So I’ve Finished: The Last of Us Part II

By admin
I recently finished playing

The Last of Us Part II
WORK_OF_ART

on the PS5. I got

about 40%
PERCENT

of the achievements and feel like I experienced nearly all of the game across

a few dozen hours
TIME

. The Last of Us Part II is a Naughty Dog “prestige” game with a multi-year development,

multi-year
DATE

delay, and heavy crunch. Spoilers follow for this

three-year-old
DATE

game.


First
ORDINAL

and foremost: holy crap the shine on this game. It looks amazing, it moves amazingly, it sounds amazing, it never crashed or missed a step or failed to save state or respoke a line. The only thing that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny is the water and all I can think is that it must be really really difficult. They got foliage (foilage!) looking and moving well, so if they couldn’t crack water it must be near impossible. If you want to see what can be done with last generation’s hardware if you devote enough attention: this is the game to show you that.

This is not an endorsement of

Naughty Dog’s
ORG

policies of widespread overwork. As you can tell by me playing

this three years later
DATE

and still being agog: it could’ve saved a lot of people’s health by taking

a few extra years
DATE

to complete. There was no reason to rush this and burn out some of your most experienced and most enthusiastic personnel.

Instead look to

Supergiant Games
EVENT

. Their titles (including the wonderful

Hades
LOC

which I played while So I’ve Finished was on hiatus so I don’t have an article for) are similarly polished, but famously not at the expense of their workers. I appreciate and support this level of attention paid to games: and it need not have a human cost.

And this goes doubly for a game that costs the player to play. I mean, beyond dollars. It is another brutal, taxing, challenging, stressful ride through a post-apocalyptic

USA
GPE

. I played it in

forty-minute
TIME

chunks in full daylight and it still got under my skin. Part of this is through some stellar narrative choices: allowing

Ellie
PERSON

to be a dick when

Dinah
PERSON

reveals she’s pregnant? In retrospect, this was another step down the stairs to

Ellie
PERSON

’s nadir, but the culmination of direction and tech to make that decision, stick to it, and then enact it in a not just believable but compelling way?

In some of the critical reception from the time that I’d bookmarked to review after I’d played the game, much was made about the mid-game POV swap from

Ellie
PERSON

to

Abby
PERSON

. For whatever reason, this didn’t surprise me and I rather liked it. I mean, I didn’t have it spoiled (I carefully avoided even checking any guides lest they tell me how much game was left): instead it seemed correct.

Ellie
PERSON

had descended to the level of depravity where she thought (and I the player thought)

Abby
PERSON

was, so it made sense to see what trajectory

Abby
PERSON

was on. And, really, showing me you had full game mechanic animations for

Abby
PERSON

from like the

second
ORDINAL

scene in the dang game? Tipped the hand a mite, there. (Not that Naughty Dog’d be above going through that effort to specifically subvert our expectations or serve some other purpose (like the full suite of interactions from

Nathan
ORG

’s daughter at the end of Uncharted 4). But.)

I liked playing as

Abby
PERSON

. Some of it was learning more about the

Seraphites
NORP

and the

WLF
ORG

and the general world, so it need not have come with a

POV
ORG

switch, but a lot of it was specific to

Abby
PERSON

. I wanted to see the ramifications of

Joel
PERSON

’s selfishness (born out of love, but still selfish). I wanted to see another way of living and characters who had lived it. I love

Ellie
PERSON

, but I know how she grew up and that it’s just one of any number of possible situations. To get another is nice.


Loving Ellie
PERSON

is hard, though, after LoU2. It made sense to swap to

Abby
PERSON

’s POV to fight

Ellie
PERSON

in the theatre.

Ellie
PERSON

was a monster, a villain, and the player plays the hero in these games (don’t we?). It was a little difficult, but I knew she needed to be stopped — but with

Jesse
PERSON

’s and

Tommy
PERSON

’s (apparent) deaths just moments before it really underlined how “stopping” could mean “killing” because lives are so cheaply lost in this game. I wanted

Ellie
PERSON

to be stopped. Not killed.

And then we were at the farmhouse, and I expected it to end. I expected

Ellie
PERSON

to be haunted and broken and not healed (but maybe healing) from her experience. She’d lost. She’d failed. That’s how it happens sometimes: you’re not always in control of how things end, and you can never really call anything ended until you’re dead. I expected some PTSD, I expected some problems in her family life. Full-on dissociative episodes were more than I was expecting.

And then

Tommy
PERSON

shows up. Not dead, “just” missing an eye. Dragging

Ellie
PERSON

back into the vengeance plot she doesn’t even need any more. Fuck

Tommy
PERSON

. I thought she’d be able to resist it.

And then we’re in

Santa Barbara
GPE

. And I know how it’s going to go. Because after playing

Uncharted 1-4
WORK_OF_ART

and Lost Legacy plus LoU and its

DLC
ORG

and most of LoU2… I think I’ve gotten a feel for the Naughty Dog Formula. Or at least their Last of Us refinement. I feel the transitions coming and can usually guess which way it’s going: resource and traversal, combat encounter, story beat. Not specifics, mind you, but from the game state (and maybe my own mental/physical state?) I could tell when we were due for a change and whether it would ramp down or up.

Not that this affects enjoyment. Knowing it’s going to be a ramp up in tension doesn’t tell me it’s because

Ellie
PERSON

’s going to step in a live trap and almost bleed out from a tree wound. Knowing it’s resource refill time doesn’t mean I know about the cute cornbread exchange between the

two
CARDINAL

apartments left in that

one
CARDINAL

building. Knowing something’s wrong about this workbench doesn’t mean I know I’m about to be ambushed by

WLF
ORG

deserters who are Done With This Shit. Having forewarning of the broad strokes is telegraphing or foreshadowing and is being used well, because the interesting bits are the details.

Like finally giving

Ellie
PERSON

a bite from the infected. It’s been years: who knows if she’s even still immune to anything but spores.

But then it’s time for

Ellie
PERSON

to find

Abby
PERSON

and

Lev
PERSON

and help them escape and she just can’t escape that

Abby
PERSON

is responsible for

Joel
PERSON

’s death. And now

Ellie
PERSON

is still the villain but we’re in “control” of her as she tries to cut, bludgeon, and drown this woman who really doesn’t deserve this any more. If she ever did. I failed quick time events in the

Ellie
PERSON

v.

Abby
PERSON

fight in the shallows because I didn’t want

Ellie
PERSON

to win. Congratulations, Naughty Dog, you successfully made me feel like shit (I love it).

By making me feel, this must be Art. And it’s a Video Game. But is it Video Game Art?

To me… no? Well, a little? Only a little.

There is a certain amount of the mechanics (the video-game-specific parts of this artwork) that make me feel something unique from what other forms could do. Feeling desperate, determined, discomfited, or “like shit” because I feel like I’m the one responsible for doing the thing: yeah, that’s there. But when they inevitably adapt this into a prestige television series, will a TV audience even notice what they’re missing? Will I, watching that series, have a diminished experience because I’m not the one doing the thing?

I don’t think there’s much of

Ellie
PERSON

’s and

Abby
PERSON

’s story that needs to be told as a video game. It benefits from it, but I don’t think it’s required in the way other games can only be felt through their gameness (like the ending to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, or the madcap community of

Blaseball
PERSON

). And there were hints that this was the case: whenever I talked to my wife about the game I would easily say “

Ellie
PERSON

did” or “

Abby
PERSON

did” instead of “I did”. The stuff about the game that mattered enough to be told, all of the Last of Us-ness, was something the characters did while I watched.

Which is good! It’s fine! But if someone starts holding this up as Video Game Art I might have something to say about it. Art: yes. Video Game: yes. Video Game Art: well…

Again, to make sure I’m clear: this is not a comment about its quality as

Art
ORG

. It’s amazing in its delivery of its themes and consistent approach to premise and characterization… I mean, it’s not perfect: no way does gas still work. Gas becomes stale over

months-to-years
DATE

.

26 years
DATE

after the outbreak and no evidence of the resumption of fuel delivery _and_ generators and freaking trucks still work? Yeah, no.

But it delivers a theme of inevitability in an exquisitely painful way. Every piece of the story, setting, mechanics, sound, music… it is inevitable that the WLF/Seraphite truce couldn’t last. Of course

Abby
PERSON

would go after

Joel
PERSON

. Of course

Ellie
PERSON

would go after

Abby
PERSON

. Of course

Owen
PERSON

is the worst (actually, he had all the agency he needed and more. Fuck

Owen
PERSON

). Of course

Abby
PERSON

would go after

Tommy
PERSON

in the theatre. Just in the same way that the mechanics of the game were broadly predicable, the ever-spinning conflicts before and throughout the game’s timeline were equally predictable. And that’s where

the Naughty Dog Prestige Formula
FAC

really shines: when there is no choice. When it’s all predestined. Because the game doesn’t supply you with a choice, even a false one. So it really feels “right” when the story being told is equally absent of agency.

And it’s hopeful in its inevitability. Yeah, it’s inevitable that the

WLF
ORG

and

Seraphites
NORP

fucked things up with each other. It’s inevitable that the Government would screw up the response to the crisis. It’s inevitable that all the tiny failures of tiny stories went wrong. But it’s crucially also inevitable that

Jackson
PERSON

is weathering things quite okay, all things considered. Yeah, it’s imperfect, but it’s built to survive its imperfection. There’s free movement in and out, so it’s a strong community of the willing. You can choose to stay or go. Unlike the

WLF
ORG

and

Seraphites
NORP

who think it inevitable that you’ll want to stay… and react poorly when that’s not the case.

The inevitability is also why I still think it maybe could’ve ended at the farm. That was the

first
ORDINAL

time

Ellie
PERSON

had a choice since she watched

Joel
PERSON

die. She could’ve chosen to live her failure at that farm. Could’ve chosen to let it end and borne the suffering of unhealed and untreatble trauma. She could’ve done the best she could for her family.

But then

Tommy
PERSON

showed up and there really was no choice any more.

Fuck Tommy.