The New York TimesJun 22, 2020 09:07:59 IST
Editor's note: Massive spoilers for The Last of Us and its just-released sequel The Last of Us Part II follow. Be warned.
At the climax of The Last of Us, a blockbuster 2013 video game that is superficially about a zombie-fungus apocalypse but is really about the lengths a parent will go to protect a child, you are forced to kill a doctor. This doctor is not a threat. He stands there limply, holding a scalpel, so technically he’s not unarmed — but you’ve got a gun and the gameplay has made it clear, after hours of close fighting, that your character could subdue the man peacefully if he wanted.
Video games are constructed around choice, and when I played the game for the first time, I expected one here. A lot of games, including highly ambitious ones, present you at various points with a kill-the-guy/don’t-kill-the-guy binary, allowing you to shape at least a part of your character’s morality. At this juncture of The Last of Us, however, there was nothing but a glaring lack of alternatives. The only way to move the story forward — and reach an ending in which I’d already invested 14 emotionally debilitating hours — was to murder the pleading doctor while his colleagues screamed “No!” and called me an animal.
The sequence helped establish The Last of Us as one of the most successful games in the medium’s history, a high-water mark of both artistic achievement and commercial viability. The title sold more than 17 million copies, won numerous Game of the Year awards, and is being developed into an HBO series.
Now, seven years later, a sequel debuted under a staggering load of expectations. The Last of Us Part II went on sale on Friday, needing to meet critics’ high standards and appeal to an audience broad enough to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in production costs. If the game succeeds, it would help establish The Last of Us as an enduring and lucrative pop culture franchise.
For Naughty Dog, the Sony-owned studio behind the series, the safe thing to do from a financial standpoint would have been to continue the first game’s story in a predictable way that kept fans happy, as the makers of Marvel and Star Wars movies have done so profitably. But The Last of Us Part II does nothing of the sort.
(Warning: Stop reading here if you want to know nothing about its plot.)
Instead, the punishingly bleak sequel kills off the original’s main character and turns the secondary hero into a villain. It takes violence to a level that is uncomfortable even by the standards of video games, and seemingly does everything in its power to make gamers feel bad about the act of playing it.
Risky creative decisions like these are part of how Naughty Dog — which is based in Santa Monica, California, and also develops the treasure-hunting series Uncharted — has established itself as gaming’s preeminent producer of cinematic, story-based titles. This commitment to Hollywood-grade, linear narrative sets the company apart in an industry that is otherwise trending toward games based on repetitive online competition (such as Fortnite) or endlessly explorable open-world “sandboxes” (like the Grand Theft Auto franchise). The approach entails certain pressures and risks. While its games are in development, Naughty Dog tries to erect a wall of secrecy around the plots — holding reviewers to tight nondisclosure agreements and even deceiving fans with misdirection — until everything is revealed through a clean and choreographed release.
The path to Friday's unveiling, though, has been anything but controlled. First, The Last of Us Part II missed its February target date because it wasn’t ready; then, the coronavirus prompted a second delay. For the studio, the global pandemic was actually a minor issue compared with what happened next. In late April, someone leaked a video spoiling major plot points, including the murder of the original title’s main character, who’s beaten to death by a muscular woman. Some fans, erroneously assuming the killer to be transgender, pelted the game’s creators with putrid tweets and death threats.
Chaotic though the process has been, having the misogynistic politics of Gamergate in the mix has only contributed to the sense that The Last of Us Part II is premiering with eerily perfect timing. The game’s story is about entrenched tribalism in a world undone by a global pandemic. As you play the game, walking through empty spaces, scavenging for items that used to be commonplace, listening to characters describe the fall of society with a sense of loss, you feel emotionally in sync.
Even if you don’t play the title, you’ll probably start to hear about it. Craig Mazin, the creator of the 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, had his pick of projects to pursue after that series won 10 Emmys; he decided to develop The Last of Us for HBO based largely on the poignant brutality of its ending. “I’ve never experienced anything that viscerally made me question the value of love,” he said.
Mazin recently played an advance copy of The Last of Us Part II, and is now working through it a second time. He’s biased, of course, but in his estimation the sequel’s finale is on par with the original. “I’m still thinking about that ending,” he said. “There are endings where you think ‘Well, that’s perfect,’ and that’s that. And then there are endings that make you start to think about your relationship with the character and — really — your relationship with narrative itself.”
Most of the early reviews from critics are similarly awed. The Last of Us Part II carries a 95 rating on Metacritic, with cautions like “uncomfortable” and “misery simulator” giving way to pronouncements like “one of best video games ever made.”
A cheap sensation turned art
The Last of Us and its sequel belong to a gaming genre known as “survival/horror.” You spend a lot of time sneaking through dark rooms while enemies lurk in the shadows and suspenseful music thumps in your ears. Assailants pop out from corners; zombies tear at faces and rip out necks. The action is startling and stressful, flushing the body with adrenaline to a degree that you feel like you’re living inside an Alien movie.
The premise of the first game is that in September 2013, a strain of the Cordyceps fungus, a real-life organism that can take over the bodies and minds of ants, jumps to humans. People who get infected are disfigured and hungry for flesh; billions die and society crumbles. Many of the game’s missions are built around a search for some suddenly precious item — a gallon of gas, a medical kit. Bullets are scanty and your character is usually outnumbered in battle, so you expend a lot of effort sneaking up on enemies and conserving resources with clandestine stabbings.
Video games operate through what people in the industry call mechanics — the actions that allow a player to navigate the world and give a game its logic and structure. Shooting enemies, sneaking past guards, crafting Molotov cocktails, searching for items with which to level up: These are all mechanics, and they work by creating an emotional response, similar to the dopamine rush of social media, that compels people to spend hours immersed in a digital realm.
Anyone who has gobbled up pellets in Pac-Man is familiar with this thrill. For the most part, it’s a cheap sensation, guided by stress and the meaningless accrual of points. In the best games, however, the ones that get talked about as art, mechanics enhance the story and deepen the emotional pull.
This does not have to be complicated. Braid, a basic two-dimensional game by designer Jonathan Blow, employs a time-manipulation mechanic in which players solve puzzles by rewinding the game and undoing their deaths, to tell a story about regret and forgiveness. Playing it, you feel connected, however abstractly, to the universal desire to replay life with the benefit of hindsight.
As games have gotten more sophisticated, fans have tended to accept that violence is part of the medium — but they have also begun expecting options to avoid bloodshed, or at least have it make artistic sense. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, about an Indiana Jones-like figure who knows a ton of history and goes on treasure quests, has been criticised for its “ludonarrative dissonance” — that is, the story and characters don’t match the action. It makes no sense, players have argued, to have a protagonist presented as a charming Everyman in cutscenes (prerecorded, unplayable video clips), and then require him to blithely murder thousands of people when you’re holding the controller.
With The Last of Us games, the studio gets past this critique by making violence seem logical. Playing them, you don’t question why the characters kill so often because the post-apocalyptic setting is a place where people literally eat each other to survive.
This is not a purely aesthetic exercise. Video game content, meaning physical and downloaded games, generated $35.4 billion in US revenue last year, according to NPD Group. This means world-building is the same as franchise-building. And since so many of these franchises involve killing things, what sets Naughty Dog apart — the reason it can spend years creating enveloping narratives that adapt well to prestige TV — is that its stories are regarded as the thinking person’s gore.
In the first instalment, you play as Joel Miller, a hardened smuggler whose daughter died in the fungus outbreak. His task is to ferry across the country a 14-year-old girl named Ellie, who is immune to the pathogen and holds the key to a vaccine. Joel kills zombies and tortures cannibals, and at first he seems like a run-of-the-mill butcher of the sort you can find in any number of other games.
What makes Joel different, and The Last of Us popular, is the relationship he builds with Ellie. In between the splatter is a genuinely affecting story of a closed-off man who allows the void of his daughter’s death to be filled, such that when you kill people as Joel, you don’t feel like a psychopath. You feel like a protective dad.
Each working diligently to kill the other
The Last of Us Part II is about hate, using stories of revenge as an extended metaphor about cycles of violence. The game does this through a novel device that Naughty Dog took extreme pains to keep quiet, prohibiting journalists from mentioning it in advance reviews even after those April hackers revealed it: You play the game as a pair of mortal enemies, switching sides and perspectives.
Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us II’s director and Naughty Dog’s chief creative force, was born in Israel in 1978 and lived in the West Bank as a child before immigrating to Miami. The influence is clear. The sequel begins with a paramilitary named Abby killing Joel with a golf club for reasons that aren’t made clear. This prompts Ellie to find Abby and avenge Joel’s death. The backdrop is a long-running conflict between two tribes that war over land and have recently seen a ceasefire agreement break down. Each side blames the other for firing the first shot.
Druckmann co-wrote the game with Halley Gross, a screenwriter who has worked on HBO’s Westworld. He said the story was inspired by a video he saw around 2000, in which two Israeli reservists were killed in Ramallah while a crowd cheered. “I was intrigued-slash-horrified how easily my mind was able to tip into these dark, violent thoughts, and I realised that’s not just me — that’s universal,” he said in an interview.
At some point, Druckmann became enamoured with the conceit of having players inhabit two enemies and experience the same story from opposing perspectives. Halfway through The Last of Us Part II, players switch from Ellie to Abby, and discover that the latter has sound reasons for revenge. As the game progresses, the appeals to empathy are steadily amped up, introducing you to Abby’s friends and family, using conversations and extended flashbacks to plunge you deep inside their stories. One of the more cruel twists of viewpoint is a sequence in which you stab a vicious dog as Ellie and soon find yourself playing fetch with the animal as Abby.
Whereas the first game uses carnage to strengthen your character’s relationship with a digital teenager, The Last of Us Part II stuffs you with pain and guilt, making you commit heinous acts as one person, then experience the repercussions as another. This is made even more exhausting by a battery of digital tricks that make you feel absolutely horrible about what you’re doing. From the sound of blood leaving the body to characters who grunt “No” just before you do what they’re begging you not to do, the violence is detailed and graphic. Even the normally anonymous hordes that you destroy between plot points are made semi-human by Naughty Dog’s insistence on giving every single one of them a name, so that whenever you down an enemy, others cry out to them individually — “Jack!” “Evie!” — as they realise a friend is gone.
In its best moments, The Last of Us Part II is a feat of empathetic storytelling. Over the course of the narrative, I really did go from hating the Abby character to understanding her motivations and eventually flat-out rooting for her. But by forcing you to act out both characters’ atrocities and reconcile with all the death you’ve inflicted, the game ends up in territory that is fairly cynical.
Leigh Alexander, a former gaming journalist who co-founded Red Queens, an independent studio based in the United Kingdom, argues that this level of darkness is a natural result of big-budget game studios’ twin constraints: They aspire to tell deeper stories, but these stories are still tethered to the mechanics of a weapon. Thus, it’s become a race to the darkest bottom in which each new release features a world more evil than the last, and each new antihero more nihilistic than the one before them.
“The only way to make stories about violence more realistic is to make them gruelling,” Alexander said. “And I can’t see the spirit of play in there.”
The coronavirus era’s twisted cousin
Between battles, The Last of Us Part II has players explore post-apocalyptic settings, collecting weapons and supplies. It’s during these breaks in action — which can last an hour or more, depending on how much exploring you do — when The Last of Us Part II feels most like the coronavirus era’s twisted cousin. As the music chilled out and battle noise quieted, I found myself wandering around the desolate streets, admiring photorealistic scenes of nature reclaiming Seattle.
There are boarded restaurants and empty conference rooms, and characters routinely remark on the world as it used to be. In one scene, a character asks another what the vast halls of an aquarium must have felt like packed with children. In another, Ellie and a friend walk through the remnants of a comic book convention. Not all of this is sad: One of the game’s sweeter scenes is a moment where Ellie plays her girlfriend Dina a song with a guitar she finds in an abandoned music store.
Naughty Dog revealed Ellie’s sexuality in 2014, in a short interstitial game called The Last of Us: Left Behind. Social media bottom-dwellers protested in the usual manner of bombarding Druckmann’s Twitter account with bigotry and making YouTube videos accusing him of a “social justice warrior” agenda. When one fan asked Druckmann to leave his personal politics out of his games, he replied: “No can do.”
Any thought that he would back away from the issue in the second game was dispensed by a 2018 game trailer that showed a passionate kiss between Ellie and Dina. Gay characters are not new to games — hundreds of independent titles explore themes of sexuality and gender identity — but Ellie stands out because she is the protagonist of an aggressive, big-budget game aimed at the medium’s core male audience.
“It has LGBT representation at the centre of the game,” said Bonnie Ruberg, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. “On the business side, it represents at least one company’s willingness to step up and say, ‘We are going to put the money and time into this representation.’ Because historically, that’s the line studios use to avoid it — they say, ‘These games are so expensive to make that we don’t want to alienate our core player base’.”
Bottling up the plot
Between work delays, pandemic delays, spoilers and a March investigation by the gaming site Kotaku that called out the company’s punishing culture of overwork, Naughty Dog has been the subject of so much bad news that The Onion created a satirical running narrative of its problems. Druckmann said he’s unconcerned about any of this undermining sales, and the data seems to be on his side. Sony recently announced that preorders were unaffected by the leak, the title is No 1 on Amazon’s video game bestseller list, and analysts are projecting that eventually, The Last of Us Part II will rank among the most successful games ever released for the PlayStation 4 console.
Druckmann said that Sony’s marketing department would have preferred less secrecy before launch so that consumers would have more details to be excited about. But as a writer, he said, he had decided it was more fun to keep things hidden, bottling up the plot until that big day of release when everyone rushes to find out what happens at once. “It was extremely frustrating and demoralising,” he said of the leak.
In the days after the spoiler video was uploaded, he reminded himself of the thing that anyone who’s tried to expound on a game to a friend eventually realises: The good ones are so immersive that there’s really no way to explain them, much less spoil them, because they must be played to be understood. Becoming Ellie, and then Abby, will leave you surprised, frustrated, challenged and hurt — maybe even damaged. It isn’t much fun, but neither are sad movies. The ones that endure are the ones you don’t forget.
Conor Dougherty c.2020 The New York Times Company
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