How can you "one-up" what most people consider to be one of the greatest video game stories of all time?
[Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers.]
I'll get this out of the way at the beginning of this article, I'm not much of a gamer. I just don't have the time. But I made the time for The Last of Us, and not just because my roommate paid for it! I was absorbed into the story from the opening scenes. There was chaos, intrigue, and you fell in love with the characters.
So when it came time for the sequel, the bar was set high. How could you compete with the original? (We covered the writing of the original, it's fantastic.)
The answer is to yank the rug out from the audience completely and defy their expectation by changing the world as we know it inside the game.
From here on out, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS, so if you can't handle it, turn back.
Otherwise, let's dig into the writing and storytelling with The Last of Us 2 and talk about how they defied expectations by literally changing the narrative.
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Learn How the Insane Plot Twists of 'The Last of Us 2' Were Written
Before The Last of Us becomes a TV show on HBO, it got to be a couple of excellent games that take what you know about storytelling and turns it on its head. We switch points of view. We get motivations for new characters. Heroes become villains and villains become heroes.
Those are the twists but there is a master level of the storytelling to confront first.
Recently, Indiewire talked with Naughty Dog VP Neil Druckmann and screenwriter Halley Gross, both of which wrote the story of The Last of Us 2, to talk about how they worked magic in the sequel and created something I hold even higher than the original.
But how can you blend two games together?
Neil Druckmann said, "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."
I love how the tie between games is both with characters and with the emotions of the story. This kind of thinking represents where storytelling is going, not where it is right now.
Let's talk about the game's biggest twist, Joel's death. What keeps Ellie going and why does she seek revenge after all of his actions?
Gross says, "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?'"
The thing I find most enthralling about games is the way they can play with structure. We are always building off actions—our actions! Things happen because of what we choose, so they feel like they're happening to us. Also, we're custodians of the people we play as, even if we don't like them, we have to survive to know their story.
Gross expands on that, saying, "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?"
That's a real extrapolation of the story. But let's center back on Ellie. She's really the center for us, we allow ourselves to be with her.
But this sequel is also a deconstruction of what we know about her—a journey into her reasoning and the violence that birthed her. She's not always making the right choices but we understand why she makes those choices. That's a brave way to detail the story.
As Druckmann puts it, "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."
What were your thoughts inside The Last of Us 2?
Let's discuss the storytelling more in the comments.
And just marvel in how amazing it turned out.
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