The Last of Us wasn’t an award-winning idea at first. Neil Druckmann had the idea for what would become one of the best-known video games of all time in grad school, when it was a story about a cop with a heart condition protecting a young girl in a zombie apocalypse. It wasn’t until after he joined Naughty Dog that he decided to revisit the concept.
Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us ahead.
According to a 2013 interview with The Verge to mark the game’s launch, The Last of Us team went through multiple ideas before eventually shipping the final product. Druckmann’s original concept focused on a story about one character protecting another, and sometimes reversing the roles depending on the situation.
In the original concept, it was a cop protecting a young girl, who would step in to defend him whenever his heart condition acted up. In another, the protected character was a mute girl who could only communicate with the player character through her actions. (It’s possible, though not confirmed, that these ideas were later repurposed into the HBO show’s portrayal of Joel’s panic attacks and Sam’s use of ASL.)
Druckmann and Bruce Straley, who co-directed The Last Of Us, came up with the idea of a fungal infection that jumped from insects to humans: Cordyceps, the infection that devastates humanity in The Last Of Us. However, the concept would undergo a few more revisions before it was ready for primetime.
One of The Last of Us prototypes, titled Mankind, featured a version of the Cordyceps infection that only targeted women. Similar to the final game, the story ended with the player character bringing a young girl to a lab in hopes of finding a cure. Druckmann claimed that they were unable to sell the idea, especially after women at Naughty Dog objected to its problematic premise.
"The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea," Druckmann told The Verge.
In the final version of the game, as well as the HBO show, Joel brings Ellie to a lab in hopes of finding a cure to the Cordyceps infection. How the controversial ending played out was something that the team agonized over until the very end, though.
Elsewhere, after the game’s release Druckmann claimed that he had a “secret agenda” with Ellie.
"I wanted to create one of the coolest, non-sexualized female video game protagonists,” he said during a talk at the International Game Developers Association in Toronto (via The Verge). “And I felt that if we did that, there's an opportunity to change the industry. I know it sounds pretentious, but that was my goal."
The Last of Us is available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. The Last of Us Part I, the remake, is only on PlayStation 5. A PC version is coming on March 28, 2023.