“I like to find things that I have emotional attachment to and then put them in a story,” Druckmann, co-director and writer for “The Last of Us,” said in a recent interview with The Post. “I got myself more invested because of it. So that’s one of the reasons why we picked Ellie."
Ellie debuted in “The Last of Us” alongside protagonist Joel in 2013. The two set off on a trek across post-apocalyptic America, facing not just the perils of a zombie-infested world, but their own personal traumas. Ellie’s tough exterior is juxtaposed with an ignorance and awe of a world that no longer exists outside of torn movie posters and abandoned suburban homes. Her sense of curiosity and wonder makes her the perfect foil to Joel, a jaded man focused on survival who initially sees Ellie as a liability to that pursuit.
Ellie’s journey will soon continue with the release of “The Last of Us Part II” on June 19, but her origins range back before her naming, with some roots planted when Druckmann was still in school.
Pursuing a masters degree in entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University in 2004, Druckmann first created Ellie’s character for a contest featuring famed horror filmmaker George Romero. Romero would work with the winner for a semester to make a game reminiscent of his 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead.” Druckmann didn’t win, but the themes and protagonists would live on and evolve into “The Last of Us.”
“I’d developed this pitch about a cop protecting this girl,” Druckmann said. "She lost her dad. He lost his kid.”
The original concept took inspiration from “ICO,” a 2001 PlayStation title about a young boy escorting a captive girl, mashed together with elements of Sin City comic book series “That Yellow Bastard.” Once he worked at Naughty Dog, Druckmann circled back to his post-apocalyptic characters, the father and the girl, but not for a video game. His love of comics pulled him in a different direction: he started envisioning the story as a graphic novel. It failed to gain traction, however, so he shelved the idea for a second time — until development closed on “Uncharted 2.”
“When we finished ‘Uncharted 2,’ we split off into two teams,” Druckmann said. "One team was making ‘Uncharted 3,’ and then myself and my directing partner, Bruce Straley, we started making what was initially a Jak and Daxter reboot, but then we decided to do our own thing. So, I brought up this concept I had of this story line and we started working on that. And that’s when Ellie and Joel really started taking shape.”
Thus began the early production of “The Last of Us." It evolved significantly from Druckmann’s initial concepts: Joel wasn’t a cop, and the young girl wasn’t struggling with the loss of her father, but rather nearly everyone she loved.
The core of Ellie
Before Druckmann gave Ellie her current name, he called her Lily, among others. But the scrappy 14-year-old was always a core part of “The Last of Us," and she was always intended to be Joel’s companion and counterweight throughout the game’s three-year development.
Druckmann knew she needed to be young. Fascinated by the idea of a parent’s love, which stemmed from his burgeoning role as a parent himself, Druckmann felt there was fertile ground to explore how someone sacrifices everything for a child.
“My parents did a lot for me,” he said. "And now that I have kids, I constantly think about that all the time. When Bruce [Straley] and I would sit and discuss the story, I was like, ‘oh, there’s this unconditional love a parent feels for their child that’s so universal. We could really explore that with a video game.’”
Druckmann worked with senior character concept artist Hyoung Taek Nam to create Ellie’s original designs. While she sports multiple looks in the game, her most recognizable aesthetic is her Converse sneakers and layered palm tree t-shirt. Each was meant to evoke a sense of childhood and naiveté, in a world where peace, law and order are replaced by a ceaseless brutality.
“Despite all of Ellie’s courage and tenacity, she is still a child growing up in a dangerous world,” lead character concept artist Ashley Swidowski, who designed Ellie in the sequel, said. “The bright palette, graphic tee and casual sneakers evoke the sensibility of a young person, despite the very adult situations she’s forced into.”
Deciding Ellie’s age took careful consideration. Too old, and she could be interpreted as a romantic interest for Joel. Too young, and it would be less believable that she could survive the harsh conditions of a post-apocalyptic world. Finding a sweet spot with her personality was equally important, so she could be a foil to Joel (a gruff man of few words) and an opposite to him thanks to her optimism, humor and talkative persona.
“While we were working on the game, we had concerns that it was too dark,” Druckmann said. “As a joke, someone said we should give Ellie a joke book to lighten things up. After laughing we were like, ‘that’s actually an interesting idea.’ That’s how she got her pun joke book.”
The relationship between her and Joel is tense in the early moments of the game, with both wary of opening up or letting someone in when loss is so common. But their gradual bond is the heart of “The Last of Us,” telling a story that Halley Gross, co-writer for “The Last of Us Part II" and former writer of TV show “Westworld,” believes is about an ingrained goodness — which, she says, children bring out best.
“[Characters like Joel] are much better people in having to reshape the world for someone else or be an example for someone else, because clearly they don’t have to do it for themselves anymore," Gross said. “I don’t think there ever is real innocence in this world. But I do think there’s still hope for a lot of these kids."
Ellie’s personality didn’t originate solely from writers like Druckmann and Straley. Ashley Johnson, voice actress for Ellie, was used as a mold not just for the character’s face via motion capture technology, but also for her traits. Ellie’s aspiration to become an astronaut, for example, was inspired by Johnson’s own love of outer space.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Ashley Johnson,” Druckmann said. “When we cast her, there were only a couple of scenes that were written. Afterwards, so much of Ellie was based on her personality and humor.”
While Ellie mirrors Johnson, Druckmann notes Ellie is much more outgoing than him. But there are some insecurities and quirks the two share.
“In high school I’d repeatedly skip class and go with friends to the mall,” he said. “’Left Behind’ was the post-apocalyptic version of that kind of adventure.”
Ellie as a gay woman
A kiss changed everything. In “Left Behind,” the 2014 mini-prequel to “The Last of Us,” we witness the blossoming relationship between Ellie and Riley, a young girl she met at a military boarding school. The plot focuses on their friendship, which slowly morphs into teenage romance. Gay relationships were scarce in video games at the time, especially in blockbuster releases. “Left Behind” helped change that, and its pivotal event — both girls are bitten by infected — also changed Ellie, who emerged as the sole survivor.
Druckmann didn’t always conceive of Ellie as gay. That decision became clear to him in the final year of production for “The Last of Us,” as he began conceptualizing American Dreams, the tie-in graphic novel series that chronicles when Ellie met Riley.
“I had some initial thoughts about Ellie being gay when I was working on The Last of Us: American Dreams," Druckmann said. “However, that decision wasn’t solidified until we worked on ‘Left Behind.’ That’s when we committed to making Ellie gay.”
Ellie isn’t the only gay character to appear in “The Last of Us." Though it was never explicitly stated, Bill, a quirky, paranoid man introduced about halfway into the first game, is also gay. As that section of the story unfolds, it’s learned in a letter that Bill’s partner ultimately leaves him due to his aversion to risk and contentment with a meager daily existence. Druckmann recalls being nervous as he wrote Bill’s scenes, apprehensive about exploring themes many games at the time weren’t touching.
“I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be or if I’d get pushback from my bosses at Naughty Dog or Sony or Bruce [Straley], my directing partner,” Druckmann said. “And I was so hesitant to pass those scenes along.”
But once the rest of the team read the passages, they were immediately on board, including Sony and PlayStation PR. Representation is important to him, Druckmann said, recalling how excited he gets whenever he sees a character with a Jewish Israeli identity like himself portrayed in media. Naughty Dog’s philosophy is about telling “more interesting, fresh stories,” and that includes narratives about minorities, sexualities and religious beliefs that aren’t widely shown in video games or other areas of pop-culture, Druckmann says. It’s something that continues in “The Last of Us Part II.”
The next chapter
“The Last of Us” has been heralded as having one of the best video game endings ever. Joel’s choice is so morally ambiguous it is still debated seven years after the game’s release. But Druckmann felt there was more to be said. On June 19, Ellie’s arc continues in the sequel, releasing on PlayStation 4.
Druckmann started thinking about a new chapter when production for “The Last of Us” came to an end. His team was about to shoot “Left Behind,” and as he pitched the concept to Ashley Johnson in a restaurant, he also brought up his idea for a sequel.
“It was a little different, but the core — the major beats — were all there already,” he said. "And she’s bawling by the end of it.”
While the first game is about finding love in a hateful world, the sequel focuses on navigating hate when love is lost. Players will find Ellie angrier, but also more subdued. Her pun-filled humor is all but gone, replaced by cynicism. She’s exploring her identity as a gay woman via her relationship with another character named Dina. She’s also dealing with trauma. Naughty Dog shapes her from teenager to woman, in a way that further demonstrates her loss of innocence amid a hellscape where safety demands sacrifice and the pursuit of happiness usually is trumped by the need to survive.
“We start to see Ellie grow up and mature over the course of the first game and in some ways become corrupted by the violence that she’s experienced,” Druckmann said. “She’s shedding her innocence. So it became, again, intriguing to say, ‘what happens when this character grows up?’ Because in this world, to survive, you have to do pretty horrible things.”