Joel and Ellie might be the main characters of The Last of Us, but they’re by no means the only interesting ones. If you’ve played either of Naughty Dog’s acclaimed mushroom-apocalypse games, you know that some of the richest stories are told in the margins. A new fan film explores what it could be like to live in the world of The Last of Us without getting featured on the box art.
Stay, released earlier this week, is a seven-minute film “inspired by The Last of Us.” Its creators are careful to clarify that this is a not-for-profit, fan-made project, entirely unaffiliated with Naughty Dog, Sony, or the upcoming HBO adaptation. In fact, it was inspired by a piece of fan art itself: the concept artist Santiago Betancur’s 2015 mockup of two corpses embracing, one a Clicker (that’s a stage-three fungus zombie), the other a human. The piece is as gorgeous as it is haunting. The same can be said for the film.
“We were inspired by the side stories found in the game. As a player, it felt like there were so many stories to discover from what humanity had left behind,” Stay writer and director Joshua Toonen, who’s also worked on visual effects Captain Marvel, Godzilla vs. Kong, and other blockbusters, told Kotaku in an email. “I felt like this was a great opportunity to create a story of our own, and show that every ‘Infected’ has their own history that’s gone untold.”
Though Ellie shows up in the opening and closing seconds, she only serves as a narrative framing device. Stay is really a love story about two characters: Sean, who sports similar perma-scruff and rugged sartorial tastes as Joel, and Emily, who bears no resemblance to Ellie whatsoever. The couple wants to see the Santa Monica pier to take in the saltwater air for a taste of normalcy. Yes, in the apocalypse, as in real life, we all cave to unwise desires.
“Romance is integral to the story of The Last of Us,” Toonen said. “Dina and Ellie’s relationship in [The Last of Us] Part 2 showed how important compassion and intimacy are in the post-outbreak world. Ultimately, we wanted to explore how far someone would go for the person they love.”
It’s clear that the 40-strong team behind Stay holds reverence from the source material. In one shot, Ellie is framed as she was in a promotional screenshot for The Last of Us Part 2, sitting on a bed, silhouetted, hunched over a six-string. And the production value throughout is nothing to sneeze at. Clickers sound like Clickers; the action scenes are as tense as any you’d see in a zombie flick in theatres. As far as fan projects go, it’s certainly on the level of that terrific Uncharted fan film from a few years back. (Of course, that one had some extra marketing oomph, what with starring Nathan Fillion as Nathan Drake.)
But in the realm of video games, fanmade projects exist on shaky ground. Just this month, Ubisoft and MGM struck down a recreation of GoldenEye 007 remade from the ground up in Far Cry 5’s level editor. That situation, of course, isn’t a pitch-perfect parallel; the GoldenEye remake actually included some Ubisoft-produced proprietary game code and such, whereas Stay does not. Still, when you’re talking about billion-dollar corporations that exact rigorous message control, you can never be sure about how long your project will survive in this cold, cruel, capitalistic world.
“There’s always that risk,” Toonen acknowledged, “But I hope they can see all of the heart and care we took to bring their world to life.”