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Rumor: Did a Disgruntled Naughty Dog Employee Leak The Last of Us Part II Cutscenes?

The Last of Us Part 2

Editor’s Note: While we have attempted to omit spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, some quotes may hint at the nature of the spoilers. In addition, the links we use in this article will contain spoilers. We do not link to the leaked videos of the game’s cutscenes or gameplay, nor do we describe those scenes.

Over the last few weeks, videos of scenes from The Last of Us Part II have leaked online. Despite objections from Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE), many feel that a rogue Naughty Dog employee is the only one who could have done it.

While the game had been delayed before, another delay occurred on April 2nd due to the coronavirus pandemic, with no new release date. This was later revealed (25 days later) to be to July 17th.

 

Around April 25th (according to Bounding into Comics) footage of the game leaked online, revealing late-game cutscenes and the ending. While we will not link it due to showing spoilers, the corners of the screen show what appears to be command codes or part of a debug menu, and an FPS counter.

Bounding into Comics also states that elements of the cutscenes match those described in a 4Chan post earlier in April. They report this post was allegedly made by “an immediate family member of someone working at Naughty Dog [on] The Last of Us 2.”

This would suggest the videos were of a developer-build of the game. Many also believed that a disgruntled Naughty Dog employee had leaked the game online.

 

The Rumor

Sausage Roll’s Anonymous Source

On April 27th, Australian pop-culture website Sausage Roll posted an article, citing “an anonymous source linked to Nauhgty Dog Inc.” The source claimed the leak did in fact come from a Naughty Dog employee.

“I don’t doubt, even for a moment, that this leak came from the studio,” the source claims. “The Last of Us Part 2 is very divisive and, as you can imagine, some of the team aren’t really thrilled to be working on the game.” Some felt the leaked scenes contained (in Sausage Roll’s words) “far left leaning plot elements.”

The latter came after many developed doubts about Vice President of Naughty Dog Neil Druckmann. In an interview Variety (via Kotaku), Druckmann stated he was influenced by controversial game critic Anita Sarkeesian; who many already felt had a hard-left political bias towards video games in general.

 

In addition, he stated he had kicked out play-testers of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. This was due to them harshly objecting (described by Druckmann as shouting and ranting) to how character Nadine Ross was used in the story.

This included her being abnormally strong, and soundly trouncing seasoned adventurer Nathan Drake (who had gone up against trained soldiers, and individuals who had essentially been granted super-powers). They also objected to other elements, which are spoilers.

Returning to the Sausage Roll article, the source also claimed that Naught Dog staff no longer openly objected to changes or proposals they did not like, due to (in Sausage Roll’s words) “cancel culture” being strong within the studio.

 

“Many people would agree with me that this has been one of the worst projects they’ve ever had to work on, and that’s not just because some people disagree with the plot. Even though some of the team members are Christians and don’t necessarily agree with the game’s ‘message’, they are also professionals and can put their personal politics aside to get the job done. What really sucks about all of this is the working environment.

The team is very much divided on the game, and even voicing your concerns on its story will upset certain individuals; it usually results in said person being called closed-minded or even phobic, or some such nonsense. Some people literally have to bite their tongues or fear losing their jobs, even careers, to an outrage mob.

[…] What’s really sad is that nobody is allowed to talk about any of this. Many employees have left Naughty Dog because in-house politics and they are under a strict NDA and absolutely cannot discuss the studio’s ‘productions practices’ secrets. Oops!”

 

Sausage Roll claim that Naughty Dog has a turnover rate of 70%, which “skyrocketed around the time The Last of Us Part II went into production. Our source’s claims have been corroborated by a former Naughty Dog animator, Jonathon Cooper, who left them in early October last year.”

Back in March 2020, Cooper posted a series of tweets explaining why he had left Naughty Dog the year prior. He alleged that they threatened to withhold his final paycheck, unless he signed an agreement to not share the studio’s production practices. They relented when he explained what they were asking was “most likely illegal.”

He also claimed that while he had no story of enduring crunch time. Story animators averaged 46 hours a week by the time he left due to the story team being well organized, and he never went over 55 hours. He did state that others did.

“For the [The Last of Us Part II] demo shown last September,” Cooper claims, “the gameplay animators crunched more than I’ve ever seen and required weeks of recovery afterwards. One good friend of mine was hospitalised at that time due to overwork. He still had over half a year to go. There have been others since.”

 

Naughty Dog also allegedly suffered for their reputation, so much so that it was “near impossible” to hire “seasoned contract game animators.” They had to rely on film animators and juniors instead. “Every aspect of finishing this game took much longer due to the lack of game experience on the team,” Cooper claims.

Cooper also claims that most of the contract story animators quit the year prior, with staff who had worked on two or three projects never receiving the “benefits or the security of a full-time gig.” He also claims that Naughty Dog’s success “is due in large part to Sony’s deep pockets funding delays rather than skill alone. A more senior team would have shipped TLOU2 a year ago.”

Others had also claimed Naughty Dog engaged in heavy crunch time, including anonymous developers speaking to Kotaku and former Naughty Dog writer Amy Hennig [1, 2]. Sausage Roll’s source also adds onto Cooper’s claims, but states the issue was not crunch-time, but the working atmosphere.

 

“It was primarily the senior team that left Naughty Dog and to assume that it’s because of ‘long working hours’ is laughable. Anybody that has ever worked in game development knows that this is crock of shit. Since I can remember, development has always been like this; get to work, chug coffee and don’t leave until you’ve completed the task that you’ve been assigned for the day. It’s a part of the fun. It’s a part of the lifestyle. What’s not fun is working in a toxic environment.”

In 2017, former Naughty Dog developer David Ballard claimed he was sexually harassed by a Naughty Dog “lead”. After suffering a nervous breakdown at work, and speaking with Sony PlayStation human resources, they allegedly fired him the next day.

 

On April 28th, Sausage Roll posted another article, theorizing that Naughty Dog made female characters look less feminine to be more appealing to transgender people.

Sausage Roll themselves (rather than the anonymous source) state this is due to elements of the game’s finale, along with characters Ellie and Dina being “remodelled to look less feminine” than their real-life models (Ashley Johnson and Cascina Caradonna).

This allegedly included a smaller bust, though the images Sausage Roll use feature the models in low-cut or tight clothing. They also claim earlier images and trailers of Ellie looked more feminine.

Speaking to an anonymous “seasoned artist who has worked as a character designer for several AAA games,” they claimed that “this is the new norm.”

 

“It’s not really about the sexual objectification of women. Women, like men, come in all shapes and sizes; to say that having big busty women is unrealistic is untrue.

This is only true for trans people. A trans woman can’t naturally grow large breasts, and not all trans people can afford implants. If you see a game where the women are a little less curvy, it’s not to because the game designers are worried about receiving backlash for sexualising women, it’s because they are worried about offending the trans community.

From a design stand point, this is a really challenging problem. I’ve had many board meetings about how to tackle this. Trans people want ‘realistic’ representation in our games, but they feel excluded if they are represented as too masculine or too feminine. That’s why you will see a lot of designers ‘nerfing the female form’ so to speak so that the difference between trans women and cis women is a little less noticeable.”

 

In June 2019, Final Fantasy VII Remake scenario writers Kazushige Nojima and Yoshinori Kitase (in an excerpt from Final Fantasy VII Ultimania Omega) stated that Square Enix’ ethics department” told them they to “tighten” Tifa Lockhart’s chest. They stated this was so it did not look unnatural during intense fights.

SIE of Japan Asia President Atsushi Morita stated in 2018 that a recent spate of censorship of sexual content on the PlayStation 4 (mainly focused at games with anime style characters), was to meet global standards.” 

Even so, the character designer most likely operates in (and is discussing the situation in) the United States, rather than Japan.

 

The Reddit Post

On April 29th, a post on r/TheLastOfUs2 claimed that the leak occurred due to Naughty Dog refusing to pay out an advance on bonuses based on game sales (which they are allegedly contractually obligated to do so). They then threatened to fire a staff member who requested the bonus, while senior staff still received theirs.

“The insider says ‘the employee was told that his contract stated he would be paid out 6 months after the game released OR not at all’. The employee was threatened with termination for making the request. The studio was worried more employees would demand their bonuses now if they gave this one employee his bonus early. To add insult to injury, senior staff (including Neil Druckmann) asked for and received their bonuses early. This pissed off the majority of employees at Naughty Dog.”

Despite the claims being anonymous and uncited, they spread across social media like wildfire, fueled by fans dissatisfied with the leaked game’s ending, or the studio’s recent titles. As of this time of writing, the post and user account have been deleted.

 

Sony Interactive Entertainment Claims the Leak Did Not Come From Employees

On May 1st, SIE issued a statement to GamesIndustry.biz and Polygon, stating the leak did not come from anyone affiliated with them, or Naughty Dog. The statement (via Polygon) reads as follows.

“SIE has identified the primary individuals responsible for the unauthorized release of TLOU2 assets. They are not affiliated with Naughty Dog or SIE. We are unable to comment further because the information is subject to an on-going investigation. We’re looking forward to when The Last of Us Part II will be in your hands and can’t wait for you to enjoy the full experience on June 19.”

 

Is it True?

We initially had our doubts about Sausage Roll’s coverage (mainly surprised to see the anonymous source went to them instead of a major gaming news website). However, statements made by the anonymous Naughty Dog employee are backed by similar claims from other sources.

Even ignoring the unsubstantiated Reddit post, disgruntled Naughty Dog employees still seem to the prime suspect. There had been motive with poor working conditions, both with crunch time and alleged harassment for not sharing political beliefs with other members.

Further, the developer code at the edge of the videos would imply an individual with access to the raw in-development files. We imagine the files would not just run on any public copy of the Unreal Engine 4 editor.

 

QA Testers?

While the code could be fake (added over the top of the video), the leaker would still need to obtain a copy of the game. Judging by the delays, it would appear the game is not finished yet, or is in a stage of QA testing.

This is supported by the delay announcement, where Naughty Dog state “We are in the midst of fixing our final bugs.” This would suggest either a developer, or a QA play tester. The latter may have some knowledge of command codes, in order to work around bugs and issues (letting them clip through terrain if they get stuck for example).

While many are engaged in remote working due to quarantine orders to combat the coronavirus outbreak, we find it hard to believe that SIE or Naughty Dog would engage in QA testing by third-party individuals via remote working. This would create more possibilities of a leak, and lacks ways to effectively ensure testers do not record footage, or leak it online.

 

If a third-party company was hired to test the game, and the leaker worked for them, the leaker being “not affiliated with Naughty Dog or SIE” would still be technically correct, while not harming either companies’ reputation. Even so, we feel that the developers themselves would be engaged in play testing at this time.

Even if QA testers were involved with remote working, we imagine after the incident with Uncharted 4’s testing, stricter measures would be taken to prevent similar outcry. Likewise, they would seek out individuals who could be incentivized not to leak the game (loyalty to the company, fear of legal reprisal, or even financial means).

QA testers (assuming they were not Naughty Dog staff) have unlikely opportunity, and motives are purely speculative (such as someone who despised the developers keeping it secret to find an opportunity to sabotage).

 

Sony Interactive Entertainment?

Even if SIE staff would request in-development files of the game, those would usually be for the purpose of creating footage for trailers or demos. These would therefore be playable builds, rather ones where console commands or developer code could be accessed. Developers may even send clips of gameplay for trailers, rather than a whole build.

Along with opportunity and means being dubious (though the path from game development to publishing is far from unlikely), SIE staff would also lack motive. Much like with the testers, evidence of a deep spite against Naughty Dog (one that superseded the risks of losing their career) would need to be found.

 

Other Parties?

There is a chance of a hacker being involved, but they would need to find a Naughty Dog employee’s personal computer through the internet. While hackers of such skill likely do exist, their motives would be limited to pure spite or paid industrial sabotage- both fanciful compared to other options.

SIE would also have little reason to hide that it was a hacker. Even if they had been instructed by police investigators not to state their findings, stating they knew the individuals involved would still “spook” the hypothetical hacker.

SIE did state individuals were responsible, plural. This may suggest the file was sent between two individuals, with the latter leaking it online (whether they were supposed to or not). Or, it could mean a co-ordinated effort.

We find it skeptical that a Naughty Dog or SIE employee would send recorded footage to a family member, friend, or associate, and felt there was no risk of a leak. A family member or friend also recording footage without the employee’s knowledge also seems dubious, and they would still be “affiliated” with Naughty Dog whether the employee was a willing participant or not.

 

Naughty Dog?

Despite SIE’s claims, it is hard to imagine anyone but someone affiliated with Naughty Dog being able to get their hands on the files at this time. Even if remote working creates more risk of leaks, development and testing needed to continue.

If staff were afraid to speak out, any dissent would also be harder to detect. Senior staff would feel their employees could be trusted, and wouldn’t dare leak the game as it would harm their bonus from future sales.

There is motive; to harm the company in retaliation for poor working conditions. While less concrete, it could have been due to harassment, denied pay, or shame of the quality of game they were producing (so its poor reception could be blamed on the leak, rather than the game’s quality).

 

There is also means and opportunity; they would be engaged in remote working, and able to record footage without any over site from their superiors. They could then upload the footage online anonymously.

Further, there is little risk to the employee, if they already dismissed pay or their career. The employee would be nigh-impossible to track down among the others. Neither SIE or Naughty Dog would wish to admit one of their own leaked the game, as it would give investors cause for concern.

SIE could then state it was an outside source, even as they continued to suspect and pursue leads internally. The statement would also quell rumors that this was due to dissatisfied Naughty Dog staff- yet more bad PR.

 

On the other hand, should the leaker then be proven to be a Naughty Dog employee at a later stage, SIE would gain even more bad PR and investor relations than if they had told the truth in the first place. SIE’s motive to lie, would also therefore be SIE’s motive to tell the truth.

Based on current evidence, only a Naughty Dog employee would have the best means, motive, and opportunity. As such, SIE’s statement means there is more to the story than we know.

Whether it be over pay, working conditions, politics, or sabotage- we think someone wants to see Naughty Dog burn.

 

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!

Image: PlayStation

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Ryan Pearson

About

Taking his first steps onto Route 1 and never stopping, Ryan has had a love of RPGs since a young age. Now he's learning to appreciate a wider pallet of genres and challenges.