Hours into The Last of Us 2, deep inside a flooded bookstore, a page lies torn from a children’s novel. If you direct Ellie to pick up the scrap, you’ll see it holds two stories. The first is an illustration of a solemn horse and rabbit, mottled by damp. “When a child REALLY loves you,” says the horse, “then you become real.”
“Does it hurt?” asks the rabbit. Ellie reads the exchange next to a broken bookshelf that yawns up at the sky like a shattered rib cage.
“Sometimes,” the truthful horse replies. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
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Flip the paper and among the damp brown spots a mother and her child have penciled their own conversation. Something terrible happened, and the child was upset. “What if we talked like this for a bit?” the mother wrote. “Okay,” is scrawled underneath in shaky, oversized letters. The mother apologised for grabbing her child and said mommies get scared sometimes. She wrote that although she misses “him” too, the child shouldn’t scream. The child wrote “I want…” then crossed it out. “I need…” then crossed it out. Finally, they settled simply on “I know.”
In a game whose heartbeat thumps to the rhythm of violence, quiet moments like this show the collateral of conflicts beyond The Last of Us’ main characters. Environmental storytelling is usually talked about in world-building terms: Overheard conversations, notes, and useful navigational signage all help conjure believable places from polygons and code. But The Last of Us Part II goes further by ensuring its environmental stories don’t just make post-apocalyptic Seattle feel realistic; they mirror central character arcs and form a scaffold that bolsters the game’s pivotal themes. [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=In%20a%20game%20whose%20heartbeat%20thumps%20to%20the%20rhythm%20of%20violence%2C%20quiet%20moments%20show%20the%20collateral%20of%20conflicts%20beyond%20The%20Last%20of%20Us%E2%80%99%20main%20characters.”]
In the Kingston bookstore note, the theme is love and how much it hurts to lose it. The jagged black lines that bisect this child’s attempts to express their grief mirror the black scratches across Joel’s eyes in Ellie’s journal. Both characters struggle to express their trauma. Meanwhile, the rabbit’s fear of love’s pain reflects Ellie’s torment as her pursuit of revenge takes her far from home and the person she once was. In this and every other note across hours of play, characters work through the same emotions and experiences that drive Ellie and Abby’s stories. The effect is twofold: A believable world is built on the bones of apocalyptic struggle, but also, our understanding of what Abby and Ellie feel increases. Their characters are fleshed out through the trauma of people we’ll never meet.
“Oh yeah, we are team theme,” says narrative lead and co-writer Halley Gross. “Everything goes back to ‘is this talking about the cycle of violence? Or breaking the cycle of violence? Or the consequences of the cycle of violence?’ Let’s make sure that we’re having that conversation at any moment we can.” For the often faceless people met in these easy-to-skim-past narratives, Naughty Dog’s ethos was “Let’s give these characters names, let’s give them experiences, let’s tug at the heart strings to make people realise that this isn’t just a faceless war. There are victims of violence in every iteration.”
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This is particularly powerful given that one of the differences between Part I and Part II is that all the playable characters here were born into the pandemic. As Joel, we viewed the world through the lens of what had been lost, but Abby and Ellie climb the broken teeth of skeletal skyscrapers with no lived understanding of what these structures were before the ivy claimed them. As every note, every overheard conversation, and every discarded toy in a rotting bedroom teach the player a little more about the world, Abby and Ellie learn too.
Writer Josh Scherr says the team used voice lines to illustrate how Abby and Ellie’s lessons from these environmental stories tie into their character arcs. “When Abby comes across the memorial at Martyr’s Gate, there’s all those prayer notes. If you read one Abby’ll scoff at it. She blows it all off, but by the time she’s had the whole journey with Lev and Yara and she’s reading the prayers [on the Seraphite island] it’s a lot more sobering; she’s grown.”
Environmental storytelling ended up being key to fleshing out the Seraphites. Scherr remembers there was originally going to be a section of Ellie’s playthrough where she was swept by the storm to the island and had to escape, which would have been an “opportunity to see the Seraphites up close in a peacetime setting.” But due to pacing reasons that was cut. “The end result,” says Scherr, ”was a lot of things about their religion have to come from conversations with Lev as you’re going through the high rise, various notes that you find, the murals.” These are built into production at the earliest stages; there’s concept art of a Seraphite corpse on a Chinatown rooftop in the “Extras” section of the game.
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“Ultimately, when you do make it to the island, one of our goals was to humanise [the Seraphites] as much as we could in the short amount of time. So a lot of the notes are these very mundane things about catching a deer, or here’s a young acolyte who just got his scars talking about being in love, or here’s a prayer note from someone in their shrine who’s so traumatised by the loss of their husband they’ve become a different person. They’re trying to show how the cycle of violence affects everyone, and everything we could do to align them with everyone else is done through environmental storytelling.”
This Sherlockian effort by the player to understand the Seraphites through the traces they leave behind is also required to understand their mortal enemy, Isaac. With only two cutscenes of physical presence, his entire arc is told through environmental storytelling. The effect is stark: We establish his mystery, grandeur, and menace long before he emerges from the darkness of the interrogation room. [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=With%20only%20two%20cutscenes%20of%20physical%20presence%2C%20Isacc’s%20entire%20arc%20is%20told%20through%20environmental%20storytelling.”]
The open-world section in downtown Seattle bears the fingerprints of the WLF’s ascension and, in turn, Isaac’s rise to power. Notes, posters, and convoys of corpses chart his story. “Even little subtle things,” says Scherr, “like in one of the most wanted leaflets you find, the other characters are wanted for things like sedition and handing out pamphlets. One of the things Isaac does is ‘murder a FEDRA officer’ so even from this poster you’re like, ok, this guy’s a little bit more hardcore than everybody else.”
But for all Isaac’s importance, one of the key points of his environmental narrative isn’t just to establish the WLF, but to add credence to the central struggles that drive Abby and Ellie. “Isaac has this need to retaliate, this need to justify protecting your own by hurting other people, which is the girls’ struggle too,” says Gross. This is clear from the dead WLF scout Abby finds on the island, whose bloodstained recon note lies in the dirt as the roar of the Wolf attack carries on the breeze. Isaac is so mired in the cycle of violence that he’ll charge in blindly – like Abby in Jackson, or Ellie when she abandons Jesse. The fact that you have to imagine Isaac’s backstory through environmental storytelling, to put in the effort to picture his past in order to comprehend his present, invites you to look deeper into the motives of other characters.
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These are all small moments in The Last of Us II, easily missed. That’s the nature of environmental storytelling; worlds are peppered with micro-narrative vignettes that the player might walk straight past. But find them here, and Abby and Ellie’s choices make more sense. Ellie in particular is such an introverted character, that paying attention to how she moves through the world and responds to these stories is useful to understand her interiority as grief carries her far from the girl who once stroked a giraffe’s nose.
Part of that journey is made possible by the journal, which Gross says “allowed us to figure out what she’s thinking, working through, and how her PTSD is growing louder. That came online really, really late – weeks not months! But it was another great opportunity to expound on her identity as she becomes someone we’re more unfamiliar with.”
Other environmental clues as to how Ellie is coping can be found right from the beginning of the game in Jackson, where Ellie displays Sam’s tragic robot from the first game in her room – “I had no idea it was there!” says Scherr, highlighting how narrative at Naughty Dog is a team effort between writers, art, and design. Later, in a Halloween shop filled with the same masks that Ellie and Riley once goofed around with, Ellie disinterestedly shrugs them off as not her thing. Suddenly Ellie’s brutality starts to make more sense – she’s a long way from the girl we once knew. “It’s not like she’s then expounding on Riley which we certainly could have done,” says Gross. “She’s a girl that locks in and locks in and locks in.” [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Some%20players%20will%20never%20realise%20the%20significance%20of%20the%20coffee%20cup%20to%20Ellie%E2%80%99s%20last%20conversation%20with%20Joel%20because%20they%20didn%E2%80%99t%20discover%20it%20in%20his%20kitchen.”]
Some players will never realise the significance of the coffee cup to Ellie’s last conversation with Joel because they didn’t discover it in his kitchen; they might never have played the Left Behind DLC to understand that small moment in the Halloween store; nor might they read every note. While writing a game is totalitarian – Gross, Scherr, and the team have total control as they build the world – the act of playing a game is democratic. Once a game releases, everyone has a different relationship to the characters, and public imagination naturally shapes how it’s interpreted. Nowhere is this clearer than in environmental storytelling, where creators can’t force players to find every narrative thread or listen to every line of dialogue – and even if they did, much is left to the audience to fill in the blanks.
We’ll never know what happened to the mother and child in that book store, but they still feel real. It’s that spark of connection with a faceless character – that imaginative power – which makes environmental storytelling a cornerstone of one of The Last of Us’s final core pillars: Empathy.
Alysia Judge is a freelance writer and presenter.. Chat to her on Twitter @alysiajudge.