Naughty Dog — The Last of Us Part II (2020)

As someone who genuinely loves video games, and who feels invested in what they can do and be – as well as how they’re evolving – I feel bad about skipping The Last of Us Part II.

I never owned a PlayStation 3, and so my initial contact with the original game was as this heralded title – a marked step forward in interactive narratives – that I couldn’t play. I picked up the ‘Remastered’ edition for PlayStation 4 around five years ago, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I’ve never finished it.

With a handful of notable exceptions (Metal Gear Solid (1998); Mark of the Ninja (2012) etc.) stealth games have never really been precisely my cup of tea. I found that the difficulty ramp and resource scarcity in The Last of Us made clear that stealth was the proper way to play it, and when I messed up — frequently — I felt punished in a non-negotiable way. Encounters felt binary: successfully find the correct path along which to sneak, or otherwise expend ammunition and healing resources. If the latter, the margin of error on subsequent encounters was shrunk even thinner. As effective as I found its storytelling to be, its primary gameplay mechanics left me frustrated.

Reviews for the new game are — not unexpectedly — stellar; at the time of writing it has a Metacritic score of 96% aggregated from 91 outlets. That feels about as close to a ‘must play’ as you can get, and yet some reviews [1] [2] give me pause. The game sounds absolutely unrelenting and brutal. That’s a choice of tone that certainly fits the story it’s telling and the world it’s building, but which makes the experience feel ill suited to the current moment. Take this from Waypoint’s review:

It is over two dozen hours of spiraling cycles of violence and vengeance, being reminded roughly every hour that the whole endeavor is squalid and cruel. There is hardly a moment of joy it will not eventually curdle. A truly shocking number of characters that you will come to care about will be gruesomely mutilated, or slaughtered, or both. All of it is utterly predictable, or if you’re feeling charitable, tragically fated.

That sounds like hard work. I’m simultaneously glad that Naughty Dog have pushed their game that far, and sure that this isn’t a game for me. It’s an encouraging sign of the medium’s burgeoning maturity that there is space in video games for a AAA title to explore this emotional territory, but I find myself unwilling to take the journey right now. I know I’ll be missing out on something special, and that by doing so I’m placing myself on the outside of a conversation that will be ongoing for a while. There’s certainly a pull to play the game simply because it’s going to be a landmark, but I don’t feel it strongly enough at present to invest the time or emotional labour.

(That is a very impressive cable though.)