[SPOILER NOTE: There are no spoilers for “The Last of Us Part II” below, beyond what was already revealed in trailers and pre-release gameplay footage. However, the ending of the first “The Last of Us” is discussed in detail.]
To say there was a lot of pressure on “The Last of Us Part II,” which officially comes out on Friday, would be an understatement.
It’s no easy feat to follow up a game that has the legacy that “The Last of Us” has — not to mention, an ending which most fans found to be more than satisfying. Plus, Ellie takes center stage in “Part II,” so there’s good reason that her voice actor, Ashley Johnson, would feel a lot of that pressure.
“The Last of Us Part II” finds Ellie as a 19-year-old, picking up five years after she and Joel traveled across the country to find a way to use her immunity to make a cure for the viral infection that plunged the U.S. into a post-apocalyptic state. It has her facing the consequences of the decision Joel made — saving her life instead of allowing doctors to use her immunity to find a cure (and subsequently lying to her about it) — in addition to the many traumas she’s faced.
Variety talked to Johnson about how she and the writers dealt with that trauma, what it was like to return for a sequel with Ellie as the main character and why she’s just as protective of “The Last of Us” series as the fans are.
“The Last of Us” is so beloved, and the ending in particular is seen by a lot of people as the best video game ending ever. When you first heard there would be a sequel, what was your reaction?
Well, I knew that they were going to do a sequel pretty soon after we finished shooting the first game. I knew for a really long time, but of course I struggled with it, like everybody else. When we were making the first game, you know, if anything, you hope that what you’re making, that people will respond to it in a positive way, or that they will like it. But I don’t think any of us really thought that it would get the response that it did, and of course, you have the fear of making a sequel: How can you sort of meet that? But when [writer/director Neil Druckmann] sat me down to tell me the full story of the second game, I was pretty blown away, and I think I was very excited to go on this journey and tell this story and add to the story. And Neil’s even talked about this too. He’s like, “I don’t even necessarily feel like this a sequel. It feels more like the story keeps going and it’s the next progression.” I’ve lived with this character for 10 years now, and of course, this is a lot heavier than the first game, but I was really excited to go there.
Like you mentioned, you couldn’t have predicted how well-received the first game would become. With that in mind, did you feel a different kind of pressure heading into the sequel?
Absolutely. I think with the first game, that was my first motion-capture video game and really, video game for the most part, that I’d ever worked on, and I learned so much from Troy [Baker, who voices Joel] and from Neil and it’s a whole different type of set. Everything is different. And what I’ve learned from this experience and doing motion-capture, is this is a medium that I love to work in because the possibilities are endless. It’s like theater. And I was nervous, obviously, to try to make a sequel that hopefully would resonate with people, but mostly just because of playing the main player character. That made me nervous, and I worked so much with Troy, and I leaned on him so much during the shooting of the first game. It made me nervous to be that person this time around. Knowing how much the fans of the game are as possessive of it as I am, I wanted to do as good of a job in telling the story as I could.
Since Joel was the playable protagonist of the first game, did you get any advice from Troy, in that respect?
Troy is one of my best friends and I adore him and we’ve become such good friends in these past 10 years. He gave me a lot of confidence in that space, and I did learn so much from him, but [working on the first “The Last of Us”] was the perfect starting point, because even though I was sort of nervous to take that on, I felt ready. And I was excited to tell this story and to play this character, and for people to learn more about her. I was excited and nervous, but ready.
When we find Ellie in “Part II,” a few years have passed, and she’s grown up a lot. How did you approach her emotional growth, given where she’s at now?
When we meet Ellie at this part of the story, obviously, it’s five years later and she’s really kind of made a space for herself in Jackson, in this community. And she’s patrolling, and she’s learned so much from Joel, and we see that she’s very capable, and at this point, we feel the tension between Joel and Ellie, because we know the ending of the first game. Throughout the story, we learn how that decision has affected Ellie, and that’s where we pick up with her. And Ellie’s already grappling with a lot, at this point in her life, of knowing that she had this immunity but wasn’t able to do anything with it. And feeling the weight of someone that you really cared about, that they lied to you, ultimately, and trying to find a sense of purpose in this world, which is hard for anyone to do, let alone during a pandemic, which feels appropriate right now [laughs] — it’s a lot, and I feel like as she’s gotten older, the weight of that and carrying that with her, that’s where we start the game with her. Of course, it was hard to be in that space constantly while shooting this game over the course of five or six years, but I love this character, I love working with these actors, I love working with Neil and with [writer Halley Gross]. It was such a collaborative and fun space to be in, considering the subject matter of the game.
Ellie is definitely dealing with a lot – she has a lot of trauma, PSTD, survivor’s guilt. And the game approaches that in very hard, but largely very honest ways. What kind of conversations did you have with Neil and Halley about portraying Ellie’s trauma?
I think a lot of it was talking with Neil and with Halley… How do we tell that story and tell the story in the best way for people to sort of relate to that and understand what dealing with anxiety or PTSD, what that feels like? And it was important for us to get that right. And we had a lot of discussions about it, a lot of stuff that I don’t know if I feel comfortable talking about [laughs], but you know, it was really important for us to get that right, because a lot of people do deal with anxiety and PSTD. We really worked hard on getting that right.
A lot of the response I get from people who have played it, they’re like, “it’s so hard to see Ellie go through this and be in these situations.” It’s funny how, in the first game, some of the experiences that Joel goes through, there’s some similarities there. But it is really hard to see a 19-year-old girl make some similar decisions.
One of the things that continually gets brought up in reviews and coverage is that there is no black and white in the morality of these games. There’s a lot of shades of gray there.
Yes, there are. And I think for me, I am so excited to be a part of this story that is taking risks. I feel like with Naughty Dog, they take risks and they’re not trying to please everybody. And I feel like in order to move a medium forward, sometimes you need people to do that, to take risks and be like, “yeah, this is not going to be for everybody, but this is a story that we decided to tell.” It’s exciting to me, and I’m so incredibly proud to be a part of it.
And with Ellie being a gay woman, and for her to be the protagonist of this huge, AAA game – that feels like an important step for LGBT representation. What do you think that means, to have that kind of representation in this big of a game?
It’s really exciting to me, and especially that the game is coming out during Pride month, it just feels very appropriate and exciting. But when we have representation in any media, you have more people that can connect with the story, and isn’t that the point of storytelling? I mean, you want people to connect. You want them to relate, or at least learn something new from a new perspective. And we know this – we know representation is important, this isn’t a new thing. But I love that this character is just a normal teenage girl who is queer and is in a AAA game title. I don’t know, it just feels really special. And I know I keep saying this, but I’m so unbelievably proud that I got to play this character and was able to be a part of that representation.