I emerged from my three-hour The Last of Us Part II demo session tense and anxious, a coiled fire hose of pent-up adrenaline. I’d just piloted a now-19-year-old Ellie through peril after peril, amassing a grisly body count along the way. Few of those kills were clean. Many were desperate knife flurries, death by a thousand sinew-snapping stabs and cuts. Human enemies mourned their fallen comrades, bellowing their names at me with bestial fury while charging to the same pointy end. And yet, after I finished the demo, I walked into a nearby bathroom, stared into a mirror, and asked myself “Did it work? Do I care?”
Developer Naughty Dog wants The Last of Us Part II to be a lot of things. Where the first game was about the overriding, sometimes destructive power of love, Part II is about hate. Last time, we played as Joel – a more nuanced bearded man than your typical action game star, but an archetype nonetheless. This time, players will control Ellie, a young queer woman trying to find life in Last of Us’ zombie-infested world. It’s a story about being a teenage girl and becoming an adult, navigating a strained relationship with your father figure, and falling in love. But ultimately, as director Neil Druckmann said at a preview event in Los Angeles earlier this week, The Last of Us Part II is a revenge story. “How far would you go?” he asked ominously during a presentation before the hands-on session.
The demo’s first section took place early in the game, with Ellie and new character Dina – who shared the most natural-looking kiss in video game history during a 2018 E3 trailer – riding on horseback through a snowy landscape, doing patrol duty for their Jackson, Wyoming settlement. For the first 15 minutes or so, the two chatted (and bantered) back and forth about plans, people they knew, and relationships while checking in at a station and scavenging some abandoned houses. The tone was light and flirty. At one point, Dina asked Ellie what she was planning to do that night, clearly angling for something. Ellie said she was thinking about watching a movie with Joel, which drew a surprised reaction from Dina. “Oh,” Dina said. “Are you two... cool?” Joel did, after all, basically sacrifice humanity’s future to save Ellie at the end of the first The Last of Us – though it’s unclear whether Ellie knows that or not. The tension quickly dissipated, however, when Dina asked what kinds of movies Ellie and Joel liked to watch. Joel is big into cheesy martial arts flicks, it turns out. But even this conversation was tinged with melancholy, as Ellie pondered if, somewhere out there among all the desolation, there were people still making movies.
Ellie and Dina came across a hollowed-out mess of a moose corpse that had doubtless been peeled to the bone by zombie-like creatures, called Infected. From there, the level transitioned into a pretty traditional Infected-centric level that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the first game. As Ellie, I had to stealth through a series of increasingly Infected-overrun offices and warehouses en route to an abandoned supermarket. This section served largely as a tutorial, reinforcing the first game’s conventional wisdom that while you can open fire on Infected and pray that you emerge from the ensuing fray with all the meat still attached to your clavicles, it’s a better idea not to. Instead, I crouched down and used the “listen” ability, which makes a return from the first game, to “hear” (read: see an outline of) where enemies were. Then I had Ellie creep up on fast, relatively weak Runner Infected and blind but much more powerful Clicker Infected and quietly and methodically carve their necks open. Dina, when she could do so without alerting other Infected, followed suit.
The Last of Us Part II is a sound design tour de force. Clickers screeched, wailed, and of course, clicked with characteristic inhumanity, lacing even sure shot stealth kills with dread right up until the moment I finally did the deed. But it’s not like successfully ending the walking embodiments of “What if athlete’s foot, but too much” felt much better. Any time I shoved my shiv into Infected, metal scraped against wet flesh and bone while the Infected flailed and wailed, their death gurgles so piercing that it was as though they were screaming in my ear. I was never sure if other Infected had heard, and this kind of tension is baked into every element of the sound design. Breaking the glass on a vending machine to grab a candy bar led to a shattering sound that nearly made me jump out of my seat, even when I was certain there were no surviving Injected to hear the sound and come running.
The section also introduced me to the game’s expanded crafting and customisation systems. This time around, you can find supplements – pills, basically – and spend them on ability upgrades spread across three trees. Abilities included increased listen mode movement speed, increased throw distance, increased health kit usage speed, and, toward the top of the stealth-focused tree, craftable silencers that could be applied to guns and improved. Part II also contains an expanded crafting system that lets you create various attachments and improvements for guns. Like in the first game, you collect scrap to purchase these upgrades. As someone who prefers to strike from a distance, I saved up until I could snap a scope on my hunting rifle to give me more distance from my Infected targets. The scope, of course, was no insurance against Infected near me hearing the sound, but it gave me a small, if false, sense of safety. While there’s nothing like headshotting one Infected from two hundred feet away, I am resolutely not a fan of being eaten by the three other nearby Infected that react to gunshot sounds like Pavlov’s dog does to bells
With their supermarket cleanup complete, Ellie and Dina decided they were done with patrolling for the day and wanted to head back to the settlement. Unfortunately, a blinding snowstorm picked up, and the two got separated. Just when it seemed like all hope was lost, Dina emerged and led Ellie into what appeared to be an abandoned daycare. Before long, the two discovered that it was once the secret hideaway of their now-deceased friend Eugene, who’d had the good fortune to die of old age – a rarity in The Last of Us’ world. As I explored and read through notes and other belongings Eugene had left behind, Ellie and Dina learned more and more about a man they only thought they’d known.
Halley Gross, Part II’s head writer alongside Druckmann, said the goal of the game’s worldbuilding is to enrich characters and, in some cases, fully explore characters the player never actually meets. “You never meet this man, but by the end of this level, you’ve learned he’s got a grow house, he likes to smoke some weed, he used to be a Firefly [the series’ militia], was involved in some terrorism, left his family, and left his kid to go pursue this mission he thought was bigger and greater than the individual,” said Gross.
The level ended with Ellie and Dina discovering Eugene’s secret underground weed den, left to fall into disrepair after his passing. It was a surprising moment, sprinkled with levity. I came across a gas mask (crucial for avoiding infection) with a bong attached. “God,” quipped Dina, “Eugene was so smart.”
After rummaging around, Ellie and Dina settled on a couch and – with nothing better to do while waiting for the storm to pass – lit up. Dina then worked up the courage to ask Ellie a question. “So, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate our kiss last night?” she asked. While asking this question, Dina bit her lip and moved her eyes furtively. It was far and away some of the most detailed digital acting I’ve seen. When Ellie mumbled out a non-response, Dina continued: “I’d give it a six. A solid six.”
“You’re infuriating,” said Ellie.
“Have you met you?” replied Dina.
Then they made out, of course. The first portion of the demo closed on this moment, a heartwarming end to a series of harrowing scares. The whole scene left a smile on my face. It was a rare moment of authentic warmth in a big-budget action game. It was easy to imagine from there how this relationship, with its believable tender moments, might play out. The two would banter, bicker, fight, and make up. It’d become a running (though playful) joke between their friends. They’d explore together. Watch movies together. Ellie would eventually find the courage to play music – original music, even – for Dina. Maybe they’d stay together. Maybe they’d break up and go their separate ways. Young love is fickle like that.
But The Last of Us Part II is a revenge story. It is about hate, not young love.
Naughty Dog will not say if Dina dies at this point, though the studio has heavily implied it multiple times by depicting intimate scenes between Ellie and Dina followed immediately by a solo Ellie performing shockingly realistic acts of violence against humans from opposing factions. In the game’s first trailer, she said she’d “Kill every last one of them,” and in subsequent trailers as well as the demo I played, she seems to be making good on her promise. She is taking revenge for something. Do other humans kill Dina? Or is this Naughty Dog setting up an almost too-obvious bait and switch? For now, it’s impossible to say.
What I do know is that the second half of the demo found Ellie all alone. It took place later in the game. Ellie was in the overgrown, eternally-overcast ruins of Seattle, Washington, surrounded by derelict salons, tattoo parlours, and coffee shops. She was looking for Tommy, a returning character from the first The Last of Us, who was seemingly in conflict with a local faction, the xenophobic Washington Liberation Front.
Seattle, perhaps even more so than the Wyoming location in the first portion of the demo, was dense with detail. Stores were littered with notes and other items. I could explore at my leisure, though I was always ultimately be funnelled down a set, linear path. It wasn’t long before I ran into members of the WLF, who were not at all happy to see me. Fortunately, I had new stealth options on my side. The area was overrun with tall grass, in which I could go prone and crawl around. This rendered me almost invisible, allowing me to set up some gnarly, knife-y ambushes. But I could never just chill and take in the scenery. Most of the WLF members had dogs, and these dogs could track my scent. Usefully, going into listen mode allowed me to see that scent, so I could at least know what I was dealing with.
I struggled to acclimate to this system, dying often. Initially, I tried to play this section like I would any other stealth game, figuring out patrols and then closing in for the kill. As I moved in, however, a dog would sniff me out or start barking. This would alert or attract enemies, and I’d charge them in a panic, plunging my knife into any available body part. It was chaos. Each slash produced rivulets of blood and stringy hunks of flesh. Dogs barked. Both Ellie and my opponents grunted and yelped in anguish and exertion. I’d win one of these desperate melees, drop into the grass, and apply a health kit. Ellie would groan, as though bringing herself back from the brink took a little more out of her each time. It was not pretty.
When another enemy discovered a body I’d left behind, they’d shout in alarm and, more pointedly, grief. Usually, they’d say the person’s name. They all have names. In one of the most surprising moments of the demo, I quietly dispatched somebody while their dog was distracted. Upon noticing, the dog proceeded to nudge their person’s arm, then pull on it, and then mournfully whimper. Later, I half-jokingly asked Gross what Naughty Dog has against dogs, given that I’d just killed a bunch of them and given even more traumatic separation anxiety. She replied that the goal throughout all of this violence and strife is to humanise the people Ellie is facing off against. It’s part of an effort to explore real-world issues like tribalism.
“I think when you have any sort of close-knit tribe, you have this danger of becoming tribal. This idea of the other,” said Gross. “So we have these enemies where, you see one of the dogs clawing for its owner, or one of the fallen soldiers calls out his name. So much of what we’re trying to do is create empathy for the other. We make this enemy, and then how do we make you feel for them? So much of this game is about developing an understanding of where other people are coming from... We want to put you in a situation where you have to make hard choices. You didn’t have to kill any of them. None of them are mandatory to get through that level. So it’s a question of ‘How much is it worth’ to kill them?”
I probably would’ve been better off if I hadn’t killed any of them – at least, from a resource management perspective. But these people and animals were obstacles on my path toward standard video game goals, and before long, I was treating them like any other video game enemies. I killed some and spared others. When I killed enemies and nobody noticed, it felt good. Great, even. The level had a fantastic sense of forward motion to it, with Ellie scrambling through houses and leaping out half-rotten window frames, all as part of a larger downhill slope toward Tommy’s location. Enemies were everywhere, and their dogs would find me if I stayed in one spot for too long. I had to be stealthy, but I also had to move. I felt tense and alarmed when I got spotted, though not out of any feeling for my enemies. Rather, I was in danger and didn’t want to have to open the menu and choose the “reload checkpoint” option again if I screwed up so badly that the run was unsalvageable.
I won a bow and arrow from a thrilling close-range fight against a special Infected. The bow is a silent, long-range, exceedingly deadly weapon. I laid in the grass and picked my shots. Nobody could touch me. Heck, most of them couldn’t even find me. I don’t remember any of their names.
I began to wonder if enemies shouting names and dogs mourning their owners was less a humanising element and more a tool of only briefly effective emotional manipulation. In response to this, Gross said that there’ll be more nuance to depictions of enemy characters in the final game.
“What we’re trying to do is create a holistic approach to empathy,” she said. “So “there’s the NPCs that you meet very briefly, but even in that moment we’re naming them. We’re also occasionally giving them human conversations. As you traverse by, you’ll overhear their conversations about things back home, their fuller lives. But also we have these enemies that Ellie is hunting, and as with all characters in the Last of Us universe, we’re trying to make everybody as multifaceted as possible and everybody as diverse as possible so that we can try and create challenges for empathy and then reach out toward them.”
The demo ended with Ellie dropping down into another portion of the level, only for some mysterious pair of meaty dad arms to pull her aside. At first, she struggled. Then she turned around and asked “What are you doing here?” It was Joel. “I couldn’t let you do this on your own,” he replied. That was it. Demo over.
That was when I stood up, walked over to the nearby bathroom, and took stock of everything I’d experienced. I was still full of adrenaline from all the close shaves, melee throwdowns, and dog murders. The Last of Us Part II is shaping up to be a very exciting stealth-action game. Its mechanical additions to the first game’s formula are smart; the studio isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather to further emphasise what made the original stand out and give players a little more wiggle room in terms of choice.
But those brief moments of Ellie and Dina awkwardly fumbling through the early goings of a relationship were what stuck with me more than the usual Video Game Emotions of tension, anxiety, anger, relief, exhilaration, and “Oh no, I killed a dog.” I wanted to see more of that story, more of love finding a way to survive and even thrive in a dying world. But this is a story about revenge, and so, I found it hard not to hearken back to Heather Alexandra’s 2018 piece about how queer characters in video games rarely get to be happy and how their backstories often centre around tragically deceased partners. The Last of Us, it should be noted, has already done this on a couple occasions, with multiple characters. This includes Ellie in the first game’s prequel Left Behind DLC.
Again, I do not know if Dina will die. Maybe she’ll instead betray Ellie and everybody else at the Wyoming settlement. Or maybe Ellie will go on a revenge quest for reasons entirely unrelated to Dina. But it seems clear that Ellie ends up very unhappy. Gross said that there’s a very deliberate purpose to putting Ellie into this kind of narrative. She believes that Part II is not just another post-apocalyptic story about characters being sad, another member of a very crowded club. It’s a story that she hopes will reflect on the real world in unique ways and give people something positive to hang onto during times of strife, xenophobia, and hate.
“What I want to be feeling is resilience,” she said. “We do live in a difficult time, and Ellie lives in an incredibly difficult time, an incredibly hostile world. I want to feel inspired. I want to feel inspired by a character that is going to get knocked down and is going to pick herself back up, because that’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to feel when I go out the door every day to engage with how hard things can be right now.”
I asked her if she feels like the game is deliberately political in that respect. She replied that it depends on your definition of the word. “We are 100 percent trying to engage with the world around us,” she said. “Our games are super diverse, and that’s because we want to reflect the world we see around us. Our games are about strong people dealing with hard times. So many of our characters are about like ‘Is it OK to be strong and to be vulnerable? Is it OK to make mistakes and pick yourself back up?’ So if that’s defined as political, then fuck yeah we’re political.”
Ultimately, Gross’ goal is to do right by Ellie’s character and write somebody that she and others can relate to through good times and bad.
“I love seeing more women protagonists,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice when those female protagonists are impervious, when they’re too strong. I can’t relate to them. What Ellie did [in the first The Last of Us] is show me this vulnerable, scrappy girl who’s having an incredibly hard life, but who’s incredibly great – who picks herself back up and is willing to go the extra mile for people that she loves. To me, that’s the humanity of her. That’s what makes her so relatable. And that is something I really wanted to honour.”