Five years later, “The Last of Us” still has the greatest ending in video game history. I won’t spoil it here, if for some reason you’ve never played Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, but it’s a moment of tenderness and selfishness; a twisted, melancholy subversion of the previous 20 hours, a uniquely human gut-punch that will have you staring dumbfounded at the screen. How do you come back for a “Part II,” after sealing off a story with a deftness that’s so rare for this industry? Not easily, says Naughty Dog vice president Neil Druckmann in an interview with Variety at Sony’s E3 booth.
“I fooled myself thinking that I had a good idea when they were all really bad, so I’m glad we got to take a break with ‘Uncharted 4’ so I could take a break for an extra three years to think about these characters, and what kind of story would compliment the first one well,” he says. “The first ideas were very plot-driven and focused on some surface stuff, and I lost sight of what made the first game special — this very core, primal idea of unconditional love a parent has for their child. We didn’t have a clean idea. It was just a bunch of plot points and twists.”
Right now, we don’t know much about the specific beats of “The Last of Us Part II” beyond what we’ve seen in the trailers. Druckmann says the story will focus on Ellie, and that it will pick up four years after the conclusion of the first game. He also reiterates this is a sequel in the contiguous, elliptical sense — a game that will reference the scars and story beats established in the first game, more “The Godfather Part II” than “The New Adventures of Joel and Ellie.”
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“We can get into stuff about what the ending [of the first game] means. What does it mean for Ellie and Joel? You don’t want to mess it up,” he continues. “You can think of a series where the sequel taints your feeling of the franchise. But ‘The Godfather Part II’ is an amazing movie, and I like living in a world where ‘The Godfather Part II’ exists, even though ‘The Godfather’ is a perfect film with a perfect ending.”
If there is a lingering impression that “The Last of Us Part II’s” gameplay debut gave us, it’s probably the starkness and grimness of the violence. The first game didn’t hold back with its bone-crunching melee combat and ear-splitting gunshots, but this new entry ratchets up the despair to unprecedented levels. Ellie driving a pocket knife through a thug’s throat, or taking a brutal overhand swing from an industrial hammer, or witnessing a live disemboweling from her hidden grassy perch. Druckmann told me that if the overarching theme of “The Last of Us” was love, this one is about hate. “For me, this other primal thing, is this idea of hate. You can think of instances in your life when you’ve seen an injustice being committed, and for a split-second you think, ‘I would mess up this person. I would make this person pay.’ It doesn’t take much to teeter into that. So, how do we make the player feel that, and reflect on that, and show the consequences of violent actions?”
Druckmann, of course, has made plenty of games where violent action is not intended to be meditated on. The happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake has murdered thousands of mercenaries throughout his journeys, and not one of those executions was treated with any sort of profundity. It is clear, though, from the moment Ellie first takes a life that this is different. It is gristly, gross and slow, with all the messy intangibles of real violence right in place. It is hard to watch in the way that human suffering and cruelty should be hard to watch. I ask Druckmann if, internally, Naughty Dog has designed “The Last of Us Part II’s” combat to be “fun,” or if he doesn’t have much use for that term anymore.
“If we’re going to tell this story, we have to go there. We have to make you feel uncomfortable,” he explains. “We don’t use the word ‘fun’ but it needs to be engaging. If you care about this character, and there are stakes, you are engaged. I don’t want you to willy-nilly commit these acts. I want you to feel these moments.”
Building a video game where violence is elevated from a rote mechanic into something that gnaws at the corners of your soul is a difficult tightrope to walk, but it’s also something that Naughty Dog seems uniquely capable of tackling. We’ll find out for sure when the game releases in the coming years.