allow things to penetrate, allow things to look a little rougher,” Torres says. “Take, for instance, the ponytail. We wanted the sense that the wind is always blowing in Lance’s hair and clothing — but that ponytail would go through his sword, or go through his shoulder.”

Instead of using Pixar’s typical simulation software, the animators had to hand-key Lance’s hair. Similarly, a lot of the other textures on Lance were done by hand, in order to make sure he looked distinctive. Torres worked briefly in games before he moved to feature animation, and cites his time working on Metroid Prime as a big influence for Lance’s ultimate look. But another key part of why Lance looks particularly specific to the PlayStation 2 era was the effort to make him look unique and out of place, especially since video game animation has come so far.

“We probably had to go at least 20 years back to get to the quality that we were looking at,” Torres says. “We just had to make some creative decisions to say, OK, we really need to separate him out from the world.”

An animated version of a video game on a TV screen. It looks like a Super Smash Bros.-esque game, where a cartoony blob and a JRPG character battle it out. Image: Disney/Pixar

But what really seals the deal is Lance Slashblade’s perfect melodramatic voice-over performance. Yong Yea (Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, Persona 3 Reload), a veteran video game voice actor, knew the specific vibe the character needed — deep, overly serious, and dramatic. From the moment he read the materials for his audition, Yea clocked in on one key anime influence: Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto.

“[Sasuke] has got this very edgy ‘my past is so haunted’ kind of vibe to him,” Yea tells Polygon. “And I’m like, I’m going to channel a little bit of that into the audition. That was my first thought — I was like, There’s a bit of Sasuke energy to him.

At that point, Yea hadn’t seen any images of the character, so he was purely going off the script’s melodramatic vibes. When he saw the first concept art, he says he was pleased at how much the filmmakers leaned into the video game vibes.

“It looked like Cloud and Sephiroth had a child, but more purple-themed,” he laughs.

A low-poly video game character holding up a fist, dramatic purple hair billowing in the wind, a massive sword strapped to his back Image: Disney/Pixar

Yea tells us that Mann pretty much asked him to let loose in the recording booth and channel all the video game and anime energy he could. Yea drew from a lot of games and shows he loves, but he also had one unexpected touchpoint from his own career.

“There’s this character I play in Cookie Run: Kingdom called Madeleine Cookie,” says Yea. “Now, he’s a very different vibe, but he’s equally melodramatic. So two sides of the same coin, I feel these two characters.”

Lance Slashblade is unique to the world of Inside Out 2, but the fact that he sparks so many specific comparisons from all the people who worked on him speaks to the strength of his concept. Having an embarrassing fictional crush is such a milestone for young teenhood, after all.

“It’s just one of the small things that makes up becoming a teen and becoming who you are,” says Harris. “Understanding that you like certain things, and they’re different from what other people like, and it might be embarrassing. But hey, it’s actually a good thing that you’re unique, and not exactly the same as anyone else.”

Inside Out 2 is out in theaters now.

[Disclosure: Some quotes from this article come from an Inside Out 2 early press day held at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, on March 26 and 27. Disney provided Polygon’s travel and accommodations for the event. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.]