The Last of Us Part II, a zombie horror/survival game released last week by the game developer company Naughty Dog, sold more than four million copies within two days. It’s also one of the few blockbuster games to feature a Jewish supporting character.
While Dina is not a playable character, she has a large role in the game’s storyline [Warning: light spoilers ahead]. She and the main character Ellie venture to plague-ridden Seattle on a quest to avenge the gruesome death of a friend. They fight zombies-humans infected with a type of fungus as well as various warring human factions.
Amidst all this action, a romance between Dina and Ellie develops. Their back-and-forth banter, intimacy and willingness to sacrifice their lives for each other all add to the depth of the relationship.
Fans spotted a hamsa bracelet on Dina in a 2018 reveal trailer, which led to the game’s co-director and writer, Neil Druckmann, to confirm the rumor: Dina’s Jewish.
In this interview with The Forward, edited for space and clarity, Druckmann speaks about the inspiration behind Dina’s character, Judaism and religion, and why he believes people are drawn to The Last of Us franchise.
The Forward: Define Dina’s character in a few sentences.
Neil Druckmann: In fleshing out Dina we started thinking about her background. I know the joy I get from seeing people that mirror me in some ways in games, which is why one of the reasons we have an initiative within Naughty Dog to create a diverse cast that better reflects our players and the world that we live in. It felt like a great opportunity to, part of Dina’s backstory, to talk about her Judaism, her spirituality and her relationship with her family and how that informs her and motivates her going forward.
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The Forward: At what point in development did you make that decision?
Neil Druckmann: It was pretty early on.I think the name Dina was always there in my mind. It means in Hebrew “judgment,” which felt reflective on the themes we were dealing with — the pursuit of justice and judging people based on perspective.
The Forward: You wanted characters with all kinds of different backgrounds?
Neil Druckmann: Yeah, because with Joel, where we have someone that’s Christian, and he has certain values. Ellie’s kind of floating in between. She wasn’t raised in any particular religion, but she thinks about spirituality. That’s something that she had a conversation about, in the first game, with other characters. This felt like just another angle to come at how people live and survive in this world and how religion carries them through.
In particular with Dina, she talks about how sometimes prayer is a way to calm herself, a way to put things in perspective, a way to get over grief, which is so much of the game. Its theme is getting over grief.
The Forward: Apart from the hamsa bracelet, which I know fans spotted back in 2018, and prayer, what are other ways that players can uncover more about her Jewish faith?
Neil Druckmann: There’s a lot of hints towards the end of the game. I’m getting into spoiler territory, but Ellie and Dina and their baby live on this farm. It’s this quiet, peaceful hour-long sequence in the game. There’s no combat or anything. You just get to see how these two girls live together.
If you look around the house you can see they have mezuzahs on door frames, they have Passover plates. You can tell that Dina’s tradition is something she carries with her and she talks about that with her sister that raised her and held all these traditions. There’s part conversation and part environmental storytelling that helped build more of Dina’s backstory. We had never felt that it was important to put it front and center because ultimately the story’s not about her Judaism, but it’s just an important quality that defines her.
The Forward: For another character, Lev from the Seraphites, there has been talk if that was related to the tribe of Levi in Israel.
Neil Druckmann: One of my favorite books I’ve ever read is “City of Thieves” by David Benioff. And there’s a character named Lev in there that’s fantastic so I felt like oh that’s a cool homage. But when you think about it Lev in Hebrew means “heart” and Lev in the story is the most innocent character. He’s the “heart” that helps break the cycle of violence in a lot of ways for these characters who are so hellbent on vengeance.
The Forward: You’re from Israel. How does your own story factor into creating Dina’s backstory.
Neil Druckmann: On a higher level, so much of the story is about the cycle of violence and people misunderstanding the other side or not allowing themselves to let empathy in for the other side. And that’s why the story is structured in such a way where you’re seeing both sides of really violent conflict.
Obviously where I come from and people outside that region constantly talk about the world being stuck in a cycle of violence. That’s something that I’ve thought about for many, many years, and still think about today. It’s such a complex nuanced issue that often people try to oversimplify. The game was a way to explain a lot of those thoughts and feelings.
With Dina specifically, her relationship with her religion, there’s a traditional part and spiritual part. She struggles with some of that. She conveys she doesn’t believe everything, every part of the Torah, but her relationship with her tradition and heritage and her family is still very important to her and that reflects my ongoing relationship with my religion.
The Forward: Why do you think so many people are drawn to the game?
Neil Druckmann: We take risks in the kind of games we make. With the Last of Us Part II, we took some pretty serious narrative risks we don’t normally see in a sequel. Some people love it, some people struggle with it, but that’s part of the attraction. You don’t quite know what to expect from a Naughty Dog game.
There’s a lot of people that love the first game, and I think they appreciated the universal message with the unconditional love a parent feels for their child, the wonderful things love can lead you to and the sometimes horrible atrocities love can lead you to. And this one starts to explore hate and justice by any means can be some of the darker aspects that emerge out of love.
The Forward: One thing I found interesting was the whole idea that these human-turned zombies are from this pandemic that’s from this fungus. We see some parallels to quarantining and social distancing.
Neil Druckmann: The threat is not about them [zombies], they’re more like a force of nature. They’re a thing that exists to apply pressure on characters or groups of characters to make them make interesting choices that define who they are.
But it really is an exploration about, as cliche as it sounds, the human condition and how we deal with adversity.