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.