Santa Monica-based game developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us in a nearly unrecognizable world in 2013. President Obama’s second term provided a backdrop of optimism—a serendipitous juxtaposition for austere art. Players controlled Joel (Troy Baker), the survivor of a zombie outbreak, as he trekked across the country with Ellie (Ashley Johnson), a girl immune to the pathogen. Joel and Ellie journeyed from Boston to Salt Lake City to deliver Ellie to a medical team that could turn her antibodies into a cure.
Seven years after the original game, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us Part II. The sequel released in the darkest year in recent memory; beset by a global recession, a national demagogue, and the deadliest pandemic in more than a century, 2020 was an ill fit for a sorrowful game. An artist has as much say in the environment their work releases in as a baby does in when it’s born. The Last of Us Part II is heavy, and at times bludgeoning, but I agonized over its characters, narrative, and themes like nothing else in 2020.
Co-writers Halley Gross (Westworld) and Neil Druckmann (who alone wrote the original) faced a mammoth task. The Last of Us is a standalone story and a generation-defining game. Gross and Druckmann had what many would consider the medium’s Godfather before them. Crafting The Godfather Part II—a story that rivals and surpasses the original—is an impossible ask. Although sequels offer more narrative risks and rewards by building on an existing foundation, they jeopardize the legacy of the original project.
Naughty Dog, the studio behind Jak and Daxter and Uncharted, banked a wealth of game-design expertise to top the original. It’s sacrilege to say, but I preferred Uncharted 2, 3, and 4 to The Last of Us. The Uncharted series was a harmonious marriage between gameplay and story. Although The Last of Us had an indelible story, Joel, a tank of a man, was frustrating to control. He was unfairly snatched by the game’s infected or discovered while stealthily maneuvering through a hostile human encampment. The sequel remedied these issues and then some. Small details went viral on Twitter after the game’s release.
Players control Ellie (Johnson again) and Abby (Laura Bailey) as they odyssey across a derelict Seattle. Hallmarks of the first game, like stealth, gunplay, and foraging for ammunition and provisions, are all present in the sequel. Players are often given the choice to avoid enemy encounters to preserve precious resources and keep their hands clean or engage enemies head-on. Part II has the added element of exploration thanks to a handful of open areas, something Naughty Dog gleaned from recent entries in the Uncharted series. Beyond that, Part II offers a wealth of accessibility settings that puts competitors to shame.
In my two playthroughs of The Last of Us Part II, I didn’t experience a single notable technical hiccup. Although it doesn’t feel like it, The Last of Us Part II was released in the same year as Cyberpunk 2077, a game defined by its bugs. The technical fidelity of the two titles is in stark contrast, but both games were completed under the video game industry’s culture of crunch. Overzealous deadlines and predatory shareholders can force titles to ship before they’re ready or come at the cost of staff burnout and work-life balance.
Ironically, labor exploitation enabled the success of The Last of Us Part II and doomed Cyberpunk 2077. Studios that subject staff to 100-hour workweeks are fooling themselves if they believe the outcome of crunch is anything but a tossup. As developer CD Projekt Red can attest, one development cycle you get The Witcher 3, the next you get Cyberpunk 2077. The human cost of art can’t be discounted.
PlayStation and Naughty Dog have made a home for story-driven single-player games in a marketplace headed in the opposite direction. Part II’s narrative is a direct response to the consequences of the original game’s staggering conclusion. After completing the first half of the game as Ellie on a dogmatic revenge mission, players are given control of the game’s initial antagonist, Abby. The shift in perspective isn’t unique to video games as a medium, but forcing the player to walk a mile in Abby’s digital shoes is sobering.
Part II is a staunch admonition of violence, but more than that, it’s a warning against groupthink. It reveals a bigger picture by telling its story through two opposing positions. Abby, a member of a Seattle-based militia group, and Ellie, a survivor in a community in Jackson, Wyoming, are so entrenched in their individual factions that they can’t see the cycle of violence they’re perpetuating.
Expert performances from Johnson, Bailey, Baker, and the rest of the all-star cast actualize the game’s pathos. Small character moments, like a shared laugh on horseback between Ellie and her girlfriend, Dina (Shannon Woodward), set The Last of Us Part II apart from its contemporaries. It easily toggles between chilling, playful, and agonizing, hitting a complete range of emotions across the approximately 25-hour story. If I had to lob a complaint against the game, it would be that its story can drag, but I absorbed every second like canvas shoes in a Seattle drizzle.
The critical discourse around The Last of Us Part II was lengthy and complex because the game has the narrative depth and social commentary to support such discussions. Part II was the first game that forced me to interrogate its morality before determining whether I liked it. It’s rare for fiction to inspire that level of introspection. The fact that The Last of Us Part II begs these questions is proof of its success.