The Last of Us Part 2's game director on braving backlash and burnout

Footage from The Last Of Us Part 2 leaked online in April 26, revealing major plot points.
PHOTO: Sony

Imagine getting death threats for making a video game. Game director Neil Druckmann has had that unfortunate experience.

The game is The Last Of Us Part 2 (TLOU2), which might well turn out to be the most divisive game of the year.

It is a story of revenge between two women, Ellie and Abby, for the deaths of the father figures in their lives. The backdrop for their violent confrontation is a post-apocalyptic, post-outbreak world with infected, zombie-like humans.

The backlash from fans was triggered by, among many things, the killing off of a main character from the critically acclaimed first game and the introduction of more LGBTQ characters and themes in this second game.

"When we made the first game, there were no expectations. (With) the second game, right or wrong, people expected certain things, and we didn't make a traditional sequel.

"Some people loved that and some people had a hard time with it, and it was just how intense that reaction was that was surprising," he says.

Mr Druckmann, 41, was speaking to The Straits Times via webcam from his home in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Wearing a dark grey T-shirt with his long hair tied back, he had an air of quiet confidence as he spoke calmly about his latest game.

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TLOU2's launch was originally slated for February this year. The release date was then pushed back to May and later postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, on April 26, footage from the game leaked online, revealing major plot points. Shortly after that, the release date of June 19 was announced.

That was when the backlash began, with Mr Druckmann and studio Naughty Dog getting death threats as well as homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, some of which he shared via his Twitter account.

Many gamers who reacted negatively to the leaked footage also apparently showed their frustration by "review-bombing" review-aggregation site Metacritic -posting low scores out of unhappiness even before they had played the game.

As a result, user scores were as low as 3.4 out of 10 shortly after the game's launch.

The score now sits at 5.5, with 32,000 positive user ratings to just over 33,000 negative ones. The score from critics though, currently stands at 95 out of 100, without a single negative review.

Game director Neil Druckmann says the game's team is now recuperating after the effort of making TLOU2. PHOTO: NAUGHTY DOG, LLC

"Those days are hard because you want to inspire everybody, but first you got to take care of yourself. I was beating myself up, asking what we could have done," says Mr Druckmann.

The leaks of the game's footage were due to the studio being hacked, he says, adding that when it happened, he assured his team that it was the fault of no one but the person who had stolen the footage.

"We know this game inside out and we are still moved by it, and we've seen it for years. So those leaks ultimately aren't going to mean anything.

"It's not about any one twist, it's about this slow exploration of these two characters. That's what we all kind of clung to to get us through that pretty tough period," he says.

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Making TLOU2 was a collaborative effort that took about six years, an undertaking which he says would have been debilitating if not for having a team of collaborators.

"The vision for us was making a game about empathy and doing it by showing two sides of the story. I don't know what goes into all of those parts because it's too big for me to figure it all out.

"(Game directing) is about creating a framework where we can all get on the same page and asking 'now. how do you interpret it'," he says.

The first The Last Of Us game, released in 2013, reportedly sold more than 20 million copies. TLOU2, despite the backlash, sold four million copies internationally in its first weekend, making it the fastest-selling PlayStation-exclusive game.

Mr Druckmann says the game's team, which numbers more than 300, is now recuperating after the effort of making TLOU2.

His focus for the next few months is on facilitating a better work-life balance for Naughty Dog employees.

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He wants his team to take a step back to experiment and explore other things even if a third The Last Of Us instalment were to be confirmed, so they can avoid burnout and go into their next project with passion.

Mr Druckmann is now co-writing an adaptation of The Last Of Us for a HBO series. His approach is to focus on what made the game special and build on it.

"You have to have the confidence to say this just doesn't work in this other medium.

"We might have to add or remove characters but you're trying to find the emotional core," he says.

Asked whether he would be ready to leave the game series he helped create when the time comes, he says: "It's always hard to leave any creative endeavour behind and say it's done.

"My approach has always been that each game stands on its own and each game might be the last one in the series. Because I don't know if we'll ever do it again."

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.