The countdown to Sony’s launch The Last of Us, Part II has bewitched players. It appeared as a topic of conversation this week while Sony and Naughty Dog revealed more of the exclusive game coming to PlayStation 4 on June 19.
The signs of anticipation from the fans are there. Over a million people watched the latest gameplay reveal, even though the entire game was leaked and anyone who really wants to know the whole story can find it somewhere on the Internet. I have a copy of the game for review, but I don’t want to mention it at this time. But I found a way to talk about how I feel now.
I didn’t want to watch the leaked material, because I wanted to go by myself until the end. It was an emotional journey, and I want to get there on my own terms. While playing this game in a pandemic, I can’t tell you what it looked like, and I look forward to having conversations about it later.
If you are a fan, you already have the emotional moment approaching as we continue our fight in our fragile state, taking shelter without many of our friends, family or colleagues. The games are a balm, and I can’t think of anything better for us than getting lost in the story of the sequel.
If you are not a fan, or you are not a player, I have undertaken this story to explain why someone you know is about to get obsessed with this game and keep talking about it . You can choose to ignore them or pretend to understand, but for your own safety, don’t tell them that their obsession is unwarranted. This is because the story in games like The Last of Us is as good as the one you will come across. Forgive your friends if they give up Call of Duty: Warzone or Animal Crossing: New Horizons for a moment.
The story so far
The Last of Us was released in 2013 on PlayStation 3. It was a resounding success for developer Naughty Dog. I played the game and was deeply touched by the story of teenage Ellie and gruff smuggler Joel – two survivors of the zombie apocalypse who spend their days trying to survive. The graphic violence of the original was horrible, but more often than not it was perpetrated by Joel on behalf of the protection of Ellie, and later it was Ellie who protected Joel. Fighting zombies took skill and stealth, and too often human enemies were worse.
I played the first game in about 10 pm and declared it my favorite game of all time. There was what I call a bookend story, where the start of the game resonated at the end and you had to think about the start of your journey just as it closed the loop. It was haunting, like living a ghost story where the ghost comes back to you at the end.
I spoke with the game directors, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, about the experiment after finishing it, and it was clear that it was one of Sony’s greatest successes of all time. While we had zombie games galore, The Last of Us was an intimate game in terms of characters, story and combat. Each duel with a zombie or a human enemy was like a fight for life or death. You barely had enough balls to get through part of the game. You learned to feel what it would be like to be a survivor, said Druckmann.
Twenty years after losing everything that was important to him, Joel was the shell of a human with very little humanity in him, Druckmann told me. He might as well be a zombie. In her time with Ellie, she takes out this remaining humanity. The 14-year-old becomes the hero, said Druckmann, bringing the older man back to life. And then, at the end of the first game, Joel was faced with the moral dilemma of choosing to sacrifice someone he loved as a surrogate girl in the name of stopping the plague. The question is how far a father is willing to go to save his child.
“At first, he’s ready to put his life on the line. It’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he is,” said Druckmann. “But he is ready to put his friends in danger. Finally, it is a question of putting his soul at stake, when he wants to damn the rest of humanity. When he has this last lie with Ellie, he is ready to put his relationship with Ellie at stake in order to save her. “
Joel made his choice, and the repercussions of this choice will be played out in Part II. For the choice he made, many people might consider Joel a monster. But as a parent, I can understand the dilemma he faced.
Knock on the house
I played this first game with my eldest daughter, and it was good to show her the character of Ellie at the same time – even if it was not that long – when we did not see as many female protagonists who were normal people (not superheroes) and could manage their own. In 2013, and certainly before that, it could be a commercial risk to launch a game with a female protagonist. It is no longer true.
Ellie was a role model for my children, and my second daughter also played avidly in The Last of Us, as I watched and advised. I think a father and a daughter playing this game together could understand the connection between Ellie and Joel, even if the characters didn’t see it themselves.
They were surprised at the popularity of the game and were even surprised by the critics that the game had strong female characters. The enemies of diversity in games will later develop a lexicon for it, saying that the developers were “awake”.
Druckmann said the intention was still there to have a story with two protagonists, each with powerful arcs that affected the other. It was not just a teenage girl escorted on a mission by a middle-aged man. While my daughters were playing, I felt it was good for them to have the power to be Ellie, as she retaliated during her crucial moments.
But it wouldn’t be such a strange thing today. We have a lot of strong female characters and improve the diversity of game characters. But in 2013, it was something original to have strong characters who were men, women, blacks, whites, gays and straight people. They were full, but Naughty Dog got hot to be on a soap box. Part II adds to the diversity with multiple Asian characters, lesbian relationships and people with very different views of Ellie or Joel, as we saw in the trailers.
Seeing the extended Part II trailer this week, I felt a new appreciation for the difference between the old and the new game in terms of technological improvements. The story spans seasons and climates, from the snows of Jackson, Wyoming, to the lush landscapes of Seattle. The cities are so authentic that you expect them to deal with a pandemic.
As the trailer shows, Naughty Dog wants you to know that Ellie can do more. She can swing on ropes, cross vertical structures to avoid trouble, navigate on boats, ride horses, break the glass and crawl in the grass. She faces enemies such as dogs who can follow in her footsteps, stealthy warriors who can attack her with arrows and a large number of zombies. Ellie can sprint, dodge attacks and time her counter attacks. She can use her enemies as a shield and get help from her friends. This makes the fight much more diverse than in The Last of Us.
And as she could in the first game, Ellie can pit enemies against each other, causing the zombies to attack human enemies. Druckmann said it was the biggest and most ambitious game in Naughty Dog.
As you delve into the history of the development of this game, you will come across allegations of crisis, or heavy overtime, to Naughty Dog staff. Depending on what you think about it, you might hold it against the company or the development managers. You have the right to feel what you want about it. But I think you should play it and not dismiss the creative work because of the way it was created.
I don’t want to justify the crunch at all. But I think I can understand why the perfectionists would work so hard on such a game. So much passion comes in, they want to keep working and doing. Others wonder if they should do the same, and then many people start doing the same, whether they like it or not. This is something that managers should consider. I hope the industry will solve this challenge.
And I know I’m lucky to play first. But it’s a disappointment not to be able to talk about it yet. I trust Naughty Dog more than any other studio to tell a story. At the end of the game, I will have plenty of time to soak it up and know what I think about it. Right now, we have a lot of anxiety to do while we all wait to see what’s going on in The Last of Us Part II.