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.
But in the actual event, it isn’t the creative process that holds things up: In early April, Naughty Dog announces that the game’s release will be postponed indefinitely. In an interview, Druckmann indicates that it was due to concerns about coronavirus-related disruptions in international distribution. Gamers’ impatience—the release date had been postponed once already—begins to mutate into indignation. On social media, anger and invective start flowing.
On Monday, April 27, Naughty Dog announces that the game will in fact be released on June 19, news that ought to turn fans’ mood around. But the bigger news that day is that hackers have leaked a trove of potential plot spoilers and gameplay footage to YouTube.
The leak opens the floodgates of vitriol from the gaming community even wider. As Druckmann had predicted, there are plenty of people who don’t care for the game’s apparent politics or where the story seems to go—even though they lack the full context of the narrative that Naughty Dog’s obsessives have been stitching together for six years. Druckmann is bombarded with anti-Semitic slurs, death threats, and messages informing him he has ruined the franchise; one YouTube personality posts a video arguing that The Last of Us Part II “could damage gaming for years,” which quickly racks up hundreds of thousands of views.
The term “release date” has rarely seemed so doubly apt, suggesting the devs’ liberation from what has become a strange extended nightmare. For Druckmann, at least, the Last of Us saga continues: In March, HBO announced that it will be adapting the game into a series, with Druckmann writing and executive producing alongside Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin.