The Last of Us II was one of the most anticipated video game releases in the last 7 years that have passed since the highly successful first part. It became a huge hit, earned the love of millions of fans and critics alike, and received an incredible number of awards – it even stands to be the game of the decade. Sure enough, fans expected nothing less from the follow-up chapter, so TLOU 2 had to maintain the same level – either that or be even better.

How did it do? Well, according to the players, not so splendidly – 5.6 out of 10 on Metacritic is hardly an excellent result, even despite the critics seem to have loved it. How could it possibly happen that it failed so many expectations? I guess the reason is that…

Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. We will halt a bit here with a little disclaimer: assessing the further story of Ellie and Joel in itself is a bit of a stretch for this blog as we usually talk about marketing and designs – a branding case study, so to speak. Additionally, as much as I love playing games (and still think that my PS4 was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made), I am no professional critic. What I can do, however, is to discuss the game’s marketing strategy. For such a huge event in the gaming industry, developers really should have gone all-in and make sure every single soul on earth knows their blockbuster is released. I should tell you at once: the review will be totally SPOILER-FREE as it will only mildly touch the characters and will focus mostly on Naughty Dog’s efforts to make the game as big of a hit as the first part. Side note: I have not played the game yet and know almost nothing about the Last of Us 2 plot, so it will be doubly fun to revisit the whole thing and build up my expectations and assumptions before I actually take the controller to my hands. 

So, why is branding important for The Last Of Us: Part II? Let’s wind back a few years to the place where it all started.

As Long As…

The whole story began not so long after the release of The Last of Us: Remastered for PS4 in 2014. Keep in mind that the brand awareness for the first game if enormous, so the studio wanted to make everything special. The development is said to have started at that time and the first piece of news that the fans got to see was presented at Playstation Experience 2016 on December, 3 – it was a rather great surprise for everyone as the game had not been announced before. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard such an uproar as it was at the expo when the famed Firefly logo appeared on the screen – the scream continued up until Ellie put her shaking hand on guitar strings.

The Last Of Us: Part 2 reveal trailer.

There are certain notes (both figuratively and literally) of clever marketing here for which Naughty Dog should be praised.

  1. Ellie’s older and she’s playing the guitar – something she wanted to learn as fans remember from the first part. Joel promised to teach her, and he seems to have held to his word. The move drives up the nostalgia and instantly recreates the family vibe the two were going through the first part. A huge plus.
  2. The song itself is picked perfectly judging by its mood and lyrics. For those curious, it’s called Through the Valley and is originally performed by a folk artist Shawn James. The sole lyrics are enough to figure out the motive of the next game: “I know I will kill my enemies when they come” can only point to a direction of revenge. Minutes later it’s confirmed by Ellie in an interesting wordplay with the game’s title – she promises to find and kill “every last one of them”.
  3. At the same time, the last line pinpoints the moral dilemma the Naughty Dog was planning, and it’s pretty typical for the revenge plots. “I can’t walk on the path of the right because I’m wrong” is repeated twice before Joel uses his “kiddo” to address Ellie after appearing seemingly out of nowhere.
  4. There now was a tattoo on Ellie’s arm, a hint to which we could see several months before on a poster – but we will get to that later.

So, what did we have with this first marketing piece? An ultimate feel of nostalgia and more questions than answers. Many were suggesting that Joel was dead because he was the only one Ellie would want to take revenge on that much. Others were saying that many things could have happened by that time as the difference in time between the chapters was 5 years. The teaser created lots of debates and video revisits – both in attempts to pick up something new and listen to a brilliant song rendition.

It is a bit hard to imagine that the first teaser is closer in time to the first game than to the second – 3 years against 4 – yet it proves once again that the studio was quite determined to make another hit, starting the marketing campaign at the very early stages of development. That’s the reason why the game did not appear at 2017 E3 and everyone had to wait longer for the release – as long as it was necessary.

Less Is More

The next stop happened quite a while afterwards, on September 26, 2017. The date is known in the universe of TLOU as Outbreak Day when the whole in-game cordyceps infection thing started, so the company releases some info every year on that day. This time they revealed The Last of Us 2 poster that had some interesting details in it and basically was a huge reference to the poster they made the previous year and which I have mentioned before. Let’s open the images in our Approval Studio proofing tool and compare them.

A small disclaimer: all the imagery used in this article belongs to Naughty Dog and artists who created the artworks and was taken from the official website for review/educational purposes.

A comparison of two Outbreak Day posters from 2016 and 2017.
The 2017’s poster is to the left, while 2016’s poster is to the right.

At that moment, nobody was sure whose arm was depicted in the new poster and what that was all about. However, people who decided to nitpick on the smaller details (myself included) found some information and formed new guesses. The main one – the two posters, both created by the same artist Kevin Tong, were basically a confrontation.

The first sign of that is that the arms holding weapons are very likely turned front to each other, which would mean that the characters are also standing face to face. In the world of The Last Of Us, it almost surely means they are not friends. Throw totally different tones in – light blueish versus dark red – and there you have it. Peace and war.

There were some other indicators of that assumption, and to get closer to them, let’s look at the posters separately. We’ve annotated the artworks in Approval Studio tool, so if you’d like to work on your artworks in the same fashion – welcome

So, here we go with what I’ve managed to spot:

The poster will Ellie's art and her mom's knife.
Outbreak Day 2016 poster.

First of all, it was surely Ellie’s arm on the 2016 poster – first of all, the tattoo that is hiding the scar where Ellie was bit by an infected. The tattoo by itself is very interesting – the devs have already confirmed that the moth is a reference to the firefly symbol and, at the same time, to Joel. I can only add that it is a rather clever idea since in some cultures moths can mean love and protection sent from the ancestors, which fits perfectly the bond that Ellie and Joel have. At the same time, it can also mean death, which is very fitting as well considering Ellie’s revenge mission that was evident from the first trailer.

I also found it very interesting that they chose to use roots as a background. Is it a hint towards the relationship with Joel as well, a strong connection with the first game’s plot, or Ellie’s determination to remain faithful to what she loves? My guess – all of it.

And, of course, there’s a knife that belonged to Ellie’s mother, Anna, a long time ago. A silent, more stealthy weapon held by Ellie’s somewhat tender but steady grip.

The other poster, as I’ve already said, struck me as totally different:

Abby's arm with a hammer.
Outbreak Day 2017 poster.

First, not a sign of Ellie’s tenderness, only iron determination and a much more violent and hard-hitting hammer in a muscular hand. Some were suggesting that it could be Joel’s, but the general contrasting mood between two posters would not fit much into this theory. Another detail that ruined it was the scar which Joel, of course, could have gotten after the first part, but it wouldn’t make any sense then for Naughty Dog to show it on a poster. Later, it was confirmed that the arm belonged to Abby, a new playable character. An arm scar becomes a small reference to Ellie since she has one as well and only adds to the point that two characters are somehow confronted.

And then there’s more: a wild and dangerous forest instead of solid, grounded (pun not intended, I swear) roots. A car cemetery that suggests havoc and destruction. And a wolven head – a perfect fit to the forest, lone and gruesome hunter, almost a spiritual, sacred animal for some cultures and a feared deadly beast for others. What is more, the wolf’s head is composed of fire that not only does add some mystical and spiritual meaning but also takes us back to Ellie’s tattoo. A moth is attracted to fire – another hint to the confrontation.

Building Up Expectations

Naughty Dog started out slowly and didn’t give away much, but there were enough hints to raise the heat and awake tons of guesses and speculations. And since the 2016 poster was released as a hint to the game-revealing teaser, fans were right to expect some news at the nearest gaming event. That event happened to be Paris Games Week 2017 at the end of October.

A trailer from Paris Games Week 2017.

The Studio remained faithful to their “we don’t let you know too much” policy, and the new video only confirmed some of the ideas that the poster gave us. A new wolf-like in her nature character, lots of gore, fire, hammer, and wild forest – all that spiced up with some religious cult suggestions. My-oh-my, did that trailer create even more speculations! Some fans were even thinking the character was Ellie’s mother, and it was some kind of a flashback we were seeing there – especially considering the recently found American Daughters poster by Naughty Dog’s concept artist Richard Lyons, spotted in Uncharted 4 game – another huge series by a studio.

The Last Of Us poster found in Uncharted 4 game.
American Daughters poster from Dark Horse.

First of all, the pregnant woman could not be Ellie since Ellie is immune to cordyceps and does not need a gas mask. That added to a theory that we could learn something about the girl’s mother, Anna, as Ellie was born near the time the infection started. A curious thing is that there’s also a Dead Horse Comics watermark here – a studio that released TLOU: American Dreams comic book in 2013. The artwork was also posted on Neil Druckman’s Twitter account together with congratulations to Mother’s Day. Did he have to make everything so complicated? 🙂

By the way, his Twitter account was used as a powerful marketing tool as well – revealing names of the characters from the trailer (except for Abby, whose name was blurred out in the tweet) and posting hints, reactions, and all kinds of stuff.

Outside and Inside The Game

Ever since the first trailer, it was evident that guitar would be an important part of the game, and Naughty Dog decided to take up their game one step forward. What can be cooler than Ellie playing and singing? Obviously, only Ellie singing together with Joel.

At the Playstation Experience 2017 the actors who portrayed the characters – Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker – performed together a song called “Wayfaring Stranger” that is, basically, an American national song originated at the end of 18th century. It was covered by many amazing musicians – Johnny Cash and Jack White, for instance. However, this performance with slightly modified lyrics and overall tone of the song gave it a more apocalyptic feel perfectly suitable for the world Ellie and Joel live in. I personally had a lot of Logan feels from this performance.

Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker performing Wayfaring Stranger.

Neil Druckmann and the company obviously didn’t choose the song by accident, and the way the lyrics are modified certainly tells us that there is a lot of foreshadowing going on here. The main theme – the travel to the world with “no sickness, no toil, no danger” – means Ellie and Joel are looking for their Jordan as they want to escape the horrible world they live in. However, from the lyrics division and the performance itself, the ways are different. In Ellie’s part of the lyrics, there is some hope that the future can be better – she sings about meeting her mother and beauteous fields that await her. Joel, on the other hand, seems to be looking for the only possible way to turn his suffering into peace – to become “free from the earthly trials”, he’s “going there, to see my saviour”.

I mean, the arts and songs in this game give away more than you could possibly think.

The next piece of the puzzle came out at E3 2018. It was the first gameplay trailer that started with an interesting cutscene showing new heroes – Dina, with whom Ellie seems to be romantically involved, and Jesse, Ellie’s friend. Switching from the already famous kiss scene with Dina to the ultimate violence and gore, the trailer let people know that it was going to be the story between love and hate. 

The gameplay trailer from E3 2018.

Traditionally, there came an Outbreak poster in 2018 by Sam Wolfe Connelly (I wonder if this is a coincidence with his middle name). This time, we saw Joel and a new portion of symbolism. Ellie’s old man plays the guitar, which is once again confirmed to be an important element of the game (these Ellie’s covers people upload on YouTube, damn). What is curious, the new artist kept the same font, only placed in the upper part of the poster and shifted tones to black and white. I don’t know about you, but all of these gave me the feeling that Joel will be somehow a whole different part of the story compared to what was expected. What is also interesting, the poster references the previous ones – we can see a wolf near Joel and several moths flying around. And Joel seems totally calm and not afraid – here goes a song?

The poster with Joel accompanied by moths and wolf.
Outbreak Day 2016 poster.

The Last Of Preparations

A year later, on Outbreak Day 2019, a release trailer was uploaded on YouTube. From the point as the countdown started, Naughty Dog mostly marketed the game with trailers, revealing parts of the story. This particular one suggested that something might happen to Dina, making Ellie want revenge on some kind of armed organization (probably, the religious fanatics we’d seen before). Obviously, Joel was there to help. Aside from the trailer, the Outbreak 2019 gave fans whole lotta things, among others Last of Us: Part II artbook.

Release Date trailer.

However, not everything played out perfectly. It seemed that Naughty Dog didn’t seem to hold the tension within as the release date was changed a month later from February, 21 to May, 29. Later, there were reports of overworking and lots of stress among the workers. The whole situation peaked in April 2020, when the game was once more rescheduled to June, 19 due to COVID-19 pandemic and logistic problems that came with it. Later that month, there was a huge leak, supposedly from one of the studio workers that revealed crucial spoilers to the game.

This is the kind of damage that was rather hard to undo, but the Studio tried. They closed comments to the videos, asked people on socials not to share the leaks everywhere and be cautious reading comments. And also they released more trailers – a story trailer, which confirmed once again that Ellie will go on some revenge mission and a State of Play trailer where Neil Druckmann revealed some background information to events of the game and talked a bit about updates and gameplay mechanics. Oh, and there was a train:

Aftermath

Naughty Dog did go all out with this game’s marketing. There was lots of effort put into secrecy of the plot and trying not to reveal too much information but keep the players intrigued and interested. The ultimate question here: did it work?

Despite the troubles that appeared closer to the game release, all the tension and leaks, I would rather say it did. The Last Of Us: Part II sold 4 million copies in the first three days, beating the previous record of 3.3 million copies set by Insomniac’s Spider-Man. Some fans were pissed, some were crying after they finished the game – and the way it seems to me, there was no in-between. Much like the main game’s main theme, it’s a thin line between love and hate. And the brand strategy, with its tricky and easy-to-misinterpret foreshadowing, nostalgia feel, and emotional connections, played a huge part in the branding process. Marketing also needs substance, and the campaign for The Last of Us: Part II definitely had it.

What do you think of the whole thing? Which posters and songs did you enjoy the most? Let us know! And while waiting for your comments, I’ll go turn my PS4 on.

Matthew Roberts is a guy who loves reading and writing whatever he can get his hands on - from project management articles to spicy rock'n'roll guitar riffs. He's been working with Approval Studio since 2018 and continues to do so now, which is why you are currently reading this small clumsy text, obviously. With a solid experience in marketing, creative team management, translation, teaching, and occasional freelancing masochism, he decided that it was a high-time to settle down a bit and finally learn how to use a coffee machine. Approval Studio office happened to have one, so he stayed, learned, and soon enough started working from home. Big and bald.

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