Now that the dust is starting to settle on the release of Naughty Dog’s blockbuster sequel to The Last of Us, two of ACMI’s many videogame gurus, Seb Chan (Chief Experience Officer) and Arieh Offman (Programmer), take some time to reflect on their journeys through this filmic, engrossing yet ultimately polarising videogame.
WARNING: This is chock full of spoilers, so stop reading if you're thinking of playing The Last of Us Part II. We thought it would be better to talk about the game more fully than hold back. This isn’t a review, it’s a chat.
Arieh Offman: What did I think of The Last of Us Part II? It was the sequel that I didn't know I was looking for after playing the first game. But I think it was the sequel that needed to happen.
Seb Chan: I felt a bit conflicted playing it, I have to say. The violence was extreme and it takes a while to not become a little blasé to it. And, I felt the physicality of the controller wasn't used as well as it could have been. After playing Death Stranding, the 'controller feel' in that was more immersive and worked with the story better. It's interesting in comparison.
AO: Play-wise, Naughty Dog have added lots more mechanics in addition to the traditional sort of stealth movement that you had in the first game. I definitely felt like I had more control over the options available to in the encounter scenarios. Did you find that fighting was your first approach through all of those encounters?
SC: I think the stealth was great and the ability to crawl added something interesting. Also, I really liked how when you switched from Abby to Ellie and then back, they both had different skill trees. Their ability to do stealth in different ways was quite marked and that forced you to change up your play style. But there are also those set pieces where there is no way you can just fight your way out and it's just a straight run to the next bit – particularly towards the end of the game and those bits with the Seraphite village on fire. Those were really crazy and spectacular set pieces.
AO: Definitely. You mentioned the different play styles and options available to players between Abby and Ellie. I found that I did actually play them quite differently as characters; I think I gave myself over to the sort of person who I felt that character was becoming. For example, while playing Ellie I definitely fought more, killed more and embraced her violent side. Whereas with Abby, I ran through more of those levels trying to perhaps preserve her innocence as a character through using the mechanics. But this slightly conflicts with your agency as a player, because then there are these large set pieces which you either can't get through in a pacifist way or can pretty much only get through by running and hoping.
SC: I felt that the character switches worked surprisingly well and the second half of the story is really interesting. In the first half, you really have that sense that Abby's not good and you're fully justified in murdering all these other people, and then it flips around and it's very conflicting. I felt quite manipulated by that. I can see why some people don't like that shift. It takes until the second half of the game for that dissonance to perhaps become very obviously part of what the game is.
I don't really know if I would classify it as a “game” in the sense of something that I would play multiple times. It's much more like a 'film' that you might watch and not enjoy but appreciate. And you won't watch it again but I think that's okay.
AO: Very much so. It's got a decidedly grim tone and it only gets grimmer. That leads to me back to one of those early quotes from (Creative Director) Neil Druckmann: "The Last of Us was a game about love. But Part II is a game about hate."
I think you were looking at the way they've constructed the narrative by having you play as Ellie for that initial part with the traumatic, and I would say unexpected, murder of Joel. You embody those feelings of vengeance, particularly because you've previously spent 15 hours growing to love these characters. It does build that emotion within you, which I think is interesting because it makes you complicit with Ellie's actions.
I could see why some people don't like that shift but at that moment, when I realised that I wasn’t going to be playing Ellie for the entire length of the game, and that I was going to delve into the humanity behind Abby and the rest of her group, it was almost a controller dropping moment for me.
“You cheeky bastards, I see what you're doing here – you really are forcing me to not only confront the sort of the violence within these characters and the violence within the narratives, but our own propensity for violence as human beings.” That was my initial reaction. And to cheer in some of the moments when I was killing Abby and the gang, and then realising that I had done exactly what the game was setting me up to do it.
SC: I thought it was interesting the way that the backstories of the characters you had murdered in the first half were revealed in the second half of the game, like the girl who was killed by Ellie in the middle of playing her PS Vita (Hotline Miami, by the way). The effort that had gone into the detail of creating notes and messages left behind was also surprisingly effective. A lot of those sorts of things were a clear step up from the first game but also from Uncharted 4 and similar games, too. I thought the obvious references between the games was kind of cute and that world building felt a lot more coherent.
There have been a lot of games of late where the worlds are enormous and detailed, but they also feel a bit haphazard. Whereas this has been done in a filmic way, without the limitations of that world building, making what's in it much richer.
The museum and the aquarium scenes were particularly amusing and effective, and obviously the throwback to Uncharted 4 with the little bow challenge in the aquarium was cute.
The writing in the game was a lot better too, I think. And I can see, again, why it's conflicting for people because it is purposely not a fun experience. That second ending piece in Santa Barbara was particularly harsh. That was really harsh. And I felt the very end was so bleak, you know, it was like, 'oh my god!'.
AO: So thinking about that second ending experience, how much do you feel that Tommy is a primary driver and potentially responsible for Ellie's second go at revenge? She had established this life with Dina and you got to experience a slight moment of happiness within the game but it’s then broken up because she's made to feel guilty for not performing a violent act in retribution by the one last link that she has to Joel.
SC: I guess, yeah, to a degree. Though I felt that with the post-traumatic stress flashback scene in the barn it was clear that a happy ending wasn't possible. And I think that was quite effective. To be honest, it pissed me off when I was like “Oh, I think I'm finished, that's a nice resolving end.” But of course, it can't be.
I was thinking about some of the criticisms of the game by people who obviously were fans of the first one, or who liked the idea of the game, but didn't like the finished product. It's like one of those films where things don't turn out well and people get the annoyed because it didn't turn out well – it's like, 'well, that's the point, you know'?
The final section of the game, which is only a couple of hours long, is also increasingly more brutal than the other parts. It's brutal and grim, and that exploitative piece at the very end in Santa Barbara, is really confronting.
AO: Particularly through the environmental storytelling.
SC: Yeah, the whole slavery thing and all of that. The other part that I felt was quite effective and reminded me of Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods was the guerrilla warfare piece in the Seraphite village that has obvious homages to films about the Vietnam War. I thought the backstory with Lev and his sister was really interesting, too. And I really liked the way that the character's sexuality was not 'essentialised' - that it just was.
AO: Well, I think that it was and it wasn't. I mean, it's Lev's identity as a trans character that gets him expelled from the Seraphite village – the expression of his trans identity through the shaving of his head causes him to be hunted by the village. But I also think you're right. It wasn't done super explicitly, and it wasn't the core motivator for any of the characters, which I think is brilliant. We're still getting to a point where we can see diverse representation of playable characters, where their sexuality isn't the core driving point of the game or of their story.
SC: Yeah. And it was just tolerance and human rights. You were saving lives because they needed help, you know, and I thought that was interesting. Throughout the whole game the messages around sexuality were done reasonably sensitively for a mainstream title.
AO: Very much so.
SC: Particularly given the trailers beforehand which were obviously provocatively exploitative.
AO: Um, yeah!
SC: The nonlinear nature, in the senses of the passage of time in the game felt very referential to a lot of cinema. I worry sometimes that 'games as cinema' don't quite work, maybe this one works better as a cinematic experience. It doesn't necessarily work as a game.
AO: There are also the obvious comparisons to Uncharted 4. There’s a divide in games between the nature of what we are doing as the core gameplay loop and the core game play mechanic and the way that we want to write those characters.
Uncharted is that exciting adventure tale where you're discovering treasure, but it’s interspersed with core shooting mechanics throughout most of the game. And Nathan Drake probably kills a small nation’s worth of people on his journey. And this dissonance is never resolved with the way that he is constructed as a character.
I think there's a brilliant meta-ness to how The Last of Us Part II is constructed. It forces us to confront our own nature as game players, what we ask from games and the way we interact with those narratives. The violence you enact within the game ties explicitly to how the story is going to progress and the characters that you need for that story to progress.
SC: Yeah. And in Uncharted 4, or any of those games, you actually you have no agency in that. The story is going to play out the way it plays out anyway.
AO: So, while we're talking about agency, I want to look at the very last fight sequence between Abby and Ellie. I like that it actually got me to question my own agency as opposed to just reacting. And I can say that I actually let Ellie get killed several times because I thought there's gotta be a way here that I don't have to press this button when it's asking me to and commit this violent act – that perhaps I, as a player, actually have options in this situation. And of course, I didn't.
SC: That scene was harrowing to play; it was an unpleasant sequence to play through. When I got to that part, I knew I didn't have a choice as a player and it really foregrounded that. Is The Last of Us Part II the end point of that type of thing, in that it's done really well? Where does it go from there?
AO: I have a feeling that it’s definitely set up for a sequel. I could see those narrative moments as they came along, with the discovery of the additional Firefly base that is going to be the starting point for a final entry to the series.
SC: With Lev and Abby as the playable characters in the next one.
AO: So, Lev and Abby … it was a really cleverly constructed mirror of the journey you had taken throughout the first game with Joel and Ellie.
SC: I thought that that was really good. I was wondering in several moments whether you would come back to the original house that the first game started in – I was always looking for those sorts of things. I did wonder throughout the game whether there were locations that you were playing through from both characters perspectives. I couldn't quite figure out if there were, other than the aquarium and the hospital, but there didn't seem to be others where their paths had crossed without them knowing.
AO: I think that they are pretty much independent stories until you get to that third day, or at least it feels that way until I play it again and unpack it more.
SC: It was an interesting experience. A lot to unpack and mull over.
AO: You mentioned the use of flashbacks and flashforwards in the structure of the narrative. And I think they were used particularly effectively in at least giving me some kind of resolution between Ellie and Joel.
SC: Those flashbacks were done well. The one that struck me as the most troubling was the one with the sniper rifle. Where, with Tommy, you're shooting the infected from a distance on the other side of the valley. The dehumanising outlook Tommy brings felt uncomfortable to play through.
AO: Yeah that scene reminded me very much of that scene from Leon the Professional. The uncomfortable nature of training of such a young person into acts of violence is confronting.
SC: So to summarise I guess it's like watching a film that you know you 'should' watch because it's 'important', but it doesn't necessarily feel good watch watching it. Then you reflect on it and go, “Oh yeah, that made me think about things.”
I don't really want my kids to play it – it's definitely an adult game and it needs a sense of self-awareness to tolerate the way it manipulates you as a player.
AO: I think it was brilliant, and I think it was important that I played it. It's not an easy recommendation however due to the level of violence.
SC: Yeah, the level of violence and the lack of fun, which I think most people want from a game – they want some degree of pleasure. And this is an unpleasant game experience, unlike an art game, which might be unpleasant but quirky. This is unpleasant and extremely graphically unpleasant as well.
AO: I'd definitely say I had fun throughout it, but it is a confronting gaming experience.
SC: I have a huge appreciation for the world creation and the writing and little details. Labor issues in the industry, aside, the graphical details are spectacular. It really is surprising that sort of performance can be eked out of a console at the end of its era. It’s remarkable.
AO: I can't wait to see what the next gen brings us.