Naughty Dog’s narrative lead explains the story of The Last of Us Part II (2023)

Dean Takahashi@deantak

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The Last of Us Part II is one of the blockbuster games of 2020, with more than 4 million copies sold in its first three days starting June 19. That made it the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 release ever for Sony.

And while Naughty Dog’s game is getting a lot of love from fans, it’s also getting a fair amount of hate for its positive portrayal of diverse characters, such as LGBTQ and minority characters. I loved that part of the game, and I loved seeing the evolution of characters from the original from 2013, The Last of Us, which is my favorite game of all time.

Warning: This story has spoilers about the game’s narrative. We recommend that you read this after playing –Ed. This is one of three spoiler-based stories we’re doing.

But like other diehard fans of the original, the story of Part II had me reeling at first. (After we did the following interview, game director Neil Druckmann pointed out the team and the cast was getting hit with vile comments and threats from gamers who didn’t like the story or outcome.)

Naughty Dog puts its characters in danger, as we know from adventures of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series, where the main character always cheats death. But this time, the studio went with a much more controversial approach. I said in my spoiler-free review that the game went in a direction I didn’t want it to go. In Part II, the main plot becomes clear early on when Joel, one of the heroes of the first game, dies at the hands Abby, a vengeful young woman. Ellie, who looked up to Joel as a father figure, hunts down Abby and her friends and exacts revenge for much of the story. While the first game was about the bond between Ellie and Joel, the second is a logical extension of the events of the first, said narrative lead Halley Gross in our interview.

Naughty Dog’s narrative lead explains the story of The Last of Us Part II (1)

Above: A rendition of bloody Ellie by Danielle Takahashi

Image Credit: Danielle Takahashi

Ellie becomes consumed with revenge, almost to the point where she is unrecognizable. Gross said it was a difficult story to tell, but one that tries to make salient points about violence, revenge, hatred, and the ultimate chance for redemption and pulling back from the edge. At a critical point, the story switches perspective, and you play as Abby. You see what she went through, and how, in her own journey for revenge, she shows signs of humanity and empathy, particularly as she takes in the outcast Lev and protects him from harm.

In our conversation, I respectfully brought up many of the points that have made players angry, and Gross told me the team’s thinking from a creator’s point of view.

We covered many difficult topics, such as the fake scene that Naughty Dog created to throw off our expectations about the shock of Joel’s death, the studio’s refusal to give us choices when it came to killing defenseless characters, and what was going through Ellie’s mind in the final moments. Gross clarified a lot of my thinking, as she offered interpretations of the characters’ actions and thoughts that we didn’t know for sure while playing through the 35-hour game.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. (And here’s a link to our post on the most memorable scenes of the game and my own views on the story).

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Above: Halley Gross was the narrative lead on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Luke Fontana

A shocking sequel

GamesBeat: As far as the reactions that stand out to you, whether they’re on the mark or off the mark or otherwise grabbing your attention, what have you felt about that?

Halley Gross: What’s happening is what we wanted. People are having conversations. This is inciting debate about good and evil, about how far games can get pushed narratively, about what makes a redemptive person, what makes a redemptive story. As long as people are asking those questions, I feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.

GamesBeat: What do you recall about deciding to do a sequel, whether there should be a sequel at all?

Gross: When I came on, Neil knew what he wanted to do. That was four years ago. When I met Neil to interview for the job, he pitched me some of the tentpole beats of the story. He knew he wanted to do the game. He knew Joel was going to be this massive inciting incident. Certain beats were different, but that was already figured out before I came along.

GamesBeat: Joel’s death shocked me, coming early in the story. I’ve seen a lot of Naughty Dog’s history on the Uncharted side, where the characters were always in constant danger of losing their lives, but they never actually lost a hero. This seems consequential. What sort of thinking went into that part?

Gross: I thought it was a powerful move. It does a lot of things. One, the audience already knows Joel. They’re invested in Joel. By having Joel ripped away, you’re immediately put in alignment with Ellie’s goals, Ellie’s anger, Ellie’s need for justice. Immediately you’re in alignment. You understand the weight of this, why this would propel someone forward. But beyond that, it also set up, to your point, this idea that no character is safe in this world. Anybody could die at any point, and often does.

Storytelling with flashbacks

GamesBeat: Telling the story out of sequence with flashbacks, what did that accomplish with how you wanted to convey things?

Gross: So much of this game is about both survivor’s guilt and Ellie reconciling with her last few years with Joel. What those were, how culpable she was in this whole situation with the Fireflies, in Joel’s pain and hurt, in rejecting Joel. Ellie is an inherently internal character. It was a vehicle where we could give you some insight into what she’s thinking and understand how she’s constantly being pulled or swept back into the past. This quest for Joel is about righting a wrong that can’t be made right. It’s about living in the past, about reexamining all those moments in your life now with this new context.

Looking back on that moment in the museum and thinking, “That was our last great trip together.” Thinking back about that conversation on the porch. “I didn’t know that was going to be our last conversation.” What does that mean? It allows for both Ellie and the audience to continue examine and re-contextualize what’s driving her.

GamesBeat: Part of the game leaves me wondering at many different times and changing my mind — who’s the villain here? That kind of flashback storytelling disguised some things that would have made Ellie out to be more villainous. The fact that she knows some of this history and isn’t surprised by the Fireflies — she probably should have known why they were there to kill Joel. To us, as we play it, it comes as a surprise, but there’s a theory out there that this was to disguise Ellie’s villainy.

Gross: That’s interesting. I don’t think we ever see our characters in those sorts of binary terms, in terms of good or evil, villain or hero. Our goal was to create the most multifaceted characters you’ve seen in games. For all of our characters, it was important to show them at both their worst and their best. For Ellie, it’s a reminder that, as she’s slogging forward on this quest for justice, and we as the player may be starting to waver on the justifications for this, or whether or not this is a valid quest, we’re understanding that she’s lost to this. She’s lost to these memories of Joel, to her PTSD, to the relationship she had with Joel that was taken away from her.

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Above: Ellie’s worst nightmare in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: I also wondered whether I was supposed to like Abby or not. I played it with my daughter, who’s 20. It was an interesting experience. I played it through once, and then she played the next time. We both felt like, when Abby is fighting Ellie, we didn’t want Abby to win. We didn’t want to play as Abby at that moment. At that point in the game, it seemed like a natural reaction.

Gross: Totally. In my experience, people are all across the board, which is so fascinating. There are people who think Joel was an inherently good person, and yet hate Abby. You can look at what both of them have done, and their sins are fairly similar. Their redemption arcs are fairly similar. Why is one more valuable to you than the other?

Any way you feel about Abby is super-valid. We wanted to create a complex character, one who wasn’t inherently — it wasn’t about whether or not you loved her. It was about whether or not you understood her. That was our goal.

Revenge and redemption

GamesBeat: When the characters are redeemed, what do they gain? Why is that bringing closure to a story for them, when before this they seemed to have lost so much … lost everything? Are we supposed to feel good that they’re redeemed, or just feel like that redemption goes along with all this other bad stuff?

Gross: I don’t think we want to be prescriptive about how you should feel about their redemption. It’s more focused on the fact that — especially focusing on the Abby narrative, she wasn’t sleeping. She wasn’t happy. Where Ellie’s story ends is where Abby’s story starts. She has this big moment. She confronts her demons, literally, and then she’s left with that empty feeling, this inability to sleep. She’s ostracized herself from her friends. Through her relationship with Lev and Yara, she is able to sleep. She’s able to find a way to see beyond her ego. It pulls her out and makes her supplementary member of society, in a way that she hadn’t been before. However you feel that is valid.

GamesBeat: I thought the most interesting thing she said was to Lev. “You’re my people.” That’s a short line, but that said a lot about a changing character, somebody who had given up this notion of us versus them. Lev was the person that was closest to her among all the different people she’d been close to.

Gross: Their relationship gives me real squishy feelings.

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Above: Abby says, “You’re my people” to Lev, a transgender character in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: It’s interesting that Lev is a trans character, and there’s so much diversity among the characters in this game. How did you deliberately think about that?

Gross: Our goal is, as a studio, we’re a pretty diverse studio. That’s important. Representation is important to us. We wanted to reflect the diversity of the world we see around us. For us it was about finding ways to have different characters in the game that will have different opinions that can debate, that can stand on different sides of the point. To do that you can’t have a homogenous cast.

GamesBeat: In the beginning and the ending, the guitar was a nice touch. That linked both, that kind of bookend imagery. That’s what I liked so much about the first game. Was that the way you thought about the bookend ending there? Did you deliberately want to have a beginning that matched the ending?

Gross: We played with different edits on framing and where to start, but the guitar and its association with Joel was always there.

Costs and consequences

GamesBeat: That Ellie can’t play the guitar so well at the end — is that saying that this is the cost of it, of this revenge?

Gross: No, absolutely. At the end of this entire quest, she’s lost her partner. She’s lost her son. She’s lost her sense of community. She’s lost a lot of her humanity. This is a physical manifestation of that level of loss. Her connection with Joel.

GamesBeat: I liked this depiction of post-traumatic stress. She’s not superhuman. There’s an interesting point to be made there about how this all has a cost.

Gross: So much of this game is about how everything we do impacts other people, or has a cost. Ellie goes on this journey and the consequences aren’t just other people’s health and safety. It’s also their mental well-being. It’s also their future. It’s also their ability to love.

GamesBeat: I talked to [former Sony Interactive Entertainment chairman] Shawn Layden last week about some of this. He said that when he first heard the pitch, his reaction was, “Do you really want to go down this road? More power to you, but that’s bleak.” Did you ever question yourselves in that way?

Gross: One of the things I love about the studio is that we’re always gut-checking ourselves. We’re always questioning each other. We’re always trying to improve on what we have with everyone. Of course we’re always pushing against it, doing a stress test. But at the same time, I know I was incredibly excited to do a realistic portrayal of who these characters are four or five years later in such a hostile world. It’s continuing the theme of resilience, the theme of consequences, and acknowledging the pain that these two characters have been through in the first game. To not do a story that continues to honor that would have been dishonest to the stuff that had been built before us, to me, by Neil and [co-game director on The Last of Us Bruce Straley].

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Above: This scene, which happened in Part One, drives much of the story of The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: Part II is a logical extension of the first. The consequences become Part II. In that way, did it feel like this story kind of wrote some of itself?

Gross: I wish it wrote some of itself! But no, I think it provided a north star. Since we’re talking about cost, the cycle of violence, how everything has a consequence, it was about saying, “What is the honest consequence?” There was certainly that path of, how does this impact Ellie and Joel’s relationship? How do we structure that? I wish this game could have written itself, because we put too much hard work and love and soul into it.

GamesBeat: I read somewhere that Abby’s story could have been a lot longer, that it’s as short as it can be to make the point that it needs to make. I wondered whether you felt that Abby’s story was necessary. There are a lot of players who’ve said, “I’m done when Ellie’s story is over.”

Gross: For us, Abby was always intrinsic. This game was always about perspective and tribalism and trying to have a commentary on violence. The only way–well, not the only way, but the way that excited and interested us in terms of expounding on that was walking a mile in the shoes of the person you hate the most and trying to see if we could find empathy for that person. Caring whether or not they come out the other side of this, rooting for them, that’s what I’m looking for. If you told this game from Lev’s perspective, you’d have a whole third version.

A violent game’s commentary on violence

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Above: Abby becomes Lev’s protector in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: As far as the violence is concerned, it ratchets it up in the sense that all of the people you’re shooting — somebody is screaming. “My friend got hit.” You don’t have those reactions in most video games. There are consequences that go with the violence.

Gross: As much as this game is set in a post-pandemic future, we were trying to make it feel as grounded as possible, to have some way to discuss real PTSD, to discuss real trauma. To do that we had to honor the violence. Otherwise it would feel like we were writing more two-dimensionally. Doing the Diet Coke version.

GamesBeat: Slightly different direction, but why do I have to open so many different empty drawers?

Gross: I know, right? You can ask Anthony Newman or Kurt Margenau.

GamesBeat: And also, why is the Space Needle way out where it is?

Gross: This is great, actually. Thank you for asking. Naughty Dog is super into accuracy. I can’t tell you how many times, as we were outlining the story, I sat on the floor with Emilia Schatz and she did this map for us. This is an accurate portrayal of Seattle with rising water levels. What they refer to as Scar Island, it’s just that part of Seattle that had been flooded into an island. The Space Needle is, I believe, in its proper location. But now it’s in a flooded island. You have to go around.

GamesBeat: The misdirection video, what did you intend with that? Where Jesse and Joel are the characters who say the same thing, “You didn’t think I was going to let you do this by yourself,” to Ellie. [Joel actually never says this in the game, though he was shown saying this in a preview. That’s because Joel is dead by the time this scene happens and Jesse says the words].

Gross: We wanted to preserve, and obviously the leak afforded us a bit–but we wanted to preserve people’s experience and surprise when they play this game. We wanted you to be, as much as you could be, in alignment with Ellie in her surprise, in her fear, in her not knowing what’s coming next. What’s amazing about video games is you’re walking step by step with a character. You feel tension when they feel tension, feel fear when they feel fear. You don’t necessarily know what’s around the corner. For us it was important to try and preserve that experience and have the whole story unfold as we structured it. Obviously that got a little trickier by the end. But that was our hope and intention, to give the players the best experience we could give them.

Abby and Ellie as foils

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Above: Will Ellie get her revenge?

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: What would you say was going on in Abby’s head or Ellie’s head when they pull back?

Gross: On the beach, you mean?

GamesBeat: Ellie on the beach, and then Abby in the warehouse.

Gross: If Neil were sitting here, this is what he would say. He would say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” But I’ll tell you what I think. These are both opportunities to see, in gameplay, characters growing and changing. With Abby you see how much she has sacrificed for Lev. You see what a positive impact — not that this is the first time we’re seeing the positive impact of Lev, but we’re truly seeing how she is able to negotiate her ego because of this positive influence, because of this redemption arc. It’s for Lev that she’s able to be a better person, because she can’t do it for herself.

And then for Ellie, as she’s holding Abby under the water, she gets these flashes of Joel on his porch. Ultimately we realize she’s remembering that last conversation she had with Joel. In that conversation she’s talking about how she doesn’t think she’s capable of forgiveness, but she wants to be the kind of person who can try for it. She wants to be the kind of person who could. In my mind, it’s how Joel is having an impact on her, even after his death. He has this positive impact on her. He’s this example of restraint, of loyalty, of care, of paternal grace in a way. She thinks about all he’s been through, what he was willing to go through for her, and all that she took away from him. It wasn’t going to bring him back.

We often compare Ellie to a drug addict in terms of this pursuit of justice. Much like a drug addict, she needed to bottom out. She needed to get to the absolute lowest point to wake up. She’s not Dina, who can manage her trauma and continue to be a present mother and a present partner. She needed to bottom out. This was her moment of bottoming out, and in that moment, she was able to access this beautiful memory of Joel.

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Above: This life wasn’t enough for Ellie in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: This was why she couldn’t come to the same conclusion when Tommy came. She couldn’t say, “I’ve had enough.”

Gross: That’s a part of it. Also, on the farm, Ellie is very much, at that point, super-overwhelmed by both her PTSD and her guild. She has an episode while her son is attached to her chest. She’s having a panic attack. Her trauma is having such an impact on her that it’s putting her family at risk at this point. That’s a driving force that pushes her out of the house. Also, if she hadn’t been so dogged about going to Seattle, Jesse would still be alive. Tommy wouldn’t have his face blown off, wouldn’t walk with a cane, might still be married, might still be happy.

There’s that sense of guilt and responsibility to the people that she’s gotten hurt in this pursuit. It’s her own trauma and her desperate need for closure, her wanting to be a present parent and knowing she can’t be. It’s the guilt for Tommy, this unresolved business she has with Joel, all pushing her toward — almost self-sacrifice.

GamesBeat: People have said that Abby and Ellie are mirrors or foils to each other, and I wonder if you saw them as different.

Gross: In another universe they would have been best friends. They share a lot of similar values. They’re both passionate, capable, funny women. In certain ways they are mirrored, obviously. They’re both very connected to their father figures. They’re both incredibly independent.

But there are ways that they’re very different. As much as Abby is driven by her ego, there’s some level of self-awareness, and that self-awareness gives her this guilt, where she sleeps with Owen and then she’s kicking herself. She leaves the kids behind and then she’s kicking herself. She’s got this north star constantly pulling her toward her better angels. Whereas Ellie is consumed right now, when we spend time with her in this game.

GamesBeat: So many characters die in this game. I assume that was hard to write, to create characters you love and then have them disappear.

Gross: That’s part of working in this medium. You’re talking about the fragility of life. You’re talking about how you can invest in somebody so deeply and have them ripped away. I don’t think we ever — well, I don’t want to speak for Neil, but I’m going to. I don’t think we ever thought about it in terms of building them up only to have them ripped away. It was more like, death is inelegant. Death is often random and painful. It’s felt, for us, more like we were being appropriate to the universe, that these deaths were often unceremonious, often felt like a ripping.

GamesBeat: “Unceremonious” is an interesting word, because Joel is the only one who got a really dramatic death. Everyone else was just a bullet. These were not prolonged deaths. In that way they almost felt worse to me, that they were just snatched away.

Gross: And that’s appropriate to this world. Abby doesn’t have time to mourn Manny. She can take three deep panic breaths and then she has to get her ass out of there. That’s the brutality of this world, and that systemic trauma is going to continue to shape who these women are as long as they’re in it, and long after.

Player choices vs. storytelling

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Above: In this scene with Nora, we don’t get a choice in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: When the encounter with Nora happens, I wanted a choice there, to kill her or not kill her. You didn’t provide us with that choice, and I wonder what the reasoning was there, given that it might seem like a natural thing to do there. Do you want to let Ellie do this or not? You took over the agency at that point.

Gross: It’s twofold. As much as video games have this beautiful ability to give players choice, this is a crafted narrative. This is very much about the beats that Ellie goes through. While we want you to feel an alignment with Ellie, this is about how she goes too far. This is about how she loses control of herself. She loses herself for a long time. It would be disingenuous to give her that choice.

Building on that point, what’s exciting about the gameplay, about when you’re with Nora or when you’re with Abby on the beach, and you really only have one choice — we really only give you one choice. Press a button or don’t. But in an interesting way, it articulates where Ellie is at. Ellie doesn’t have a choice. Whatever’s going on internally, whether or not she has hesitation, she is compelled to continue forward, even as she might know that she should stop, or even as she might know she should stay home with Dina, or even as she might know this will hurt. She has lost herself to this addiction. I think the gameplay beautifully articulates that.

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Above: Tommy, Joel’s brother, is so much kinder at the start of The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: If there’s anybody’s judgment I questioned a lot, it was Tommy. Tommy takes off early. He doesn’t go with Ellie to take revenge. He’s just sniping at everyone. Then he learns about Abby and he comes and tells Ellie, knowing that she’s going to have to take off and go after Abby. Why does Tommy do some of these things?

Gross: The arc for Tommy is one of the more interesting pivots to me. In the beginning he represents Joel. We have this line of dialogue after Joel dies where he says to Ellie, something to the effect of — Ellie says, “Joel would be halfway to Seattle by now,” and Tommy said to her, “Joel didn’t even go after the soldiers who killed Sarah. He would stay and protect the town.” He’s only going after these kids to try and get to them before Ellie does, because he knows Ellie is this unstoppable train, and this is the best thing he thinks he can do to try and protect her.

But much like Joel, he’s not someone who’s out for bloodlust. He’s trying to protect this kid, ultimately. When he finally hooks back up with Jesse and Dina and Ellie, he’s ready to go home. He’s even sitting there with Ellie trying to comfort her about leaving Abby alive. But when his leg is robbed from him, when his face is shot through, when he loses Jesse and loses his wife, and this woman has taken his entire identity away from him, essentially — he was this rugged, capable cowboy, and now he’s not who he used to be. He takes on Ellie’s determination. In the same way that Joel being ripped from Ellie blinded her to pragmatism, when we meet Tommy again in the farm, he’s where she was. This pragmatic guy has now lost everything, and he has become Ellie.

GamesBeat: He’s been eaten away by revenge.

Gross: Exactly. But he can’t pursue it himself, so there’s this sort of tragic impotence to him.

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Above: The Rat King in The Last of Us Part II.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: I was curious about the Rat King character. What the heck is that? It’s at ground zero, and it’s pretty scary.

Gross: That was awesome. If you have a chance, the animators went above and beyond. They had one guy with another guy hanging off his body, and they animated two people together detaching from each other in mocap suits. Crazy stuff. Really incredible.

Summing it all up

GamesBeat: What are you most proud of here?

Gross: I’m most proud of how dimensional I think the characters are. Whether or not you love all the characters, by the end of the game you understand what drives everyone. Even if you hate some of the decisions the characters have made, you understand why they felt they needed to make them. I’m proud of that. There are also some jokes in there that I think are pretty darn funny.

It sounds hokey, but I love Naughty Dog, and I love the people there. I love how collaborative this game is. This game was not built by just Neil. It wasn’t just built by Kurt and Anthony. There are whole story beats and lines of dialogue that have come from all different parts of the studio. There’s an awesome teamwork and appreciation for narrative.

GamesBeat: Anything else you’d say to help fans get a little closure on the game, if they’re struggling with it?

Gross: We’ve been saying for a long time that this game is about hate, but it really is ultimately about love and empathy. For some people, they can get there really quickly. You have characters like Dina and Yara who can roll with things and find that resilience quickly, and for other characters, it takes bottoming out. What I think is a positive message from this game is, even as it seems like it’s almost too late for Ellie, she still finds a way to make that more productive choice at the end. Her humanity is still somewhere in there, the Ellie we knew at 14 that we loved.

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