Game of the Year awards almost seemed myopic for The Last of Us when it was released in 2013. It topped plenty of lists that year, but its impact outlasted its flood of accolades. Strategic, survival-based combat, believable characters, and a unique multiplayer mode gave The Last of Us its initial praise, but the unforgettable ending kept discussion surrounding the game alive. Because of this strong finale, many sites – including Game Informer – have suggested that The Last of Us shouldn’t get a sequel. Naughty Dog went against that sentiment by announcing The Last of Us Part II at the PlayStation Experience this year, to high praise and skepticism. Those on both sides have valid arguments concerning the sequel’s existence. But I’m confident in The Last of Us Part II because Naughty Dog has displayed a history knowing how and when to tell a story and when to let one be.
Naughty Dog themselves have even been open about its thoughts toward a sequel – hesitation and all – giving it a “50/50” shot in February 2014 and admitting to “almost giving up” in a recent PlayStation Blog post. But the studio decided to move forward on the project in earnest once they thought of a story that “felt special.”
“So much thought went into this and I know there’s a lot of people that feel this trepidation about coming back to these characters and revisiting what that ending means and worrying whether that’s going to spoil the first game and you have to understand that we feel all these things as well,” said creative director Neil Druckmann at The Last of Us Part II’s PSX panel. “No one loves these characters more than we do and we would not do this if we didn’t feel like we had the right idea.”
Ironically enough, The Last of Us’ inception was originally bred out of the studio’s passion to move forward with a game they felt was right. After finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, they tried to resurrect Jak and Daxter but canceled the project because it started going in a direction that would “do everybody a disservice.” Scrapping another entry in a proven series in order to create something new and untested gives Druckmann’s statements about Part II more weight and shows that Naughty Dog makes what they want instead of what they feel pressured to. Part II echoes the fate of the first game by being created out of passion, not obligation.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End also shows Naughty Dog can justify going back to the well one more time than anticipated. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception wrapped itself up neatly with Nathan Drake walking away from his life of thievery into the sunset with his wedding ring replacing his coveted ring from Sir Francis Drake. Uncharted 4 had a more creative and definitive ending to the series that far exceeded Uncharted 3’s heartwarming but typical finale. Uncharted 3’s ending could have been considered final, but Naughty Dog went back one more time to make the best overall Uncharted game with a more emotional and resonant last chapter. Naughty Dog now has the opportunity to do the same thing with The Last of Us.
The lack of definition is why The Last of Us’ ending struck a chord with so many players. However, Naughty Dog has plenty of chances in the sequel to supplement or move on from what we already know without tarnishing the meaning behind the poignant “Okay” in the finale. Picking up right after that ending is tricky, which Naughty Dog might be aware of given the five-year time jump in the debut trailer. Skipping ahead a few years would be a good way to distance Joel and Ellie from their past adventure. This gives them the room to move on, and is more likely to keep the sacredness of the first game’s conclusion intact. Audio logs and journals could also hint at the duo’s relationship post-The Last of Us while also being vague enough to maintain the fog of uncertainty – if Naughty Dog decides to touch it at all.
Ish’s story in The Last of Us was a good example of painting enough of a picture in our minds without explicitly showing what happened. Ish is a mysterious character revealed strictly through collectible notes and environmental storytelling and has garnered multiple fan theories regarding his unknown fate. Druckmann has even stated that the ambiguity surrounding Ish is why they didn’t make DLC about him despite numerous fan requests. Naughty Dog’s reluctance to reveal too much about Ish gives me confidence that they won’t pull a George Lucas on the main game’s finale.
There’s already plenty of mystique in the trailer that can live on without retreading old ground. Fans have speculated whether or not Joel is even physically there, what Ellie’s tattoos mean, and why she is dressed eerily similar to her close friend Riley from the Left Behind expansion and American Dreams comic miniseries. These great cryptic hooks and teasers are interesting independent from the first game’s conclusion and enhanced by the foundation that game set. The deep and fascinating world and characters can still evolve, which seems to be the driving force behind Naughty Dog’s reason to go back. And Part II can extrapolate on this established setting and delve into new mysteries without spelling it all out or tampering with the ending.
I understand the sanctity of the original Last of Us ending. I’ve seen it at least six times and it still gives me goosebumps. I also understand some fans’ desire to not want those final moments tainted by a sequel. Naughty Dog knows that as well and, through its actions and words, has demonstrated a knack for knowing when to expand on a story and when to let it be. That studio has spent over two decades earning faith and stockpiling goodwill that we shouldn’t overlook when it comes to The Last of Us Part II.