One of gaming's big accomplishments in taking screen entertainment to another level is its power to immerse players in the actions and decisions of the characters under their control. As HBO moves into development of its upcoming series based on The Last of Us, the game's creative director says that making viewers feel that same kind of investment poses a big challenge — but that it's fun to solve the complex puzzle of bringing an iconic game to television.
Speaking with Entertainment Weekly about adapting The Last of Us for TV in collaboration with Emmy-winning Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann said the series will succeed if it manages to make viewers feel emotionally responsible for what they're seeing — though getting there is a tall order.
"Can we make you feel hate, guilt, shame? Which are interesting feelings that are totally unique to video games," said Druckmann. "You can't quite do it in films and TV."
When it arrived to PlayStation 3 in 2013, The Last of Us put players through a wrenching cross-country journey as players walked with Joel and Ellie through a post-apocalyptic pandemic toward an emotional Sophie's Choice of a decision at the end. Druckmann said the sequel, set to arrive for PS4 this month, taps the PS4's graphical technology to rope players in even further, using non-verbal cues to drive home the consequences of your actions in a way the previous console couldn't.
Part II will "better capture the nuances of the actors, which means we don't have to rely on dialogue as much," he explained. "So much can be said with a look or a squint in a way that is pretty new for video games, even for us. You just get more confidence in writing less of what might not be seen on the page."
Bringing visual imagery farther into the storytelling mix for The Last of Us Part II has had the side benefit of helping Druckmann sharpen his viewer's eye as work ramps up for the TV series. And having Mazin — who won an Emmy for his writing for Chernobyl — on board as the series' co-writer and executive producer adds an exciting dimension to bringing the game to life for TV.
"In removing the interactivity of the story, how do you make it unique for this other medium?" said Druckmann. "It's an interesting challenge, and I think there's a lot to learn from it. More specifically with the show, I got to meet Craig Mazin. I'm a huge fan of Chernobyl, and to find someone who's equally a fan of the work we've done … Craig had ideas about how to adapt the show, it became intriguing to work with another creative who I admire. It just became a no-brainer — and to do it under the umbrella of HBO and all their content."
HBO hasn't revealed casting or a premiere date for the TV series, but on the gaming side, The Last of Us Part II is about to add a huge new chapter to the franchise's post-apocalyptic story world. "We made a game that, at times, has really lighthearted moments and full sequences that are emotionally challenging to play," said Druckmann, "and we believe [it] will provoke interesting philosophical conversations about the cycle of violence and justice and tribalism and trauma, things that are very relevant to the world that we live in."
The Last of Us Part II releases as a PlayStation 4 exclusive on June 19.