The post-apocalypse of Naughty Dog’s survival action game (and TV show) The last of us is gloomy and hopeless. But one of the game’s scrapped alternate endings, taking a turn for the impromptu and musical ending, created a swelling, romantic sense of hope (and plenty of laughs).
Way back in 2013, at PAX Prime in Seattle, The last of us game director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann walked Naughty Dog fans through the original pitch for the game, offering a very early look at the game’s story, combat mechanics, and influences. They also showed off a surprisingly alternate ending to the game that’s much less bleak.
(Spoiler alert: This post discusses the events of the end of The last of usboth the video game and the HBO series.)
Straley and Druckmann showed a version of the game’s ending that turned a playable scene into an extended cutscene. In an earlier version of the game, the story ended with Joel taking Ellie to a medical facility where doctors were investigating her unusual gift: her immunity to the infection that all but wiped out the planet. In the scene, Joel learns that the surgery that was to be performed on Ellie in search of a cure would also result in her death. Joel takes the news badly, kills the entire lab staff and escapes with an unconscious Ellie.
Naughty Dog played a video of a motion capture session from the shoot, showing actors Troy Baker (Joel, in the video game; James, in the HBO adaptation) and Merle Dandridge (Marlene in both), decked out in mocap- suits and armed with toy guns, the early version of the scene played out. Taking Joel hostage, they argue and, despite Marlene’s plea that Ellie would be better off dying on an operating table than possibly being raped and killed by survivors, Joel shoots Marlene as she begs for her life.
According to Druckmann, Baker flubbed that scene multiple times, dropping his replica pistol as he burst into the room. Druckmann said that during one of the following takes, he took Marlene aside and gave her some personal guidance. He then spoke to Baker privately and said that no matter what happened in the scene, he just had to keep going. Whether he dropped the gun or something else unforeseen needs to happen, keep going.
On that take, as Baker ran into the room, Dandridge broke into song and sang a beautiful rendition of her lines with musical flair. Even when Dandridge sang the lines, “Raped and murdered!” Raped and murdered!” Baker didn’t budge and immediately improvised his own lilting version of the dialogue, briefly turning the climactic scene from The last of us to a Broadway musical. Impressively, neither actor broke character and completely completed the scene in song.
You can watch that musical gag in the video above.
Read on for another alternate reality.
Straley and Druckmann also talked about a very different version of The last of us that saw Joel’s partner Tess playing the role of the antagonist. In earlier versions of the story, Tess’s brother accompanies Joel, Tess, and Ellie on the first part of their journey. Tess’s brother soon dies in a shootout with the army that Joel incites, and Tess blames Joel for his death. When Joel and Tess go their separate ways, the latter begins to dislike Joel and, with the help of a band of survivors, tries to track Joel down.
Towards the end of the game, Naughty Dog planned to have Tess’s gang catch up with Joel and chase them to a ranch. With Joel’s help, Ellie would escape. Tess would then torture Joel for information on Ellie’s whereabouts with the intention of finding her and killing the girl – “She knows the only thing I care about is you,” Joel is said to have told Ellie.
The torture scene would have ended with Tess pointing her gun at Joel’s head, followed by a shot and a blow to black.
During her escape, Ellie allegedly backed down, watched the torture take place, and shot Tess. It’s her shot that players would have heard.
Among the other scrapped ideas for The last of us was another character for the ride: Ellie’s dog. Naughty Dog showed concept art of the scruffy pup in Ellie’s arms, but no in-game footage of her faithful companion.
“We wanted to make a Naughty Dog game with a real dog,” said Druckmann.