×

‘The Last of Us Part II’ Creator Explains Game’s Need to Make You Uncomfortable

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.”

“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.

Popular on Variety

More Gaming

  • Doug Scott - Twitch

    Twitch Recruits Zynga's Doug Scott as Chief Marketing Officer

    Doug Scott is leaving as game company Zynga’s marketing boss to become Twitch’s CMO. Scott assumes the CMO role at Twitch after previous chief marketing officer Kate Jhaveri exited this summer to become the NBA’s top marketing exec. News of Scott’s hire comes less than a month after Twitch launched a redesigned logo and site, [...]

  • Call of Duty Modern Warfare

    Call of Duty League Commissioner on Why It's Time for a Franchise Model

    “Call of Duty” esports is officially headed for a city-based model. Publisher Activision Blizzard announced over the summer that the newly coined Call of Duty League will have a franchised, home-and-away structure immediately when it launches its inaugural season in early 2020. It’s set 12 teams in 11 cities, and the roster mania has already [...]

  • Nintendo Switch

    Nintendo Switch Unit Sales Top 15 Million in North America Since Launch

    Nintendo is tooting its own horn, boasting that the Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite systems have together sold over 15 million units in North America to date. That’s according to the company’s own internal data. As of July, the Nintendo Switch had sold over 36 million consoles worldwide, the company said. Nintendo Switch carries [...]

  • Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order

    'Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order': Respawn CEO on Telling the Story Behind 'Becoming a Jedi'

    When it comes to media properties, it doesn’t get much bigger than “Star Wars.” That sentiment certainly isn’t lost on Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn Entertainment, the studio behind “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.” The title, which follows Jedi Padawan Cal Kestis (voiced by Cameron Monaghan) after the events of “Episode III — Revenge of [...]

  • Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order

    'Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order': What to Expect From EA and Respawn's Latest

    There’s a lot riding on “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.” The upcoming title from EA and Respawn is the first major single-player “Star Wars” video game since 2008’s “The Force Unleashed,” and is one of the most anticipated games of 2019. After years of multiplayer adventures, could “Fallen Order” be the title that brings the [...]

  • Google Stadia Game Streaming Service Launching

    Google’s Stadia Game Streaming Service Will Launch Nov. 19

    Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh gave us an update on the company’s game streaming service Stadia during the company’s fall hardware event in New York Tuesday: Stadia will be available to the public on Nov. 19. Stadia promises to stream games directly from the cloud, with no need to buy a full-blown game console. Consumers [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content