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In ‘The Last of Us Part II,’ music often speaks louder than words

(The Washington Post illustration; Naughty Dog)

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

Ellie notices Dina come into the room and immediately stops playing her guitar. The awkwardness lingers only for a second, but in the silence it feels like an hour. Wordlessly, Ellie begins to play again, but it’s not the same song. It’s “Take On Me,” by A-Ha. And just like that, without any kind of conventional exchange, everything is normal between them again — better than normal, even — as the room hums with the melancholy of Ellie’s strumming.

In “The Last of Us Part II,” which launched earlier this year to astronomical commercial success, musicality encompasses live performance, intricate instrumentation, layered orchestration designed to deliver tension and much more. All of these elements heighten the power of the game’s storytelling — and factor heavily into what Naughty Dog hoped to communicate about its characters. The music is evocative, communicative in ways that dialogue often isn’t, and utterly resistant to the overtly expositional turns that so often reduce the gravity of contemporary stories.

First, some context: At the end of “The Last of Us,” Joel tells Ellie that their journey across America to find a cure for the cordyceps infection ravaging the world was in vain. This was a lie. Joel, realizing that Ellie would lose her life in the operation to formulate said cure, kills the doctor — and many others — before escaping with Ellie.

The truth comes to light, of course, and as a result, the protagonistic pair of the original game fall out — until Joel arrives at Ellie’s place two years later, guitar in hand, and plays “Future Days” by Pearl Jam, a beautiful, solemn song that doubles as a core motif.

The guitar became an important thematic device very early in development, acting as a bookend. Joel gives one to Ellie at the beginning of the game. But by the end, having been injured in the course of her revenge quest, Ellie struggles to play it.

“[Those] were some of the earliest ideas for ‘The Last of Us Part II,’” said Druckmann. “How that would represent that relationship and relationships falling apart, which is a big theme of the second game.”

The creators of "The Last of Us Part II" discuss Ellie's transformation

These ideas date back to when “The Last of Us Part II” was still largely in conceptual development. After the release of the first game, Geoff Keighley reached out to Druckmann with a proposal: Host an event where the acting talent of “The Last of Us” would perform in-character for a live audience. Druckmann had recently enjoyed a table read of Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” so he agreed to write a set piece for the stage.

“We ended up writing this epilogue scene, where Joel gifts Ellie a guitar, and it’s showing where they are once they’ve settled in Jackson. … We picked ‘Future Days’ for that song, because it felt very appropriate about how invested Joel is in Ellie.” Druckmann said. “Somewhere in the back of my mind I was already having the feeling that ‘I think this is going to be the opening to the second game.’”

There was one issue with “Future Days.” In the game’s story, the cordyceps infection occurred in September 2013. In real life, the album with “Future Days” would come out two weeks later. Fortunately, Druckmann recalled seeing a live performance of the song from July, several months before the official release, and noted that Joel’s daughter, Sarah, could have shown it to him, and maybe he learned it from there.

“This still tracks,” said Druckmann. “It’s still canon.”

Once music became a part of Ellie’s character, the team started thinking about how to incorporate it into the overall game design in a significant way. Originally, Naughty Dog wanted to add a variety of songs that players could discover as they traversed the world, but it gradually became “a bit gimmicky, a bit too much.” As a result, it was whittled down into smaller moments where it could be more effectively used as a storytelling device.

One of the most widely-lauded scenes of “The Last of Us Part II” among fans takes place in a dilapidated record store early in the game, where Ellie plays a cover of “Take On Me” for her girlfriend, Dina. Naughty Dog wanted this moment to occur early on, as it was a powerful way of highlighting the bond between Ellie and Dina before the dark and heavy story that follows.

Druckmann was concerned that Naughty Dog wouldn’t be able to land the rights to “Take On Me,” given the song’s popularity. “I said it in passing, thinking we’d have to find something else, and then Halley, my co-writer, her best friend is Lauren Savoy, whose husband is the guitarist for A-Ha, and she was like, ‘Wait, I think I could get that song!’” Druckmann said. “She made some phone calls and like a week later we had the rights.”

In Druckmann’s eyes, the lyrics speak to the game’s themes in a more lighthearted way. It’s not quite as upbeat as the original version, and is played in a far more somber and suppressed tone. But it succeeds in creating a quiet moment between two people who love each other in a world where love is difficult to find.

There was one problem: Ashley Johnson’s singing was too good. After spending time working with vocal coach Melissa Reese — a member of Guns N’ Roses — it was decided she would have to consciously sing worse to achieve a less refined sound.

Although the scene is emotionally-charged, and connects two characters in a real and powerful way, there’s a lot going on under the hood.

“In that scene, Ellie starts playing ‘Future Days’ to herself. ‘Future Days’ has come to be this very tender, raw part of who she is, and when Dina shows up she doesn’t play that song anymore. The fact she won’t play it in front of Dina tells you she’s letting Dina in to a point,” Druckmann said. “There are certain things that feel too vulnerable even for [her].”

‘The Last of Us Part II’ handles Ellie’s coming out story with care. It reminded me of my own.

“And then she goes to a song that feels a bit lighter, and it tells you a little bit more about their history,” Druckmann said. “Like, ‘hey, remember that time at the campfire?’ That’s all she has to say [for the player] to know she’s played music in front of Dina, and you start imagining what that could look like.” Druckmann specifically notes that Shannon Woodward, who plays Dina, was able to convey an incredible amount of unspoken emotion here as she switched between smiling and looking off into the distance, making the viewer invested in what she could potentially be thinking about, or reminiscing on.

“I don’t know that it was necessarily all on the page, so to see something become greater than what you initially conceived is always great,” said Druckmann.

For Druckmann, the in-game guitar is a way to further connect with Ellie, and a medium through which Ellie wrestles with her feelings about Joel. Sometimes her performances are happy. Most of the time they are not. What matters is that when Ellie plays the guitar — the last symbolic connection between her and Joel — she has access to a full emotional spectrum.

“Often when you see Ellie playing the guitar, she’s thinking about these moments in time she was with Joel, and the first time she kissed Dina, and she’s riffing that Crooked Still song before we flash back to the dance,” said Druckmann. “So then at the end when that is literally cut off, when her fingers are missing, it’s almost severing ties to those memories and those relationships, and it becomes a way to symbolize the cost of this journey and ask the question, ‘Was it worth it?’”

It’s not just covers, though. Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla also arranged an immaculate score for both “The Last of Us” and “The Last of Us Part II” — in both cases it constitutes a formidable part of the games’ storytelling capabilities.

The music’s thematic ambitions are baked into their design. Santaolalla didn’t score the picture; Druckmann pitched him the story all at once, and Santaolalla scored the overarching concepts. Later, the two collaborated on placing the music. Sometimes, it slots neatly into a scene. On other occasions, the music is rewritten in a minor key or stripped down to its base components, to be plugged in as a motif throughout the game.

Santaolalla’s music often inspires quieter moments, where it might seem like a good idea to rely on the dialogical practices of “traditional” storytelling, but is perhaps more effective to let the music do the talking.

“With the first game, it’s when Joel rescues Ellie after David,” said Druckmann. “There’s a whole conversation happening there that we decided to mute because the music was doing a better job.”

“Likewise [in] this game, if you think about the quiet moment when Abby is rowing out of the island with Lev in the boat, she puts the jacket on him, and there’s this beautiful piece playing that symbolizes their relationship,” said Druckmann. “And when she’s on the boat with Lev after they get medicine to save Yara, and it’s just them going down this river and looking at a mural of the prophet, there’s this beautiful music playing that symbolizes her redemption.”

The trans narrative in ‘The Last of Us Part II’ is compelling. There’s so much more to be done.

By allowing music to speak as opposed to relying solely on dialogue, “The Last of Us Part II” largely subverts the way in which contemporary games choose to tell the most raw and profound parts of their stories. It resists the temptations of exposition and instead seeks to offer a more experiential and emotional connection to what is happening in the game, which allows people to interpret the events in different, more personal ways, and form their own unique connections to the characters. It’s a different kind of storytelling.

“That makes for more interesting, compelling storytelling than when a character is just telling you exactly what they’re thinking and there’s no other angle to it, because then you just turn off,” Druckmann said.

Cian Maher is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland.

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