The Last of Us Part II and Its Crisis-Strewn Path to Release

It's crunch time in the offices of Naughty Dog, the storied videogame developer in Santa Monica, California. On the morning of February 6, more than 300 artists, designers, and programmers are assembled in a maze of workstations, applying thousands of final micro-touches to a game they have been crafting for nearly six years called . Neil Druckmann, the game's 41-year-old director, inspects the computer-lined trenches with the swept-back hair, frizzled beard, and beleaguered look of Jon Snow during a long battle.Druckmann's adversaries? Time, his own perfectionism, and the reactions of a bunch of strangers off the street.Since February 2017, Naughty Dog has been inviting scores of gamers to its offices to test out the active construction site that is the unfinished game. These playtesters, as they're called, consent to being filmed as they move through the game; then they fill out questionnaires and meet in groups to discuss what's working and what isn't. Back in the early stages of playtesting, Naughty Dog was troubleshooting the rough infrastructure of the game: how its world holds up, what people felt drawn to, where they got lost. Now, during this agonizing final stretch of development, Druckmann's team is watching for players' minute responses to the narrative and emotional beats. In the videofeeds piped out of the playtesting room, the dev team logs and annotates every clench of the jaw and widening of the eyes. Druckmann has even taken to spying on the gamers live from his office.

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This week, some of the team is focused on a particular sequence that needs attention. The animators are finessing a certain character's performance, while artists adjust the lighting, all in hopes of eliciting different responses from the playtesters on the next go-round. All of it stems from Druckmann's obsession with stretching the narrative dimensions of videogames to offer players more than just fun. “Certain sequences have to be tense. Certain sequences have to feel claustrophobic. Certain sequences have to feel lonely,” he says. “I'd just like us to expand the vocabulary.”

Back in the early 2000s, gaming pioneer John Carmack told writer David Kushner that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important.” And true enough, knuckle-whitening gameplay and drool-inducing visuals are still typically top priority for the major videogame studios. But for many years Naughty Dog has dedicated its whole pipeline and decisionmaking process to the contrary proposition—that story is everything. Very few games have vindicated that proposition as strongly as Druckmann's hugely successful 2013 opus , The Last of Us.
It was a game in the basic guise of a zombie shooter, but with a plot inspired by Alfonso Cuarón's , a vision of a depopulated planet inspired by the book The World Without Us, and a severity of atmosphere inspired by the Coen brothers' . The story takes place in a world ravaged by a pandemic. A parasitic fungus has made the leap from insects to humans, turning its victims into zombies that sprout fruiting bodies from their heads, an idea Druckmann picked up from a Planet Earth segment about a real insect-zombifying parasite. (Scientific American commended the game's scientific plausibility.)You play as the bone-tired, battle-hardened Joel, a middle-aged smuggler not yet over the death of his daughter, who teams up with Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan whose infection-resistant DNA may be humankind's last hope. Twenty years after the outbreak, the duo sets off on a cross-country odyssey, through urban spaces reclaimed by nature, contending with the roaming infected, plus a ruthless military, vicious anarchists, and cold-blooded cannibals.