Almost four years later, Joel’s death in the first act of The Last of Us Part II remains one of the most shocking twists in video game history. Led to believe by the game’s marketing that Joel would be a major part of the sequel, back alongside Ellie, who’s on a quest for revenge, fans weren’t expecting to have to say goodbye to this character so soon. But as revealed by the new documentary Grounded II: Making The Last of Us Part II, they could have been made to say farewell a lot earlier than Part II.
The doc reveals that Joel actor Troy Baker actually pitched that the character’s death should come at the end of the first game after Joel kills Marlene and the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. Baker felt that if Joel wasn’t punished for committing such a heinous act to save Ellie that the game would risk “pissing a lot of people off.”
“In the first game [Troy Baker] was advocating that Joel should die,” Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann explained in Grounded II. “Joel has crossed these moral lines and therefore he deserves to die. He thought it would be a more dramatic ending. I was like, ‘Nah, you’re crazy.'”
Of course, Joel lives at the end of the first game, and gets back to Jackson with Ellie. But it sounds like Baker was on to something back then, as Joel’s punishment would eventually come in Part II at the hands of Abby Anderson, the daughter of one of the Firefly doctors Joel killed in Salt Lake City. Not only did the decision to kill off Joel spark backlash from fans who were attached to the character but it also produced a strong reaction from Baker. Despite the fact that he himself had suggested that Joel should be killed off in the first game, Baker took the news of Joel’s fate in the second game very hard.
In the doc, Baker recalled a story meeting he had with Druckmann during development on The Last of Us Part II, in which the game director delivered the sad news: “He goes, ‘So Joel dies,'” Baker said. “I had to stop him. ‘Can you give me just a second?’ Because it literally was as if someone was telling me about how my fried has just died. All of a sudden, it was ‘Please don’t take this from me yet.'”
It’s not just the fact the character died at all that still makes the stomach churn all these years later but the extremely gruesome manner in which Joel was beaten within an inch of his life and then executed. The way the camera lingers on Joel’s face in the final moments of his life, as he tries to say something inaudible to Ellie, who is crying for him to get up, just before Abby lands the killing blow with a golf club.
Joel’s death is still hotly debated on social media and on forums today, but for Naughty Dog, the team couldn’t tell the story it wanted to without this inciting incident, one that not only sets Ellie on a path of vengeance but elicits a very strong reaction from the player.
“It’s hard to imagine the story without Joel dying,” lead editor Joe Pettinati explained. “You feel that hate. Ellie feels that hate. You’re one to one, you’re on the stick, and that influenced the rest of the story.” Druckmann echoed this, saying, “We get you through interactivity to really connect and empathize with [Abby], and then make you feel like, ‘I’ve led Joel to a trap.'”
HBO viewers have this same level of pain and anguish to look forward to, of course. The character of Abby will be played by Kaitlyn Dever in the second season of the hit series. If I were you, I’d start saying my goodbyes to Pedro Pascal now…
The Last of Us Part II Remastered is out now on PlayStation 5.