It has been called “powerful,” “emotional,” and “iconic.” It might be one of the most famous scenes in an entire generation of video games, often cited in conversations as an example of how the game it comes from is “the height of video game storytelling,” as IGN wrote back in 2013. I speak, of course, of The Last of Us’ giraffe scene, a pivotal animal petting moment that occurs near the end of Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalyptic survival game.
As former Naughty Dog level designer Peter Field explained in a breakdown of that part of the game, the bus depot level — and especially the giraffe scene — help Joel understand what a toll the journey has taken on Ellie. The level also reinforces that Ellie is determined to reach the Fireflies regardless of her momentary depression. Both of these elements go on to inform the backbone of The Last of Us Part 2, where the tension between these characters comes to a breaking point.
The Last of Us Part 2 shows that AAA games have come much farther than what the original giraffe scene could provide. For one thing, The Last of Us 2 is full of “giraffe scenes” — that is, scenes with downtime from the perpetual violence of the rest of the game’s world, often used to provide tender, thoughtful moments for its characters. In these moments of respite, the player character participates in a snowball fight, practices the guitar, and plays fetch with a dog. In this, The Last of Us 2 isn’t unique; if you’ve played Naughty Dog games even before the first Last of Us, you’ve noticed how much effort the studio puts into finding interactive yet nonviolent ways to push the narrative forward without having to rely entirely on long, noninteractive cutscenes. Uncharted 4 had a portion where you just hang out in Nate’s house, and The Lost Legacy opens with a great market level in this vein. The Last of Us 2 is full of stuff like that.
There’s a specific level in TLOU2, though, that highlights just how far big-budget games have come since the The Last of Us. Midway through the sequel, you enter a playable flashback sequence where it’s Ellie’s birthday. Joel wants to surprise her, so he drags her into the wilderness to an unknown location. Ever the jerk, Joel pushes Ellie into a body of water. It’s here that we learn that Ellie has finally learned how to swim, which is a good thing, because we’re going to have to do a little diving to get to our destination. This small detail alone helps establish some intimacy, not just between Joel and Ellie, but between the game and the player — Ellie has changed, and the mechanics reflect that. It’s a marked difference from the first game, where entire puzzles were constructed around her inability to tread water.
Eventually, Joel brings Ellie to a museum full of dinosaur exhibits, with a life-size T. rex model out front. Cool! As you poke and prod through the level, you might decide to open up Ellie’s notebook, where you find hints of her life and the relationships she’s had in the time between the first game and the second game. Eventually, you find a hat. You can put on the hat, and that’s silly enough. But then you find a second hat, which you can place atop each and every dinosaur. You make your way through the museum, learning fun facts about all sorts of extinct creatures that you can dress up with the press of a button. If you want, that is. It’s all totally optional.
But ornery old Joel kinda hates it, so of course I feel a duty to annoy him. That’s intimacy, when you get down to it: knowing someone well enough to lovingly press their buttons. This ongoing interactivity, along with a number of optional conversations you have along the way, helps to set this level apart from the more static giraffe scene in the first game. But there’s more to it than just that. The museum itself provides small ways for you to interact with it, like cranking a lever to see the revolutions of the planets. Joel helpfully imparts some knowledge to Ellie about what she’s seeing.
Near the end of the level, Joel reveals the big surprise. There’s a small spacecraft in the museum that was once used for a real space operation. Joel asks you to go through the displays and pick one of the helmets. There are three, each with a different type of design and time period. I opted for one of the sleeker, more futuristic pieces.
Strapped up and ready to go, Joel and Ellie hop into the vessel. Joel gives Ellie a cassette tape in a Walkman, which was apparently mighty hard to find. He asks Ellie to close her eyes and press play. The cassette, as it turns out, contains the audio from an actual shuttle launch. Ellie may never get to go beyond planet Earth, but for a brief moment, she can pretend to leave it all behind. The liftoff sequence reminds me a lot of that viral video where a dad shakes his kid in a laundry basket while she watches some footage of a roller coaster, in an effort to make her feel like she’s actually there. It’s sweet.
All these small choices along the way make a huge difference, because the player gets to express themselves. The sequence is already poignant, but by allowing you to pick your helmet, as well as which dinosaur gets to keep the hat, the level becomes personal. By contrast, everyone experienced The Last of Us’ giraffe scene in exactly the same way, and while that was still touching, it’s flat compared to what The Last of Us Part 2 regularly provides.
But it wouldn’t be a Last of Us game without at least one gut punch to bookend the experience. To commemorate the trip, Joel gives you a space pin that you attach to the front of your backpack, which is full of other baubles. When you flash forward to more recent events, Ellie has gotten rid of most of those childish things on her backpack — with one important exception. The space pin. Through it all, as Ellie strives to seek revenge, and even as she grapples with her complex feelings about the man who “saved” her, she’s still carrying that pin. Damn.