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The Last of Us Part II has won more than 300 game of the year awards, and we’re still talking about this beautiful yet horrifying game in 2021 because of its approach to diversity.
Naughty Dog’s sequel to The Last of Us debuted in June 2020 with a large and diverse cast behind its story of how someone will go to pursue revenge after losing someone they love. It’s about both love and hate, and how characters can be both heroes and villains at the same time. I spoke with Halley Gross at our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event about how she and her fellow Naughty Dog writers and designers infused this blockbuster with diversity.
I played the game all the way through with my college-age daughter, who then proceeded to play it on the hardest level. And that multi-generational bonding mirrored what happens in the story; Joel, who loses his own daughter, forms a bond with Ellie, a teenager surviving the zombie apocalypse.
I asked Gross what kind of reaction the game has received.
“Largely what we’ve heard has been mostly wonderful,” she said in our fireside chat. “We were nervous to come out at a time with COVID and everything going on in the world. But it seems like it actually really helped people process the trauma going on outside.
“But more than that, I think people really responded to the representation that we focused on, I think a lot of people felt really seen and heard, and were thrilled to see some version of themselves or some version of themselves that they can recognize in a game that they’re playing, that their friends are playing that their families playing. So yeah, it’s been really wonderful.”
Lessons for developers
I felt like The Last of Us Part II has a lot of lessons for other game developers to learn when it comes to building diversity into a cast, whether it’s for bit players or major characters. They were humanized in keeping with the theme of showing you what it’s like to walking someone else’s shoes, and how these seeking revenge can get caught in a cycle in which they are both the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The game recognizes that everybody is human, including Asian Americans, transgender folks, lesbians, and bisexual women.
“It’s really been a priority of the studio. In the writing department, we really cared about representing the world we see around us every day, and wanting to make sure that every single character felt unique, individual, human,” Gross said. “No two characters felt like they were representing necessarily the same experience, or point of view. But beyond that, our studio is very diverse. And it was a priority for so many different departments, especially our character concept that our artists constantly coming to us. They would say, ‘We’ve got this character, who we need in this role in the game. What if we made the character look like this? What if we focused it this way, trying to really push every character to feel like you’re seeing the diverse America that we live in?”
Naughty Dog’s game stands out because so many works of art just don’t have that kind of diversity. I asked Gross how she deals with questions about whether diverse characters fit in a particular role or historical game.
“We’re fortunate that you know, ours is a modern story that takes place in a post pandemic America,” she said. “But also it was a real priority for us. It was a real priority to to use the platform that we have to try and normalize a lot of these representations that still, to your point, feel like they are on the fringe.”
A theme about tribalism
Naughty Dog started with the theme of tribalism and challenged its team about how you would build empathy toward the characters.
“Our focus was there. And we were fortunate enough that we had these established characters that we were starting with,” she said. “We had Ellie, who was canonically a lesbian, and we had Joel. But beyond that, I think what we were really trying to do is think about who would be there, honestly, four or five years later, and then build that out.
“In terms of diversity, I don’t think we sat there and said, I think when you’re thinking about a character, race, or or gender identity, or or sexual orientation are only facets of who a character is.”
The writers didn’t want characters to be defined by just one thing, like their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or their creed, she said.
“There’s an opportunity to have that character do so much for the story,” Gross said. “So I think we really started from, ‘Hey, what does this character need to do in terms of functionality in the story?’ What point of view do they need to represent in terms of supporting tribalism being against tribalism moving one of our protagonists in in certain directions? And then once we figured that out, we said who’s available to cast? We don’t see a lot of Asian representation. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we prioritized, you know, making Jessie an Asian American character?”
Fleshing out characters
I think it’s a sign of how far video games have come that the characters can be more fully fleshed out now, as if they were from a novel. They now have story arcs and character transformations.
“One of the reasons I came onto the project was I was so excited about the characters that Neil [Druckmann, game director] had already made out of Ellie and Joel,” she said. “You have this woman, who was this girl, who grew up in a world of trauma, of heartbreak, of abandonment, and who she would become as a young woman. And so that that was really exciting. It’s also fabulous that we’re getting to see LGBT protagonists in our narrative, but in my mind, her sexual orientation is again, just a facet of this incredibly complex woman who is negotiating the impact of trauma on her soul. That is, to me that is sort of the focus of who Ellie is in this game.”
One of the most painful things about The Last of Us Part II is that it creates these interesting and diverse characters … and then it takes them away. They’re unceremoniously killed off in this vicious universe.
One of the reasons for that, Gross said, is that the developers wanted to show you just how dangerous the world of The Last of Us is. When NPCs (nonplayer characters) die, another character will shriek, and it reinforces the notion that the victim was a real human being, and it makes you wonder if the character doing the killing is really the hero after all. One NPC weeps over his slain dog.
“People come into a game with preconceived notions about the value of NPCs,” she said. “We saw this as an opportunity, because this is not a movie or a television show, because this is a video game, to play with that expectation. Ellie believes that people are disposable, and [as you play her], you have to push through or move in stealth around in order to get to your goal. But we wanted that to start to creep in. There is a cost to all of this violence.”
Let’s be ballsy
Gross said she wanted to challenge game developers to not just go with the status quo out of fear they might piss off some people or fail to appeal to the widest audience.
“If you’re telling a good story, if you’re creating a complex character, there will be some facet of that character that people can relate to,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be what they look like or who they love. But it’s the human moments that connect all of us. So I would, I would hope that all of us as storytellers are trying to find ways to make our characters feel human, even if they’re not human, make them feel empathetic.”
At the same time, she said, “We have this huge platform, we have this huge opportunity to reach a huge audience. Let’s help our audience grow, let’s challenge them to relate to people they wouldn’t otherwise relate to. We’ve all been relating to a tiny plumber. For decades, we’ve all been relating to a blue hedgehog for decades. Let’s allow our more anthropomorphic characters to be more grounded characters, to have the diversity that some of our cartoons have had for for years, let’s do it. Let’s just be ballsy.”
Gross said she got into screenwriting because of shows like Alias and Dark Angel, which had strong female protagonists.
“I hadn’t seen this before,” she said. “Here are these women in these traumatic roles. And I felt suddenly a little bit more seen. There was a brokenness to these women that that made me feel validated. For the next generation, let’s take the opportunity to inspire the kids beneath us to tell their stories to relate to all of us so that we can all feel like we’re seen.”
Other studios that stick to the status quo haven’t been nearly as brave. I noted that on Metacritic, The Last of Us Part II was review-bombed by players — before they had a chance to play it. They had done that over leaks they had heard about how the game was “woke.” Over time, the review score came back up as players who finished the game realized how impactful it was.
“You should see my DMs. It was hellfire for a little while, just things I could not say to my mother out loud,” she said.
Where to go next
Yet the game went on to win so many awards. Players may have justifiably been upset about who dies in the game, but it was heartwarming to see that people eventually came around to appreciate it.
“Naughty Dog is lucky because there’s, they have a history that they can take big swings, and people trust that they’re going to deliver something exciting and something interesting,” Gross said. “I think it’s wonderful that Naughty Dog has used that platform. But I also think we can’t be afraid. Maybe this is controversial. I don’t care about appeasing that group. I don’t want to make everybody happy. We’re never going to make everybody happy. I want to use my opportunities to reach the kids that don’t feel seen.”
She added, “We can’t just rest on our laurels. We’re not going to grow; we’re not going to change. Growth comes from change. Most people don’t want to change unless they are forced to unless they are confronted by change because they like being comfortable. We have to make people a little uncomfortable to help grow as a society.”
As for others who don’t want to change, Gross said, “They’re not going to change. So why are we trying to make them comfortable? We’re not going change their minds. We’re not making the game for them. We’re making the game for everybody. And some people aren’t going to like it. And I don’t mind pissing off that group.”
I asked Gross where she would like diversity to go next in games.
“I think games more than any other medium have an opportunity because, to your point, you’re really walking in the shoes with this character,” she said. “What I would love to see is an investment in dimensional characters in maybe not telling such black and white stories, in having flawed protagonists, and redeemable antagonists, and looking at all of our characters in video games, holistically. Games are not just about mechanics. Games are about the whole experience. Mechanics help elucidate character, character helps define mechanics.”
She added, “They should be seen as interlinked. And so I think anytime that we have an opportunity to use mechanics to use characters to use narrative to use art to use animation, to push what people are used to seeing, so that when they encounter it in their daily life, they’re more open to new experiences, they’re more open to presuming humanity to presuming some level of empathy. Where they might not have before. I think narrative should be a delicious ride it but it can be so much more. And I think we should do everything we can to make it more.”
Using a violent video game to make a statement about violence
I also asked Gross how she felt about making a commentary about violence using a violent video game as a vehicle for that commentary.
“It’s tricky,” she said. “I was constantly questioning if it was going to work. We are sending this message. I think it’s exciting, looking at how games are perceived or the expectations of games and then subverting them. I want to walk into a game and not know how it’s going to end. I want to be surprised, and surprised by my feelings. I think it’s an important thing for us to be thinking about right now. There is so much tribalism where we are divided. We’re becoming more and more divided. Violence is inherently a part of this. I think we need to be talking about how we de-escalate.”
What is interesting is that the characters in the game appear to be surprised as well about how they feel, being forced to commit violence when they don’t really want to.
“So much of this game is about self-awareness,” Gross said. “We cut ourselves some slack. It’s OK for Ellie to go kill a bunch of people, but when Abby does it, it’s offensive. Why is it offensive? And whose point of view are we taking? … Most of the characters in this game have been the villain to somebody. Does that mean that they’re done? They have nothing redeemable left to give to society, does that mean that they should be punished for their actions? Can they ever atone for those actions? Are we all that different? Ultimately, Ellie and Abby and Joel are all very much on the same path, just at different stages.”
There’s a moment in the game where Abby protects a young enemy named Lev. Abby’s allies hurt someone close to Lev. Lev lashes out and says, “Your people did this.” And Abby shoots back, “You’re my people.” And just like that, Abby’s character changes so that she is no longer who we thought she was.
“At the beginning of the game, Abby gets what she believes is going to give her closure. And then she sees this young kid who is much like a baby Ellie, lost in the woods and alone. And this is an opportunity — whether she likes it or not, whether she intends it or not — for atonement, which is what she’s really searching for. We can often find the things we need in the strangest of places. And here it is in this enemy kid. And over the course of days, she feels more seen and more connected with this kid who’s going to help. Abby is willing and able to see the goodness in her enemy long before Ellies does. Abby is a little farther along in her growth.”
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