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- The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog's media blitz leading up to the release of The Last of Us was a masterclass in videogame advertising because it wasn't a media blitz at all. Trailers, screenshots, and text previews exposed only surface-level details: an infection triggered zombie-like mutations in humans and decimated earth's population, leaving grizzled survivor Joel and teenage Ellie with nothing to rely on but their wits and conveniently placed bricks as they crossed the United States on a mission to deliver a cure.
The Last of Us Part 2 had its coming-out party at this year's PSX. So far, Naughty Dog is following in its own footsteps: the game's debut trailer left fans with more questions than answers. Fan theories sprouted like the weeds choking the franchise's post-apocalyptic sidewalks and streets, the most popular of which opines that Joel died sometime after the first game and exists as a figment of Ellie's damaged psyche.
We can test that hypothesis and others by examining what few concrete details Druckmann and his cast have shared so far.
An Ellie Story
Concept art leaked during the summer of 2015 teased an older, more mature Ellie. At a PSX panel hosted by Game Informer editor-in-chief Andy McNamara, Druckmann confirmed that Ellie, now 19 years old, will take the wheel.
"In the first game, you played as Joel," he said. "This game you're playing as Ellie," he said to a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
If you think back to how Naughty Dog structured The Last of Us, this news shouldn't come as a surprise. The original game centered on Joel: his loss, his pain, and how Ellie thawed (and in some ways hardened) his cynicism and selfishness formed over 20 years of fighting and clawing to stay alive.
For the denouement, players were given control of Ellie so as to see Joel through her eyes. The game's Left Behind expansion let players put on Ellie's Chuck Taylors once again. Collectively, the game's expansion and epilogue served as a passing of the torch. Joel had his time; how he'll play the sidekick.
Hate Is the Name of the Game
"The core of [the first game] was about the love between the love between these two characters," Druckmann said during the PSX panel, "and how we built that through story, music, interaction, gameplay mechanics. This story is the counter to that. This story is about heat, and how we use all those same things to make the player feel that."
While love was the nucleus of the first game, the world of The Last of Us is painted in shades of gray: Joel and Ellie love one another, but Elie's only alive because Joel ignored her wishes and acted out of selfishness to keep her that way.
More than love or hate, The Last of Us told a tale rooted in contention, bittersweet moments, and moral ambiguity. All of those elements must be present in the sequel if it has any hope of hitting to the same emotional notes.
The Fireflies Are Still At Large
The first 30 seconds of The Last of Us 2's inaugural trailer are perhaps its most telling. We see wilderness, a car and surrounding buildings in disrepair, and the Fireflies symbol displayed on a sign at the entrance to a town.
If you need a refresher, the Fireflies are a group of rebels whose ultimate goal is to find a vaccine to the cordyceps brain infection. They had one in Ellie, who's immune to CBI, but Joel intervened and murdered their leader in cold blood. Judging by what the trailer showed, they're still looking.
As the trailer continues, we see corpses and walls painted in blood before Ellie declares her intention to "kill every last one of them."
Who are "they?" The Fireflies? Perhaps, although any correlation between the Fireflies logo and the corpses could be purposeful misdirection on Naughty Dog's part. We don't even know that the bodies in the trailer are fresh, or that Joel and Ellie did the killing. Having said that, it's safe to assume the surviving Fireflies have neither forgiven nor forgotten the damage done by Joel and Ellie, and that they'll factor heavily in The Last of Us Part 2.
The Last of Us Part 2 Flows From The Last of Us
Every now and then, a story concludes so perfectly that as much as you want to revisit its world and characters, there's no need to go back to its well. The Last of Us was one of those stories, and Naughty Dog hemmed and hawed over whether or not to revisit Joel and Ellie.
"While a sequel may have seemed like a foregone conclusion, that wasn't the case," Druckmann wrote in a PlayStation Blog published following the trailer shown at PSX. "We knew that it needed to be a story worth telling and, perhaps more importantly, a story worthy of Joel and Ellie. After spending years on different ideas (and almost giving up), we finally uncovered a story that felt special—a story that evolved into an epic journey."
Druckmann fleshed out his thought process on writing another chapter during the PSX panel. "I played with so many ideas that had different characters and it never felt right. The Last of Us is about these two characters specifically. So yes, the Part II is saying this is a complementary story to the first game, but the two together are going to tell this larger tale. All I ask is that fans of the first one put faith in us and trust us. We're going to do right by you."
The Band's Back Together
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson have returned to voice Joel and Ellie again, but plenty of individuals are working behind the scenes—some veterans of the first game, and some new to the franchise.
Composer Gustavo Santaolalla is back to create another moving soundtrack for Part II. The song from the trailer, "Through the Valley," was written by Shawn James & The Shapeshifters, and fits the tone and ambiance of The Last of Us perfectly. (It's based on Psalm 23, for those interested in reading the original work.)
Neil Druckmann is the director and co-writer for the sequel. His partner is Halley Gross, a Hollywood writer known for writing and editing several episodes of HBO's hit new series, Westworld.
"Halley's my kickass co-writer. Can't wait to share more of the story with y'all. Spoiler alert: it's intense," Druckmann announced on Twitter.
A New Engine Brings Joel and Ellie To Life
The Last of Us 2's jaw-dropping tech nearly stole the spotlight from the revelation that a sequel was in production. At the PSX panel, Druckmann discussed the performance capture technology used to render the reveal trailer.
Essentially, the process entails actors being fitted into a motion capture suit and while Naughty Dog's engine transposes their movements, even subtle facial expressions, onto CG models.
"This is by far the most advanced character model we've ever created," he said. "Just the way the flesh can move over the bone [is so fluid]. We could never cut to a close-up of eyes before because we couldn't get the fidelity. Now we can."
Baker and Johnson spent an entire day making facial animations in preparation for the trailer.
In film, Hollywood actors do different takes, and directors choose the best from among them. The Last of Us Part 2's technology enables Naughty Dog to seamlessly meld takes to create a perfect performance. "Of course, it's a collaboration with the animators and artists at Naughty Dog," Druckmann explained. "They're definitely a part of putting all this together."
The Last of Us Part 2 won't be out for a while
Naughty Dog's original plan was to save The Last of Us 2's debut trailer for E3, but they decided to surprise fans at PSX. Unfortunately, their early reveal isn't indicative of a release date on the horizon.
"It's still early days for the project—the game's release is a ways off—but we couldn't wait any longer to give you a glimpse of what's to come," Druckmann wrote in his PS Blog post. "We're going to let the trailer speak for itself, but expect more information about The Last of Us Part 2 in the coming months."