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The storylines, characters and levels cut from ‘The Last of Us Part II’

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Note: This article contains major spoilers for “The Last of Us Part II.”

Video games, especially blockbusters in the Triple-A space, go through numerous revisions and changes before the final product is shipped. For Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II,” to make its storytelling as effective as possible, scenes were constantly moved around, re-contextualized or removed. These include cutscenes, playable sections and characters — some of which were carefully considered and ultimately deleted.

Some concepts were sure things from the get-go — especially Joel’s death. Co-writer and director Neil Druckmann told The Post that Joel dying was paramount to the story, catalyzing Ellie’s quest to hunt down his killers. While the death was never seriously debated in the writer’s room, there was playful banter internally after the release of the 2016 trailer that toyed with the audience, insinuating that he was still alive in the sequel as a way to throw off fans.

And there was such a positive reaction to that trailer,” Druckmann said. “Someone on the team was like, ‘Everybody wants this other story. Should we have just made that story?’”

While Joel’s death was central to the narrative, other concepts — like expanding on characters’ past relationships or traversing the island of the Scars as Ellie — were not. But they paint a fascinating picture of what the game could have been.

The death of Esther

Esther is a character that was first mentioned publicly at an event hosted by PlayStation and Naughty Dog in Santa Monica in 2014. A limited audience was treated to a theatrical performance of “The Last of Us,” where a handful of scenes from the game were performed by actors including Ashley Johnson, who voices Ellie in the game, and Troy Baker, who voices Joel. One was the reenactment of a never-before-seen, deleted epilogue which mentions a woman Joel dated. Though Esther never made it into either game, Naughty Dog wrote an entire scene in Part II about her. It’s one of many scrapped ideas.

“We wrote so many scenes that did not make it into this game,” co-writer Halley Gross told The Post in an interview last month. “Joel had a girlfriend in the original concept of this game. Her name was Esther.”

Originally, players would be introduced to Esther in the playable flashback found roughly six or seven hours into the game. In the final product, Tommy (Joel’s brother) teaches Ellie how to use a sniper rifle, but during development, co-writers Halley Gross and Neil Druckmann considered having Ellie and Joel visit Esther, who lived “in a town two hours away” from Jackson.

“I think she lived out by the dams, by the electric dams, and they kind of had a commuter relationship,” Gross said. “And Joel and Ellie were headed out there and saw that the building had been taken over by infected.”

Inside, players would find Esther bitten and trying to wrap the injury with a tourniquet. She “knew was she was going to die,” Gross said. Joel senses the urgency of the situation, and tells Ellie to fetch Esther a drink of water from the river nearby. Playing as Ellie, you reach the river and hear a bang.

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“And you don’t know whether Esther killed herself or if Joel put a bullet in her head, but you know that this was going to happen,” Gross said. “That two adults were making a decision and they were going to try to protect Ellie as much as they could.”

Ellie, who is immune to the deadly cordyceps virus that turns humans into zombies, is deeply disturbed by the cold brutality of the situation. It reminds her of the death of her best friend Riley, Gross said, who was bitten by infected too. The scene would have also touched upon her resentment toward Joel, triggering a frank conversation between them about her survivor’s guilt as they sit at the riverbank. Ellie would have said something along the lines of, “If there had been a cure, we wouldn’t be here,” a nod to the first game’s ending where Joel saves Ellie’s life instead of sacrificing her to bring an end to the virus.

“The reason that got scrapped was because we just didn’t have time to establish Esther,” Gross said. Players wouldn’t have enough time to bond with Esther before her death, and Gross also noted that the character was too focused on Joel’s arc, rather than Ellie’s.

“Even up until toward the end of the game, we had like a love letter from Esther in his house,” she said. This, too, was removed from the final product.

The dance scene was originally playable

Naughty Dog also cut down certain segments that fleshed out new characters from Part II, including Ellie’s ex-girlfriend Cat. In the final version of the game, you can find a photo of her, some brief dialogue nodding to her, and notes in Ellie’s journal about the ups and downs of their relationship. But at one point during development, Druckmann and Gross contemplated presenting Cat as a character you could interact with during the dance — an important scene where Ellie and her love interest, Dina, share their first kiss.

In “The Last of Us Part II,” the dance is reduced to a couple cutscenes, but originally it was meant to be a playable section. A “whole layout” was built for exploring Jackson (the small town Ellie and Joel stay in for a few years), as you go to the church for the dance. Ellie is an introvert, and knows that her crush, Dina, is single. So before heading over, she pre-drinks. Cat is someone you could have spoken with at the dance, though the entire event is reduced to cutscenes in the final game.

“Our designers built out these amazing games, and you could mix drinks, and you could pretend to be a Clicker and chase little kids using Listen Mode,” Gross said. “It was so f---ing cute.”

In the deleted version, Cat, an Asian woman covered in tattoos (she’s the one that gives Ellie her tattoo in the game), stands in a shadowy corner smoking. Players could go have a “sassy” conversation with her, said Gross, who “desperately” wanted to voice Cat. That didn’t pan out.

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“It was another thing that we cut because it wasn’t progressing anything,” she said. “It was just like, again, really cool world-building, but that kissing scene also bounced around through the game a lot. We used to open the whole thing on Ellie and Joel at the dance.”

Having the dance be playable before showing crucial cinematics about Joel and Ellie’s relationship “stopped making sense,” she said, because those scenes were imperative context for the ending, showing why Ellie turns away from her quest for vengeance.

Another perspective on the Scars

In “The Last of Us Part II,” players engage with a faction called the Seraphites, often nicknamed “Scars,” who are religious zealots. Toward the end of the game, you explore their home, a village housing thousands on a lush island. This section is played by secondary protagonist Abby, but at one point during production, the team considered having Ellie visit as well.

Originally, Ellie’s trek through Seattle was five days instead of three. On day four, she would’ve “traversed all of Scar Island before it burned down,” Gross said.

“I think originally, she got shipwrecked on the island in a storm, and was traversing through to try to get back home to the theater [where she takes refuge],” Gross said.

The intention was to humanize the Seraphites beyond Yara and Lev, two ex-members of the community that accompany Abby. In the current version of the game, Gross said we see the island in a moment of “heightened tension.” The team wanted to show what it was like before it burned down, in its sweeter and quieter moments: Seraphites with their families and children. But it wasn’t progressing Ellie’s arc, nor adding any meaningful pressure or tension to her overall journey.

“We ended up scrapping that whole level, and it was a big level,” Gross said. “It was really cool. The designers had a lot of great elements to it, but we ended up scrapping it because it didn’t move her story along narratively. It was like cool gameplay, cool setup, did something really nice in terms of expounding on the enemy.”

Dina and Ellie’s relationship

Weaving interpersonal story beats together to effectively display Ellie’s relationship with Dina introduced unique challenges. The two have known each other for years, but the player doesn’t experience the buildup of that friendship; all that’s shown are its later stages, and the blossoming into romance. The early scene where Dina and Ellie hook up in an abandoned marijuana grow-op was especially tricky to get right. At first, the scene contained a page-long monologue in the script, where Ellie explains that she thought Dina — who has a reputation for being a flirt — was playing her like a fool.

“Ellie is explaining to Dina why she never made a move before and why she never thought that Dina was an option,” Gross said. “Just like, how scared she was of risking her friendship, how scared she was that she misread the situation or scared she was that Dina was straight.”

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The team realized they were starting from the wrong place, and that conflict needed to come later. “It felt like we needed to start from this more playful, softer side,” Druckmann said. The monologue went far enough in production to have been fully shot, and animation had begun. But it just wasn’t clicking because of its heavy exposition. In the end, Naughty Dog reshot and rewrote the scene to make it tighter.

“We’re constantly using conflict and finding ways to use conflict as exposition and conflict to bring characters together,” Druckmann said. “And initially, the scene that we wrote just over-steered this conflict that exists between the two girls. Ellie was too hurt by the kiss that happened in that festival and was worried of where Dina stood. And it just became melodramatic, the first time we shot that scene.”

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