When the original game, The Last of Us debuted on the PS3 back in 2013, no one was ready for it. Naughty Dog had initially established itself as a developer of fun cartoony action games like Crash Bandicoot, or Jax & Daxter. Then they moved onto swashbuckling, action games like the Uncharted series. All of these became hits and established Naughty Dog as the go-to studio for fun escapism.
Then The Last of Us came out.
The Last of Us completely derailed what people were expecting from Naughty Dog. It was an intense, bleak, morally ambiguous tale of a fungal-based apocalypse. The story was about Joel, a man tasked with safely escorting Ellie, the only person thus far found to have immunity, across the country. Their journey started in Boston and crossed the fungus-ravaged USA to Colorado. It didn’t end the way people expected and garnered a ton of Game of the Year awards. It also shot up the charts as one of the examples of video games as art. Even the performances received accolades for the extraordinary depth and intensity. The Last of Us became a game of the generation.
How Do You Follow That?
Now, in 2020, The Last of Us Part 2 releases, and for many, things didn’t turn out as expected. I will say that Naughty Dog took a huge change with their storytelling decisions, and for me, they worked. The first game’s story disguised trauma, loss, and found family in a zombie movie. Part II explores PTSD, obsession, and forgiveness in a revenge tale. It’s a bleaker, more emotionally exhausting journey than the first game, and I will be thinking about it for a long time.
Gameplay-wise, the sequel doesn’t stray far from the roots of the original. It approaches game mechanics in the usual way, with bigger, more refined gameplay that expands the scope. You’re still scrounging for parts to craft weaponry. Enemies still come at you in human and fungal varieties, calling for different tactics. It all feels the same, just with a few more options, and a few new enemies, so it’s “safe” territory in terms of mechanical expansions.
Visually, however, this thing is amazing. I first started playing it on my eight-year-old 1080p HD TV. It looked impressive there, thanks to the PS4 Pro, but when I got a new 4K/HDR TV, the graphics really came into their own. Graphically, this isn’t about wowing you by blowing out colors with HDR vividness. The effect is more subtle but ultimately more impressive. The dappled sunlight of a deciduous forest opening up into devastated downtown Seattle is a sight to behold. Even wandering through more prosaic settings like dusty old homes has a weighty, painterly feel.
Where the game becomes challenging is in its story. This is an emotionally exhausting game, and it’s one I couldn’t play for sustained periods of time. Normally, I can happily marathon a game for hours, but The Last of Us Part II was so bleak I had to take breaks. I won’t spoil anything here, but the game goes to dark, morally ambiguous places and constantly forces players to ask the question:
If you’ve played the first game, you already know it ended on a note where players wondered if they’d really done the right thing. The sequel picks up that idea and pursues the consequences of that action.
It does this by reinforcing the idea that these are not just faceless video game enemies, for example. As Ellie moves further into downtown Seattle and encounters people to fight, she can hear their conversations amongst each other. They call out names when they discover the bodies of their friends that the player has left behind. They even get upset when you kill their dogs and they find the corpse, screaming its name. Basically this game removes the emotional distance and “othering” that makes attacking video game NPCs fun. It makes you uncomfortably aware that this is murder, and you’re committing it.
If The Last of Us had aspirations to become a serious video game drama, The Last of Us II tries to build on that foundation to become something literary. It plays with a more complex narrative structure, jumping back and forth in time, and different point of view characters. All of this is done in the service of first making you comfortable with traditional video game tropes of “kill everyone in sight.” Then making you realize, “That’s about as psychotic as and immoral as you might imagine.”
The Last of Us Part II forces players to confront consequences and to accept often, the other side is not a simple, moral threat that can be killed with a clean conscience. It wants you to understand that murder and revenge mean going after actual people, who have lives, loves, history, and the same complexity of character as the player. And you’ve just taken all that away.
It’s An Experience
In a weird sort of way, The Last of Us Part II is an essential game to play. But, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. I feel like I’ve benefited from playing the game, and, in an abstract sense, I enjoyed my time with it. However, there were definitely parts of the game where, as with horror movies sometimes, I did not feel like I was having fun. The unpleasant/discomfort sensations were at the forefront for certain intense moments. The game is so bleak that long, marathon sessions were never an option. But you come away from it, as with significant creative works in other media, feeling like you gained something valuable. Maybe not pleasant, but significant.
The game’s primary theme is “revenge is bad,” and it goes on to prove this in a way only games can. Ellie is a favorite character of the series, but the cost revenge has on her is hard to watch. Just as hard is experiencing that downward spiral with her, taking those actions, participating in the cost. If you have any empathy, you’ll feel the weight of this game as it progresses. It’s not a good feeling.
Just as interesting to me, however, is the controversy surrounding this game. I didn’t feel the game was inherently political, but many people do. There’s already been a lot of screaming about how the game is “ruined” by a social justice warrior agenda. The interesting thing to me is that the agenda here is not to make the game uniformly straight, white, male, and Christian or appeal strictly to the male gaze, but that’s apparently a bridge too far for some. If you think a story about revenge is only legit if it happens to a straight male, and anything else is “political”… I really don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you’d better stop watching anime and martial arts films.
People that want to revisit The Last of Us, just bigger, this is probably not the game for you. For people that are still arguing games can only handle lightweight, trivial stuff, with no emotional resonance or thematic significance… maybe you should play this game. For people that are ready for a game that takes the original, and harshly explores its consequences, you’ll find an intense, thoughtful, and occasionally very disturbing game. I enjoyed my time with it, but I’m not sure when I’d ever be ready to revisit it.