‘Last of Us 2’: Naughty Dog’s Cast and Creative Team Comment on That Divisive Ending

     July 28, 2020

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[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II. For more of our coverage, be sure to check out our spoiler-free review, our beginner’s tips & tricks here, the list of trophies, and a full-on spoiler rundown here, including our ending explainer, the big event that kicked everything off, thoughts on a potential Part III, and why the game should be a strong contender for Game of the Year.]

In the final episode of The Last of Us Podcast, Neil Druckmann, Halley Gross, Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, and Troy Baker went all-in on the sequel’s ending. You can listen to the full episode at the link — and I highly recommend that you do — but our highlights follow below:

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

Druckmann, on the question of responsibility of storytellers — is it fan service, morally just stories, etc. — quoted Robert McKee, who said, “In a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.” (Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting). 

A conversation between Gross and Druckmann raised the idea of Ellie not killing Abby, something they hadn’t even considered earlier in the writing process. Druckmann compares Ellie’s own willingness to kill to that of Joel, saying that Ellie’s is more personal, driven by rage, while Joel’s is more pragmatic; he goes as far as suggesting that Ellie enjoys killing. And yet by not killing Abby, Druckmann says that Ellie manages to save her soul.

After that final fight is over, Johnson thinks that Ellis is going to go off in search of her purpose now. Saving humanity wasn’t in the cards, killing Abby wasn’t a solution to “the hurt she felt from [Abby] killing Joel”, so now she needs something else. The podcast host, Christian Spicer, suggests that Ellie can possibly use her experiences to reach others who might be angry, vengeful, afraid, or frustrated to the point of violence with the way the world is and how its affected them personally.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Druckmann reflects on the production process with Team Ellie and Team Abby, usually splitting time between the two teams and their casts, saying, “[It felt] like we were making two different games.” When they were finally able to bring Ellie and Abby together after “doing these things in parallel for so long and jumping between these two worlds”:

“It was so exciting to finally see these two characters meet and how they’re going to interact. Ashley and Laura are really good friends, and then they have to fight each other in this really brutal way. That’s them fighting each other on that beach. That final moment where you hear Ellie screaming, that’s all from the set, of these two actors going at it.

 

That was a brutal scene to watch, but kind of exciting because it felt like everybody’s at the top of their game at that point, giving it their all and pouring years of work in this moment. That was exciting in a horrific sort of way, but exciting nonetheless.”

Johnson and Bailey themselves get to talk about their week spent shooting the scenes of their intense fighting. Bailey says it all worked because of the high level of trust they have in each other, a relationship she extends to Baker, too.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Johnson cuts to the heart of the matter when it comes to empathizing with Abby after learning about her entire life leading up to the murder of Joel and the decision to let Ellie live:

“I think she realizes quicker than Ellie that the hate has to stop somewhere, and she’s done. When I got to that part in the game, I thought, ‘Is she a better person than Ellie?'”

She puts a finer point on it:

“We always try to justify our side of the story, we all do it. We feel like it’s the right thing to do when we’ve been wronged and ‘justice needs to be served’, but when does that cycle end? I feel like that’s the whole point of the video game.”

Like many players, myself included, when Johnson got to the Santa Barbara portion of the game, she said to herself:

“‘No, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to fight this person anymore.’ And I’ve never felt that in a video game.”

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Image via Sony, Naughty Dog

But where is Ellie when she can no longer play the guitar the way she used to at the end of the story? Johnson said:

“She makes the conscious decision at the end of the game to … she leaves again. We don’t know where, but she leaves that behind. I think the only thing that maybe is hopeful about this journey is that she has found her humanity. At the end of the day, that’s all we can hope for, for any of us, hoping that, in these situations that we put ourselves in, at the end of the day, we’re going to choose humanity and to try to do the right thing. Obviously it took a journey of doing very terrible things for her to get there, but I think that, for me, that was the only thing that was hopeful. It’s sad. She lost a lot. And it took a lot for her to realize that.”

There’s a curious bit of The Last of Us: Part II that’s actually outside the gameplay itself, and that’s the menu screen. It starts off with a simple motorboat moored at a rotten post in heavy fog, a screen which changes at the end of the game to that same boat on the beach in Santa Barbara. In the distance, a domed building can be seen in full Southern California sunlight; it’s the Catalina Casino, a real-world location that may just be the planned site for the gathering of wayward Fireflies. Druckmann confirms as much, at least for the location itself. But what does it mean for New Game Plus and where the story goes from here?

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Another suggested idea for the changing menu screen was to show a focus on the guitar, with the camera pulling back to reveal Joel polishing it and cleaning it. Yet another was to show Ellie, bloodied, in the water at the beach. The final decision was to focus on the “ominous image” of the boat, which then changed to show that Abby and Lev’s boat arrived on the beach at Catalina, giving at least a bit of hope to the rest of their journey and story:

“Joel didn’t know that taking that action in the hospital would lead to his demise; it did. Likewise, Abby didn’t know that sparing Ellie in the theater will eventually lead to her survival. If Abby didn’t spare Ellie and just went to Santa Barbara with Lev, she would be dead, she would be dead on that post. There’s something kind of poetic about that […] somehow something good came out of that at the end.”

Gross confirms that “the title screen is an indication of hope,” saying:

“Lev and Abby, in the true Naughty Dog way of not spelling it out, maybe they’ve arrived at Catalina, maybe they’ve found the Fireflies, maybe they found community and home. And a version of community and home that is more stable than what they’ve experienced in Seattle and more akin to what Abby experienced at the hospital. I think that’s the hope, but also leaving some mystery. But we also don’t know who the Fireflies are now, we don’t know what their focus is on. Is it still finding a cure? Or have they moved on? And why Catalina?”

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Gross goes on to say that, “No one’s story is finished. It makes the ending feel more human, more relatable.” So who knows what’s next for the franchise. But does the fungus ultimately win? Druckmann weighs in:

“Traditional Hollywood stories have taught us to look for closure, to answer that. What is the end? Who wins? Is there a cure? And that’s not life […] The Seraphites and the W.L.F. kind of wipe each other out in that final fight on the island; I’m sure there will be survivors, but it’s not going to be the groups that they were before. Jackson for now is fine, but who knows what happens in the future. The Fireflies are trying to regroup; Abby and Lev might reconnect with them, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. Ellie’s going to go off on her own; Is she going to be okay? Is she going to find happiness? Is she going to go back Dina? I don’t know. That’s kind of like life. All you know is what happens now and not what happens in the future. Every group is going to try and do their best to survive, and some are surviving longer than others, but I can’t answer that.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Gross comments that:

“The hope that we see in this game is largely from investing; investing in relationships, investing in community, investing in security, safety, happiness, art, bringing productivity and positivity into the world. We see that when Ellie and Dina build their farm, we see that when all these members of Jackson are contributing to helping the town, we see that with Joel investing in Ellie and trying to make her happy by taking her to the museum, investing in time as a father and making this day about her […] To me, the hope is putting energy towards positive investments, which I think is also true in real life, for us every day.”

Druckmann weighs in on what he wants people to get out of the experience once they’re done with the game:

“I hope it sticks with them. I hope it was challenging in interesting ways. The worst thing that could happen in my eyes would be like, ‘Yeah, okay, that was it.’ And just move on and never discuss it again. For me, the ideas behind it are stuff I’ve wrestled with a really long time, for years, and I still wrestle with them.”

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

He also commented on the leaks, how finding out who did it felt like a betrayal, but the game helped him come to grips with that:

“The whole thing with this game is, how can you think about the other side? How can I put myself in this other person’s shoes and try to understand their point of view? It really kind of calmed me down. To say, ‘It happened,’ and come to acceptance of that. It really helped me forget about the person who did that. If someone else can have that feeling, about something, whether it’s like, they have a fight with someone politically on Twitter and they say really horrible things, but they’re able to let it go and move on, or just say, ‘I might disagree with it, but I get the other side,” that, to me, would be the greatest compliment if someone told me that’s what they took away from the game.”

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Image via Naughty Dog

So is The Last of Us: Part II really a story of hate? Some of the cast and crew think it’s about endurance, survival, fighting on against a world that is trying to kill you. Druckmann, who also thinks it’s about trauma, admits the marketing was made to sell “a story about hate” while giving a much more nuanced view of how the overall story of The Last of Us is still a story of love. But is The Last of Us: Part II really about hate at its core? Baker doesn’t think so:

“I try to think of a better word, but the word I keep coming back to is a story of Redemption. Because unilaterally across every character I can see that as a commonality, of every character just wanting redemption. It’s not about revenge. Revenge is a very short wick and everybody just wants to feel like they can be redeemed. So ultimately I say The Last of Us is a story about redemption.”

Do you agree? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

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