How 'The Last of Us Part II' Gameplay Balances Realism with a High Body Count

In a new interview, The Last of Us Part II director Neil Druckmann describes how the next Naughty Dog game handles a pervasive action game contradiction between realistic human protagonists players can identify with and the high body count they're likely to rack up as they play.

While video games like God of War, Metal Gear Solid V, Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us have advanced cinematic storytelling within the medium, action games continue to butt up against story-disrupting tensions between gameplay and narrative. One of the most dramatic inconsistencies is the high body count racked up by video game protagonists, even as the game otherwise portrays the player-character as morally upright. The contradiction is particularly stark in games where ethical choices are presented to the player — how meaningful is the decision of whether or not to spare another character's life, when the rest of the game involves killing hundreds of people?

In 2013's The Last of Us, Ellie (Ashley Johnson) is adrift until partnering with Joel (Troy Baker), but, now that she's built a new life in Jackson, Wyoming, her relationship with Joel is strained. She becomes close friends, and potential lovers, with Dina (Shannon Woodward), at least until a yet-to-be-revealed incident sets Ellie off on a solo quest for revenge.

Ellie in "The Last of Us Part II." Naughty Dog

"Ellie wants to make it right by bringing the people responsible to justice, even if she has to go at it alone," Druckmann told the official PlayStation blog.

But The Last of Us Part II is no roaring rampage of revenge. Instead, Naughty Dog wanted to create as grounded and realistic an experience as possible.

"We're after a grounded experience, but that doesn't mean reality one-to-one," Druckmann said. "First of all, you don't have all the inputs you'd have in real life. Your inputs are limited do a controller. So with that, how do we create systems and an aesthetic that feels grounded?"

Sometimes this creates a harmony between gameplay and storytelling, such as in how players have to maintain Ellie's weapons. But other times, a grounded narrative experience conflicts with gameplay, resulting in interesting compromises, such as the apparent tension between Ellie's humanity and the mass murder she commits over the course of the game.

"Ellie couldn't kill as many people as she does in the demo in real life, but we need that number to create the tension," Druckmann said. "The tension is more important than a realistic body count."

This construct is far from unique to The Last of Us Part II and often draws rueful commentary from gamers, who may appreciate, for example, Arthur Morgan's moral discomfort at debt collecting in Red Dead Redemption 2, even as the game works against that same nuance every time a player slaughters half a town over the normal course of play. While this apparent contradiction is particularly common to action video games, it can also be seen in action movies, which regularly portray heroic figures untroubled by wholesale slaughter.

The Last of Us Part II takes several steps to counteract this contradiction, with Naughty Dog putting extra effort into restoring the impact of death-dealing.

"We want to treat violence as realistically as we can in an action game," Druckmann said. "One example is that every human enemy in the game features a unique name, such as Omar, or Joe... we do that in order to make you feel it's not just like an NPC or brain-dead obstacle."

Yes, this angry, hammer-wielding man has a name. Naughty Dog

Enemy dogs are another way to return some of the dramatic power of violence to The Last of Us Part II. While anyone familiar with the action media landscape is likely desensitized to dozens of people getting machine-gunned to death in the latest Fast and Furious film, violence against animals is much more likely to induce a genuine reaction, even queasiness.

"There is something when you kill a dog that makes you feel worse than when you kill a human," Druckmann said, while also pointing out enemy dogs will enrich gameplay by endangering Ellie when they otherwise might be able to hide safely from enemies.

In "The Last of Us Part II" dogs can follow Ellie's scent, leading human enemies to her location. Naughty Dog

Beyond nurturing a more realistic tone, Naughty Dog hopes the balance between gameplay and narrative realism will push players into options beyond clearing areas of monster closets. Instead, the realistic approach to violence could have some players seeking out other paths, making unique choices in reaction to the game.

"We wanted to have whole sequences that you can be spotted, engage in some combat, and escape without clearing the area," Druckmann said. "Then there are certain situations where we want you engaged, we want you to partake in certain actions that are going to make you uncomfortable."

Players will be able to decide for themselves how well Naughty Dog succeeded when The Last of Us Part II releases for PlayStation 4 on February 21, 2020.