The promise has been made.
The Last of Us Part II is genuinely one of the worst games I have ever played. When I think about it from any angle, I can’t help but feel completely disgusted with the fact that it exists. At best, it serves as a testament to how unsustainable and harmful AAA game development has been to the medium of games, and at worst it’s an exploitative showcase for the privileged who seek constant reaffirmation that violence against them could never be the answer.
TLOU2 is, allegedly, a story about the cycle of revenge. As Ellie and later Abby, players stealthily make their way through all manner of neglected and naturally reclaimed cityscapes to achieve their goals of vengeance. Along the way, they’ll brutally dispatch dozens upon dozens of enemies in macabre fashion, with all the gorey details graphically realized in absurdly high fidelity. Whether it’s the slew of fungally infected zombies, or the various cults and factions that make up what’s left of society, there are plenty of traps and firearms to make sure they don’t stay in your way for long.
One of the weakest elements of 2013’s The Last of Us is its obsessive focus on shoehorning in combat at almost every turn. I often mused, upon later reflection of the game, that if it was purely about exploring abandoned cities and towns with the occasional puzzle or zombie encounter, it would have been a far more affecting experience. Unfortunately, TLOU2 doubles down on combat, giving the player more tools and explosive set pieces to use them in. I would go so far as to estimate that a good 80% of the gameplay experience is spent wandering through gated combat encounters, mostly against the same old humans with guns you’d find in any other game.
While I’m not too surprised at the focus on combat, given the game’s theming, I was under the impression that Naughty Dog would have tried to make this aspect of the game as uncomfortable as possible, rather than the epic and absurdly bombastic systems at play. You can craft all sorts of explosives and wild ammunition for your guns and navigate several skill trees to become better at killing. It would be one thing to use these sorts of systems in a meta sense, like how Undertale leveraged the abstract violence of JRPG battles as a commentary on video game violence, but that would have required a compromise on the “fun factor.” I don’t believe any AAA game is brave enough to even attempt to alienate the most casual and disinterested of gamers.
Instead of making combat painful, Naughty Dog opted to make all of the human enemies you fight scream in agony whenever you dispatch them. Every time you take someone out, someone nearby will bellow their name before resuming classic video game enemy behavior. This becomes increasingly ridiculous as you take out enemies one-by-one, with the audio of an encounter quickly becoming more of a name game than a moral dilemma. While it’s clear that this is an attempt at making the player feel bad about their actions and to humanize the antagonists, the game refuses to even begin characterizing its various factions in any way that actually makes them feel like people.
No matter which group they belong to, the various people scattered across TLOU2 operate as little more than zombies who speak. Listening in on any given conversation will only ever yield canned phrases relating to the current story events rather than anything actual people would talk about with each other. It’s not like I’m asking for enemies to start talking about their kids back home or do a one week from retirement bit (though TLOU2 does lean on that trope during some cutscenes), but to have them only ever regurgitate things that matter to the player makes enemies come across as nothing more than unfeeling cogs in a machine. It makes it hard to empathize with the characters you’re fighting against, as Naughty Dog clearly intended, when the only thing they ever talk about is killing you.
This is all saying nothing of how characters behave in cutscenes and other important moments of the core narrative. Every faction in The Last of Us Part II operates like a cult from a television show, completely disconnected from reality and any sort of rational belief. Regardless of their origins, somehow every single group in this post-apocalyptic world has formed themselves around tribalistic worship and servitude to various individuals who, as the game introduces them, all may as well wear a sign that says “I’m fucked up and evil.” Whether it’s a religious group that’s gone back to basics, a territorial militia, or a bunch of slavers, each group acts like a barbaric hivemind working in fealty to whatever concept and individual rules over them.
It’s a depressingly limited world scope, one that, in my mind, displays the depth of experience that the writers have explored in their own lives. TLOU2 imagines a world where everyone huddles in groups and is ready to kill each other at a moment’s notice, but it doesn’t take into account any external factors that could possibly lead to communal post-apocalyptic societies. It proffers that people are, at their core, animalistic and brutal, ready to maim and kill in a primal manner just to survive, rather than examining the causes of why people might be led to those extremes. The society here has seemingly moved past some extreme prejudices in the span of twenty years, with the only cause of warfare being a difference of allegiance.
Even slavers don’t operate under a sense of nationalism or racial superiority; they grab literally anyone they find and lock them up. It doesn’t appear that this group even uses the slaves for anything; they just leave them to starve in cages and occasionally torture them in some of the most comically evil ways imaginable. Once again, the writers don’t try to explore or explain any sort of reasoning as to why individuals would act like this, merely using them as simplistic stand-ins in lieu of narratively coherent characterization. That is, unless it’s time to examine one of the few groups Naughty Dog has deemed worthy to obtain social and progressive cache.
For some reason, despite the end of racism, sexism, and every other conceivable prejudice, transphobia and homophobia managed to survive at the end of the world. While there’s a few moments involving Ellie being called a “dyke”, or misunderstandings from Joel and others, the main issue Naughty Dog decided to showcase was the relationship between a transgender man and his community. Even if they had trans consultants on-board, why two cisgender writers decided it was their place to explore a topic like this, let alone in their big budget survival shooter game that’s about how everyone is a terrible person, is baffling. There’s not even much I can say about how nothing and obviously fishing for praise the transgender character’s arc is; it’s not particularly offensive, nor is it particularly meaningful. At most, it’s simply a reminder that, yeah, being a trans person sucks ass, cool. Glad to see that trans characters can only ever be in a game if we’re here to talk about how hard it is for them to be trans.
The failure to examine anything of meaning throughout The Last of Us Part II is ultimately the fault of the writers and managerial staff. When I say this is a game made by the privileged, I really mean it. There’s no possible way for this game to have brought anything affecting or meaningful to the table, because the people who made it share none of the lived experiences they’re leveraging in their work. They can’t make their writing about being transgender anything other than bog standard because they’ve only ever read about it. The core “cycle of revenge” narrative can’t actually be explored in a nuanced or considered way because the writers have never experienced anything that would have led them to feelings like those Ellie feels.
The most TLOU2 is able to provide is a power fantasy for well-off white people. It’s a nihilistic and detached work that reflects the only fears and topics that can occur in the minds of those who have never truly suffered, where suffering and desperate people are the scariest thing in the world. It’s the libertarian fantasy, where the peak of success a character can reach is owning a huge swathe of land away from everyone else, and they have every right to shoot down whoever they want.
One of the things that’s kept 2013’s The Last of Us in my mind after all these years was its ending, an ambitious and damning conclusion that you’d rarely expect from a AAA game. Rather than follow up on that ambiguity with a new set of characters to flesh out that same world, TLOU2 instead feels hellbent on bashing the player over the head with a barrage of scenes that feel like YouTube explanations of the original game. There are multiple flashbacks, and each serves to just really hammer into you that, damn, what happened in that game was fucked up huh? Much like the libertarian ideology that permeates much of the game, The Last of Us Part II has complete confidence in itself, but absolutely none in other people.
This becomes especially clear with the game’s structure, having you play as Ellie first and then Abby. Ellie’s story is pretty straight forward: she goes around killing people, has some mild relationship drama, and tries to quench her hatred for the evil antagonist Abby. Abby’s story on the other hand exists almost entirely to make sure you know that Ellie is really fucked up and twisted too, in some of the most brazenly amateurish ways possible. Rather than flesh Abby out in a compelling and dynamic way, her entire character is mirrored almost beat by beat with Ellie’s to the point where it’s almost comical. Both have pregnant women fighting with them for some godforsaken reason, both had a magical experience with a zoo animal in their youth, and both live their lives completely dominated by their father figures.
This back-to-back setup is done to make the players reflect on what Ellie has done through the eyes of the other side, but it rarely feels effective because of how hamfisted everything is delivered. To make sure you know how horrible it is that Abby’s friends were all killed by Ellie, they each deliver a “I’m just about to turn my life around and finally be happy :)” speech when she runs into them. In case you didn’t, for some reason, already feel bad about one of the dogs Ellie is forced to kill over the course of her journey, you have to pet and play fetch with that dog as Abby multiple times. At one point, just in case you forgot Abby was just as messed up in the last 10 hours, she threatens to kill a pregnant woman who, upon learning she was pregnant responds “Good.” It feels boorish and simpleminded, like the writers’ goal was to teach a five year old that the other kids on the playground have feelings too.
That lack of substantial characterization to the groups involved in either half of the game makes it hard to really feel as horrendous as it seems you’re supposed to. If it’s the role of Abby’s route to teach you that all the people you killed were just other people trying to live, why are those people just as overly antagonistic and villainous to Abby as well? If the lesson is to realize that everyone has their reasons, why are all of the religious cult members monstrous beyond forgiveness, aside from a couple “good ones?” The Last of Us Part II is more fixated on a barrage of transient “Gotcha!” moments, than it is actually giving you any meaningful scenes to ponder on long-term.
Considering this message, and how it’s delivered, I struggle to imagine how anyone could excuse the working conditions Naughty Dog workers suffered while making The Last of Us Part II. Back in March, Kotaku published an interview with several developers at Naughty Dog, who talked about being trapped in a never-ending cycle of crunch since late 2018. Since 2016’s Uncharted 4, more than 70% of the staff working at the company had left because of crunch burnout, most of them referencing the months upon months of 12+ hour workdays with no rest in sight.
While there are plenty of games that have been made and praised despite a heavy use of crunch, it’s becoming harder and harder to separate their development from their existence as media. How can we properly criticize a work focused on extreme violence and trite messaging with that knowledge coloring our perception of how that message is being delivered? I find it almost impossible to reckon with the morality that the game is trying to impart on me, with the knowledge of what the people writing it forced upon others to express it.
This isn’t a bold statement against the status quo or anything so powerful for so much toil, it’s a game moralizing about revenge, a concept as old as time itself. Ironically, it’s perhaps the never-ending cycle of crunch culture that Naughty Dog cultivates that has made The Last of Us Part II such a mindless and cowardly endeavor. Many devs have talked about the constant restarts and redos of sequences they were tasked with throughout development, sometimes coming right after they had spent weeks and weeks on perfecting them. With most of their staff constantly at breaking point, it’s easy to understand why a fully realized and cohesive game could never have been made.
There are so many games, most of them with hardly a tenth of the budget of this one, that have inspired me or made me think in so many different ways. NieR: Automata, a game that feels like a clear inspiration for several aspects of this game, also managed to offer philosophical takes on the human condition in the same sort of societal aesthetic that TLOU2 has. The main difference being that while NieR provides similar depressing sentiments, it still believes ultimately that people can band together to help one another, and that at their core, a person wants to help more than they ever want to hurt. Even when its characters are driven by revenge, they still try to help people and understand more about what the world they live in; something Naughty Dog never even attempts to reconcile with Ellie or Abby.
Throughout the world of The Last of Us, there doesn’t really seem to be any sort of reconciliation with what it would mean to be in a post-apocalyptic world. Rather than a focus on what it would mean to rebuild society, even twenty-six years later people are scraping by, picking apart existing architecture and living in squalor and disrepair. While a few people have become somewhat self-sufficient (Ellie’s settlement has small farms and a few reasonably clean houses while Abby’s has wind turbines and PlayStation Vitas everywhere) mostly everything still looks like the military bombed the hell out of it yesterday. Rations and medical supplies are ever in short supply, and the only things that never seem to run out are firearms and ammunition.
Imagine. A world where guns come out of the ground like plants. And all the water is replaced by Bullet’s. This is Gun World. It’s real
— wint (@dril) February 8, 2011
If The Last of Us Part II were a braver game, perhaps it could have explored realistic challenges with reconstructing and adapting to life after a societal collapse. Rather than clinging to vestiges of the past, people could form new aesthetics based on the old, and new generations of architects could make beautiful things with what was left behind. It’d be fascinating to hear about what’s become of different parts of the world, how the outbreak affected them and how they adapted. Even just a glimpse at people trying to rebuild rather than scrape by in temporary bunkers would have been heartening to see, but TLOU2 has no time for heart.
There’s so much potential for many compelling ideas within this genre, but apocalyptic fiction seems to be completely married to using the same tired Cold War-era nuclear paranoia pastiche, rather than actually adapt with the issues and sensibilities of our times. This is apparent throughout most of the aesthetic decisions, but none more so than Ellie’s collection of vintage superhero trading cards. Rather than leverage something that would have been popular and widespread in 2013 like wretched Funko Pops or anything even remotely modern, this girl in 2039 is collecting items that went out of fashion in the 80’s at the latest. It’s a small thing, but it just continues to show how little thought and consideration actually went into the game.
While there are a few positive parts of The Last of Us Part II, it’s hard to push past the bad to appreciate them. The visuals are gorgeous and meticulously crafted, the ability to play an actual guitar is an impressive one-off feature, and the accessibility features offered to the player are easily the most robust of any game I think I’ve ever played. Unfortunately when I weigh all of those against what frustrated me, and the incalculable human cost it took to implement each of these features, I can’t bring myself to sing their praises. The Last of Us Part II didn’t need to be what it is, and perhaps it never should have been anything at all.