[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, and why the game should be a strong contender for Game of the Year.]
The Last of Us: Part II may have continued Neil Druckmann‘s story of a post-apocalyptic world in which humans still manage to wage wars against each other despite the very real threat of extinction, but we can’t help but feel that Part II is but the second act in a three-act play. The Last of Us introduced that world, as well as the main players of Joel and Ellie, whose stories were continued in the recently released sequel. Their relationship has certainly expanded and evolved in Part II, though it falls to each individual player to decide whether or not they’re satisfied with how it was done. The fact remains that many more characters and their own dynamics have been introduced to further populate the fictional world. And as Druckmann and his story team are fond of reminding us, even death does not stop people from looking back on times past and soldiering ahead in search of a better tomorrow. That open-ended approach suggests there’s much more story to tell.
Is it possible that The Last of Us: Part III might not only be in the works but might also bring some hope and optimism into an otherwise bleak and brutal world?
In a chat with GQ, Druckmann admitted that a Part III could be the next project on his plate:
“As you start wrapping things up, creatively there are fewer and fewer responsibilities and my mind can’t help but think about the next thing. So, yeah, the next thing could be a Part III, the next thing could be some new IP.”
That’s about as vague as you can get, but Druckmann gets even more vague in an interview with Indiewire (though there’s a little more meat to the commentary here):
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.
I can help you with that one, Neil: Bring some hope and optimism to the story to give players something to actually look forward to beyond revenge and certain death on an individual and species level, expand that world beyond the borders of America, and, if you have to, hand the story off to someone who understands its larger potential.
Naughty Dog’s Part II has been out for less than a month, so its own part to play in video game culture, the awards circuit, and the industry at large has yet to be written. It’s clear, however, just how much the game and its characters mean to people. For the vast majority of gamers, The Last of Us franchise has become an important and influential story in their lives; the same could be said for the vocal minority who resort to anything from Twitter tantrums to death threats as a way to vent their frustrations. The story of The Last of Us can be cathartic, transformative, and life-affirming for those of us in the real world if we take the right lessons from it. So Naughty Dog, Druckmann, and the team can do a whole heap of good by actually delivering a Last of Us 3 with a hopeful, optimistic message for how human beings can overcome our differences in the face of certain doom and build a world that’s better than the one they left behind.
So what could The Last of Us: Part III look like? Well, here’s where we get into more spoiler territory, so turn back now if that bothers you.
When last we left our characters, Ellie had returned home after opting to let Abby and Lev go instead of continuing the cycle of violence as revenge for Abby murdering Joel and Jesse, and wounding Tommy, just as Abby had let Ellie go, even after she’d killed pretty much everyone Abby had known and loved. There was obviously bad blood between the two, but that was squashed in the final showdown at the beach, hopefully for good. What remains to be seen is where the story goes from there. For example, we don’t know how much time transpired between Ellie and Abby’s final confrontation and Ellie’s return to the abandoned homestead. Could Ellie have stopped in Jackson before popping home for one last tune-up of the guitar? Could she have reconciled with both Dina and Tommy before returning home to pack up her things? Or is Ellie really leaving behind everything she’d built for a solitary life in the wilderness?
The Last of Us: Part III could answer all of these things — or none — in a variety of different ways. We’d likely get another time jump no matter what their approach is. It just remains to be seen how far that jump would carry us. Would Jackson still exist as a civilized town? Would it be thriving and expanding or falling on hard times? Would it exist at all? Will we get to see (or maybe even play) J.J. as a teenager or grown-up? For me personally, that would be a great way to introduce a new chapter of The Last of Us, through a character we know but who is essentially a blank slate except for the emotional baggage of all the parental drama that happened before he was born and during his early, formative years. If that’s not a relatable story in today’s world, I don’t know what is.
So while a Part III would likely have to answer some lingering questions about Ellie and Dina’s relationship and how it’s affected J.J. and the wider community of Jackson, it would also have to tackle the fate of Abby and Lev. For Ellie, we at least got a little bit of closure. For Abby and Lev, as far as we know, they could still be out on that rowboat, or worse. Both of their communities — the W.L.F. and the Seraphites, respectively — more or less annihilated each other in the battle on the island. While some survivors likely exist on each side, it remains to be seen whether they will still be out for bloody revenge in an effort to make sure that their way of life is the only one that continues on, or if they’ll be so disillusioned by all the violence that they instead turn to a different way. Perhaps even a peaceful, cooperative way.
Now this would be quite the departure from what we know of The Last of Us so far, but stick with me for a moment: Imagine a Part III in which the remnants of the W.L.F., the Seraphites, hell even the Fireflies attempt to broker a peace accord, perhaps even sending a diplomatic contingent to Jackson to extend an olive branch and sell the townspeople on the promise of a better tomorrow, stronger together. There are still bands of violent gangs ranging across the once civilized portions of America, as seen in Santa Barbara with the Rattlers, and, as mentioned in passing by Dina, the Ravens in New Mexico. Some day, someone is going to organize these disparate groups to restore order and put themselves in charge of all of it; the question is whether or not that force will have noble intentions or selfish ones.
Could The Last of Us take a page out of The Walking Dead and attempt to actually start rebuilding an integrated society while still fighting off the Infected and those gangs who are still looking to sow anarchy and discord? I, for one, hope that that’s the direction the franchise takes from here on out. We’ve seen what happens when civilization falls, we’ve seen what happens when the last hope of returning to normalcy is stolen from us as a species, and we’ve seen the repercussions of all of that. What we haven’t seen, beyond a few isolated examples, is an attempt at rebooting civilization by the remaining human survivors. Hell, we haven’t really seen anything outside of America at this point. What does a new America in the progress of being rebuilt during a pandemic look like? (In the game I mean, obviously…) What does a weakened and fractured America look like to any other world powers who happened to survive the pandemic? (Again, in the game…) What does the world of The Last of Us actually look like on the global stage?
These are all questions that Naughty Dog and the team can explore in the next game(s). I just hope they remember that humans can actually work together to achieve some truly incredible and progressive things. We’re more than just what we’re able to tear down, destroy, and kill. We are creators, healers, innovators. It’s high time we get a dystopian, post-apocalyptic story that takes that fact to heart.
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD