How They Should Make The Last Of Us Part 2
The Last of Us Part II is easily one of the most anticipated games. Here is the story I think Naughty Dog should tell…
I love to write stories. Ever since my days in primary school, I have always jumped at chances to compose tales - usually of war and betrayal. Over the last few years, I’ve never really had the chance to… Until now.
With The Last of Us Part 2 (TLOU 2) easily becoming one of the most eagerly anticipated games, fans are tearing every little trailer scene and developer interview apart to see if they can find anything resembling some story clues.
Instead of doing that, I’m taking this as a chance to get creative, sneakily submit a blog-form resumé as a video game writer for any studios looking to hire at the same time, and pitch a play-by-play of the game’s plot.
Here is how I think they should make The Last Of Us Part II. Naughty Dog, I know for a fact you will do it better.
Fair warning to regular readers: this is a very different kind of post and will require some visualisation on your part to bring my scenes and story ideas to life.
I will write the storyline for TLOU 2 with all the current news confirmed by the developer about the game in mind:
- A “large part” of the game will take place in Seattle
- Naughty Dog say Ellie is the only playable character, but I don’t believe that for a second. They’ve lied to us about this before, plus it’s not convenient for my story
- I'm not going to name new characters
- The game is set five years after the events of the first story
- In those years, as co-director Anthony Newman told Polygon, Ellie has been able to be kind of a normal teenager at Jackson - the safe haven/town ran by Joel’s brother Tommy and his wife Maria
- As revealed in the incredible The Last of Us: One Night Live, Joel and Ellie were accepted into Tommy’s group and put to work improving the security around town. Tommy even tries to set Joel up on a date with a woman living with them
Of course, some of the above details may just be Naughty Dog trying to distract us from actual plot points, but let’s take them at their word for the sake of the story. Let’s begin.
So with a major theme of TLOU 2 being hate, we need to start sowing those seeds early. And in classic storytelling fashion, I want a clear moral throughout. In the words of Yoda:
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This will be told in a three-act structure. Reasons behind my choices are explained in italics.
Our story starts with the actions of the Paris Games Week 2017 trailer, although things play out a little differently. The same actions play out - the clipping of Yara’s wings, Lev’s rescue and the cutting down of the mysterious woman. And as the infected run towards you, the HUD fades in. You play this scene as the mystery woman and this is a tutorial for all the new combat gameplay elements you saw in the E3 2018 gameplay demo - dodging, quick projectile pickups, etc.
After a couple minutes of learning the key moves, you are pinned by a clicker and forced to mash the square button to push it off. Once you do, you turn around and expect Yara and Lev to be there… They are not - instead, a bloater is slowly shuffling towards you. These two characters have used the mystery woman’s attacks as a distraction and successfully got away.
This is the woman’s last stand and it goes down in gameplay. You can choose to either swing your weapon and attack as many as you go down, or not press anything and submit to your inevitable fate.
The idea of this woman being Ellie’s mum is just too obvious and far too much of a jumping the shark moment. According to the story so far, she died during the birth of Ellie, so to try and bring her back would take a lot of explaining or a big, risky jump in believability. And to force a new character into this streamlined story of mine would be forceful, so let’s send her out on top as a badass good samaritan who sacrifices herself to save Yara and Lev.
Cut to black, roll opening credits. The vignettes in these credits tell the story of cities rebuilding in this new world - Jackson County, Boston and (importantly) Seattle, Washington.
After the credits, we cut to Ellie waking up in a derelict house, panicked from what seemed to be a nightmare. The words “one year later” appear on the screen. The camera slowly focuses and the HUD appears, as we take control of Ellie picking up some last supplies before heading out to carry on with an adventure we know nothing about yet. As we walk towards a pickup truck, she pulls out a map and we follow her tracing her finger towards a circle located on the outskirts of Seattle. She looks to the sun, establishes her bearings and we get going.
Now, for this first scene, I’m torn between two options and would love your input:
- Ellie provides story context and some charming personality quirks through talking to herself. She’s used to having Joel there as someone to converse with as they hit the road, but the isolation has taught her to fill the void with any kind of speech - be it about the comic books she reads, or missing “what used to be home back in Jackson.”
- This first scene is played out in complete silence. We let the scenery tell some stories of its own. One of the most encapsulating elements of TLOU 2’s promotion on the run up to release has been the vague nature of what is going on. We get small inklings and a general sense of what we’re doing, but nothing concrete. In this option, I suggest we play that through to the story itself - keeping the player guessing but drenching each location with stories of their own. Include hanging, disembowelled bodies with notes in pockets, hauntingly silent houses with religious scripture written in blood on the walls. Just small hints as to the menacing nature of the Seraphite.
As this backstory builds, we come across one of the cult’s patrols. You set a nail bomb trap (miss you, Bill) to take out one of the group and scare the remaining members into running back to their camp for reinforcements. Stalking them through the woods, you arrive at a one-storey house overgrown with grass and vines. The leader of this patrol sends his foot soldiers out the house to patrol and protect him, as he barricades himself in what used to be a child’s bedroom.
Commence another gameplay scene of silently or loudly taking out every soldier of Seraphite, followed by slowly walking towards the child’s bedroom door.
Ellie knocks softly and the leader whistles - waiting for the correct response to signify it’s his ally. She tries to whistle, but after breathing deeply can only force out a near-silent note amongst a loud exhaustion of air. Suddenly the patrol leader empties his gun into the door and once Ellie hears that trademark click of an empty pistol, she kicks the door down and slowly approaches him.
The camera then cuts to about fifty metres away from the house, when we hear distant blood-curdling screams, which makes a blurred man who appears just in front of the camera stop for a second, before crouching and slowly approaching.
Cut back to Ellie, who stands up, removes the machete planted firmly in the man’s skull and cleans the blood off with her shirt. While cleaning, she notices an acoustic guitar out of the corner of her eye. It is at this point that we are treated to her acoustic rendition of Shawn James’ Through The Valley - which we heard way back in the initial announcement trailer.
This scene plays out exactly the same as in the trailer. Joel comes to the door and asks “what are you doing, kiddo?” To which, Ellie promises to kill every last one of them… But something is different this time.
After a year in isolation, it becomes commonplace to visualise and talk to imaginary people around you. This time, Joel is actually there. The shield is lowered, as she breaks down into tears. Her father figure is back and he sits beside her and comforts her.
With a Breaking Bad-style time-lapse transition of the outside of the house showing they have stayed there through until nightfall, we cut inside and see our two original protagonists have just been talking while eating cans of beans.
Joel and Ellie catch up about their journeys since Jackson fell, with Ellie describing the tracks and specific routes she took to optimise distance and have the highest chance of finding supplies. Joel’s impressed and notices she thinks a lot like him, even down to the same route plan to Seattle.
And it's at this point we get a comic relief scene. In the first game, it was the “stuck together” dirty magazine in the car moment. For the second game… Let’s have an awkwardly funny coming out of Ellie’s sexuality to Joel. Just to clarify, not funny because Ellie is gay. Simply Joel’s awkward reaction, akin to any father’s initial surprise and processing of said statement.
Something along the lines of talking about a girl she dated, ending with a dramatic sigh, saying “I could not have married her if she kept up the smoking thing.”
“But she’s… a girl,” Joel confirms the obvious.
“She sure is,” Ellie responds.
“But you’re a girl,” Joel continues.
“Which makes you…”
“You catch on fast.”
Silence descends upon the cabin for a few seconds, until Ellie asks if Joel is okay - sat there with a bit of a blank expression on his face. After shaking his head, he is quick to congratulate her on finding love and commiserate over the fact that both of them are now striking out with the ladies. After they chuckle, the atmosphere grows tense as Ellie’s expression changes.
“I know what you did,” Ellie calmly says. “Back at the hospital with the fireflies… I know what you did.”
Joel scoffs for a second, under the illusion, there is no possible way she could know. But once locking eyes with her and realising she quite obviously knows from her facial expression, he draws a deep breath and sighs “I did what I had to do.”
We are treated to thirty tense seconds of silence, interrupted only by the faint clattering of forks against the inside of tin cans.
“Thank you,” Ellie whispers. “That wasn’t your choice to make… but thank you.”
I get this choice will surprise many of you. Given the badass Ellie we’ve come to know, all signs would point to her absolutely despising Joel for stopping what could have been the production of a worldwide vaccine.
However, the fact many fans seem to miss in their storytelling predictions is that the fireflies had also taken that decision away from her. She was prepped for surgery immediately once rolled in, completely unconscious to everything that happened and unable to choose what she wants to do.
Any teenager on Planet Earth, regardless of whether they are in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, want nothing more than to be treated as adults and allowed to make decisions for themselves.
In this situation, it’s the best of a bad bunch. She didn’t get to make the choice, but at least she’s alive. Because of this, she chooses to forgive Joel… But she will never forget.
“Swear you will never lie to me again,” Ellie quietly demands.
And after a few seconds of long stares, Joel responds: “I swear.”
They go to sleep, the screen cuts to black.
This will be our chance to build up some of the other characters in TLOU 2 - start to provide depth to this world.
“THREE YEARS BEFORE” appears on the screen.
The sound of splashing water grows and you hear a female voice scream something along the lines of “don’t be a chicken!”
Cut to the blue of underwater and we hear a submerged splash as Ellie jumps into the water. She panics - kicking and flailing, desperate to reach the surface. But a hand grabs her and she stops, looking a lot calmer and slowly kicking her way up to the surface.
“There! Not so bad, was it?” A smiling Dina says, continuing to instruct Ellie by moving her arms to keep her head above the water. We are in the reservoir of Jackson’s hydroelectric dam, and all the young people of the community seem to have escaped their duties to go for a swim.
What we get here is our next tutorial for swimming controls, as we pick up the basics and apply them. Extra gameplay elements like these will always be helpful in varying the pace.
Chemistry builds between Dina and Ellie, only for it all to be broken by Jesse diving in next to them and introducing himself to Dina. Clearly very interested, Dina starts talking to him but never leaves Ellie out of it, introducing her to him too and starting a friendship between them.
Of course, the friendship turns romantic between Dina and Jesse, which finishes for reasons unknown to us in the E3 2018 trailer. But given the fact I’m trying to streamline this story, the player has a lot more to be concerned about than how this relationship breaks up. Let’s keep it vague.
After this, we get a sort of montage of the next couple of years - little snippets of gameplay that demonstrate the growing friendship between Ellie and Jesse, but also the sparks between Ellie and Dina. Ellie saving Jesse from an infected attacker during a routine patrol. Dina and Ellie working together to turn the valve on one of the hydroelectric dam walls. All three working together to take out incoming attackers, but being disciplined by Joel shortly after for leaving their posts. Most importantly, a cutscene where we see Ellie has made Dina a bracelet.
These moments crescendo with a scene where they all get drunk playing a card game of some sort. Jesse stumbles off and in a moment of weakness, Ellie and Dina nearly kiss. This is something that rapidly sobers Ellie, who mumbles “I have to go,” and scarpers from the situation.
We hear something familiar… A version of Little Sadie by Crooked Still - the song in the most recent promo. The words “ONE YEAR AGO” appear on-screen and the oh-so-familiar church pops into view, and we are treated to the same dance number and kiss of the most recent trailer. Only there is one difference.
The camera pans to go behind Ellie’s head and transition to another scene, as you expect. Instead, the camera stops and pans back around to its original position. Then, after seeing Ellie’s infectiously warm smile, we cut to Jesse, who after watching what just happened downs his drink and leaves the church.
Before Ellie has the chance to walk more than three steps to go find him, a glass-shattering scream is heard. Clickers and infected have burst into the church and taken their first victim. Most of the panicked crowd run for the exits, which are all locked from the outside, while others head to the far corner where weapons are relinquished before entering the church.
Before they reach the guns, several more of Jackson’s citizens are pounced upon including (sorry about this) Dina. Ellie would try to intervene, but she would be greatly outnumbered, as more infected join in the attack on Dina. With tears streaming down her cheeks, the protectors open fire and kill the infected.
We get the haunting screech of the violin slowly playing the central theme to TLOU, as Dina’s hand twitches and the last remnants of life leave her body. Ellie slowly removes the bracelet she gave to Dina, snaps back to reality as the noise of the panicked crowd behind them rushes back in and joins the crowd pushing against the door. The force of them manages to break the wooden beam blocking the door on the other side, as they all tumble out.
Gunshots are heard and a couple of Jackson citizens are killed. Shortly after, this firing squad - a bunch of Seraphite members - train their guns on the remaining survivors and order them all down to their knees.
Another few Seraphite soldiers walk over dragging Joel and kick him on the back of his knee to force him down just behind Ellie.
“Where’s Dad?” Ellie asks Joel, stunning the player.
“…I’m so sorry kiddo.” Joel quietly responds with a tremble in his voice. Cut to black.
So up to this point, we’ve not so much as moved the chess pieces, as we’ve overturned the entire chess board. The audience is in a bit of shock and this may seem like a cheap twist at first, but let me explain.
Ellie’s mum is dead and gone, but nothing is ever explained about the father. I believe that Naughty Dog may have done that deliberately to bring a surprise character into the fray. All we have to do is give him a fully fleshed out reason for being here and (more importantly) a reason for the player to care.
In thinking about giving him purpose, a cheap tactic that crossed my head was to have you control Ellie as a baby being raised by him… Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s show the father and Marlene teaching her how to protect herself. The scene is filled with warm colours - a sun rises in the background, and he’s teaching her some self-defence moves. If they want to use this as a chance to teach more hand-to-hand combat moves, then be my guest!
But as the father, clearly jubilant and having an amazing time, picks up his daughter, we cut sharply to the dull greys and blues of a far older man - sporting the same ‘Glasgow Smile’ scars indicative of a Seraphite member but also clutching a Fireflies pendant/dog tag. He has clearly fought alongside many different groups to survive.
He’s just broken into a car and is panicking to find a key to start it. While working his way through the glove compartment, he hears faint voices behind him screaming “His sins nest within him. We must release them to cleanse him.”
Because I’m a movie stereotype buff, I’m going to say that he lowers the car’s sun visor and the key falls into his lap. Crossing his fingers, he turns the key and pumps the gas… Nothing. A second time, luckily, it starts and as a gunshot can be heard followed by a bullet impact in the rear windscreen, he puts it into drive and speeds away.
He looks down at what seems to be one of those passport pictures you get taken at a shopping centre photo booth in his wallet. It’s a picture of him and a very young Ellie. He smiles, looks up and sees he is driving towards a perimeter wall of some sort.
Slowly exiting the car, he shouts up to a rather alarmed-looking Joel, who points his bow and arrow at him.
“Really? Then what are those scars on your face?”
Pausing for a second, the father responds “I’m not one of them anymore. You have to believe me.”
“Oh believe you?” Joel chuckles. “It’s going to take more than that.”
Suddenly the butt of a gun is hit into the back of the father’s head. Dina has snuck around him during her patrol and knocked him unconscious.
He wakes up chained to a radiator - his breath quickening with panic. Joel walks into the room with the father’s wallet in hand, opens it up and crouches down in front of him.
“Where did you get this fucking picture?” Joel angrily asks.
We’re expecting to see the picture of Ellie as child but instead, we see something different… On the inside fold of the clear ID pouch of his wallet, there is a picture of a teenage Ellie in a hospital bed.
We see an expression of hatred and anger on Joel’s face that we’ve never quite seen before. A new deeper level of resentment for another person that comes without remorse. But before either of them can talk, we hear Ellie’s voice behind him.
“Who are you?” She softly asks, holding an identical to the passport photo of the pair.
“I guess we have some catching up to do,” the father confirms.
It’s about time we got a sense of emotional positivity in this story, no matter how short or fleeting this moment is. To keep the moments of pure dread and tension as impactful, they need to be balanced out and this is a good way to do so.
We cut to a short piece of gameplay, as Ellie takes her dad on a tour of Jackson. An awkward tension can be felt, as neither of them have quite figured out how to deal with a situation like this. As you walk up to open the door to your living quarters, you look back as if you’re about to let him go first, like you did for all previous doors. But the camera pans around to see him frozen a few steps back.
“I have not been the best father to you,” he says.
The camera cuts back round to Ellie’s facial reaction, which is one of emotional confusion - unable to process what is happening and hurriedly trying to figure out the next steps of this conversation. Before we can see what she says, we cut back to present day with a sudden punch to the face of Joel, bringing you back down to Earth with a bang.
The familiar noose is set up in tree and a bucket put in place to stabilise Joel. He is hung and much like at the beginning, as this Seraphite leader is about to disembowel, he’s hit with an arrow. This time in the stomach. Writhing in pain, the remaining Seraphite members fire back into the darkness. Another is hit with an arrow. In this pandemonium, Ellie runs over and cuts Joel down.
Let’s send this leader out in truly gruesome fashion, to really establish how we should all be terrified of Joel.
Taking control of Joel, you walk over to the leader, kneels down over the top of him and hovers his hands over the top of his face. Upon pressing the button prompts R2 and L2, you sink your thumbs into his eye sockets - blood pours down his face as he screams in pain.
After removing your thumbs from these two darkened holes of blood, you then get button prompts to punch, with each one landing with a bone-cracking thump. But Joel slowly stops, as he notices some intricate details on the arrow that neutralised the leader in the first place…
His eyes widen, almost with surprise and a bit of fear. He turns around and runs away into the darkness. Ellie is confused.
An older Yara rolls in out of the shadows and stabs the final Searaphite member in the neck, saving Ellie. She takes you back to her camp to get patched up.
And it is at this point we have the last flashback - going back to the downfall of Jackson County and the source of all of Ellie’s hate for the Seraphite. Shortly after the infected were unleashed upon the church, leading to the death of Dina, we finally find out what really happened to that night.
All assumptions have led to the cult killing him for turning his back on them, leading to this cross-country mission of revenge. But fear & hate have clouded your judgment.
It is earlier that evening and Ellie is sat with her father, wearing the same shirt you find her in at the church dance. Slowly but surely, they begin to talk. She confides in her father about the cross-country adventure she went on with Joel, her immunity to the cordyceps and Joel’s motivations for being a key father figure in her life.
Throughout this, you start to see a slowly dawning sense of realisation on the father’s face, which Ellie notices and asks what is wrong. He then goes on to tell her daughter everything about what happened that fateful night she was put under.
“I went out on patrol and returned to see everyone dead. People who I considered my family like Marlene, murdered in cold blood by that son of a bitch Joel,” he will say - going to into every last gruesome detail about what took place.
It will be an emotionally confusing conversation for the two of them to have, as her father has not only been on the side Ellie considers to be the good guys, he’s also been converted as part of the cult. Now, he’s telling her a completely different story to what was initially heard from Joel all those years ago, but they are also actions that Ellie knows he is capable of.
Just for a second, in this scene of rare empathy from a hate-filled Ellie, she shows her father forgiveness for his past transgressions as a Seraphite member. She is conflicted (and so is the player at this point), but for this moment, blood runs just as thick as water.
Before they are able to hug as father and daughter, Jesse bursts in and says “you coming or what?”
After this perfectly timed interruption, the father tells Ellie he’ll catch up with her and that he just needs a little time to himself. She leaves to go to church.
The final part of this flashback comes from Yara’s additional detail to fill out the rest of what happened. Yara and Lev had managed to successfully escape the Seraphite camp (thanks to the unnamed woman from the PGW 2017 trailer), to warn Jackson County about the upcoming attack. Running up to the perimeter, Joel spots them and orders them to freeze. Noticing the cult’s details on them, he orders his soldiers to apprehend Ellie’s father - accusing him of trying to cause a distraction and open the gates to enemies.
Bloodied, beaten and covered in blood, the father is dragged before Joel’s feet.
Joel grabs him and points towards the two stragglers outside the fence: “Do you see them? This is how you repay my fucking trust?”
“I don’t know them. I’ve never met them before in my life,” the father responds.
“Bullshit! You’re trying to set us up and open the gate to an attack.” Joel interjects with a new level of venom to his voice that we’ve never really witnessed before.
The father spits out some of the blood that has filled in his mouth, as Joel starts to pace up a few steps back and forth. “I should have killed you when I had the chance,” he says.
“Well, we all know why you would have done that,” the father sputters.
“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Joel asks, turning his head to look back over his shoulder.
The father pulls out his firefly pendant.
“You killed us all - stopped us from finding a cure... Condemned us all to a life of misery and for what? Because you failed Sarah.”
Joel stops. His grip tightens around his holstered machete, as he turns around and slowly walks back towards the father.
Suddenly, Joel picks him up and pushes him over the top of the perimeter fence - a 20+ft drop causing him to break his legs upon impact. The screams of agony echo across the valley, slowly followed by the terrifying sound of clicking getting louder and louder.
Joel watches on, as Yara and Lev cry for help while dragging Ellie’s father’s corpse towards the gate, but it is too late. The Clickers are here and in the melee, Lev is bitten and the father is ripped apart in visceral, gruesome fashion.
Joel, fully demonstrating his cold-blooded persona, simply turns around and returns to his business as manager of security - setting off the alarm signaling an attack. But, sticking to the moral of this story, hate blinded Joel and he was too late on the warning, as he hears screams of agony from the church and runs towards them.
We come back to present day, and Ellie is conflicted by the story she has just heard. Once again, it’s a totally different story to what she has believed from the father figure in her life, but in the case of Joel, it seems like something he’s capable of.
Ellie thanks Yara for the treatment and moves on at sunrise. A short way down the road, she notices Joel hiding behind some bushes. As she does, he slowly stands up and they simply stare at each other for a few seconds before walking together in silence.
The final scene may seem familiar to those hardened veterans of TLOU, as Ellie walks behind Joel through a picturesque countryside setting - a vivid colour palette of floral beauty and the big man’s tales of his time with Sarah mask the build-up to what will be an impactful conclusion.
One key difference… You control Joel in this situation. Turning the tables like this is key to your experience of this game’s closing moments. Joel explains why he “had to run, because they were looking to kill him for something he didn’t do.”
You climb up a log and cause it to fall. While turning around to help Ellie up, she scoffs and just climbs up herself. The shades of the former game are clear, but Ellie is also shaking off the shackles of her relationship with Joel. You both stop to observe the beautiful sunset over Seattle.
Joel talks more about this "new life" they are going to have together, but Ellie interrupts.
“Swear to me.” She proclaims, exasperated by Joel’s subsequent dodging of any real topic here. “Swear to me that everything you said about the fireflies, my Dad and Jackson is true.”
“I cannot believe we’re doing this bullshit again,” Joel responds with a heightened sense of anger, taking two purposeful steps towards Ellie who refuses to back down.
He turns his back to her, to look at the sunset and once again lies, but for wholly different reasons. This time, he lies for self-preservation rather than to protect who he loves. “I swear,” he mumbles.
“Liar,” Ellie says softly, as the camera cuts to a distant silhouette of the two. You see Ellie take out her gun and point it at Joel. The screen goes to black with one deafening gunshot that echoes across the surroundings.
You see, this story was never going to end well - you were always going to have some moral ambiguity and a lack of clearly defined protagonists. But in a sea of fans pondering the fate of Joel, everybody is missing the simple-yet-effective plot device of passing the torch.
In his mid-to-late fifties, Joel is a dinosaur - an embodiment of a previous world who has been corrupted by the changing times around him. Through trying hard to protect the status quo as a father figure, he has become the source of Ellie’s hatred, and the final obstacle in between her and living what resembles a normal life in this world. The hate clouded her (and our) judgment of the situation
This is the only natural conclusion of this relationship and a fitting end that opens up a world of possibilities for Ellie going forward.
Now, I’m aware that this blog is titled “How Naughty Dog Should Make,” but I would also like to say with the utmost confidence that they have something far better.
The story I have written jumps around a lot, playing on the sense of confused ambiguity created by the promotion so far. It lacks some of that organically created character development of the previous title.
A brilliant example would be Ellie’s change in character after being corrupted by David during the winter. An act so simple as Joel preparing to hoist her up to retrieve a ladder, only to turn that on its head and see her act so different, so distracted by her traumatising experience with this group of cannibals. It’s an example of how incredibly impactful storytelling can be when its made interactive, one of the concepts I can't shut up about in my review and one I feel I struggle to nail in this story.
But I am keen to hear your thoughts. Do you like the story I tell here? Feel it should be a lot different? Let me know in the comments!