I’m mad I didn’t catch this story sooner. This one first1 broke back in late January, but more layers have revealed themselves since the finale of The Last of Us on HBO. It has been quite the drip feed, so let’s chronicle the whole thing Chasing the Stick-style.
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I didn’t throw in a little bit of context. Back in February 2014, Laura Hudson of Wired had an interview with Neil Druckmann about the Left Behind DLC.
WIRED: So you think there are more stories to tell in this world?
Druckmann: I still have this script written, this story about Ellie’s mom [for] an animated short we were going to do, but it fell through. I’d love for that to see the light of day sometime, maybe as a DLC or a comic book. We’re brainstorming the next [Naughty Dog] project right now…
I wrote about this in Chasing the Stick, pointing out Neil’s openness to a sequel, which is where their passions were found. This animated short was just an example at the time to express possibilities in the world of TLOU.
Turns out that the idea would see the light of day, just ten or so years later. The finale of the first season opens with Ellie’s mom, Anna, and a part of her story.2 At the end of January 2023, in an interview with Jordan Moreau at Variety, Neil added a bit more to the backstory of this lore.
[Variety]: What were you most excited to get to do in the show that you didn’t have in the game?
Druckmann: The one that shows up very late in the season is Ellie’s mom. I had written a short story after we had shipped the game already. It was supposed to be an animated short, but it fell apart and didn’t come to be. There was a moment where we almost made it as DLC, but it fell apart.
In our conversations, I brought it up to Craig and he was immediately excited by it, or as he would say “activated.” We brought it to life in the most beautiful, poetic way, which is Ashley Johnson playing Ellie’s mom and she was the original actor for Ellie.
This is the nugget that I wished I caught two month ago. “There was a moment where we almost made it as DLC…” is quite the development—lost Naughty Dog DLC! Pre-production on this may have begun, but could have been canned as Neil and Bruce Straley had to take over Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End‘s development.
As the rest of the season goes by, we finally arrive at the finale itself and the plot surrounding this video game thickens.
During a press conference, Neil reveals that Naughty Dog also talked to another developer to make an entire Anna game. My buddy and co-host, Logan Moore, had the story over at Comicbook.com.
“We were talking to another game company to potentially do it as a whole other game,” Druckmann said of the project. “[But] that deal fell apart to tell that story.”
Druckmann also went on to say that if this game would have become a reality, it would have revealed more details about Ellie’s biological father, which is something that has never been touched on in The Last of Us video games and TV show. The story of this game would have then culminated in the scene featuring Ellie and her birth that was unveiled in the TV adaptation. Regarding Ellie’s father, though, Druckmann said teased that there could be a chance of this story one day being unveiled in a new manner.
“I will say there was some stuff written for the mom and the dad when we were talking to this other game studio to potentially do a whole Anna game. The climax, of which, was this scene,” Druckmann said. “I’m reluctant to say anything about it because as I’ve now found out several times, stories that I think are failures and will never see the light of day sometimes see the light of day.”
This is one of the first mentions of exploring both of Ellie’s biological parents. I find it interesting to have the climax be what is shown on HBO. This origin story of Ellie’s immunity and the end of Anna’s life is now known. We could see this crop up in a game someday, making it the first time in the series that a story beat from outside a video game makes the jump to its original medium.
While we don’t know the developer that was in discussions to make this prequel, we do know who introduced Naughty Dog to them: Greg Miller. On the Kinda Funny Screencast via VGC,
…there was a much more full version of this story that went more back in time that was going to be made into a video game by Naughty Dog, by a different game studio, that Greg Miller introduced me to that studio and we had talked to them for quite a while to do this thing and then it just kind of fell apart, it didn’t quite work out.
I am fascinated by this. Throughout Naughty Dog’s history, other developers have been handed the keys to their IP in one way or another. There were PC ports and the far more popular(?) PlayStation spin-offs. The Jak series had two, while Uncharted had one on Vita. I would have to go back and check the count for Crash Bandicoot before the sale of the IP.3 The Last of Us hasn’t had a spin-off before.4 This notion that an outside team could/would work on the IP is par for the course.
So what happened? What team was in talks with Naughty Dog? What kind of game was the original concept? That’s the story I want to learn about now. With Neil revealing more and more with each interview lately, I hope we learn at least the team considered.
There’s one more angle to the whole Ellie’s parents story and that ties into the epilogue of Uncharted 4. In Cassie’s room, there is a poster for a comic dubbed American Daughters and it features a very pregnant woman that looks a whole lot like Ellie. I have always been of the mind that this is Ellie5, but I could see this being an angle or part of this whole game/narrative idea.
This is pure speculation on my part, but what if there was a story that had the past and the present at play. Anna and Ellie are pregnant and their stories have parallels. We saw a very loose version of this play out in Part II with Dina and Mel. This poster easter egg/tease could have been a byproduct of the pre-production cycle on this Anna game. It seems quite glaring, but perhaps it was yet another slip of the team to tease a game before its announcement, a la Uncharted 3‘s teaser for The Last of Us. That feels like a stretch, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Naughty Dog has dropped an easter egg like that in their games.
Anna’s story has grown from animated short to Naughty Dog DLC to a second-party game to debuting on HBO. While I would love to know more (and I suspect we will learn more over time), I think the biggest takeaway is that what is dead may never die. This story has been through the pitch ringer and finally came to fruition 10 years later on a TV show. Makes you wonder what other ideas Naughty Dog has been sitting on and mulling over for the past decade.
1. Technically, it broke back in 2014, but all the recent talk should have started in January. Man, I am mad I missed this.
2. I might discuss this more in my review of the finale episode, but Anna clearly doesn’t hand off a letter to Marlene. That letter, along with the knife, are quite touching objects to find in the game. Sure, a letter can be retconned in to the show, but it’s a shame not to see that created on the screen.
3. Seems to just be Crash Bash.
4. There was the prequel comic series American Dreams and the now-in-development board game. You may consider those to count.
5. The red undershirt and revolver that is clearly Joel’s gun convince me this is Ellie and not Anna.