If there is one thing I can say about my all-too-brief time with The Last of Us Part II earlier this week, it’s that it very much feels like a Naughty Dog game — and I mean that in the best way. The esteemed Sony-owned studio hasn’t released a full title since 2016’s bittersweet Uncharted 4, and its next game, while a sequel, is billed as the biggest, boldest, and most boundary-pushing game Naughty Dog has created to date.
Based on first impressions, that certainly feels true, both in the look and feel of TLOU Part II and also in its promised narrative scope. Ahead of the roughly three-hour demo on Tuesday, creative director Neil Druckmann told us that if the first TLOU was about unconditional love and how far you would go to protect those you care about, then Part II is about how that love can also give way to extreme hate under unfortunate circumstances.
Druckmann’s preamble set the tone for the first hands-on experience with TLOU Part II, one of the most anticipated gaming sequels in recent memory. The original game earned a unique level of reverence from players. It almost felt like a turning point for narrative-driven video games, carrying the emotional weight of a Hollywood film but on a gorgeous, big-budget canvas typically reserved only for the most successful, established franchises.
I bought a PlayStation 3 near the end of the console’s life cycle just to play the original game. And then I bought it again on PS4 when it was remastered. I remember the moments after I finished it in the fall of 2013 as my first brush with the then-burgeoning world of Let’s Play’s and YouTube reaction culture (including a viral video I stumbled on from an on-the-rise internet celebrity named PewDiePie) just so I could watch someone else’s facial expressions as they experienced its polarizing final sequence.
I suspect TLOU Part II will inspire similarly fervent adoration and divisive reactions, but for a different reason. This time around, it won’t be about Joel’s choices and what they said about him as a person and how justified he was in making them. It will be about the path of his surrogate daughter Ellie, and whether the now-19-year-old protagonist will sacrifice what makes her one of the most beloved and relatable video game characters in her quest for vengeance.
It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s superb writing and character growth that Ellie has emerged as the face of such a serious-minded, major studio series. On one hand, she’s a hardened survivor trapped in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with an alarming body count behind her and a dark secret literally hiding on her skin (now covered by a tattoo designed by a former lover).
On the other hand, she is immensely relatable, as awkward and socially clumsy as any inexperienced teenager maneuvering relationships both romantic and otherwise. When Naughty Dog lead game designer Em Schatz told me on Tuesday that Ellie is “one of the most complex characters in video games,” I didn’t bat an eye. It’s true that Ellie will go down as a colossal figure in gaming’s narrative pantheon.
“We want our characters to be so familiar, so you say, ‘I see myself in this person,’” Schatz says. She draws the distinction between Ellie and, say, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. “Nathan Drake is a superhero. But If the world collapsed, if there was an apocalypse, a lot of the things I see Ellie and Joel do, I can see myself in them.”
But it’s knowing what Ellie might eventually become — a ruthless, soulless killer — that might make TLOU Part II such a difficult game to play for the die-hard Ellie fans out there. We don’t know too much about the sequel’s plot, but my demo had a telling structure, and my conversation with Schatz illuminated some key themes the game will explore.
I spent the first half traversing an abandoned, snowy town on patrol with Dina, Ellie’s budding love interest. Something will inevitably happen to Dina — the latest trailer makes that clear — but we don’t know what. It’s that event that sends Ellie down the path I found her in during the second half of the demo: Ellie versus a band of unidentified killers who appear to stand between her and the revenge quest she embarks on.
For those who loved the original TLOU, you’ll be pleased to know that the sequel feels and plays the same. Naughty Dog has crafted a rich, deeply believable world full of intricate environments and tiny, scrutable details. I marveled at the handwriting on the left-behind notes on desks and in drawers and the intricate motions Ellie makes at the crafting stations when putting together a makeshift silencer for her pistol.
I wandered through decaying motor homes and ranch-style houses and grocery stores that felt frozen in time. I listened to poignant stories of characters I’m told I’ll never meet but feel as if I’ve known for years, told by way of ambient conversations Ellie partakes in as you make her dutifully raid shelves and cabinets for rubbing alcohol and bandages.
The quiet moments between Ellie and Dina were the most memorable, as Ellie’s sarcastic quips and Dina’s anecdotes about her incompatible ex-boyfriend slowly peel away the platonic cover of their relationship. In just 90 minutes or so, I could already feel myself developing a fondness for the two characters and their burgeoning romance, and it made escaping the infected in the survival horror sequences that followed alarmingly tense. When the teenage duo finds a deceased friend’s basement marijuana stash and decides to light up to kill the time, I felt like I was watching a story as classic as any iconic coming-of-age film.
Of course, that kinder, more intimate setting eventually gave way to brutal violence. If traditional, Hollywood-inspired narrative is the core of TLOU, it’s the human-on-human combat that provides the interactive meat to the experience. And it remains disturbing.
The second half of the demo was also about 90 minutes, but it centered on TLOU Part II’s more open combat scenarios. Those now feel more dynamic, with a greater variety of weapons and ways to approach any one obstacle. Environments are larger, with multiple-story buildings that add a sense of verticality to the fights. It’s something that didn’t exist in the first game.
There’s also added depth to stealth play. You can hide in tall grass, picking off enemies with a pistol outfitted with a DIY silencer or Ellie’s trusty bow and arrow, the latter of which can be replenished with ammo so long as you lodge the arrow tip through a human skull so it can be easily removed. If you prefer a more destructive approach, you can lure enemies into explosive tripwire traps using the loud gunshot of a pistol or rifle against one unsuspecting foe to ensnare others.
It’s here, in Ellie’s deeply violent murder spree, that the game’s character study seems anchored. Unlike Joel, who was already a vicious killer and who players watched redirect his loss of humanity toward protecting what became his only reason for living, Ellie is still an impressionable young adult. She’s trying to find her way in a world that wants only to continuously take from her, and we as players are subjected to watching what that does to someone who still has much left to lose.
Translated to gameplay, the level of violence here is as uncomfortable, if not more so, now that you’re embodying a teenager. I didn’t feel necessarily great about striking a human enemy so hard with a crowbar that it shattered into pieces upon making contact with a woman’s cheekbone. Nor did I very much like the half-dozen times I had to stab dogs in the tops of their heads to prevent them from chewing my face off (something that did, in fact, happen to me at least twice when my health fell low enough for the canine to deliver one of the game’s graphic and signature finishers).
Other finishers include zombies ripping your neck out if they get too close and, if you manage to surprise a human foe, slow and guttural death by throat-cutting. In another particularly chilling twist, every human enemy now has a name; kill one, and their nearby companion will yell “Bill” or “Dwayne” or “Carrie” and become more agitated and aggressive. They will mourn their friends, and yet you have to kill them all the same.
As in the first title, this level of harrowing realism is on purpose. TLOU, more so than many other games, does at least seem to try to make a meaningful point about the nature of its violence and the messiness of forcing players to engage in it. TLOU is also set in a grim, lawless world where this type of behavior is supposed to set the tone. Yet early trailers for Part II — one, in particular, that featured a girl getting her arm permanently disfigured by a hammer — seemed to deliver a level of gratuitous carnage that left many wondering whether Naughty Dog was going too far or amping up the gruesomeness for shock value.
In my interview with Schatz, she says the game is designed to acknowledge how conflicted we feel about Ellie committing heinous acts, including blowing people up, bludgeoning them with sharp objects, and setting them on fire. At the same time, these tactics are often the most efficient and resource-conscious strategies at your disposal in a game where ammo is scarce and outright firefights often get you killed. They’re also supposed to be cathartic in a sick way.
You’re supposed to entertain the possibility that your opponents deserve this, that Ellie’s revenge is justified, and that taking these people out by any means necessary is just the price she has to pay. Naughty Dog wants you to engage in acts of brutal violence and question it along the way. As a player, you have to ultimately decide whether it’s more of an act of over-the-top glorification than thoughtful commentary, even if it does narratively tie into Ellie’s dark downward spiral.
“We want the player to be asking these moral questions all the time,” Schatz says. “We don’t depict violence and hate as a way of endorsing it. We want to present these as consequences in a world where there is no authority, no police you can go to, not really black-and-white, good guys and bad guys.”
But again, Naughty Dog isn’t as concerned with the right and wrong of the actions you as a player feel inclined to perform. Rather, it’s about the way those actions reflect back on Ellie. She is not a stand-in for the player, like a voiceless RPG protagonist. She’s a fully formed personality with a conscience on the line and a moral compass hanging in the balance. She is the story. Much of the uncomfortable nature of TLOU Part II seems to derive from having to guide Ellie through scenarios that see her shoot, stab, maim, and dismember the people who stand between her and the retribution she seeks.
In the end, she might not be the character so many of us have seen ourselves in. She’ll be a different person, and, like Joel, the type of person Ellie becomes is squarely in Naughty Dog’s court. It’s the studio’s story to tell, and it’s not something we as players get to necessarily decide. But it is something we as the audience can choose to interpret how we see fit.
“When you need justice, how far are you willing to go for that?” Schatz says of the game’s central theme. “And how much of yourself are you going to lose in the process?”
The Last of Us Part II will launch on the PS4 on February 21st, 2020.
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