“The Last of Us” creator revisits 'deeply emotional' “Part II” and the intense fan response

With 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered' coming our way, co-creator Neil Druckmann speaks with EW about re-examining the acclaimed 2020 video game.

Fans of the Last of Us gaming franchise responded to the release of 2020's Part II entry with a notable intensity. The developers at Naughty Dog strategically edited the trailers leading up to the big drop in order to omit characters from certain scenes and preserve the twists. So, when players finally got to experience those surprises, the reactions ran the gamut from high praise to death threats lodged at co-creator Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog's co-president and head of creative.

With a remastered version now coming this January, Druckmann reflects on the rollout of the original game with EW.

"The release of The Last of Us Part II was a deeply emotional experience for all of us at the studio, and we’re so proud we could tell the story we wanted to with it," Druckmann writes over email when asked about those fan reactions. "It’s ultimately up to fans to decide what does and doesn’t stand the test of time, but in the years since its release, we’ve been continuously blown away by the outpouring of love, support, and acclaim for a game that means so much to Naughty Dog."

"Seeing fans intensely react to the story, as more and more continue to discover it, and we hope that includes many more with The Last of Us Part II Remastered, is a wonderful reminder of the power that the stories we tell can have," he continues. "The impact players have told us these games have on their lives continues to inspire us as we work on future games."

<p>Naughty Dog</p> Dina and Ellie in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

Naughty Dog

Dina and Ellie in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

And what an impact it has been. After winning five BAFTAs, eight Game Awards, and dozens more accolades from various critics groups with the first entry, Druckmann returned with a formal sequel. Joel (voiced by Troy Baker) had slaughtered members of the Fireflies rebel group in order to save Ellie (Ashley Johnson), even though it meant snuffing out any hope of developing a vaccine for the zombie-like virus ravaging the world. Five years later, the pair are living a peaceful life in the Jackson, Wyo., community, while dealing with that aftermath. Then, a mysterious woman by the name of Abby (Laura Bailey) commits a violent act, which sends Ellie on a vengeance-seeking mission to track down those responsible.

The story is coming back into the zeitgeist with The Last of Us Part II Remastered, coming Jan. 19. Now optimized for the PlayStation 5 console with new visual enhancements, DualSense support, updated accessibility options, and faster load times, the game comes with a slew of bonus materials for players to enjoy. "Think of it like a Criterion Collection release for a video game," Druckmann says, calling the No Return Mode "the highlight" of these features.

The rogue-like survival mode will throw gamers into familiar settings from The Last of Us Part II while allowing them to play as notable characters, each one offering a unique skillset. (Ian Alexander's Lev is spotted in the announcement trailer.) When asked if new characters introduced to the Last of Us world through the HBO series might show up in No Return, such as Melanie Lynskey's Kathleen or Jeffrey Pierce's Perry, Druckmann says no. "Especially given that Perry and Kathleen feature in the Part I portion of the story, there’s no intention to add them to No Return, which is built around a roster of characters from Part II that we’re excited to share with fans soon," he says.

<p>Naughty Dog</p> Joel in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

Naughty Dog

Joel in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

The remaster also comes with new behind-the-scenes material, such as Lost Levels, which allows gamers to play through rough cuts of deleted levels that didn't make it into the final game. "Think of these as levels left on the cutting room floor," says Druckmann, who is a fan of film behind-the-scenes featurettes. "These sequences, like an extended party scene in Jackson that offers more insight into Ellie’s life in town, aren’t intended to just let you play through an early in-development version without context. Embedded in each one are interactive elements that will offer developer commentary from our team about the intention of the level, what was going on in the sequence, and ultimately why it was cut."

Offering even more insight into the original game's development is the director's commentary feature. Fans will be able to hear newly recorded commentary from Druckmann, the game's narrative lead Halley Gross, and actors Baker, Johnson, and Bailey that will play over the main campaign's cutscenes. Druckmann notes how this feature "offered us a chance to really dive into the making-of process with in-the-moment reactions and observations that are intrinsically paired with the experience of playing the game."

In terms of other Last of Us games, Druckmann says he has "no update" regarding the shelved multiplayer game previously reported. What about the long-rumored The Last of Us Part III? "The Last of Us is obviously a world I love deeply and know our studio and fans do as well, but I have no comment at this moment on the series’ future beyond our focus on The Last of Us Part II Remastered," he says. However, he does confirm "we have other projects in the works at Naughty Dog," and of course, season 2 of HBO's The Last of Us adaptation, which will now begin to adapt the events of Part II.

<p>Naughty Dog</p> The Rat King monster in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

Naughty Dog

The Rat King monster in 'The Last of Us Part II Remastered'

Druckmann insists the development of the Part II remaster and season 2 of the show is just "serendipitous." "I remember going into the studio to record commentary tracks for a handful of cinematics, then in the afternoon meeting with Craig to break season 2’s story — which was often based on the same sequences/moments," he recalls. (Druckmann showruns HBO's The Last of Us with Craig Mazin.) "So, the process of working on the remaster happened to double as research, refresher for me on the intricacies of the story, along with why we made certain decisions."

The Emmy-nominated TV drama is prepping to start filming early next year ahead of a planned 2025 premiere. That means a new audience will get to experience the twists and turns of The Last of Us Part II in a different way entirely. Hopefully, they'll be less intense than the gamers were.

While Druckmann can't confirm whether or not some of these twists will be directly adapted for season 2 and beyond, he says, "I tend to focus on what we can control (is the storytelling up to our standards?) versus things we can’t control (the audience’s reaction). With the show’s popularity, I’m sure we’ll get the gamut of emotional responses. It’ll be fun seeing people's responses to this story either for the first time or for the second time in another medium."

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