video game review

The Last of Us Part II Plays a Dark, Cynical Trick

A moment of solemn reflection amid bloodshed? Or doomscrolling Twitter? Photo: Naughty Dog/Sony Entertainment

The Last of Us Part II is the worst video game I’ve ever heard. For hours on end, thanks to the craftsmanship of top-notch audio engineers and dedicated performers, you will hear sounds of human misery: people shrieking in pain, pleading for their life, gagging and gurgling as blood seeps out of them. If you heard it all without the benefit of context, perhaps by being in an adjacent room while someone played, you’d register a parade of murder that would seem exceedingly difficult to justify. And you would be right. It’s not justified. Trouble is, The Last of Us Part II thinks itself clever by making this the point of its story, seemingly unaware that one does not need a thirty-hour video game to make this point.

In The Last of Us Part II, nearly every character is as far from a “good day” as a person can be. The protagonist, a young woman named Ellie, endures something terrible, and everyone involved in perpetrating it must pay with their lives. Her path to revenge is full of perhaps the most unsettlingly rendered violence a video game has portrayed in some time, most of it committed by the person playing the game.

The PlayStation 4 release is the sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us, which was set in a world where the real-life cordyceps fungi — a grotesque parasite that inhabited insects, causing them to behave erratically — has made the leap to humans. These fungal zombies, known as “infected,” are violent, carnivorous, and highly contagious, releasing spores that will infect others. However, like The Walking Dead, it isn’t the afflicted that represent the real horror. Rather, it’s the behavior of the people who remain after the parasite’s arrival brings about the end of civilization as we know it.

When the first Last of Us game debuted in 2013, zombie fiction was already trite and exhausting, but the game still succeeded by virtue of being a technical marvel that also focused squarely on its characters. The game cast players as Joel, a smuggler charged with bringing Ellie across the country for reasons unknown to him. Eventually, he discovers that Ellie is immune to infection, and he’s bringing her to the last remaining medical facility in the States in the hopes of developing a cure. In a climax that is still a high-water mark for big-budget video games, it’s revealed that developing a vaccine would kill Ellie, and so the player, as Joel, decides to murder the surgeons and their attendant militia guards just as an unconscious Ellie is about to go under the knife, unaware of her fate. The game’s final moment jumps ahead sometime later, as Joel lies to Ellie and tells her there was no cure, and she receives his story with an uncertain: “Okay.”

The ambiguity of Ellie’s response extends throughout The Last of Us Part II, set four years later as Joel and Ellie have settled down in Jackson, Wyoming, an area that has managed to become a flourishing city despite the horror that surrounds it. As Ellie, players get a brief taste of idyllic life in the post-apocalypse before something terrible happens, inciting her vengeful mission. As in many revenge stories, the closer Ellie gets to her goal the more reprehensible she acts, with a horrible mess left in her wake.

Where The Last of Us Part II differs from past stories of blind vengeance is that it’s a video game that requires 25 to 30 hours to complete. Across that time, the actions undertaken by the player are largely the same: carefully navigating a hostile environment in order to find enough supplies to dispatch or slip past a small army of infected, cultists, or militia members. The ensuing excess of violence would seem pointless if the game wasn’t so interested in re-contextualizing the things it made you do, seemingly damning you for treating the digital foes in front of you as fodder to be put down rather than representations of real people.

The game does this in two ways. The most direct is by regularly presenting the player with situations where fighting is the only way forward. Those scenes are among the most brutal in a modern video game. Shoot a foe dead and their partner will scream their name; attack with a melee weapon and your target with wail in agony; use a blade and they’ll choke on their own blood. In video games, combat is a puzzle, a maze with shifting hazards to navigate. Removing those hazards is cathartic — and Last of Us wants to complicate that catharsis, often leaving you with no other options. There are several parts of the game where you can skillfully evade conflict, but there are many scripted, unavoidable duels, and they are all grisly.

Then there’s the narrative itself, which is the other way the game gradually confronts players with the consequences of the violence they enact as Ellie. Throughout the story, players fight not just the infected, but also members of a militia, and a strange, violent cult. Lives you end in the first act are recontextualized by a major perspective shift in the second, characters you root against take sympathetic turns, and no faction (besides the zombies) is universally composed of heroes or villains. How do you feel taking a life, the game asks, over and over again, if you know other people cared about that person? Meanwhile, it literally leaves you no other choices.

The Last of Us Part II is perhaps the biggest, and most anticipated video game this year. It’s worth understanding why. The title is the latest from Naughty Dog, a studio with a reputation for games that aspire to the aesthetics and prestige of cinema, with memorable characters that behave realistically despite the unreality of video games. As a shop, Naughty Dog is extremely good at this; they are notorious for the perfectionism with which they approach game design.

The studio has often sidestepped criticism of crunch culture — a practice where developers collectively put in excessively long hours to meet a deadline, thereby exerting implicit pressure on their peers to do the same, perpetuating a cycle of burnout and health risks — by self-selection. You work at Naughty Dog because you want to make games that are best in class. Naughty Dog makes best-in-class games because everyone involved is willing to go the extra mile.

For those who know to look for it, the Naughty Dog difference is dazzling. You rarely see your character’s face when they are sneaking up behind a foe to silently render them unconscious, but tilt the camera around and you’ll see it’s twisted into an ugly sneer befitting ugly work. Characters will, unprompted, shake their wrists loose, giving little grace notes that make them feel like real people. Weapons are painstakingly replicated, and you can watch characters break them down on a workbench. Most astonishing is that Naughty Dog seems to be the only studio with the patience to attempt to recreate the physics that govern how ropes work — every rope you handle in the game spools, dangles, and swings with near-fidelity. To the layman, that may not seem like a big deal. But no one else does this, because it’s an absurd amount of work, work that’s only worth it if you want to blow away your peers.

Naughty Dog is also a studio renowned for their approach to narrative — arguably making the authored parts of their games more compelling than the played ones. The Last of Us Part II puts much of its energy into things — themes, ideas — that you do not need to get from a video game, including many that you likely have already seen elsewhere — Oldboy, for example, or The End of Evangelion. Every selling point of Part II — its excellent performances, arresting vistas, unparalleled sound design, emphasis on story — exist outside the scope of player actions. The game’s primary focus with its interactivity lies in culpability: in the idea that, by way of controlling characters on the predetermined narrative tracks laid out for them, you are complicit when their actions take horrible turns. This is less of a clever twist than a tired notion explored in games like 2007’s Bioshock and 2008’s Braid, both of which came long before the first Last of Us.

In the world of mainstream games, popularity and quality are often considered interchangeable. Invest enough resources in a game to clear the threshold of competence, and then spend enough money to market it well, and you can more or less guarantee at least a modest hit. At this point in the medium’s development, games play people better than people play them. Studios have the data; they know what people like doing and what they don’t, the weapons they prefer and ones they ignore, what routes they take through a map and where they are most likely to fail. The whole enterprise is scripted. The Last of Us Part II is the result of a formula that’s been refined for more than 20 years, one that was essentially perfected by its predecessor.

Video games are often eager to please, and it’s notably remarkable that Naughty Dog set out to provide an objectively unlikable experience — one featuring a main character who marches well past the point of no return, one that compels you to commit to terrible violence to see it through. Except the game is not unlikable. Divorced from its plot, in the moments when you are stalking foes and finding clever ways to silently dispatch the people and monsters out to kill you, you feel good. You feel powerful. And that belies the game’s central cynicism: it makes the violence central and unavoidable and generally fun. In that way, the game sinks down to the muck with everything else it wants to be better than.

The Last of Us Part II can be read as a treatise on violence with a surprisingly shallow take:  that it is dehumanizing, and terrible despite the care with which it is rendered. That’s not what the game spends 30 hours on, though. Instead, the reason the game needs to be an epic is because it’s interested in an idea even more facile than that: That there are good and bad people on every side of a conflict, that you don’t really know where someone comes from or why they believe what they believe. It wants to be a work that isn’t really against revenge, but tribalism, arguing that the act of people banding together by necessity demands the othering of your peers, and that othering is what breeds violence.

Yet it still can’t imagine a world without dividing lines. Even its vision of Jackson, Wyoming — the closest thing to an ideal community the game can imagine — exists within walls, where those outside are suspect, and those inside ought not leave. Why would they? The world is full of other people.

The Last of Us Part II Plays a Dark, Cynical Trick