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‘The Last of Us 2’ Needs to Step Away from Joel and Ellie, and Into the Unknown

If Naughty Dog is making a sequel to their 2013 hit, the last thing it should do is dwell on that game's leading pair.

by Sean Cleaver
01 July 2015, 7:11am

Joel and Ellie

In the words of Joss Whedon: "I am a fan of sequels, even though they are inevitably awful." It seems the entire entertainment world is predisposed to milking a good thing, and video games are no different. Sony has new God of War and Uncharted titles upcoming, but post-E3 a question about the company's immediate future lingered: in comparison to Xbox's showing, where were the exclusives?

Perhaps, then, the "leak" of the 30th of June was inevitable, or even planned. In case you missed it, voice actor Nolan North (Nathan Drake from Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, and about a thousand more gaming roles) seemed to let slip that the studio is also working on a sequel to 2013's astonishing The Last of Us. The first game, a somewhat unexpected but entirely worthy addition to the list of "Best Games Ever", ultimately received over 200 Game of the Year awards including several BAFTAs. You should play it, really. No excuses.

The writer and producer of the original game, Neil Druckmann (who we just recently spoke to, about comics), previously said that a sequel was "about 50/50" if they found the right story. And I trust that Naughty Dog will have found a good narrative to drive a second game. It'd be too easy for the company to simply do a sequel because the audience demands it, or because Sony handed over a blank cheque. Too easy, and irreparably damaging to Naughty Dog's stellar reputation.

And what that narrative will feature is already the subject of great online debate – a discussion that I'm about to wade into myself. But before I get onto exactly what I'd like to see from a second game, I want to take a moment to lament a story only half-told, at best, in the first. Its plot was magnificent, an against-the-odds tale of teenage survival balanced against stubborn, stiff-lipped, cold and calculated existence before a backdrop of society-destroying outbreak, and its sole story-focused DLC, Left Behind, was a beautiful, heart-wrenching insight into how the "infected" Ellie we meet in the game proper came to be that way. For me, though, Naughty Dog had a great opportunity for a further piece of plot-relevant DLC: one that gave us the bigger picture on the story of Tess.

Tess is the character we're introduced to after the prologue's complete and the setting switches from Austin, Texas to Boston, and her journey with (main player-controlled protagonist) Joel and Ellie is short but important. She's a smuggler, and seems to have had a relationship with Joel at some point – perhaps there's something still there, smouldering between them, but it's never quite explicit. We only really begin to understand her character, her motivations, towards the end of our time in her company – and I'd like to have known more about her past. How did she and Joel meet? What drove her into an illegal trade? Where did she see her future winding up, before everything went to shit?

Tess is someone who could connect a second The Last of Us game with its predecessor, as there's unfinished business there – and the same can certainly be said of the Bill, a loner who cut loose from Tess and Joel in the recent past and now roams a heavily fortified Lincoln. His past is hinted at: we discover the remains of his (romantic and business) partner, Frank, and catch glimpses of tenderness beneath a necessarily hardy exterior. When Ellie and Joel leave him behind, to drive onwards to wishful salvation, his story ends – but it need not.

Tess

These characters are important, going forward, because I feel that the story of Joel and Ellie is done. I don't want to see them in a sequel. I don't want a continuation of their cross-country trip to Salt Lake City. The way The Last of Us ended was perfect (see?). But that doesn't mean that some of the original game's DNA shouldn't inform a second adventure.

Zombie games (and The Last of Us is a zombie game, underneath everything) are usually set in fairly well known, built-up areas. Dead Island 2, for example, will be set in California. But Naughty Dog aren't sticklers for convention, and a second The Last of Us might well visit an area of the US that's only really been played up by horror and Twin Peaks-like thrillers like Alan Wake and Silent Hill – the Pacific Northwest. It's a wonderfully mountainous and beautiful terrain that can really shine through the studio's proprietary engine – I mean, have you seen the Uncharted 4 footage? Gorgeous. Who wouldn't be up for exploring areas like Portland and Seattle, onto Vancouver and maybe even Alaska? You can guarantee that wherever the Last of Us sequel ends up, it's going to look spectacular.

As beautiful as it's sure to be, the setting needs distance from the paths we've already walked, with Joel and Ellie. Otherwise it won't have the space to breathe, and stand-alone from its celebrated predecessor. It need not be wholly canonical. Hell, it need not be set in America at all – the Cordyceps infection that decimates mankind in the early moments of The Last of Us isn't restricted to the US, affecting 60 percent of the worldwide population. To survivors in Europe, Asia or Africa, or simply somewhere so close as the southern US, perhaps Ellie's resistance to the infection is considered a folk tale, or even no more than a rumour. That's assuming they could even find out, with communication networks so crippled in this future of deadly spores and sickening side effects.

You might be reading this on the fifth smartphone you've owned, on a tablet or an off-the-shelf laptop with more power than the most impressive supercomputers of just a few years ago. Humans are entirely connected in 2015, and one of the most amazing aspects of The Last of Us was its portrayal of how disconnection can be utterly devastating. Its interactivity was paramount – passively observing the struggle of these characters wouldn't be half as affecting, as compelling and enveloping. Once Twitter messages become code words and subsequently Chinese whispers, carried on the wind between isolated outposts of men and women doing anything to get by, the faintest glimmer of hope in a traveller's words is becomes enough to hang a dream on. That's what sparked the story of The Last of Us: the hope that something else was out there, somewhere. If only we could find it.

It's this aspect of the human condition – the desperation that comes with survival, that turns a scratchy noise in a long wave carrier signal into a beacon of brilliant light – that Naughty Dog's already successfully explored once, and stands to again with The Last of Us' sequel. And that's exciting for anyone who loved the first game: the potential for where this fiction goes next, shorn of the weight of two amazing characters like Joel and Ellie, is impressive indeed.


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I trust in Naughty Dog. The Last of Us was secretly in development during the making of Uncharted 3, and with Uncharted 4 on its way is it such a stretch to believe that there's not another game coming together in tandem with a fourth Drake and Sully expedition proper? North's reveal, be it accidental or orchestrated, likely has a lot of truth to it, and timing wise there's further reason to be optimistic of a sequel. A Sam Raimi-produced movie based on The Last of Us is in the works, optimistically scheduled for release in 2016, with Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams apparently set for the Ellie role. Does it not make sense, as we're seeing in 2015 with (albeit very different iterations of) Mad Max both in cinemas and released for consoles and PC in September, for a second game to coincide, however loosely, with the film? It's unlikely one will mirror the other when it comes to plot, but both should be visually stunning and (hopefully) present deep stories that question our moral cores.

A direct sequel to the events of The Last of Us shouldn't be Naughty Dog's direction. Ellie and Joel can live on through the movie – gamers, however, are ready for something different, a new perspective on the post-Cordyceps world. The studio, maybe deliberately, left a few characters undefined first time around. Now, they've the opportunity to either return to those roots, or aim for something entirely fresh. Whatever the outcome, I'm totally on board for The Last of Us 2, and the excitement for it officially begins... now.

@cleaverslips

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