'We Wanted to Incite Debate': What Went Into the Complex Ethics of 'The Last of Us Part II'

Dom Nero

From Esquire


By now I’m sure you’ve probably heard the news: The Last of Us Part II is a sweeping, gut-wrenching condemnation of violence. We’ve seen video games turn self-reflective before. The last act of Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance, veers into similar territory, forcing players to rethink a lot of the choices they’ve made in violent video games. But it’d be a stretch to call RDR2, the recent God of War, or any of the big, introspective single-player titles of the past few years a condemnation of violence. At least in comparison to this Last of Us sequel, which spends almost every second of its thorny narrative looking at its scarred, bloody face in the mirror.

Violence and video games go hand-in-hand; even today, it’s rare to find a single-player title that doesn’t, in some way, revolve around killing enemies. Reviewers have called Naughty Dog hypocritical, writing that The Last of Us Part II decries violence while still forcing you to commit harrowing acts of brutality. I don’t agree, but I see their point. Like all good stories, this one is complicated. It’s long-winded. It gives multiple perspectives, and some of them are hard to swallow. Whereas the first game starred a conventional Western male hero, this game stars two women, neither of whom have the traditionally one-dimensional, feminine characteristics that we’re used to seeing in video games. This, I’m certain, will bother people too.

At its core, The Last of Us Part II is a thoroughly human game, and it’s among the best I’ve ever played. So a few weeks ago, I interviewed Halley Gross, the narrative lead at Naughty Dog who helped craft the defiant story of The Last of Us Part II, because I legitimately wanted to know how the hell they pulled it off. Here’s what she told me.

This interview, which contains spoilers, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ESQ: Coming off of the iconic first The Last of Us, and especially after games like Breath of the Wild and God of War, what was the main goal on the narrative end for this sequel?

HG: Those games are all incredibly wonderful, but what we were focused on was talking about this theme of the cycle of violence, challenging this idea of empathy, and using gaming—which is a spectacular medium to put you in a characters' shoes—to ask, how far can we take you? How much can we put you in alignment with Ellie as she goes further and further down this road? She's got all of these terrifying factions that she has to negotiate, but her need for justice is so deep. Mistakes will be made in your world, you can try and choose to find redemption, or choose to be lost to it.

ESQ: You used the word "justice," and I noticed that throughout the game, the concept of justice seems to get redefined over and over. At first it's bringing justice to Joel's murderers, but then as we get to know Abby, we realise that her form of justice was killing Joel. In the end, it seems like justice is now defined by empathy. Can you speak to that evolution?

HG: So much of this game is about perspective. As Ellie you're seeing these NPCs [or, non-playable characters] and you make judgments about them. You experience them in a limited capacity. Later in the game, the WLFs and Seraphites [the warring factions in the game’s background], are hugely expounded on. So one man's justice is another man's revenge. We wanted to play with perspective and [show] how no choice is easy; everything has a consequence. And it really is about whose shoes you're in at the time.

ESQ: How does that theme of justice resonate in today’s cultural context?

HG: I think right now we really want stories about resilience. The world can be challenging. The world can be scary. The world can devastate you and knock you down, and you can make decisions that devastate you and knock you down. But all of our characters have such a deep sense of resilience. And that means different things to different characters, obviously. But I think hopefully right now—even as much as this is as a game about teenagers—this is a game about resilience, about that sense of seeing something from somebody else's side.

ESQ: I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that is told from the perspective of two women, one of them being a queer woman. There's a trans character in this game, too. It feels defiant in the way that it allows these characters to just be humans. Knowing the audience that plays video games, I am anticipating people might have negative things to say about that. What went into those choices, when The Last of Us is known as being a big, sad, masculine story?

HG: When I came into the Last of Us franchise, Neil Druckmann already had some of the templates of the story he wanted to tell. He knew he wanted to focus on Ellie and on Abby. But what's really important to the studio is representation—reflecting the world that we see around us—and that no character, the hero or villain, nobody is explicitly good or bad. It was important to allow all of our characters to exist in the morally grey.

We want to incite debate. We want to have characters within this world who see the world in two different ways. To do that, the characters cannot be homogeneous. They all have to have different perspectives, different angles, different wants, needs, cares, fears, drives. So to honour those themes, we have to have a diverse cast.

Photo credit: Courtesy

ESQ: I’m also interested in the fractured timeline in this game. We’re constantly jumping around—it’s something I’ve rarely seen in a video game before. Can you speak to that?

HG: So again, to this idea of empathy and really understanding a character outside of yourself, we wanted you to be with Ellie. These are the characters that you've grown up with. We know Ellie and Joel's backstory. We know their connection. And as soon as this devastating thing happens to Joel, we're immediately in alignment with Ellie and we want vengeance on all of these characters. We're going to go to Seattle, we're going to experience this whole world. We're going to have this very myopic perspective on Seattle. And it will feel—when you're playing on the Ellie side—like Abby just shows up in the theatre. How the fuck did she get there? You know? What happened to Manny, right? Where did Tommy come from? What was Tommy doing?

And it's only when you play the Abby side that you realise the butterfly effect that all of these decisions have. That in this world, very much like our world, decisions can have huge consequences. No decision should be easy. This world is incredibly hostile. So to honour that, we wanted to have you see those ripples through Abby's life in moments that she doesn't even understand. There are moments, like the dog Abby pets in the stadium—that's the same dog that you see with Ellie at the hospital.

ESQ: They also ride the same boat, too.

HG: Yes, exactly. There are all these little consequences and all of these tie-ins where these women, because of the decisions they make, destructive or productive, have a mass impact not on just them or the people they care about, but also these people who are arguably NPCs or enemies in their lives.

ESQ: In the first game, when I'm playing as Joel and I kill all these NPCs in the hospital, there's not a thought in my mind about the families of these people, because in every other video game, you're constantly killing enemies. But by giving NPCs agency and showing their perspective, The Last of Us Part II felt like a condemnation of the violence in video games. Was that intentional?

HG: I mean, our focus was creating the most grounded, dimensional world you've ever seen in a game. And to honour this theme of violence, of the consequences and the cycle of violence, we had to humanise all the characters. Not just the protagonists, not just the buddies—we wanted this whole world to feel rich, and we wanted the decisions our characters make to feel tough, so that every moment of fear, every moment of tension, every moment of anxiety, you're in alignment with Ellie or Abby.

When you come into a combat setup, we want it to feel like a hard choice. You can choose to kill the WLF and their dog. But if you do that, you're going to potentially hear somebody screaming their name, or crying over them. Is it worth progressing in that direction? Or can you try to avoid them? But that’s probably much harder to do. Is that risk worthwhile? So you're constantly feeling how challenging this life is for these girls in this hostile world, this hostile environment, and you understand this accumulation of trauma and this systemic violence that really defines their identity.

Photo credit: Courtesy

ESQ: I wanted to ask you about the way Joel dies fairly early on. To me, that's like if you were to kill off Kratos in the opening of a God of War game. You must be aware of how angry that's going to make a lot of people, right?

HG: At the end of the first game, you see Joel making this very morally ambiguous decision. He can choose to kill a bunch of people and save Ellie and stop the world from having a cure, or he can let it happen and watch his surrogate kid die. He makes a choice. And because we've been on this journey with the two of them, we understand the choice. Even if you don't agree with the choice at the end of the game, you get why he made it.

But this game is so much about everything having a cost. So it felt like, to honour the first game, to honour the events of that, we had to expound on the biggest choice we've seen in this franchise. There was no other option. Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing justice to our theme. Every character in this game is going to make messy choices and deal with those consequences. Joel was simply the first.

ESQ: Neither of us have said the word “zombie” yet. The zombie stuff is there, but I feel like the real threat this time is the uninfected humans. Was that a goal on your end—to take the evil away from these infected people and bring it back to us?

HG: I think it was sort of a two-pronged intention there. First, I'll say this game really focuses on a group of people who grew up in a world that always had infected people. You know, they were all born post-pandemic, so for them, this is their normal. Every day is about survival, but this isn't inherently their focus. We really wanted to, in every facet of this game, unpack the theme of the cycle of violence and the intentionality of seeking justice. So while the infected are incredibly threatening, what we really wanted to discuss was this need to have an eye for an eye. Our focus was on people. We tried to infuse that in every layer, so any space you go into, you feel this environmental storytelling about an escalating war. With our NPCs, you feel these two factions who can't stop themselves from going after each other, even as it risks their home and their safety and their families. They cannot take their eye off of the tit-for-tat.

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