Naughty Dog’s magnum opus (in terms of video game storytelling) set a standard that subsequent games have tried to reach. The world-building, character development, plot, and themes of The Last of Us came together to create a satisfactory experience (with an admittedly divisive end).
To say The Last of Us II was highly anticipated would be an understatement. Fans were foaming to see the next chapter in this post-apocalyptic world where everyone and everything you loved could be lost in an instant.
Then the game was released…and all hell broke loose.
Critics on Metacritic gave it a 95, while users seemed unimpressed rating it a meager 3.5/10.
Many might claim that this is just another instance of critics and gamers locking heads, others will assert that this is a result of bias towards the LGBT community but it might be worth examining what exactly made the Last of Us II so divisive.
And this began before the game was even released…beware spoilers (we’ll do our best but no promises)
THE NAUGHTY DOG LEAK
Delays in the video game industry are almost commonplace and, in light of the coronavirus epidemic, understandable. Gamers want the best possible product without burning out the video game developers.
However, a hack on Naughty Dog exposed details of plot points of the Last of Us II before the developer could release the game.
These leaked plot points showed the death of fan-favorite characters and their killer.
Naughty Dog and Sony were quick to respond but the damage was already done.
Angry comments flooded social media and YouTube gaming channels were quick to analyze and dissect the leaked details and give their opinions on it.
When copyright strikes and takedowns were issued on YouTube channels that were just commenting about the leaks, a bad situation became worse.
Then the game was released.
Violence in video games isn’t news though more recently it has become the news. In spite of that it’s safe to say that there is some understanding that video game violence serves a purpose with regards to gamer experience.
It can be used to demonstrate character traits, emphasize skill and skill levels, add to a story, etc.
The Last of Us had a lot of violent moments and that brutality help set the tone for the game’s setting.
Survival was only possible through extreme means.
The Last of Us Part II opens with a semblance of normalcy that harkens to the days before the disease.
The inhabitants of Jackson have created a functional society that allows them to live peacefully as long as the Infected population periodically culled.
But that idyllic life is smashed to bits in the opening and the player is forced to navigate a maze of gruesome deaths and gut-wrenching violence in pursuit of vengeance.
Naughty Dog goes for the jugular when the inciting incident, the death of Joel, is gruesome and scars not just the characters in-game but those who came to see his story pan out.
From then on, it’s a mad scramble of death and mayhem as Ellie and the other characters react to this and one can’t help think most of the game is oriented for maximum shock value, in terms of violence.
A lot of it feels unnecessary (particularly with the inclusion of dogs) but it often becomes inevitable as one continues to navigate the world of The Last of Us Part II.
STORY AND CHARACTERS
Storytelling at its core is manipulative. The writer is doing his/her best to make the audience feel what they need to feel at various moments in the story, buy into the world the story has created, and connect with the characters whose story is told.
In The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog goes for their most ambitious and daring attempt at storytelling, putting you in control of two characters who are the antagonists of the other’s story.
In the Last of Us, the plot was a trek to save the world from the disease while the story was the effect grief had on Joel.
In the Last of Us Part II, the plot is vengeance on those who did wrong but the story is how grief affected Ellie…and Abby
By allowing (read as: forcing) you to control Ellie and Abby, Naughty Dog makes you examine the humanity and flaws of both sides of the story.
The player must walk a mile in the shoes of Ellie (a character you love) to see how her tunnel vision makes her cruel and Abby (a character you hate) to see the effects and feel the pain of that single-minded drive for vengeance.
The result was divisive…another understatement, I know.
Given Abby’s introduction, a lot of work goes into making her a sympathetic character or, at least, easier to relate to…but it’s an uphill battle and many are of the opinion that Naughty Dog didn’t give players enough reason to care about Abby and her companions.
Ellie comes with the cache from the previous game but, given how she runs through anyone in her way a la Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it seems like Naughty Dog is intent on spending all of that and turning her into the villain of the story…which players do not want.
The structure of the story is also contentious.
The majority of the plot takes place over the course of three days in Seattle and comes to a head when Ellie and Abby confront each other.
That three days is interspersed with flashbacks of events that happened years before those three days and has been shown to be confusing to players.
This is especially evident when playing Abby’s side during the three days as it is ostensibly a flashback and then flashbacks of events before those three days are flashbacks within flashbacks and that’s the kind of meta we reserve for Deadpool.
Some have suggested that the major problems with the story could have been fixed with a reorganization of the plot to create a better sense of understanding with Abby and her side characters but…that’s just wishful thinking at this point.
After the three days in Seattle come to a conclusion, Abby and Ellie go their separate ways to find some semblance of life in the aftermath of what they had done to each other.
But when Tommy, still broken up over Joel’s death, comes knocking with information on Abby’s whereabouts, Ellie abandons her life with Dina and Jessie’s child to seek revenge one last time.
But…she doesn’t take it.
Naughty Dog’s choice to have the end of Ellie’s story defy the plot feels wasteful after all she sacrificed for that moment.
It also seems to take the message of “Revenge is bad” and beats players over the head with it until they are fed up.
There is a discussion to be had about how the story of grief factors into the ending, given how much pain Abby and Ellie cause each other, and how the suffering of both women needs to end but…that requires that players care about Abby and not many do.
Despite all its flaws, The Last of Us Part II has created a moment that will forever be remembered in video game history. A moment when a fandom gathers itself to champion the characters they love and a story they cherish. The divisiveness surrounding the game may put any future installments in jeopardy but there is no doubt that it will have a lot of work to do…if it ever comes out.