The Last of Us Part II co-writer Halley Gross on extreme violence, Ellie's soul and fan expectations

The Last of Us Part II co-writer Halley Gross on extreme violence, Ellie's soul and fan expectations
Photo credit: PlayStation

The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog, is widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made.

Originally released in 2013, it struck a chord with gamers through its innovative survival gameplay and profound, post-apocalyptic story following two main characters, Joel and Ellie.

That means there's a tremendous amount of pressure on Naughty Dog to deliver with the upcoming sequel and ensure it's of the same quality.

Part of the team trying to make that happen is co-writer Halley Gross, and The Last of Us Part II is her first-ever game, after writing for TV shows including Westworld and Banshee.

She's certainly aware of the pressure.

"It's super intimidating, but it's a really exciting challenge and thrilling opportunity," Gross told Newshub at the E3 expo in Los Angeles.

"You get in the weeds and you get writing the story, and you just focus on the work. It's only when you come to something like E3 you remember how massive it is for people."

The Last of Us Part II's gameplay reveal trailer at E3 sure was "massive". It set social media aflutter by transitioning from a cute scene of awkward teen romance to a segment of extreme brutality.

That video showcased what fans really love about the original game - a special something that's achieved firstly with thoughtful writing. But of course, the actors that bring the script to life are just as important.

"Naughty Dog prioritises story and character, and that permeates every facet of the process. So in casting, it's always about finding the actor best suited to the role," said Gross.

"Then Neil [Druckmann] makes the directing and acting process on the motion-capture stages a real collaboration, a dialogue. He loves directing and he's very good at it. But the key thing is that story and characters just remain a priority, across the board."

Ellie, aged 19, in The Last of Us Part II
Ellie, aged 19, in The Last of Us Part II Photo credit: PlayStation

In the videos released so far for The Last of Us Part II, we've seen a lot of Ellie but very little of Joel, who was the main protagonist in the first game. Some fans thought he'd died during the time in between games and may be appearing as a ghost to Ellie.

Gross confirmed that the reference to Ellie's "old man" in the E3 2018 trailer is proof that Joel is, indeed, still alive in the sequel.

"They do reference Joel in the trailer, so we know he's in Jackson [County, Wyoming]. We know he's an important part of Ellie's life, still," Gross said.

"But obviously they have a complicated relationship after what happened at the end of the first game. The way she reacted when Jesse told her 'your old man really laid into me today', she obviously wasn't thrilled about his micro-managing her life. Beyond that, we're not ready to talk about Joel's involvement in the game yet."

There's now been three promotional videos released for The Last of Us Part II. They have featured some intensely graphic violence, which has been criticised by some online as going too far.

Others, however, have defended the brutality shown off, insisting it's important to be upfront about just how not-for-children these games are. Naughty Dog chose to show off the violence as it's an essential part of the experience they're working on.

The studio doesn't want to sanitise the violence - they're making it sickening on purpose.

"One of the themes we're working toward is the cyclical nature of violence, and the effects of violence and trauma on the soul. In this case, Ellie's soul," Gross said.

"So we need to honour that violence. We're trying to paint incredibly grounded characters, so we need to honour that with grounded, accurate violence that's true to this hostile world."

Joel and 14-year-old Ellie in The Last of Us
Joel and 14-year-old Ellie in The Last of Us Photo credit: PlayStation

While Gross didn't write the first game, her affection for the character of Ellie was obvious during our conversation. She's very aware of how important Ellie's story has been to The Last of Us fans and respects what the next chapter will mean to them.

"We care a lot, too. We're really excited to evolve Ellie further and see who she becomes at 19, and that is going to be a different person. I was a different person at 19 than I was at 14."

Gross paused, before adding: "We're going to do right by her."

The Last of Us Part II will be released on PlayStation 4.

Newshub is covering E3 courtesy of Xbox and PlayStation.