The Lost Stories Found in the World of ‘The Last of Us Part II’ [Dread Notes]

Anyone familiar with my articles will know that I have two primary obsessions. First and foremost, I absolutely adore The Last of Us and wholeheartedly believe that its sequel is the crowning achievement of this console generation. Secondly, I am utterly fascinated by how videogames use readable documents to teach mechanics, influence puzzles, build atmosphere, and expand upon their lore. It was therefore inevitable that I would one day get around to combining these two passions into one fawning editorial. 

In my defense, The Last of Us Part II puts a lot of effort into its various ‘’artifacts’’, with each of them contributing to the experience in a meaningful way. Apparently, the devastating collapse of society happened to coincide with a renewed interest in therapeutic writing because you can’t walk 5 feet in this desolate wasteland without tripping over somebody’s personal memoirs.

If you can manage to overlook this questionable ubiquity of post-apocalyptic wordsmiths, then you’ll be treated to some really intriguing collectables. Teasing new enemy types, giving extra layers to antagonistic characters, and recounting entertaining narratives of their own: there’s a lot to get to grips with here. So, with that said, let’s take a look at some of the best examples the game has to offer.

Bank Robber’s Note

Other than a few throwaway tidbits, we never really learn much about the initial response to the cordyceps virus. Most of the in-universe records postdate the establishment of quarantine zones, meaning that the history has largely been authored by the survivors. Or at the very least, by those who managed to endure for more than a couple of months.

But what about the people who weren’t so fortunate? Where can we find their stories? Presumably, they weren’t scribbling down their final musings as loved ones chowed down on their throats. Hence we’ve got a pretty considerable gap in our knowledge, with only a limited amount of sources and a very narrow perspective on the outbreak’s earliest days.  

One handwritten confession – composed by a hapless bank robber, who was sealed in a vault along with his score – gives us a rare insight into what some chose to do with their last moments. You see, whilst everyone else was desperately trying to make it to safety, he and a group of criminal associates used the unravelling chaos as a diversion for what they anticipated to be an uncomplicated heist. Of course the job was anything but plain-sailing, as a group of runners crashed the party and infected our narrator. He was then locked up in the strongroom to gradually turn, with plenty of time to reflect upon his terrible circumstances. 

Rather than using this precious opportunity to repent, the embittered man instead went out snitching on his accomplices, naming each of them in a tell-all letter for the authorities to find. Once he finished his testimony, he then put a shotgun barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger. The whole affair is an entertaining mini-narrative, worthy of a feature film, and adds extra flavor to what would otherwise be a simple fetch quest for the aforementioned weapon. 

Savage Starlight Trading Cards

Naughty Dog are so confident in their ability to build captivating worlds that they smuggled an additional one into TLOU2, presumably for the sake of showing off. In Ellie’s portion of the game, players can take a much-needed break from all the unrelenting trauma, bottomless despair, and pointless vendettas, by scouring environments for superhero trading cards. Locating these can be quite fun in and of itself, with the collectables being nestled underneath beds, hidden within sprawling combat zones, and abandoned on hard-to-reach platforms. 

More importantly, though, they give our returning protagonist a chance to be herself again. For the majority of this gloomy sequel, Ellie is consumed by a senseless thirst for revenge, one that totally drains her of humanity and warmth. Yet her enthusiasm for hoarding this nerdy memorabilia – a hobby which she adopted in Jackson – allows a little bit of her old, comic-book loving, dinosaur-obsessed personality to shine through. Indeed, they are fond mementoes from a happier past, back when life was easy and she could afford to still be a kid. 

Aside from the vital role they play in characterizing Ellie, the superhero biographies printed on the back of each card are absorbing reads in their own right. Naughty Dog have created a masterfully interconnected universe here, one that feels just as comprehensive as the 80+ years of Marvel and DC continuity we’re familiar with in real life. There are feuding factions, detailed backstories, and dense cosmic mythology for you to unpack, and if you do manage to collect them all then you get to see how everything is ingeniously linked.

Some of the fictional profiles are really imaginative too, like ‘’Big Blue’’: an extra-dimensional entity that adopts the form of a blue whale and must hold its breath for consecutive years in order to slow its perception of time. Boasting so many unique ideas of a similar calibre, it would be really cool to see Neil Druckmann make an original title set in this creative world.

Familial Farewell

One of the game’s more interesting specimens in terms of literary construction, this scrap of paper- left behind by two boys who were indoctrinated by scars – is found next to the corpse of a lonely father. Addressed to the parent, it relates how the eldest son ran off to join the religious circle and took his younger sibling Max along for the ride. The rhetoric echoes that of many other seraphite writings, quoting their platitudinous teachings and harping on about notions of inner fortitude. 

Upon further inspection, we also discover a nearby missive that was penned by one of the scars themselves, and it contains much of the same vernacular. Encouraging the boy to convert, the message insists that Max’s dad is ‘’too afraid to act like a man’’ and that his brother needs to surround himself with a family capable of fostering ‘’a strong spirit’’. It’s evident that the cult got inside the boy’s head, as he repeats many of these points in his own letter, labelling his father a ‘’coward’’ and asserting that, if he stays, Max will inevitably ‘’take on [his] weaknesses’’. 

Then, in what is clearly a very deliberate choice, the author suddenly breaks out of his devout persona to slip in one last angsty jibe about his dad always sitting in the same ‘’stupid fucking chair’’. It’s at this point – with the out of nowhere expletive – that we see the juvenile act of rebellion for what it really is: a dumb kid who is in over his head, trying to prove that he’s a grown-up.

All in all, the artifact is a terrific case study in how subtle word usage can make a huge difference to what a piece of text is communicating. Not only that, but it demonstrates how an impressionable youngster can be so cunningly manipulated (and ultimately recruited) by the religious sect. 

Boris’ Admission

Unfolding over a series of dispatches, the saga of Hillcrest and its de facto leader is almost a microcosm of TLOU2 itself. With themes of tribalism, hatred, cyclical revenge and guilt-by-association, it foreshadows Ellie’s trajectory in more ways than one.

Granted, there are a lot of characters and perspective-shifts to keep track of, so for the sake brevity, here’s the gist. A prize-winning archer, named Boris, is revered by the Hillcrest community for his proficiency with a bow and his talent for eliminating clickers with ease. As such, his compatriots elect him as their protective figurehead, responsible for keeping the infected hordes at bay. 

Life is all sunshine and rainbows, until one day the WLF topples the local FEDRA regime and assumes control of Seattle. Sensing trouble a-brewing, the more prescient members of the group decide to make a run for it, whilst a separate offshoot initiates guerrilla warfare against the wolves. Boris’ young daughter is caught in the subsequent crossfire and from there everything goes to Hell in a handbasket. The bereaved father retaliates without mercy, assassinating enemy patrols, graffitiing threatening messages around the suburb, and orchestrating a bloody coup d’état that takes its toll on both sides. 

Certain that he will never surrender and will only escalate the conflict further; Boris’ soldiers eventually hatch a plot to turn him over to the WLF. Before they can do so, however, he learns of their imminent betrayal and dishes out an unspeakable punishment, leaving behind the following confession: ‘’I got them first. I poisoned them, one by one. Not enough to kill them… just put them to sleep. Then I dragged them into a spored garage […] Those traitors are going to watch each other turn. They will suffer. I hope they think of me when they lose their minds.’’ 

When assembled in the proper order, Boris’ tale emerges as a borderline-Shakespearean drama, one that hammers home many of the core ideas baked into the sequel. Featuring emotionally resonant writing, nuanced arcs, and a powerhouse denouement, it’s honestly better than 99% of the main storylines found in the gaming medium. Plus it’s entirely skippable, making it all the more rewarding if you do get to the bottom of what transpired in Hillcrest.

Miscellaneous Seraphite Literature

Our first impression of the Scars isn’t exactly favorable, with them coming across as terrifying, puritanical sadists who refuse to accept any worldview that does not perfectly align with their own. Stringing up bodies in the woods, gruesomely eviscerating non-believers, and persecuting those who will not conform to extremely rigid standards: any redeeming qualities they may possess are buried beneath a ton of bad. 

Yet just like we come to appreciate a kinder side to the wolves, we eventually discover that not all Seraphites are inherently evil. On the contrary, they’re equally capable of benevolence, gentleness, and compassion, so long as you know where to look for good examples. 

For instance, a tender letter from father to son – after the latter completed his rite of passage into manhood – illustrates that there’s more to them than just blind intolerance. Remarking that he is swelling with pride and that his child has ‘’fulfilled [their] potential beyond [his] wildest expectations’’, it’s a touching message that leaves you wondering if the other cultists have a soft spot too. Not to mention, it also gives you a deeper understanding of their spiritual beliefs and practices, clarifying the origin of their eponymous scars and what they are meant to symbolize. 

Likewise, a young seraphite’s journal can be found depicting a blossoming romance between two scared adolescents on the brink of war, and the prayers adorning Martyr’s Gate are evidence of a people who want nothing more than for the ongoing hostilities to end. Using documents to muddy the waters like this, and make you begrudgingly empathize with your foes, has never been done quite so effectively as it is here. In short, it’s a real testament to the ambition of TLOU2’s morally complex storytelling, and it’s implemented wonderfully.

Assorted Safe Tips

The original Last of Us had a number of unlockable safes dotted around its levels, but you didn’t have to manually crack them yourself. All you had to do was find the combination, which would helpfully be jotted down a nearby sheet of paper, and then Joel would do the rest without any further input from the player. It was a rudimentary puzzle that didn’t really add anything to the overall experience, other than more scavenging. 

Thankfully, Part II expands this bare-bones mechanic by asking you to turn the rotary dial in the correct sequence. There are effectively two ways you can accomplish this: either by listening carefully for the telltale clicking sound or by doing some good-old-fashioned detective work.  

The latter is undoubtedly the most fulfilling method, as the developers came up with a bunch of clever solutions for you to figure out. On occasion, you will find the answer unambiguously written down, but other times the notes will only give you a vague hint as to the combination. An internal memo could guide you towards a Wi-Fi password displayed somewhere in the building, a letter may allude to a winning lottery ticket or special anniversary date, and a list of gate codes might just serve a dual purpose if you look hard enough. 

One particular highlight sees a clue inserted into what is otherwise a friendly piece of correspondence between two neighboring apartments, who were exchanging words whilst the rest of the city plunged into anarchy. It’s another great instance of a compelling short story being embedded into the wider narrative, and the fact that it goes on to have gameplay ramifications as well (if you use it to open the safe) is a really smart, economic move on the part of the developers.

Ferry Log

There are multiple ways that collectable documents can be presented and they all have their benefits. An elliptical note can set the tone for an upcoming encounter, intimate diary entries give you a brief window into someone else’s psyche and newspaper bulletins provide a factual rundown of incidents. 

Meanwhile, the format of a ledger allows you to trace a lucid chronology of events. Such is the case with the logbook that Abby finds whilst exploring a grounded ferry in Seattle Day 1. We first enter this shipwreck through a ruptured hull, whereupon we progress into the infirmary and stumble across a truly chilling sight. Bedridden skeletons litter the cabin, with crossbow bolts pierced through their skulls. We can clearly infer from this crime scene that a killer must have infiltrated the room in the dead of night and executed the patients whilst they slept. What’s less apparent however is precisely why they did this. 

Luckily the captain’s log, which can be studied in the bridge, illuminates some context behind the tragedy. The voyage began in early October 2013 – at the very onset of the pandemic -and over the course of the next few days, there were numerous complaints of seasickness from passengers. Cases rocketed at an exponential rate and the crew quickly deduced that they were not contending with mild nausea, but rather with an outbreak of cordyceps. And so, lacking the scanners required to diagnose infection, they chose to quarantine anyone who exhibited even the mildest symptoms.

As things continued to spiral out of control, a woman by the name of Roberts grew increasingly paranoid, demanding that suspected carriers be medically assessed or, failing that, thrown overboard. When her barbaric request was denied, she took matters into her own hands and conspired to purge the infirmary and slaughter its occupants. The final entry describes how the captain learned of this mutiny when it was already too late and was fatally shot with a crossbow bolt. Accepting that he would surely bleed to death, he then concludes by revealing his plan to crash the ferry against the rocks, so at least the innocent souls aboard the vessel have an opportunity to escape. 

Recalling the similarly ill-fated journey of the Demeter (in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), this chronicle uses its logbook structure to fantastic effect. The plain language, unembellished style and precise time notations all inflect it with a stronger feeling of authenticity. In turn, this makes the spooky yarn even creepier, much like how found footage is able to get under your skin by convincing you that you’re watching a bonafide videotape. 

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