‘The Last of Us Part II’: Neil Druckmann on the Game’s Violence and Emotional Manipulation

     June 10, 2020

The Last of Us Part II is bound to upset some folks when it debuts next Friday, June 19th. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s played / survived / had their lives changed by the original, award-winning 2013 title The Last of Us. Emotional manipulation through violence, trauma, and weighty moral decisions isn’t a bug in the game, it’s a feature; it is by design. The games’ director Neil Druckmann confirms as much in a new interview.

In a lengthy write-up for Wired, Darryn King lays out the past, present, and future of the Naughty Dog franchise, with comments from Druckmann and co-writer Halley Wegryn Gross on the sequel’s focus on character and story above all. (See if their approach paid off when our review of The Last of Us Part II arrives here on Collider this Friday, June 12th.) No spoilers here (and the Wired article is pretty safe, too), but Druckmann and Gross do address sequel protagonist Ellie’s sexuality, how important that aspect is to the game and to the company overall despite some toxic subsets of the fandom, and their hopes for what exactly players will get out of the experience. Some highlights follow below:

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Image via Sony, Naughty Dog

The Last of Us Part II is not going to be a feel-good game, especially not in a time when our real world reflects many of the events and narratives unfolding in the game itself. So it’s understandable that some gamers — myself included — might be hesitant about gleefully jumping back into a violent world where we, the players guiding our protagonist, are the wielders of said violence, vindicated or otherwise. Gross and Druckmann address exactly that:

Gross: “Joel and Ellie are complex people who’ve done really rough things. We have to honor not just that but the trauma in their world.”

 

Druckmann, on how the sequel is intended to challenge the player’s sense of “the morality of the character you’re inhabiting”: “This one was much more inspired by real-world events … Justice is so much about perspective”

Some of that “justice” is doled out on the unending horde of creatures infected by the parasitic fungus, but the more morally weighty violence is dealt to fellow humans and even dogs, which will undoubtedly rub some folks — again, myself included — the wrong way. That, too, is by design:

Druckmann: “It makes players feel dirty, and that’s part of the point.”

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Image via NaughtyDog

The perspective Druckmann mentioned is hyper-focused through Ellie, a character who has risen from a typical trope of a self-admittedly misogynistic idea of Druckmann’s back in the early days of The Last of Us (thankfully nipped in the bud by female members of the Naughty Dog staff), to a progressive female character who’s not sexualized (for once) and an icon-in-the-making for the LGBTQ+ community; she’ll perhaps become one of the greatest protagonists in gaming history once it’s all said and done. If your opinion skews on this matter simply because Ellie is gay, Druckmann, Gross, and the Naughty Dog team hope that the experience of The Last of Us Part II changes your outlook:

Gross: “Our hope is that players who might not have previously related to someone like Ellie will find a part of her that is familiar. You’re walking in her shoes, you’re empathizing with her struggles and dreams.”

 

Druckmann:  “We want you to try to empathize with that character, understand what they’re doing, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to role-play, I’m going to try to think the way this character thinks.’”

The Naughty Dog team has already, anecdotally, seen those hopes play out during play-testing:

Druckmann: “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. It’s all for this—just to be able to get this person to feel this experience.”

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Image via Sony

Without giving anything away from my own experience playing the game, I can say that I absolutely believe this account. And that’s ultimately what Druckmann, Gross, and Naughty Dog are after, an experience that is more than a game, more than just entertainment, something that’s enlightening, perspective-shifting, and perhaps just the least bit transformative for those out there who need it. That won’t land for all players, as Druckmann is fully aware:

Druckmann: “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. I’d rather have people passionately hate it than just be like, ‘Yeah, it was OK.’”

Which camp will you be in? We’ll find out when The Last of Us Part II arrives on Friday, June 19th.

Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD

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