It’s crunch time in the offices of Naughty Dog, the storied videogame developer in Santa Monica, California. On the morning of February 6, more than 300 artists, designers, and programmers are assembled in a maze of workstations, applying thousands of final micro-touches to a game they have been crafting for nearly six years called The Last of Us Part II. Neil Druckmann, the game’s 41-year-old director, inspects the computer-lined trenches with the swept-back hair, frizzled beard, and beleaguered look of Jon Snow during a long battle.
Druckmann’s adversaries? Time, his own perfectionism, and the reactions of a bunch of strangers off the street.
Since February 2017, Naughty Dog has been inviting scores of gamers to its offices to test out the active construction site that is the unfinished game. These playtesters, as they’re called, consent to being filmed as they move through the game; then they fill out questionnaires and meet in groups to discuss what’s working and what isn’t. Back in the early stages of playtesting, Naughty Dog was troubleshooting the rough infrastructure of the game: how its world holds up, what people felt drawn to, where they got lost. Now, during this agonizing final stretch of development, Druckmann’s team is watching for players’ minute responses to the narrative and emotional beats. In the videofeeds piped out of the playtesting room, the dev team logs and annotates every clench of the jaw and widening of the eyes. Druckmann has even taken to spying on the gamers live from his office.
This week, some of the team is focused on a particular sequence that needs attention. The animators are finessing a certain character’s performance, while artists adjust the lighting, all in hopes of eliciting different responses from the playtesters on the next go-round. All of it stems from Druckmann’s obsession with stretching the narrative dimensions of videogames to offer players more than just fun. “Certain sequences have to be tense. Certain sequences have to feel claustrophobic. Certain sequences have to feel lonely,” he says. “I’d just like us to expand the vocabulary.”
Back in the early 2000s, gaming pioneer John Carmack told writer David Kushner that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” And true enough, knuckle-whitening gameplay and drool-inducing visuals are still typically top priority for the major videogame studios. But for many years Naughty Dog has dedicated its whole pipeline and decisionmaking process to the contrary proposition—that story is everything. Very few games have vindicated that proposition as strongly as Druckmann’s hugely successful 2013 opus, The Last of Us.
It was a game in the basic guise of a zombie shooter, but with a plot inspired by Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, a vision of a depopulated planet inspired by the book The World Without Us, and a severity of atmosphere inspired by the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. The story takes place in a world ravaged by a pandemic. A parasitic fungus has made the leap from insects to humans, turning its victims into zombies that sprout fruiting bodies from their heads, an idea Druckmann picked up from a Planet Earth segment about a real insect-zombifying parasite. (Scientific American commended the game’s scientific plausibility.)
You play as the bone-tired, battle-hardened Joel, a middle-aged smuggler not yet over the death of his daughter, who teams up with Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan whose infection-resistant DNA may be humankind’s last hope. Twenty years after the outbreak, the duo sets off on a cross-country odyssey, through urban spaces reclaimed by nature, contending with the roaming infected, plus a ruthless military, vicious anarchists, and cold-blooded cannibals.
But there are tender shoots of beauty amid the rubble: the introspective melancholy of the soundtrack by Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla with its spare, down-tuned guitar; the wonder with which Ellie beholds the remnants of civilization; and, at the center of it, the sense of found family, anchored in the deeply felt motion-capture and vocal performances of the actors who play Joel and Ellie, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.
Over its 15 to 20 hours of gameplay, The Last of Us conveys the immensity of cinema, the intimacy of a novel, and the sheer storytelling payload of, let’s say, one or two seasons of an HBO series. It leads to an explosive climax that taps into the full power of the interactive medium: In a final violent showdown, Joel has no choice but to damn the world in order to save Ellie. It would be a heart-stopping scene if you were to watch it spool out on TV. But experiencing it while playing the character of Joel yourself? The ending generated Red Wedding-like shock waves, inspired passionate debate, and expanded people’s ideas of what videogames are capable of.
Which all means, of course, that the sequel has a huge act to follow—and maybe even a target on its back. The more invested fans become, the greater the chance they will eventually turn against the creators. (See Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Mass Effect, et al.) And Last of Us fans are seriously invested; after all, they haven’t just binge-watched the game’s characters, they’ve inhabited them for hour upon hour. There’s a TED talk, as well as numerous YouTube videos and Reddit threads with titles like “The Last of Us Changed My Life.” An astonishing number of expectant fans are already sporting elaborate Last of Us Part II tattoos.
Druckmann and Naughty Dog, meanwhile, are determined to one-up themselves. The Last of Us Part II is arguably the biggest, most ambitious, most ravenously anticipated game in the notoriously ambitious studio’s 36-year history. But for a team that has nudged games closer to the sensibilities of prestige television, the sequel’s rollout has itself been subject to some pretty outrageous plot twists.
First came a self-inflicted delay. The sequel was originally due to come out at the end of February, but in fall 2019, the studio pushed the release date back to May. (“The size and scope of this game got the better of us,” Druckmann explained in a blog post.) Then came the plague.
At the time of my visit to Naughty Dog in early February, floor stands of Purell hand sanitizer dotted the office; the World Health Organization had just declared a “public health emergency of international concern” over a novel coronavirus that emerged out of Wuhan, China.
In short, the rollout of a videogame set in the aftermath of a fictional pandemic was about to be thrown into disarray by a real one—and also, for good measure, by a group of hackers, an army of trolls, a sea of restive fans, and the storm of resentments and transformations that have roiled gaming for nearly a decade.
Neil Druckmann was born in Israel in 1978, and he spent countless hours of his childhood on the family computer, learning English partly by playing text-based adventure games like King’s Quest and Space Quest while consulting a Hebrew-English dictionary. Every night, the family would watch the news together: “Local conflicts, terrorism, threats of war and retribution,” he says. “It was ubiquitous.”
Partly to escape that tense atmosphere, Druckmann’s family moved to the US when he was 10. His awe at seeing his new home for the first time, he says, was part of what inspired Ellie’s reaction to seeing the ruins of great American cities in The Last of Us.
Druckmann, who still retains traces of an accent, was a precocious reader and wannabe animator, but his parents steered him away from pursuing an education in the arts. Instead, he studied criminology at Florida State University, thinking he could be an FBI agent who wrote novels on the side. He took a programming class as an elective, though, and something clicked. “Wait,” he recalls thinking, “this is how people make videogames!” A natural coder, he switched his major to computer science and eventually picked up a master’s in entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon.
In 2004, he took a summer internship with Naughty Dog and never left. After a grueling year and a half of programming, he talked his way into the creative departments, working as a writer and designer on the action-adventure title Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. He took on an even larger role in the sequel, still straddling writing and design. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves boasted epic set pieces that unspooled, in the parlance of the industry, “on the stick”—as the player played—instead of in passive cinematic cut scenes. It was a thrilling exercise in how to intermesh story and interactivity—in what he and his cocreators called “the active cinematic experience.”
Inspired, Druckmann began attending writing seminars. He inhaled a copy of Robert McKee’s screenwriters’ bible, Story, which would become a yearly read. By the time he’d gained enough clout in the studio to pitch a new game, he was hooked on a concept: Could you represent the growing bond and shifting dynamics between two contrasting characters through gameplay, and do it in a way that mirrors the connection between the player and the characters? That idea became the main kernel of inspiration for The Last of Us.
In an early version of The Last of Us, then titled “Mankind,” only women were susceptible to the parasitic fungal infection that brings down civilization. In that version, Ellie was the only female believed to be immune. But that concept, Druckmann said in a 2013 speech, was a terrific failure. “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea,” he confessed. “A lot of the female workers at Naughty Dog came up and said, ‘I don’t like this idea. I understand what you’re trying to do—it is ultimately a story about the love of a girl—but the way it’s coming off is you’re having a bunch of women turn into monsters and you’re shooting them in the face.”
Druckmann reworked the plot. Then he became a father. Having an infant daughter quickly charged him with the awe and terror of caring for a child. It also deepened his growing conviction that videogames had to do better at representing female characters—beginning with his own.
This “awakening,” as Druckmann calls it, further cemented his desire to turn Ellie into the most fully realized, nonsexualized female protagonist in videogames—an ambition that met with no small amount of resistance from other quarters in the gaming community. Early focus groups reacted poorly to Ellie, and later, marketing gurus advised against featuring her on the box art. Druckmann stood his ground.
By any measure, he was vindicated: The Last of Us sold 1.3 million units in its first week and went on to reach a total of more than 17 million, making it one of the highest selling PlayStation games ever. Among its many accolades, The Last of Us won Game of the Year at the annual awards presented by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, gaming’s take on the Oscars.
So Druckmann and Naughty Dog kept pushing the envelope. In 2014 they released Left Behind, an expansion pack for The Last of Us—a kind of minigame that takes place, in part, before Joel and Ellie meet. This time, gamers played not as Joel but as a teenaged Ellie, and during the game, Ellie kisses her female best friend. One gaming critic called it “the first example of intimacy in a videogame that’s meant anything.”
Then in 2018, Ellie came fully out of the closet. At that year’s E3 Expo, the game industry’s marquee annual event, Naughty Dog unveiled a scene from The Last of Us Part II, with Ellie sharing a dance, and a kiss, with a new female character named Dina.
“I remember being in the room when that trailer was first shown,” says Keza MacDonald, The Guardian‘s videogames editor, who is queer, “and thinking, you know, a few short years ago I was sitting here with my head in my hands because the latest Assassin’s Creed had four playable men and no women, because female characters were ‘too hard to animate.’ And this year Sony is leading its E3 conference with a game starring a gay woman. Maybe everything isn’t terrible.”
At Naughty Dog, says Druckmann, the goal of deepening narratives in videogames has wedded itself naturally to the studio’s commitment to represent diversity in game characters—which in turn has attracted new talent. To help him cowrite The Last of Us Part II, in 2016 Druckmann brought in a television and film screenwriter named Halley Gross. “Our goal is absolutely to create the most multifaceted characters you’ve seen in games,” says Gross, who spent 13 months working on the first season of HBO’s Westworld. By comparison, she has spent three and a half years writing The Last of Us Part II. And she and Druckmann have drawn extensively from the rest of the team, Gross reports; queer staffers have helped in the writing of queer characters, adding dimension and complexity: “I think we’re doing right by the LGBTQ+ community, who have often been drawn with a broader brush.”
Not long after the release of Left Behind in 2014, the Gamergate controversy erupted, turning questions of representation and gender in videogames into some of the most toxic issues in American cultural discourse. Today there are plenty of gamers who proclaim that political correctness has ruined videogames, or to quote the title of a discussion of the issue on a gaming forum, “liberal politics infected Naughty Dog.”
But it is these players’ loyalty to The Last of Us that fills them with such distrust of its creator. “TLoU is my favorite game of all time,” one fan tweeted at Druckmann “Please try to keep your personal politics out of Part 2. Thank you very much.”
Compared with the first game, perhaps the simplest thing to say about The Last of Us Part II is that it is bigger: It has more characters, more room to explore, more to do. Your allies and opponents are smarter. Even the haptic-triggering signals delivered to the DualShock controller in your hands have been more carefully calibrated. The setting, for much of the time, is Seattle, four years after the events of the first game. There are ferns and firs growing in the streets of Pioneer Square, and a river of floodwater runs alongside the ivy-covered concrete guideway of the monorail. Naughty Dog artists traveled to the city, capturing photorealistic textures, topography, the precise quality of the overcast city’s ambient lighting. Seattleites will be able to visit the debris-ridden remains of downtown coffee shops.
Ellie, after being playable for just a couple of riveting sections in the first game, takes center stage this time. Now 19, her appearance is more detailed and more closely resembles Ashley Johnson, with facial performance-capture tech used for the first time in the franchise. The artists worked hard to get her clothes to wrinkle authentically, while one sound designer invented a system that tracks Ellie’s exertion level and plays respiratory audio effects to match. Animators even labored over such blink-and-miss-it details as, well, blinking—the mere opening and closing of eyelids feels more fleshy and organic. “Real life is the bar,” says the game’s codirector Kurt Margenau. In comparison, he says wryly, “The Last of Us was a baby game for babies.”
During my visit, everyone at Naughty Dog vigilantly guarded details of the game’s plot. What’s clear is that Part II follows Ellie on a personal quest for vengeance, while a war rages between two rival militia factions called the Washington Liberation Front and the Seraphites. The game’s cycles of violence faintly mirror those in the part of the world where Druckmann was born, along with the factions and divisions in the US today. “This one was much more inspired by real-world events,” Druckmann says.
The idea is to complicate the player’s feeling of inherent righteousness. “Justice is so much about perspective,” Druckmann says; the sequel is built to challenge your sense of “the morality of the character you’re inhabiting.”
Compared with the usual videogame depictions of meaningless and over-the-top violence, there’s a terrible weight to the bloodshed in The Last of Us Part II. Go on, take out another anonymous baddie with a rifle or nail bomb or flamethrower or brick—and then feel your satisfaction curdle when his buddies cry out his name in shock and grief. Even the dogs in The Last of Us Part II—which sniff out your scent trail and attack when they find you—are some of the most intelligent, realistic dogs in videogames ever. In Naughty Dog’s offices, playtesters have been horrified to find themselves committing acts of canine carnage. Yelps and whimpers and whines ring out, not all of them from the dogs. “It makes players feel dirty, and that’s part of the point,” Druckmann explains.
The game also goes to the trouble of realistically grappling with trauma, according to Gross, who says that she drew on her own experience with post-traumatic stress. “Joel and Ellie are complex people who’ve done really rough things,” she adds. “We have to honor not just that but the trauma in their world.”
Ideally, despite these bleak, heavy elements, players will be so caught up in the story they’re unable to put the controller down. “We want you to try to empathize with that character, understand what they’re doing, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to role-play,’ ” Druckmann says, “‘I’m going to try to think the way this character thinks.’”
But Druckmann understands from his hours of watching playtesters that not everyone appreciates that. In fact, he says, some players hate the game. And he knows it will be the same for certain fans of The Last of Us out in the wild. “Some of them are not going to like this game, and not like where it goes, and not like what it says or the fate of characters that they love,” Druckmann notes. But he believes developers like him must learn to tolerate more discomfort: “I’d rather have people passionately hate it than just be like, ‘Yeah, it was OK.’ ”
It’s nearly 7 pm when I leave the studio that day in February. Much of the team is still at work, and dinner is being laid out. “The game is a living, breathing thing that’s still evolving and growing and changing,” Gross tells me, bringing to mind an interminable videogame boss battle—or a virus. But the game isn’t all that’s changing. That day, just over 300 miles away, a San Jose resident dies, in what would later be considered the first diagnosed Covid-19 fatality on US soil.
On one level, the faint connective threads between the news and the world of The Last of Us are simply eerie. “We did a lot of research about pandemics and outbreaks,” Druckmann says, referring back to the days when he and his team were developing the first game. “Now we’re witnessing superficial similarities that are surreal. Art imitating life imitating art.” (A couple of fake Twitter accounts, created to promote The Last of Us in 2013, make for discomfiting reading today: “If you must travel outside,” tweeted @SpringsHospital, “we recommend wearing a face mask.”)
A few weeks after my visit, even before the government required it, Naughty Dog started shifting its team to working from home. “If we end up missing a production date, so be it,” Druckmann declares.
But in the actual event, it isn’t the creative process that holds things up: In early April, Naughty Dog announces that the game’s release will be postponed indefinitely. In an interview, Druckmann indicates that it was due to concerns about coronavirus-related disruptions in international distribution. Gamers’ impatience—the release date had been postponed once already—begins to mutate into indignation. On social media, anger and invective start flowing.
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On Monday, April 27, Naughty Dog announces that the game will in fact be released on June 19, news that ought to turn fans’ mood around. But the bigger news that day is that hackers have leaked a trove of potential plot spoilers and gameplay footage to YouTube.
The leak opens the floodgates of vitriol from the gaming community even wider. As Druckmann had predicted, there are plenty of people who don’t care for the game’s apparent politics or where the story seems to go—even though they lack the full context of the narrative that Naughty Dog’s obsessives have been stitching together for six years. Druckmann is bombarded with anti-Semitic slurs, death threats, and messages informing him he has ruined the franchise; one YouTube personality posts a video arguing that The Last of Us Part II “could damage gaming for years,” which quickly racks up hundreds of thousands of views.
The term “release date” has rarely seemed so doubly apt, suggesting the devs’ liberation from what has become a strange extended nightmare. For Druckmann, at least, the Last of Us saga continues: In March, HBO announced that it will be adapting the game into a series, with Druckmann writing and executive producing alongside Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin.
But in the meantime, the game’s creators get by on optimism: Maybe, just maybe, the narrative and empathic power of a game like The Last of Us Part II can move even its skeptics. “Our hope is that players who might not have previously related to someone like Ellie will find a part of her that is familiar,” Gross says. “You’re walking in her shoes, you’re empathizing with her struggles and dreams.”
Indeed, I’m told of at least one playtester who came away from Part II saying, “I think I have to change my beliefs.” Druckmann’s hours watching all those videofeeds of people playing his unfinished game revealed its raw emotional power. “I saw one girl get to this sequence that took us a long time to get to land. And she’s bawling. I’m watching her, and I’m starting to cry because she’s crying, and I’m like, all these years of work for a couple-of-minutes sequence,” he says. “It’s all for this—just to be able to get this person to feel this experience.”
On May 4, Druckmann posted a video to Naughty Dog’s Instagram page announcing that his team had finally finished the game and had handed it off to be pressed and distributed. “No matter what you’ve seen or heard or read, nothing compares to playing this thing from beginning to end,” he says. “It’s a videogame. You’ve got to play it.”
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