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The question looming behind The Last of Us Part 2’s gruesome, provocative E3 trailer

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At E3, Naughty Dog contrasted beauty and gore

Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment
The Last of Us Part 2 - Ellie and Dina dancing

The Last of Us Part 2 trailer at E3 2018 was anything but subtle.

It bookended unspeakable gore with sweet teenage love, a stark juxtaposition that got crowds whooping. According to its co-directors, it’s designed to show the two worlds that Ellie inhabits — and imply a question.

The Last of Us universe is inhospitable and inhumane. There is at least one pocket of something resembling pre-outbreak life, but most of the first game takes place in a world where humans are as much of a threat as the fungal infected.

This is the world into which the game’s protagonist, Ellie, was born. We know from a line at the beginning of the The Last of Us Part 2’s E3 trailer that her pocket of what passes for normal human civilization in Jackson, Wyoming is vulnerable. And growing up in a world gone mad shaped her character — just as, I suspect, it would shape you and me.

“The Last of Us is really about high stakes at its core, and we really wanted to show what is at stake for Ellie,” co-director Anthony Newman told Polygon at E3 2018. “In Jackson, Ellie has been able to find this sense of normalcy. She’s been able to kind of be a normal teenager and have teenage romance. We really wanted to show that side of her — that sweetness — and the relationships that are at stake for her in this world, and then transitioning into [a time] after a violent act is committed in Jackson kind of wrecks that world. This is the world that she’s forced to confront.

“So our game is a very holistic experience where it’s examining both the highs and lows — the sweetness and the brutality of the human experience. We really wanted to combine that into one experience for our audience.”

In short, the juxtaposition between the kiss and the killing was intentional. And that’s something that its directors say will be a theme throughout the game.

“It’s a game about what you would do and the lines you would cross in search for justice, and we’re seeing a side of Ellie, a part Ellie that we haven’t seen before,” co-director Kurt Margenau said. “And without talking too much about the story, it makes you think about how did she get here? What is the context with the situation? Which is kind of the point of it — to raise those questions in your mind. And what the game broadly addresses is that question in conversations about violence, presenting it very contrasting way for E3.”

Ellie slashes a woman with a switchblade in The Last of Us Part 2 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Part of what made the original game work was Ellie’s age. She was a young, relatively innocent teenager. When she said “Fuck, Joel!” in disbelief after some particularly gruesome killing, players felt the pang of her reaction. It was the tragic, if unavoidable reality of being a teenager in The Last of Us.

In The Last of Us Part 2, Ellie is older. And tattooed. And apparently in love. Just like anyone, she’s dealing with different emotions at 19 than she was when she was 13.

Devoid of that context, the trailer could be read differently. Were the people in the crowd at the PlayStation E3 event cheering because they cared about the characters? Where they cheering for good triumphing over evil? Did they understand the point — innocent teenage emotionalism juxtaposed with barbaric (if necessary) violence? Or did they just like to see buckets of blood sandwiched between kisses?

It’s jarring. But then so is the world of The Last of Us Part 2. Naughty Dog was able to build a beautiful core of emotion, told through the gradual and often reluctant bond between a young girl and her surrogate father in the first game. Absent that context in the sequel’s trailer, it’s hard to read the reaction.

The developers say they hope that the reactions were tied to viewers’ feelings for Ellie.

Ellie hides under a car in The Last of Us Part 2 Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

“It’s a tricky thing because you don’t know why. It’s hard to know what’s inside someone’s mind and how they’re reacting the way they are,” Margenau said. “Some people have mentioned people the cheering for the violence. I mean to me, I don’t think people are going to be sitting at home cheering the violence in the game. I feel like it’s the empathy that they feel for this character that people know and just in the beginning you’re brought into her life and her world, it was very, for lack of a better term, like normal, boring way of like I am at a dance and I’m talking about everyday life stuff. And then, oh, now this person is in this very, very dark, different situation and you’re empathizing with her and you’re cheering for it, I guess literally as well as figuratively. Her method of getting out of that situation happens to be in this world very realistic.”

Although the scene and the level in the trailer both happen in the game, “they don’t necessarily happen in that exact order,” Margenau said. Instead, Naughty Dog tied them together to convey the themes of the game, which includes Ellie’s sexuality.

“What’s important in this game is showing some teenage life,” Margenau said. “And that means romance, it means angst, it means complicated relationships with your parental figure and your friends around you. And a part of what we’re showing here is just part of that kind of teenage romance of, yeah, she happens to be gay. She’s into someone who’s been a friend for a long time, Dina.”

“We’re just interested in an honest portrayal of the trail of the world,” Newman said. “And it’s not an agenda that’s driving this. We’re just interested in creating unique characters that are honestly portrayed in a way that is, we think, relevant to the world as it is.”