by David Ehrlich | Indiewire
Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers about the plot of “The Last of Us Part II.”
From the moment that “The Last of Us Part II” was first announced in 2016, its plot has been one of gaming’s most closely guarded secrets. And for good reason: The beloved first installment of Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic adventure series told a heart-stopping story that, while self-contained, still managed to end with a wrenching cliffhanger. Players were left to sit with Joel’s decision to save the life of his surrogate daughter Ellie — the only known person immune to the zombifying plague of cordyceps fungus that had wiped out 60% of the human population — rather than sacrifice her body to science in order to produce a vaccine.
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If the moral ambiguity of that moment helped galvanize “The Last of Us” into a haunting experience, the promise of addressing its repercussions elevated “The Last of Us Part II” into a legitimate event, complete with the kind of high-wire hype that tends to be reserved for the release of a new “Star Wars” movie. When a bevy of sensitive cut-scenes leaked onto the internet this past April and revealed certain details about the plot (19-year-old Ellie is the protagonist instead of Joel, she’s openly gay, and one of the major characters is trans), it became clear that the “Star Wars” movie in question is “The Last Jedi.”
That comparison isn’t only apt because writer-director Neil Druckmann and co-writer/narrative lead Halley Gross have triggered the most toxic pockets of their fandom by daring to make a game that actually reflects the wide spectrum of people who will play it. They’ve created an bold, astonishing pop masterpiece on the largest possible scale — a beautiful and fearless blockbuster sequel that honors the magic of its source material by deepening “The Last of Us,” as opposed to just echoing what people already love about it. Following Ellie from Wyoming to Seattle on a bloody quest to avenge her murdered father figure (before recasting players as the woman who killed him), “The Last of Us Part II” tells an unforgettable story about the nature of justice, the cycle of violence, and the radical empathy required to end it.
And after half a decade of omerta-like silence, Druckmann and Gross are finally able to talk about it. Fresh off an emotional toast with the rest of their colleagues at Naughty Dog, Druckmann and Gross hopped on a video call with IndieWire on the day of the game’s release in order to talk through some of the most nuanced and audacious storytelling choices in video game history.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The story of “The Last Us Part II” is almost perfectly symmetrical. From the opening and closing shots of the guitar, to the accordion-like structure, the rhymes between life in Jackson and the stadium in Seattle, the museum and the aquarium, Ellie’s love of space versus Abby’s fear of heights, and so on. Can you talk about how you wanted the two halves of the game to reflect each other?
Neil Druckmann: With the first game, the exciting thing was role-reversal: You’re playing as this archetypal hero for a while and then at a certain point we flip it and you play as Ellie. Seeing how well that worked was so much of the inspiration here, and when we decided to make a game about empathy we knew we had to double down on that feeling — to structure the entire thing around getting you to connect [with unexpected characters]. You’re already connected to Ellie and Joel from “The Last of Us,” so we put them through a very tragic event, give you one look at a quest for revenge, and then shift to Abby in order to tell a mirror story of redemption that follows the person who — by killing Joel and avenging her father — has already accomplished what Ellie is trying to do, and is struggling to come to grips with it. We were trying to find those parallels you’re talking about, and to do so in a way where it’s not on the nose but it’s still showing you how these characters — under different circumstances — could’ve been friends.
Why have players control Abby for a bit in Jackson before Joel’s murder?
Halley Gross: We wanted the opportunity to build empathy for her from the start, and the most effective way we can do that is to have you walking in her shoes, spending time with her, seeing what makes her vulnerable, seeing what makes her scared. We get that she’s scared of heights, we get that she has a soft spot for Owen and is upset about his romantic life, we get that there are intense stakes that might drive those two people apart. We wanted to inform all of that without you understanding that she’s the prototypical “antagonist.”
These games are famous for how they engage with the player’s agency and sense of control. In “The Last of Us,” our alignment with Joel compels us to justify his actions as he murders innocent people to protect Ellie. In “Part II,” it feels as if the characters are trying to wrest control back from us. We fight Ellie, but Abby makes the decision to walk away. We fight Abby, but Ellie chooses to spare her life.
Druckmann: I think the ending of “The Last of Us” worked for a lot of people because of how in the beginning of the game we did a lot to put you in alignment with Joel, and to make you care for Ellie, and because we delayed Joel making the choice to take care of Ellie for a while — people like Tess keep making that choice for him. We knew that some people were not going to be on board with Joel’s decision at the end of the game, but we tried to make it so that even if you’re not in alignment with him by the time you got there, we’ve hinted at what he’s capable of so much that you’re still on board for the ride. There’s something interesting that happens when you’re not in alignment with the character and the game makes you do something that you don’t want to do — you wrestle with those decisions in a different way than you would be able to in a passive medium.
Many players — and most parents — might have understood Joel’s decision at the end of the first game, but “The Last of Us Part II” finds that Ellie herself is struggling to make sense of it. It seems like she doesn’t get all the way there until after the fight with Abby in Santa Barbara.
Druckmann: Joel has made this decision for Ellie, and now she has to deal with the consequences of that choice. But again I’m not putting a judgment on it, because we do what we feel is right. And for Joel, the decision to choose Ellie over the vaccine was pretty consistent with his character. He’s the same guy from the prologue of the first game — when he refuses to pick up another family as he and Sarah are driving out of Austin — all the way to the end. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect his tribe.
The game’s biggest plot twist is a subtle tweak in perspective, as we learn that Ellie has known the truth of what Joel did the whole time, and chose to seek revenge against his killers anyway. That information drives a deeper wedge between Ellie and the player.
Gross: Ellie’s got survivor’s guilt, she’s got PTSD, and she’s haunted by what she lost. She’s haunted by what Abby took away from her, and also — we come to realize — she’s haunted by what happened to her relationship with Joel after he told her the truth and she was so hurt by it. By piecing those details out it allows us to be with this internal character who isn’t much of a sharer, and it allows us to feel those memories coming back to her as she progresses through the narrative. It also progressively contextualizes what’s driving her. At first you think it’s just “fuck those people, they killed my father figure,” but then you realize “well, how much does she feel culpable in this? How much does she feel like she took something away from Joel?”
Druckmann: There was a functional reason for those flashbacks, too. We knew we weren’t going to spend a lot of time with Joel on the front end of the game, so we needed to insert these moments to keep reminding you why Ellie is on this journey in the first place. But we didn’t want to just have flashbacks that had nothing but sweetness — it felt like their relationship had to progress and couldn’t stay static.
Gross: This whole game is about the consequences of the choices that we make, and to do flashbacks that didn’t unpack the consequences of Joel’s choice and how it became this festering secret between he and Ellie that was dividing them and splitting them in two… that would have done a disservice to our theme.
Druckmann: I remember the fear of how much people loved the ending of the first game because of how ambiguous it is. For years people have been debating “Does Ellie know Joel is lying to him? Does she not know? Does she know he’s lying but she’s willing to let it go because of how much she loves him?” And it turns out that it’s kind of all of those things. We wanted with each flashback to show that at first Ellie’s in denial about it, and then it’s this thing that’s hanging over her relationship with Joel, and then she’s starting to suspect something, and then she thinks she thought she could let go but she can’t and it’s eating away at her until finally it blows up.
Each step of the way, we wanted you to think that Ellie’s relationship with Joel ended on a different note. You think “Joel died thinking Ellie hates him!” and then at the very end of the game we reveal something different with that last beat. Structuring those flashbacks was a process. Initially, they were all over the place, out of order, and so much of the writing work that Halley was really good at was untangling all of that and simplifying it.
The structure you settled on — especially with that very last flashback — makes the game feel like it’s the story of Ellie painfully coming to the point where she understands why Joel saved her, and is able to forgive him.
Gross: I think that’s right, and I also think it took her two years to come to the place where she could even consider embracing forgiveness with Joel. Ellie’s path to forgiving Abby is by far a much harder journey, though. Abby has wronged her in the deepest of ways. Right when she says, “OK, I’m ready for the challenge of forgiving Joel,” it’s like no, your challenge is now going to be escalated in a way that could lead to your own destruction and the destruction of the people you love, and are you going to be able to get there in time?
And she gets there just in the nick of time. She travels all the way to Santa Barbara just to let Abby live — to save her life, even. Abby’s decision to heed Lev’s caution and spare Ellie is similarly abrupt but understandable. Were you nervous about selling those key moments?
Druckmann: There are so many emotional parts of the game that for a long time didn’t land, and every time it’s so daunting to make them work. So often it’s just the iterative process of creation and cutting out a bunch of stuff that we realized wasn’t necessary. What comes to mind right now is Joel’s death. In the first edit of that scene, you felt nothing. Ellie’s being held down and Joel’s looking at her and we had this idea of like, “Oh man Joel’s brain is so fucked up at that moment that the only word that’s coming out of his mouth is his daughter’s name, ‘Sarah.’” It felt powerful, but then Troy [Baker] — to his credit — was like, “I don’t think he should say anything.” We shot both versions, and Troy was right. The scene was stronger without it.
Gross: We used to have five days in Seattle for each girl instead of three.
Druckmann: There was a whole side story where Ellie went to the Seraphite island, and we had so much more to say about the Seraphites and Ellie’s journey there and she’s going through like the different layers of Hell and she still keeps going forward.
Gross: Joel had a girlfriend. The ending was different.
Druckmann: In the farm sequence, you can find an entry in Ellie’s journal where she writes about killing this boar and how it makes her feel — we shot cut-scenes for that. There was a whole playable sequence of her hunting down a boar and it was awesome, but we felt that for pacing and production purposes it was just better to remove it. Art was done, and Ashley [Johnson] gave a great performance of how she kills this boar and everything.
Ellie getting revenge on the boar who scared the shit out of her and also me at the museum.
Gross: That’s why the boar is there! That was originally going to be a deer, but we had this boar and the boar was great.
Druckmann: And sometimes it’s about what you add in. The whole idea of putting in a flash of Joel playing guitar while Abby is drowning Ellie… for a long time people were confused why Ellie spares Abby. And we were like “What’s the right amount where we can just hint at something, but not be so explicit that it could only mean this one thing?” Because each decision that people make is complex. And it was really the editorial team who was like “What if we did this?” We thought it might be hokey, but it worked.
Let’s talk about why Ellie goes to Santa Barbara in the first place, and the heartbreaking decision to leave her idyllic life with Dina and the baby. Does she still care about killing Abby at that point, or is it more that she needs absolution from Joel of some kind?
Gross: I think those two things are synonymous. To my mind, when she’s leaving the farm it almost isn’t about Abby at that point so much as it’s about “I literally cannot survive if I don’t try and handle what’s going on because this PTSD is just getting worse, I’m losing control, I feel like I’m at risk to my family, and I have to hope that there’s an answer on the other side because I don’t know how to live with this. If I stay here it’s suicide.” It’s more a conversation about mental health and surviving than it is justice for Abby or even seeking Joel. It’s just like “I don’t know how to be a person anymore.”
Druckmann: We tried to deconstruct Ellie’s relationship with violence versus Joel’s relationship with violence. With Joel, it’s very practical and pragmatic. He doesn’t find much pleasure or hatred in killing, he’s more indifferent, it’s just a function of how he survives. With Ellie — Malcolm Gladwell talks about this — it’s the concept of “the culture of honor.” Her ego is so intertwined with being wrong, and she has to make it right, and she believes she can’t come to rest until she makes it right.
Ellie leaves behind the guitar that Joel gives her. I assume it’s not just because Abby chewed off two of the fingers Ellie needs to make chords.
Gross: For me, Ellie is putting the idea of Joel to bed. She’s burying him respectfully at that point and moving on to a new chapter in her life, whatever that might be. But he’s in the rear-view mirror when she leaves the house at the end.
Druckmann: Whatever we say here ultimately doesn’t matter. Everything you need to understand the story is in the game, and whatever players take from it… their interpretation is right. At least until if we ever make another game and then we can argue about it then. But personally, to me, Ellie is finally able to get past her ego and this whole obsession. We’d often use the metaphor of talking about her revenge as a drug and Ellie as a kind of drug addict, and that’s ultimately why Dina left. She’s like “this girl’s hit bottom and it’s still not enough, I can’t help her anymore.”
Also I should say that for more than 50 percent of the production, Ellie used to kill Abby at the end. Which gave a whole different kind of feel to the ending, and then another character would have to stop the cycle of violence. But at some point, through our conversations about Yara and Lev, we came to the realization that it wasn’t as honest to Ellie’s character that way. Deep down inside there’s goodness there. Hopefully she can go forward and build her life.
Is there any chance she can reconcile with Dina?
Gross: In spite of all that Ellie’s been through, I want her to find love. And support, and a community, and a sense of safety. Whether or not that’s possible in the “Last of Us” universe given how hostile it is and how you can always lose people and the fragility of everything, I’m not sure. But I want that for her. Also that baby is damn cute.
It’s probably too soon to discuss “The Last of Us Part III,” but let’s discuss “The Last of Us Part III.”
Druckmann: I’ll be a little vague and cagey as you can expect, but I think the test for whether or not to make a “Part III” would have to be a similar test to what we did with “Part II.” With the first game there were no expectations and it was like we could do anything. But now that we’ve established certain characters and themes and processes, it felt like to justify making a “Part II” we had to do something not that fans would just be comfortable with, but do something that would match the emotional core we found in the first game. And without that, there’d be no reason to do a “Part III.” Finding it with the sequel was much harder than it was with the first game, and going forward it would be exponentially harder to justify going back to that world and finding a way to vary things up. There’s already so many things you’ve seen about the backstory, about how the outbreak happens, so we’d really have to figure out how to create a new experience that matches the emotional impact of these stories and I don’t know what that is. Currently.
“The Last of Us Part II” is now available on Playstation 4.