So Nolan ‘I don’t care about keeping secrets because I’ve already recorded Uncharted 4 and they can’t fire me now’ North has seemingly blown the existence of The Last of Us 2. Okay, when I say “existence”, I mean “existence as probably just a series of sketches, plot-points and animation tests right now”, but regardless of its status, the sequel to The Last of Us seems to be a thing. Not that that’s stopped North’s buddy and voice of the original game’s Joel, Troy Baker, from strenuously denying such. But let’s not forget that he’s probably currently on the game’s payroll and thus cocooned in a sticky mass of script pages, embargo sheets, and gooey, corporate residue.
Well he is if Naughty Dog is doing the Last of Us 2 wrong, anyway. You see in truth I hope that Baker’s ignorance of the game is genuine. I hope that he legitimately knows nothing of it. Because, as much as I love Baker as an actor, I really, really hope that he isn’t in The Last of Us 2. And that as a direct result, neither is Joel.
Because there’s a right and wrong way of making that sequel, as I see it. While the internet has been wailing back and forth over the validity of a sequel to Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece – and I understand why; The Last of Us, despite its developer's initial fear of failure, is an utterly complete work with a specific, focused intent that feels fully delivered by the time its killer ending drops – for me it’s not a case of whether there should be a sequel, but rather what form it should take.
As I speculated a while ago, it’s seemed fairly obvious that TLoU would eventually get a PS4-exclusive follow-up. Appearing late in the PS3’s life – uncharacteristically so for a new franchise – the first game’s timing and tech-pushing visual design made it feel every bit like an investment in the future. Doubly so, after it (very quickly) moved to the PS4, complete with the Left Behind DLC’s world-expanding, only semi-connected prequel story. Naughty Dog’s line on a sequel remained that of ‘if we can tell a story that isn’t repeating itself…’, but the drastically different tack taken in Left Behind – as well as the huge number of half-told stories and briefly glimpsed lives within the main game – heavily implies that such a feat is very possible.
It’s that latter sentiment that I really, really hope Naughty Dog is focused on with The Last of Us 2 (or The Lastest Us, or 2 Last, 2 Us, or whatever it ends up being called). Because it really can’t be a sequel in the traditional sense. The world, the aesthetic, the desperation, the fraught, improvisational combat, that can all stay. But everything else has to go. Because, as good as it is on a mechanical level, the first game’s true impact is a product of the deft and powerful interplay between interaction and narrative, and that original story has now been told to completion. Trying to build a second game around it would be like trying to a cup of tea with a bag that’s already been strained barren.
For The Last of Us 2 to be worthwhile, it needs to recreate the effect and overall conceits of the first game without re-using any of the specifics. That tale’s narrative fuel has already been burned, and the new game must look for its driving force elsewhere.
Yes, the sequel could conceivably pick up with Ellie, years later, perhaps a little while after Joel’s death, on a journey through adulthood that has her coming to terms with him, their relationship, and his decision at the end of the first game. And I could see that route being a tempting prospect. There would be a form of commercially reassuring continuity from game to game, as well as scope for a new tale of soul searching and survival, spinning off from a moment that the first game’s players will find all too resonant. Hell, if crafted that story very smartly, Naughty Dog could even play with parallels between Ellie’s ambivalence regarding Joel’s actions, and the players’ shared response, tying player and protagonist empathy together very neatly indeed.
But for me that would still misfire. It would be a decent, respectable follow-up, but not a truly great one. It could deliver a good, thoughtful, full-length epilogue to The Last of Us, undoubtedly, but it would also detract from The Last of Us by very nature of exploring its ending further. The abruptness, the ambiguity, the pensive, potential fragile future its conclusion points toward, all of these things are fundamental to the way The Last of Us Ends. They’re all fundamental to making its point, to raising its questions of free-will, and parental responsibility, and selfishness, and parental irresponsibility. Answering those questions in any explicit way would crush their power as wider, philosophical abstracts. Hell, just overtly explaining the truth behind Ellie’s ambiguous utterance of “Okay” would be damaging in the extreme.
Much better then, to look elsewhere. After all, one of The Last of Us’ other great strengths – in fact one that also plays into the power of its ending in a less explicit sense – is the fullness of its world, the sense that Joel and Ellie are not special, chosen protagonists passing through a film-set built for their convenience, but just two of a world full of survivors, all making their own way – or failing to – via a multitude of different means and approaches. And again, the distinctly unheroic, deconstructive, traditionally ‘anticlimactic’ nature of the game’s ending plays wholeheartedly into that notion.
It would be a tragic waste to use the sequel to make that world smaller, not bigger. Just as the Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels did their originators’ core ideas a huge disservice by following too narrow a path marked by too many unnecessary points of continuity, so too would a Last of Us sequel too closely tied to the original game deflate and devalue that sense of worldwide loss spawning countless, uniquely personal responses.
Better then, to look elsewhere. Let’s see how the fungal apocalypse is affecting different people, with different problems, and different priorities. Let’s veer away from another bid to save the world (following another attempt would further devalue the power of Joel’s decision, making his actions moot rather than profound). Let’s have The Last of Us’ world become a permanent, immovable fixture, a conceptual backdrop – much like that of Fallout, or any good western – in which unrestrained human nature, instincts, hopes and fears can play out. A place that can be nudged and modified in important, personal ways, but which is realistically impervious to the broad strokes, pulp heroism of those cartoonish individuals who would Save The World.
Let’s have the series become a narrative petri dish for humanity, in all its variety, its nobility, its malice, and its fallibility. Let’s establish that these really are the last of us, and see how they handle that fact.