Sony opened its E3 press conference this year with an unorthodox bang, packing assembled journalists and fans into an ersatz, standing-room-only church to show off the newest gameplay and cut scene footage of The Last of Us Part 2. The gripping trailer transitions abruptly from a heartwarming scene of awkward teenage romance at a dance to protagonist Ellie’s brutal fight for survival against a gang of equally brutal adults.
Last of Us Part 2 co-writer Halley Gross told Ars this contrast in the trailer reflects a very conscious tension in the game and in Ellie herself. In the four or five years since the end of the first Last of Us, Gross said the now-19-year-old Ellie has been able to finally find a sense of normalcy and family in a world broken by the Infected hordes. “We’ve been able to invest in her relationships,” Gross says. “She’s been able to be a teenager, she’s been able to feel a real sense of stability that she hadn’t felt before the end of the first game.”
That stability means the opportunity for Ellie to explore her sexuality, as reflected in the passionate lesbian kiss Naughty Dog put front and center in the trailer. “Ellie’s a gay character and one of the things we’re really excited about with this game, as [Last of Us writer] Neil [Druckmann] started with the first game, is to show how complicated and complex and beautiful she is as a character,” Gross said. “Of course, she’s a 19-year-old. She’s gonna have… crushes, right? That’s one of the things we’re really jazzed to show. It’s a part of her character.”
Gross wouldn’t go into details on what finally ruins this fleeting sense of normalcy for Ellie, but she did say there will be “something really devastating that throws her entire world and sense of self out of whack. The rest of the game will be about her dealing with that trauma, negotiating that trauma, and how that trauma evolves her.”
The strain of that trauma, and of Ellie’s necessary quick switching between “carefree teen” and “killing machine,” will be a central focus of the game, Gross said. “[Ellie] had to grow up in a really hostile world so she’s adapted to survive… I think the game is very interested in having a conversation about the effects of violence, the cyclical nature of violence and the effects of trauma, in this case, on Ellie’s soul. That’s something we’re really going to be exploring.”
While Gross confirmed that Joel, the main playable character from the first game, is the “old man” referenced in the game’s E3 trailer and that he’s hanging out somewhere in Jackson, she wouldn’t confirm or deny whether he’ll have any direct role in the story or gameplay this time around. And while following Ellie on her own presents some writing challenges, Gross said there are also some benefits to the single-protagonist focus shown in the trailer.
“Having the opportunity to have a buddy figure, an NPC with you to exchange dialogue is always lovely and you can get story out that way,” Gross said. “But one of the things Naughty Dog does so well is environmental storytelling. So even when Ellie is alone, she still has an opportunity to engage in the environment and we get the opportunity to understand parts of herself that maybe she wouldn’t reveal in front of somebody else.”
Gross, whose previous credits include writing work on HBO’s Westworld, said expanding the tight, self-contained story of the first Last of Us can feel a bit intimidating, “but only because Neil drew such wonderful, complex characters… I was a huge fan of the first game so when the opportunity presented itself to get to explore Ellie’s character further, I jumped at the chance… I’m really thrilled about where we’re going, and I think it’s going to be an amazing game.”