Any story, no matter how assured the final product, goes through revisions. And The Last of Us is no different. The game's closing hours may be among gaming's most confident, but as I learned speaking to its creators, it all could have come together quite differently.
BIG SPOILERS COMING FOR THE LAST OF US. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Earlier this week I had a long conversation with The Last of Us game director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann. We covered a whole mess of topics related to the game, but the first three things I asked about were:
1) The final scene with Joel and Ellie.
2) The scene in the operating room.
3) Those fucking giraffes.
Let's go through them.
I've already gone on at length about how much I like the ending to The Last of Us. The ambiguity, the hesitation, the lie. All of it. It was an ending that felt rare and complete.
Here's me, in case you don't have time to read that whole article:
It sure wasn't a satisfying ending; there was no intense final boss battle, no emotional goodbye, and no great sacrifice. In many ways, it was the opposite of the more traditional (though no less worthy or affecting) ending we saw in Telltale's The Walking Dead game. None of the more predictable "zombie endings" people had guessed came to pass: Joel didn't die, he wasn't forced to kill Ellie, nor was she forced to kill him. Despite the fact that the game was built on so many zombie-movie tropes and clichés, its ending avoided all of them.
Druckmann told me that initially, they had an ending that, while not significantly different in terms of content, had a very different tone.
"The original ending was, I guess, much more hopeful," he said. "We knew Joel would lie to Ellie, but she believed the lie, one hundred percent. There wasn't any doubt there, and they would be arriving in Tommy's town, and you kind of get the idea that everything's gonna be fine and dandy.
"But as we got closer and closer to shooting that scene, it stopped feeling honest. And Ellie, over the course of the game, initially you're just writing and working with such broad strokes. And as you take it deeper, that's when you really figure out who the character is. She had such a good bullshit detector that it didn't feel like she would buy it. Or at least not buy it so easily. And then the scene kind of grew out of that, that there would be a kind of final challenge."
I joked that I was surprised he saw that ending as more hopeful, given that Joel had still stolen away humanity's hope for a cure and killed a lot of people in the process. He's a monster, he's lying to her! And she believes him? That's a hopeful ending?
Druckmann laughed. "Is that how you saw him, as a monster?"
I said, "I mean, a sympathetic monster, but sure! He did monstrous things!"
To which Druckmann replied, "Yeah. But who didn't in this world?
Fair enough. I asked if they'd ever considered changing the ending more substantially, making it much less of a downer.
"No," Druckmann said. "As far as like, 'Joel saves the world,' no.
"As for the whole ending… I've heard you talk [in your review] about how some of the plot points are clichéd, and the one that probably bugs us the most is Ellie being immune. And the only reason that's in there is so you could get that choice at the end. There's this progression of character for Joel, and how far is he willing to go for Ellie? It progresses from like, willing to put his life on the line, willing to put his friends on the line, and eventually he's willing to put his soul on the line, and he's willing to sacrifice all of humanity. And at the end you could argue that last conversation, he's even willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line. In order to protect her.
"So that was always there for that purpose. It was never there because we're interested in saving the world or curing Mankind; it was just to get that progression of his character, or rather, the progression of both characters, because it becomes really interesting for Ellie at the end there, too."
Replaying the ending a couple of nights ago, I noticed just how effective it is to have the final sequence, climbing through the woods toward Tommy's, play out from Ellie's perspective. As Joel natters on about Sarah, and how she would've liked Ellie, it's clear that he's being overly nice. Something's off; you can hear the lie. And more importantly, you can see how Ellie sees it. I asked about that choice.
"That was a conscious decision," Druckmann said. "As far as you know, he has taken these acts, and some people interpret them as monstrous or horrible, and you get to kind of view him from afar. You get to objectify him in a way, by playing as Ellie."
Later, Druckmann said, "What's interesting to me about the ending is, I think people who aren't parents are about 50/50 in how they feel about the ending, as far as agreeing with Joel or disagreeing with Joel. I haven't heard a single parent say 'I disagree with Joel's decision.'"
In comments sections and forums and even among my colleagues, one thing everyone seems to talk about is the scene in the operating room. Joel walks in and three doctors are preparing to operate on Ellie, which would kill her in the process. Joel slowly walks toward the operating table, and the nearest surgeon holds up a scalpel, ready to fight him off. Joel kills him, takes Ellie, and leaves.
Or, that's how it played for me. Other people did it differently; killed all three doctors, or tried to do it clean. Given how little "choice" there is in The Last of Us, it's fascinating that people have approached this one "optional" part in such different ways. But as it turns out, that scene could have been a non-interactive cutscene.
Druckmann: "The ending, when Joel walks into the operating room, it used to be one giant cutscene. It was quite a bit different."
"The ending," Druckman said, "when Joel walks into the operating room, it used to be one giant cutscene. It was quite a bit different. And there was a designer, Peter Field, who advocated for it to be playable. And he argued for it, and we'd kind of wrack our brain for how to do it, and eventually he was right. We scrapped the whole cinematic and made it playable. And it helped even moreso than we had initially, the beginning really mirrors the end."
I asked if Druckmann could estimate how playtesters fared when called upon to shoot the doctors. "I don't know the numbers," he said, "it's interesting. Sometimes people don't realize they can shoot all the doctors, and sometimes they don't realize that they don't have to shoot the doctors. And sometimes like, "Hey, I don't care, I just went in there guns blazing, how dare they do what they're doing!" And some people were disgusted that they have to shoot the first doctor."
"We have exit interviews after our playtests in-house," Straley said, "and we ask questions about difficulty and weapons and all sorts of different ramping things, and at some point, we walked through the game linearly. And once they get to the doctor's office, you'll always have, because we'll have like two or three people in the room at a time, and inevitably, there will be an outbreak of an argument between somebody and the other people in the room about like, 'Did you kill them all?' 'I murdered 'em all.' 'No, I let them all go, I wish I didn't have to kill that one,' 'I took out my flamethrower and burned them to a crisp.'
As "climactic" as the operating room scene and subsequent denouement felt, the emotional peak of the game for me (and, I bet, for a lot of others) involved giraffes. Ugh, those fucking awesome giraffes.
As it turns out, for a long time they weren't going to be giraffes, they were going to be deer. Bo-ring!
Let's back up. First, I asked Druckmann and Straley, "Why giraffes?"
They both laughed. "I don't know," Druckmann said, "because deer are too mundane. Deer are pretty small and mundane. And giraffe are pretty incredible. You go to the zoo and you see a giraffe up close… I was in Tampa, Florida and there was a place where you could see giraffes, and it's pretty incredible, seeing this majestic animal up close."
(My boss Stephen, upon seeing this quote, remarked to me: "When I was in Tanzania on a safari, I watched one giraffe try to mount another. It was not majestic.")
Straley: I think it's one of those things where, we had deer as a concept, it was gonna be a herd of deer, a lot of them...
Druckmann: We even had a zebra concept at one point.
Straley: We had a zebra. It came down to sort of that 12 Monkeys aspect of when the community zoo has sort of like, there's nobody maintaining it, the animals break free, what would you see roaming around? And the giraffe is very docile, beautiful, elegant… it's such a fascinating creature, and then what's the most… if you look at Ellie's perspective, that's the most interesting thing that you could possibly see. This elongated neck, this weird, alien animal.
Druckmann: It's a very gentle animal, as well, there's nothing threatening about a giraffe.
Straley: It just fit, when we were talking about what we wanted to do, giraffes fit.
Me: So the giraffes survived for 20 years?
Druckmann: Or its children survived.
Straley: Yeah, they just keep breeding. That's the idea, right, nature is reclaiming the earth and its got its own ecosystem that doesn't need humans to maintain it.
Druckmann: And it's funny, I saw people complaining, or critiquing, that the cold climate weather, that the giraffe wouldn't be able to survive there during the winter months.
Straley: Maybe they migrated.
I asked them about Geoff Keighley, the well-known games journalist who essentially trolled all of games media by starting a loud, bizarre-to-most Twitter campaign about giraffes while the game was still under review embargo. All of us who had played the game were stuck, since we couldn't tell him to knock it off without revealing that we knew what he was referring to... and in so doing reveal that there were giraffes involved in The Last of Us... and in so doing spoil one of the game's more lovely surprises.
I asked if they saw Keighley's tweets. "Yes, we saw," Druckmann said, laughing. "We knew why he was doing it, and we couldn't say anything the whole time. I think he kind of prides himself on insider info. I think he knew no one could say anything, so he could just keep running with it."
Curse you, Keighley! It was brilliant, really. Diabolical, but brilliant.
The giraffe scene is cool on its own, but it's all the more effective for where it occurs in the story. At the start of spring, Ellie is clearly suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress after her near-death encounter with David. Joel is trying (and failing) to re-connect with her. She's withdrawn, and almost seems to have given up hope, likely in part because she knows their journey is coming to a close and that she might not come out of that hospital alive.
I captured the scene; it's worth re-watching to catch just how well-put-together it is.
At the outset, Joel assumes the position for the traditional "Naughty Dog Boost," ready to help Ellie up to one more ledge… but she doesn't come. He calls out to her, and it's clear that she's not okay; she's been so attentive and chatty for the whole game. We know something's wrong. He boosts her up and she immediately sees something, drops the ladder, and runs away. (And remember, this is like, Ladder Carrying: The Game. First she ignores the boost, then she drops the ladder! Such symbolism.)
You don't know what she's seeing; is it a tank or something, or a bunch of soldiers? What is it? Of course, it's nothing of the sort.
After that, a great scene where Joel and Ellie stand next to each other, looking out over the giraffe herd. Ellie calls back to her first genuine interaction with Joel, where they paused to look out at the sun rising over the Boston skyline.
"This everything you were hoping for?" he asks.
"It's got its ups and downs," Ellie says. "You can't deny the view, though."
Druckmann said they weren't initially sure where to place the giraffe scene. "We knew we wanted a section where Ellie would be out of the quarantine zone and just be enamored by wildlife," he said. "And we just called that section of the game 'wild animals,' that was the code name for it. And then we just were struggling with where to put it. And once we put it after the David sequence, the whole structure kind of fell into place. It just flowed so well from one to the other, and I think without that structure, it wouldn't have worked as well."
They certainly pulled it off. Who'd have thought, that in a game filled with complex morality, intense violence, zombies, bandits, sacrifice and death, that a herd of giraffes would steal the show?
I'll have a couple more things from my talk with Druckmann and Straley, including a more catch-all thing about the overall process of making the game, tomorrow and next week on Kotaku. In the meantime, go hug the giraffe in your life.