The Last of Us 2: How I Would Write It – PART 1

Posted June 11, 2015 by Eric Gerson in Video Games

[NOTE: Due to length, this article has been split into two parts. You will find Part 1 below. You can jump ahead to Part 2 by clicking here.]


When it comes time to put pen-to-paper about The Last of Us, I always start by taking a bit of pause. After all, what can be written about this seminal title that hasn’t already been said? A hugely popular title with both fans and critics, it earned over 230 Game of the Year awards, making it the most awarded game in history. It was also the best-selling original IP in 2013, and is regarded by many in the industry as one of the best games of all time. While it may not be perfect in every single regard, it is not a stretch to call The Last of Us an out-and-out masterpiece. Most importantly in my mind, however, the game represents a clear watershed moment for storytelling in video games, weaving a bold, mature narrative with tons of heart and the emotional weight of cinema’s best dramas. It was proof that a game could truly do everything: beautiful, technically proficient graphics; tense, engaging gameplay; an enveloping, atmospheric world; stellar acting; and the aforementioned groundbreaking storytelling. And let’s not forget–unique multiplayer modes with a level of polish rarely seen alongside such a tight singleplayer experience.

But when a game, or a work of art in any medium, reaches such singular highs, the question that always follows is whether or not it can ever be topped. Not only does this involve pondering what the creators can do to possibly top the original, but it also poses the question of whether they should even try. Luckily, in the video game industry, the answer to the latter question is usually quite simple–whether or not some fans would prefer that the series remain untouched for fear of tarnishment, when a game is a huge hit like The Last of Us, a sequel is not a question of “if,” but “when.” Which brings us back to the former question: assuming The Last of Us 2 is an inevitability, what if anything can Naughty Dog do to top what they accomplished in the original? Quite frankly, I have no frickin’ idea.

“No frickin’ idea”? Why am I even reading this? What do you know?

What I do know, however, is that the biggest question most people have is whether or not The Last of Us 2 would continue the story of Joel and Ellie. After all, the first game’s ending did not leave us with much closure. When the curtain closes on our protagonists, they are arriving at Joel’s brother Tommy’s settlement, with Ellie functioning under the false belief (told to her by Joel) that the Fireflies’ experiments had failed and they were unable to synthesize a vaccine, and thus disbanded. In reality, Joel had interrupted their attempts after learning that the process would result in Ellie’s death, essentially placing her life above the rest of the human race, and leaving many dead Fireflies, including their leader Marlene, in his wake. It is unclear whether Ellie fully believes Joel’s lie, but either way, it seems their odyssey has come to an end.

As such, the aforementioned question is a valid one. Will The Last of Us 2 pick up where the original left off? Will we see what is next for our dynamic duo? Will Ellie discover Joel’s lie? Will she turn on her protector? Or maybe we will jump ahead in time and play as a much older Ellie. Maybe they’ve lived safely in a community of other survivors, and now Joel is on his death bed. And maybe he only now reveals his big secret, sending Ellie on her own journey to find someone who can put her immunity to work.

Quite frankly, both of these options feel legitimate to me, particularly the latter. In fact, I think seeing the woman Ellie grows up to be after the horrors she experienced in the first title would be a nice payoff for fans. But I think that can be accomplished by Naughty Dog while also introducing brand new characters in the amazing universe they created. After all, in the first game, we were only able to see a small snip-it of what is going  in the world after the cordyceps infection took over. And personally, I think following new characters is the best option.

But what, then, would the story be about? Who would be our protagonists, and what would be the central conflict? No one can know for sure, but I certainly have my own ideas. So why not indulge in some hypotheticals? If I were put in charge of The Last of Us 2, this is how I would write it; and it starts with two simple (french) words: Les. Miserables.


Did he just cite Les Mis?

Yes, he (I) did. The story told in the Victor Hugo novel (and, in turn, in the humongously successful musical, which later spawned an Oscar-nominated motion picture) is one of my all time favorites. Yes, the musical has some epic numbers, and yes, I did star in my high school’s own rendition of the show (#natch). But what really grabs me about the story is the conflict between the two main characters: Jean Valjean and Javert. On the one hand, you have Valjean–a physically imposing escaped convict–and on the other you have Javert–a religious man and distinguished police inspector. Instinct would lead us to believe the former would play the role of the villain in this story, and the latter would be the hero. But Hugo flips this expectation on its head. Valjean’s crimes are actually fairly virtuous–he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. His later flights from the law were all for commendable reasons as well, such as to rescue a dying woman’s daughter, or to save the life of the young man his ward has fallen in love with. As such, Valjean is quite clearly the story’s protagonist. On the other hand, Javert’s powerful desire to uphold order and stick to the letter of the law turn him into a crazy, almost evil man, relentlessly obsessed with the pursuit and capture of Valjean, a man who by all accounts is a good person. This obsession places Javert in the role of the story’s antagonist, and–spoiler alert–it eventually leads Javert to take his own life.

This thematic bait-and-switch, making the criminal the hero and vice-versa, is what makes Les Miserables such an interesting tale. And The Last of Us is ripe with these kinds of characterization twists. Much like The Walking Dead, the player learns early on that the other humans are much scarier, and are capable of far more evil, than the disfigured, infected monsters that roam the streets. At times, through certain narrative devices, the player can even develop a sense of pity for the infected. And after the credits role, the player is left struggling with whether Joel, the main protagonist was a hero or a villain. Good vs. evil is never something cut-and-dry in The Last of Us, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think Naughty Dog would embrace this theme and explore it a bit further in the sequel. I think a Valjean/Javert-type dichotomy is an excellent starting point. Thus, it forms the basis for my pitch.

Holy crap, just tell us how you’d write it already!

Alright alright alright. Enough with the exposition. Here it is:

In The Last of Us 2, which takes place 5 years after the events of the original title, you play as two distinct characters, with the perspective shifting back and forth between these two characters throughout the game. Much like Valjean and Javert, the characters represent two sides of the good/evil spectrum, but turn your expectations of what that means on its head. For the ease of referencing these two characters, lets give them names: Butcher and Baker (simple pseudonyms, of course).

interrogationshivBaker, 55, male, was finishing up his final year of rotations as a med student at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center when the cordyceps infection first began to spread (age 30 at the time). Working in an emergency room, he was on the front lines as the infection took hold in his area, and had a unique window into the early stages of what would eventually become an apocalypse-level catastrophe. Baker was lucky enough to find refuge in the Pittsburgh quarantine zone, where he fostered a romantic relationship with a fellow survivor–a younger woman–and eventually fathered two female children. He also became a valued member of the community because of his skills in the field of medicine. However, Baker’s life was turned upside down once more when the Pittsburgh quarantine zone was overtaken by a ruthless group of Hunters. Knowing Baker’s value, the Hunters captured his family and used them as leverage to force him into working for them as a sort of field medic. He now begrudgingly serves within their ranks, carrying out ruthless attacks on other survivors and helping the Hunters search for the best fortifications possible, in order to keep his loved-ones alive.

359670Butcher, 24, female, knows nothing of life before the infection. She was born to a single mother within a quarantine zone, who died during childbirth due to the lackluster medical facilities available. She was later taken in by the Fireflies, and was raised to be a soldier, training directly under Marlene. As a result, her and Marlene developed a close personal relationship; Butcher thought of Marlene as an older sister. She traveled with Marlene from Boston to Salt Lake City, and witnessed the events leading up to Marlene’s death at the hands of Joel. With their leader murdered and their chance of synthesizing a cordyceps vaccine seemingly having slipped through their fingers, most of the Fireflies disband. However, young and brash as she is (only 19 at the time), Butcher vows to avenge Marlene’s death. Blinded by anger, Butcher rallies together a small group of the more extreme and militant Fireflies who remain and, acting as their new commander, leads them in a ruthless hunt for Joel and Ellie. And whereas Marlene had a softer touch, Butcher will stop at nothing to fight for what she believes to be the “greater good”–capturing Ellie and using her to synthesize a vaccine. As a result, Butcher’s methods become more and more questionable as her pursuit becomes more and more desperate. She often places the lives of her team above that of other innocent survivors, and has even resorted to torturing other survivors for information about Ellie’s whereabouts.

And thus, we have established our Valjean and Javert of this story. Baker, our Valjean, is by all accounts a good person who is forced to do evil to protect those he loves. And Butcher, our Javert, is so blinded by her idealistic belief in the “greater good” that her actions become increasingly extreme and ruthless. The dichotomy of both characters individually and together provides a level of thematic ambiguity and surprise that could pay off in a big way if managed properly by Naughty Dog.

Okay, I like the characters and I understand the Les Mis angle. But what about the actual story?

Good question. In truth, layered, morally ambiguous characters mean nothing if we don’t give them interesting things to do. Luckily, having two protagonists to follow allows for some very interesting scenarios.

Unfortunately, however, you will need to wait for Part 2 of this piece to find out what those scenarios might be. So stay tuned, and let me know what you think of my ideas so far in the comments below!


About the Author

Eric Gerson

A karaoke visionary and an avid gamer, Eric has been a Nintendo fanboy since birth, and a PlayStation owner since the PS2 era. An equal-opportunities gamer, Eric believes games are either good or bad, irrespective of their genre or setting. PSN and NN ID: GerStud101.