The Last of Us is a video game that blew me away. Whilst playing it, my jaw alternated between being set in tense concentration, and dropped so low it brushed my controller. Naughty Dog’s seminal third-person survival game stunned critics and consumers alike. It was hardly a surprise, therefore, when The Last of Us Part 2 was announced at the 2016 PlayStation Experience. As I watched the reveal trailer, my excitement levels cruised at stratospheric levels. Then, at the last moment, a bolt of concern ripped through my anticipation. Allow me to explain why.
The Last of Us told one of the best stories I’ve enjoyed in any form of media, let alone in video games. Great stories need believable, flawed characters, and in protagonists Joel and Ellie, we had that.
I could (and maybe I will, some day) write a whole article on why The Last of Us’s narrative was exemplary. For now, suffice to say that it hummed with a tension that got its claws in us and refused to let go. The action was exhausting, but the experience was cleverly peppered with downtime scenes to accentuate the combat. The dialogue was sharp, with ne’er a word wasted, and delivered perfectly by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. What’s more, Naughty Dog’s narrative designers wisely focused the story purely on the lead characters Joel and Ellie. The fate of the wider world was only hinted at through conservative dollops of exposition, and not allowed to detract from the pair’s personal journeys.
These aspects, and more, I fully expect to be replicated in The Last of Us Part 2. By choosing to continue Joel and Ellie’s adventures, however, there is one crucial narrative feature that will no longer be available to Naughty Dog’s narrative designers and writers.
One of the key reasons why The Last of Us was so impactful, and why it lingers in the memory still, is the superb character development. I should say at this point there are spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t yet played The Last of Us, rectify that oversight at once! The aforementioned storytelling techniques combine to make us attached to Joel and Ellie, so that we experience their emotional rollercoasters with them.
Under our stewardship, Joel turns from a gruff man with a questionable past, kept afloat by the love for his daughter, to a shell bereft of hope and purpose. Of course, in Ellie he discovers someone who embodies both aspects. But, coloured by his previous loss, it becomes a deranged love and a twisted purpose.
In terms of character development, it is Ellie, however, who undergoes the greatest transformation. She is not an innocent girl when Joel first encounters her, but she does emanate a childish optimism that is brutally stripped away as her journey progresses. At first she skips by Joel’s side; by the end, it’s a world-weary trudge that mimics her older companion’s.
The evolving relationship between Joel and Ellie is undoubtedly The Last of Us’s most laudable triumph. That doesn’t mean, however, that a second instalment in this dark world needs these iconic characters. Indeed, I believe that Naughty Dog have taken a huge risk in continuing their story.
It wasn’t these protagonists themselves that created such a superb story, but their development, and the impacts that they had on each other. Further, “the lie” (as I have seen it called) at the end, does not mean that their stories were necessarily unfinished. Emotionally, they had been through the crucible and emerged with a bond forged of love and fragile trust. By not spelling out how or if Ellie discovers that Joel lied to her, we could continue the story in our heads and in discussions with our friends. The Last of Us Part 2 must answer these questions, and how Ellie reacts to the news, and that’s almost a shame.
The aspect that causes me greatest concern, however, stems from Ellie’s last line in the trailer: “I’m gonna find, and I’m gonna kill, every last one of them.” Before Neil Druckmann confirmed it, it was evident that hate will be a key theme in The Last of Us Part 2. Ellie sings with a soft callousness that borders on the psychotic, surrounded by dead bodies, and then proclaims her thirst for revenge. Be under no illusion, folks – if you were new to the franchise, this would be interpreted as a villain’s scene.
My guess is that there will be a role reversal of sorts: Ellie will be the one consumed by hate, and Joel will try to kindle a flicker of light in the darkness. Naughty Dog are relying on us having formed unbreakable attachments to Ellie, however, since it will be extremely difficult to empathise with such unrelatable, grim motivations. The primal drivers of love and survival are much stronger than the hateful desire for revenge.
In short, the question is where can Naughty Dog go from here? If they had chosen to focus on a new set of characters, they would have lost the gilded head start that continuing an existing story seemingly gives them. But it would, however, have given them the opportunity to forge new relationships and tell the stories from another corner of their broken world. The most appealing aspect of “origin” stories, is that we discover what makes characters tick; their habits; their inner conflicts; and their pasts. If we already know a lot of those things, holding our attention and earning our affection is a much greater challenge. Joel and Ellie’s narrative arcs were pitched perfectly, so much so that the renowned developer will need to pull something extra special out of the bag to recapture that shape.
Let me be clear: I am confident that The Last of Us Part 2 will be a superb game. Naughty Dog’s pedigree wouldn’t allow it to be anything else. But the developer has set themselves a mighty big challenge by deciding to continue Joel and Ellie’s story, and make hate a key theme. The problem facing sequels to great stories is that they must somehow trump the seminal tales that came before. The better the first story, the greater the challenge…and the greater the risk of disappointment.