From games to TV, The Last of Us boss expands saga into new territory
A saga that takes place in the aftermath of a global pandemic isn’t exactly what you would call escapism. But not even the coronavirus can squash the high demand for The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to one of the best-selling videogames of 2013 — even though it did delay the release date a bit.
It speaks to the lasting impact of this post-apocalyptic epic from Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game developer Naughty Dog. Since writing and co-directing the first installment, he's been taking the story in new directions, from Left Behind (the first game's DLC continuation) to a prequel graphic novel to now an upcoming live-action TV series for HBO and the game sequel Last of Us Part II, which Druckmann has been working up for the past seven years.
"My first love is videogames, and I think they forever will be," he tells EW over the phone. "But I love learning about different mediums and what makes them unique."
Selling a reported 1.3 million copies within its first week of release, The Last of Us established a new world ravaged by a parasitic fungal plague that transforms the “infected” into vicious, zombified mutant monsters. Joel (voiced by Troy Baker), a man who lost his daughter early in the outbreak, lives in one of the last remaining human settlements in America and is tasked with a dangerous mission: Smuggle a young girl, Ellie (Ashley Johnson) — the only person known to be immune to the disease — across the country to meet a group of rebels who hope to develop a cure.
"We were after eliciting the feeling of what it is like to play as a parent with an unconditional love for their child," Druckmann says of the bond that forms between Joel and Ellie. "By the end of it, when Joel has to make these really hard moral decisions, you get it because of all the time we spent playing with these two characters." That journey ends with Joel making the biggest moral decision of all: If he chooses to let the doctors make a cure from Ellie's blood, the procedure will kill her. Does he save the girl he now thinks of as his own daughter or save potential billions? Given that Ellie takes the protagonist role in the next game, set for release June 19 on Playstation 4, non-players needn't guess.
The decision continues to ripple in Part II, which marks a new direction for the Last of Us story. Five years later, Ellie is living a peaceful life in a Wyoming settlement, where her immunity has been kept secret. Despite leaks, Naughty Dog worked to keep the bigger narrative points secret so that players could experience it fresh. Needless to say, this peace eventually shatters when a horrific event sets Ellie on another cross-country mission, this time to seek either vengeance or justice.
"We made a game that is very ambitious both in its scope and its themes," Druckmann says of this new story. "We made a game that, at times, has really lighthearted moments and full sequences that are emotionally challenging to play and we believe will provoke interesting philosophical conversations about the cycle of violence and justice and tribalism and trauma, things that are very relevant to the world that we live in."
Druckmann grew more excited about exploring the depths of Ellie's psyche in a second game as he developed Left Behind and the American Dreams graphic novel, the latter created with writer-illustrator Faith Erin Hicks. He likens it to Breaking Bad and how showrunner Vince Gilligan spent years watching Bryan Cranston's Walter White "slowly shift" and "explore all the contradictions and different dimensions."
The initial concepts for Part II didn't quite work. They were too "thought-driven," Druckmann says. "They might had had exciting twists and turns, but it was missing that emotional core that worked so well for the first game." He found that core in workshopping a story that had the same "universality" of the original in the same way that "the best fiction reflects back on life, on who we are as people, the clichés of the human condition." He then found ways for the gameplay to reflect that journey.
Part II introduces an arsenal of new mechanics meant to place players in Ellie's shoes. She can now dodge oncoming attacks, as well as crawl on her stomach to stealthily avoid enemies. She can craft new weapons and devices, and find new facets of her surroundings to explore. When Ellie is lost "both mentally as well as literally," Druckmann points out, so are the players: She arrives in Seattle looking for those who wronged her, only to find herself wandering a wide-open space in search of potential clues.
The enemies, too, are… not quite enemies. Yes, they will attack and kill on sight, but now they're not some "cartoony bad guys." Druckmann says, "They have emotion, they have feelings, they have needs. Everyone has a name. So if you kill someone next to their friend, they might scream out their friend's name and their emotional behavior will change." A similar response will occur when approached by attack dogs. These canines are trained to sniff out Ellie as she hides in the grass or abandoned shacks, so she must be aware at all times of the trail her scent leaves behind. If she chooses instead to go on the offensive and shoot one of these animals, they will release a final pained yip and their owners may scream in agony.
It's an experiment in storytelling. "Can we make you feel hate, guilt, shame? Which are interesting feelings that are totally unique to videogames," Druckmann says. "You can't quite do it in films and TV." And yet, that's the challenge he now faces. HBO announced in May that Druckmann will collaborate with Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin on a television series adaptation of The Last of Us. A film version was once in the works, but plans fell through. Now the hoped-for show will adapt the events of the first game — and if successful, the second game.
With American Dreams, Druckmann found "something intriguing about the passing of a graphic novel, how you're trying to get a cliffhanger on every page turn," in how he structured the story. "Likewise with TV," he says, "you have to figure out how it communicates ideas or tells stories. In removing the interactivity of the story, how do you make it unique for this other medium? It's an interesting challenge, and I think there's a lot to learn from it. More specifically with the show, I got to meet Craig Mazin. I'm a huge fan of Chernobyl, and to find someone who's equally a fan of the work we've done… Craig had ideas about how to adapt the show, it became intriguing to work with another creative who I admire. It just became a no-brainer — and to do it under the umbrella of HBO and all their content."
In a sense, he's already getting a preliminary experience in this medium with Part II. Johnson and Baker returned to both voice their characters in the new game and record motion-capture performances. Now that the photo-real technology is more advanced than when Naughty Dog made the first game, Druckmann says he can "better capture the nuances of the actors, which means we don't have to rely on dialogue as much. So much can be said with a look or a squint in a way that is pretty new for videogames, even for us. You just get more confidence in writing less of what might not be seen on the page."
That element to the performances, and those for characters still to be met, lends weight to every choice made in Part II. As there are humans behind the enemies, there are actual humans behind the lead roles. "The pursuit of justice, even when we feel righteous, there's often collateral damage," Druckmann muses. Morally, you might feel okay about engaging with different characters, he adds, "but it feels messy, it feels dirty, it feels miserable, and evocative." Those are now the cornerstones of a good Last of Us story, no matter the medium.