Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us was one of my favourite games of the 2010s. I’m not a fan of horror in general, but its fungus-apocalypse setting was something unique in a zombie genre that was overrun by samey titles. Most importantly, The Last of Us was an engrossing story set in a world populated by characters who felt real. The story was what made The Last of Us worth playing; its third-person cover-based shooting/stealth gameplay was nothing new or innovative, and although its graphics were good even on the PlayStation 3, very few titles are interesting for visuals alone.
The story is where The Last of Us Part II fell down. There is currently a huge disconnect – as there often is nowadays – between the game’s audience and professional critics. Critic reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, giving the game 8/10, 9/10, or even 10/10 perfect scores. While it’s harder to aggregate non-critic viewpoints, Metacritic currently has the game at around a 3/10 – which is in line with reviews I’ve read on blogs and seen from non-professionals.
We could talk all day about how critic reviews are often unrepresentative of “normal” people’s experiences in entertainment – there are countless examples across film, games, and television to back that up. I also don’t want to accuse anyone of writing paid reviews; the practice does exist even in professional criticism just as it does in amateur criticism – an issue I’ve tackled previously. But in the case of The Last of Us Part II, there is simply no evidence that any individual publication accepted money for positive remarks so I will not be touching that with a barge pole.
The way I see it, critics and the game’s wider audience are looking at The Last of Us Part II from different angles: critics are looking at every aspect of the game, where fans are focusing on the story. The technical aspects of the game are fine. Its third-person cover-based stealth/action gameplay is an improvement on its predecessor, which it really ought to be coming seven years and a whole generation later. The game’s visuals have received much praise, and there can be no denying that environments and character models are graphically impressive – again, though, this is something we should be expecting in 2020. “Good graphics” or “nice scenery” can hardly be called features pioneered by or unique to The Last of Us Part II.
There’s an interesting comparison that comes to mind: The Rise of Skywalker. I reviewed this film a few weeks ago, and there are some similarities that are worth taking note of. The Rise of Skywalker – much like The Last of Us Part II – is visually impressive. Its special effects, CGI, costumes, etc. were all fantastic. And in both cases, no one can really fault the quality of acting performances, nor of much of the behind-the-scenes work. The editing in The Rise of Skywalker was certainly a problem, but beyond that, both projects are technically sound – but with stories that their audiences felt were crap.
At the end of the day, most people don’t pick up a game or watch a blockbuster film for the technical expertise of those behind it. If a studio is pumping huge sums of money into a project, those things are expected to be present. The Last of Us Part II should be a game that plays well, looks good, and has no major bugs or glitches. That’s the bare minimum for a game in 2020 to be considered adequate. Audiences come to The Last of Us Part II or a film like The Rise of Skywalker purely to be entertained and enthralled by a story, and if the story is deemed to be a failure, then no amount of technical perfection can salvage the project.
In The Rise of Skywalker’s case, the poor editing and pacing meant that even technical “perfection” wasn’t present, but even if The Last of Us Part II can be said to have hit every standard for being a great game from a gameplay point of view, a poor story can still make it a thoroughly unenjoyable experience. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from players who literally put the controller down and stopped playing, turned off by the game’s narrative decisions. If a game’s story is so poor the game itself is unfinishable, it’s definitely a bad game.
I don’t like to say “I told you so”, but as soon as it was announced that The Last of Us was going to receive a sequel I felt it wasn’t a good idea. The first game was so good and the story so wonderfully engaging that almost anything that came next would struggle to live up to the expectations fans would have. And narratively speaking, Joel and Ellie’s road trip across a hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic United States was a complete story. The two characters even reached their “happily ever after” moment at the end of the game; any sequel using the same characters would have to get around that somehow. This isn’t a problem unique to The Last of Us, and it’s something that many sequels struggle with.
I would have argued, if I had been in the room, that if there was a need to make a second game at all it should have left Joel and Ellie behind and looked at some other aspect of the interesting fungus apocalypse setting. Perhaps a prequel focusing on the immediate aftermath as civilisation is in the throes of collapse – that premise worked well for Fear the Walking Dead. Joel and Ellie could have cameos, but from my point of view I regarded their story as complete.
There’s an expectation in 2020 that every successful project shouldn’t just be a standalone work – it needs to be expanded into a franchise. Partly this is a corporate decision, as companies see already-successful brands as easy money when compared to the risk of investing in a wholly new setting. And partly there is an artistic or creative element – there were those at studio Naughty Dog who felt there was a second story worth telling.
In a way, storytelling is subjective. Different people enjoy different kinds of stories, and what one person considers a clever narrative or an interesting plot twist may be considered an appalling betrayal by someone else. I often point to Luke Skywalker’s character in the film The Last Jedi when discussing this. Many fans felt that Luke considering an attack on young Ben Solo, and the subsequent depression he fell into after his Jedi temple was destroyed was out of character and the worst part of the film. I personally felt it worked well and showed, among other things, how anyone can find themselves battling depression.
However, there are fundamental narrative structures which have existed, in some form, for practically as long as there have been stories. Messing with these too much can lead to the whole narrative unravelling, and in my opinion, The Last of Us Part II suffers from this exact problem.
The first narrative point that The Last of Us Part II misunderstands and thus gets wrong is that stories need heroes and villains. Joel, the protagonist of the first game, is an antihero, not just for the violent life he led but for the decision he makes to save Ellie instead of potentially allowing the Fireflies to explore a cure based on her natural immunity to the fungal disease that triggered the collapse of civilisation. But even antiheroes are heroes – Joel may be deeply flawed, but as the character we played as and followed for the entire first game, it’s his story we relate to and sympathise with, not some new character.
When Joel was killed in The Last of Us Part II, in some ways it felt like an inevitability. He’d led a violent life since the apocalypse and had made many enemies, so his chances of living to a ripe old age were definitely lower than most people’s! But instead of the game turning into purely a tale of revenge, with Ellie setting out to bring Joel’s murderers to justice, The Last of Us Part II forces players to take on the role of Joel’s killer, and to experience much of the game from her perspective.
This narrative decision undermines the basic structure of fiction – that there needs to be a clear protagonist and antagonist. The Last of Us Part II ends up with a convoluted and terribly confused story as a result of failing to follow this most basic of storytelling rules. As the audience, we’ve been invested in Joel and his story. We’re on his side, despite everything he’s done. Joel was our hero – and yet we’re asked to take on the role of his murderer. This character is our villain, or at least should be. Of course it’s true in the real world that every story and every fight has two sides, and in many cases, both participants are equally in the wrong. But this is fiction – we have a protagonist we root for and an antagonist we don’t. If this had been Abby’s story from the beginning, killing Joel would feel fantastically satisfying. But it wasn’t her story.
The Last of Us Part II at key points looks like it’s going to be a story about bringing Joel’s murderer to justice; this is Ellie’s quest in the sections of the game where she’s the playable character. Yet when that storyline should have reached its climax and Joel’s death should have been avenged, Ellie lets Abby flee. This moment, for many players who made it as far as the end, completely ruined whatever remained of the story.
A story that aims to be about justice – which, in a post-apocalyptic world, has been reduced to the old adage of “an eye for an eye” – needs to conclude with justice being done, somehow, in order to feel satisfying and conclusive. Even if Ellie had been killed at the end of her quest, if Abby had died it would have at least felt like a concluded story. The Last of Us Part II set itself up as this kind of narrative, so when it fails in the final act to deliver on that narrative, everything else in the story up to that point feels like a waste of time. And when the story was weak and so fundamentally flawed to begin with, that’s something many fans found to be unforgivable.
As we’ve recently noted with Game of Thrones, sometimes trying to be clever and subversive leads to a story falling apart. There is a reason why stories have always had clear protagonists and antagonists; heroes and villains. There is also a reason why a story about bringing a murderer to justice needs to conclude with that justice being dispensed. The Last of Us Part II pulled at these fundamentals of storytelling, thinking itself clever and innovative. Instead, the story came apart at the seams. Nothing could compensate for that in a game that was all about story – not visual effects, not acting, not gameplay.
Does The Last of Us Part II deserve to be scored 3/10? That was the question I asked at the beginning of this piece. And the answer will depend on what you think is important in a game like this: is it the narrative? Or is it good enough for a game to look good and play well?
There is no denying that The Last of Us Part II is technically good. A lot of skill went into every aspect of its creation. But for me personally, I come to a game like this for its storyline. If the story fails, the game fails; they are inextricably tied together. So yes, 3/10 seems like a fair score for a title like that. It accounts for the fact that the gameplay is technically sound, preventing it from being awarded 0/10, while acknowledging that the game’s raison d’être – its story – is a complete failure.
The Last of Us Part II is available now for PlayStation 4 only. The game is the copyright of Naughty Dog and Sony. All images courtesy of The Last of Us Part II press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.