In one perfectly cheesy photo, Ellie and Riley are captured together forever, making silly monster faces and nervously giggling — unaware of what lies ahead for them.
The Last of Us episode 7 takes teen protagonist Ellie (Bella Ramsey) into the past, to one fateful night in which her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) surprises her with a tour through an abandoned-but-powered mall. Butterflies abundant, Ellie valiantly shields her feelings for Riley as they explore the shops, but despite Riley's cool, calm, and collected exterior, Ellie's not alone in these jitters. And in one delightful scene in a photo booth, the show both captures the familiar anxiety of crush confirmation and pays tribute to one of the game's sweetest scenes.
During Riley's "wonders of the mall" tour, after the pair ride the carousel, she takes Ellie over to a working photo booth. They nervously take a seat inside, side by side. Riley's come prepared with her $5 note, and Ellie accuses her of having done this whole photo booth thing before. "No, idiot, I was waiting to do it with you." Hnnnnngggggggggg.
In the booth, they're directed by a cartoon rabbit to strike their best pose. Then, panic sets in when the pair realise they haven't prepared any poses. After a classic stunned WTF-do-we-do pose, Riley suggests bunny ears and back-to-back, while Ellie suggests a scary pose, all of which allow them to snuggle up to each other. Physical contact! With your crush! It's the sweetest, most awkwardly nervous sequence, in which Riley and Ellie seem perfectly elated and giddy in each other's company.
The scene is taken from The Last of Us' downloadable content (DLC) Left Behind, the spinoff released by Naughty Dog in 2014 that is the basis of the narrative in episode 7: Ellie's backstory with Riley. In the game, Ellie and Riley come across a photo booth in the mall as part of a sequence that uses the game's regular mechanics and actions but uses them for what is essentially a date.
"We took these mechanics that were used for violence when you played as Joel in the full game, and then for this extra chapter, we subverted those mechanics to get you to connect with Riley and be on this sort of date, running away together," The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann told the HBO podcast. The studio spent a huge amount of resources on developing this emotionally intimate character moment, the type of impactful scene that Druckmann said Naughty Dog values as much as major action sequences.
"We had this idea of like, ‘Oh, what if they went in this photo booth?’ Because this is a thing you do in a mall with your friends, you take pictures together. It would be a moment that would make it interactive, you could choose what poses you want to do. So there’s a little bit of agency for the player there as far as shaping how that experience goes."
Director Craig Mazin told HBO's podcast he wanted to include the photo booth scene almost exactly as it appears in the game "down to bunny ears and monster poses." — Mazin and Druckmann have spoken about which scenes are deemed important to do this with, like Ellie and Joel's argument, and which can deviate or expand on the world of the game, like Bill and Frank's story.
In the game's photo booth scene, Ellie, who you're controlling, can pick a theme between "Love," "Friends," or "Cool." (Yes, Naughty Dog literally hammers home the whole define-the-relationship chat in this moment.) If you pick "Love," Riley wryly asks, "You tryin' to woo me?" Ellie quickly brushes it off, "In your dreams." Once you've locked in the theme, players can choose for Ellie and Riley to change their poses using different PlayStation buttons. Some of these poses end up in the show, including the bunny ears and scary pose, which is a really sweet moment for gamers. In many of the poses, Riley budges up next to Ellie, physical contact that sets teen hearts a-flutterin'.
"Ultimately, that moment is about a cracking of the dam," Druckmann said. "Of seeing these girls are starting to telegraph to each other whether consciously or not that there is more here than just friendship. That was the purpose for it in the game."
It's this feeling, that head-over-heels crushery, that makes this scene so relatable. Druckmann referred to it as "that moment where you’re so insecure...there’s never enough proof to say, 'She definitely likes me.'"
“Ellie gets so excited by and terrified of physical contact with Riley that when it happens, she needs to stop it because she’s afraid that she won’t be able to stop herself from kissing her,” added Mazin.
Ellie notably spends most of the episode/game protecting herself from these feelings. In the show, she quickly but jokingly tells Riley to get off her in photo booth, in a moment of awkwardness. It's the second time she gets weird about physical contact with Riley — Ellie stumbles on the elevator, Riley catches her, and Ellie hastily adjusts herself and stammers an “I’m fine.”
“Ellie’s afraid that Riley will see right through her," says Druckmann. "She’ll see all the emotions she’s feeling and she’ll be embarrassed. So she has to protect herself from that."
But not only is Ellie protecting herself from the possibility that Riley doesn’t feel the same way, she's also unsure about how Riley would feel about Ellie being gay.
“That’s, I think, a real fear that Ellie has is that it won’t merely be a rejection of romance, it will be a total rejection of her as a person and as a friend," says Mazin. "And she can’t bear that."
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes air every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.