In case you missed it, the biggest announcement to come out of PlayStation Experience 2016 was an official trailer for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2. The post-apocalyptic tale of survivors Joel and Ellie are to continue with the studio’s trademark style of gorgeous visuals and engaging character interaction. A grand continuation of their travels through hardship and dangers. While the trailer does show a game that will definitely be well-made and polished, Naughty Dog has yet to make a truly awful game after all, it feels like a sequel to a story that was definitively told before; an additional act to a drama that already had the curtain dropped.
What made The Last of Us such an impactful experience was its dedication to characters. Doomsday scenarios where most of the population becomes mutated monsters with the protagonist having to survive isn’t exactly fresh and original in video games, but having Naughty Dog’s take on the material resemble something like an independent road trip movie than a gratuitous zombie kill fest was one of the most inspired decisions they could have made.
It also helped that the protagonist was a harsh inversion of the go-to video game archetype. I’ve written before at length that many male heroes in gaming always seem to have a certain paternal affection for a supporting character which drives their motivations. Corvo Attano wants to save his daughter from the chaos that came out of him when he was unable to defend his lover in Dishonored, Bioshock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt kicks off the entire game by a horrendous act of neglect for his daughter and proceeds to go on a redemptive quest.
But Joel in The Last of Us is a much different character. He has the initial anger at the world with the game’s opening taking his teenage daughter from him, followed by a ten to fifteen hour long adventure with a pragmatic side character in Ellie that he begins to love as a surrogate child. However, in the third act when it is discovered that Ellie will be sacrificed for humanity to survive, Joel takes matters into his own hands and outright murders the scientists trying to save the world and keeps Ellie to himself, dooming civilization because he didn’t want to suffer losing his “daughter” a second time. All of which leads to a depressing but ambiguous ending where he lies to Ellie about what really happened.
This ending absolutely ruled because of how unexpected it is. Not only does it subvert the usual heroic journey video games take us on – you’re the one who must save us from Ganondorf, The Reapers, The Covenant, The Darkness, Tom Nook etc., but it was a horrible punch in the gut for the entire doomed future genre. From a storytelling perspective most of these narratives focus around the remains of human society once the majority are wiped out, but it is usually through the lens of humanity at its absolute best as well as its absolute worst, erring on the good prevailing.
Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max movies simply wants to survive a harsh new world but still manages to stop villainous dictators and bring some level of goodness back to his dystopian world. Telltale’s The Walking Dead hinges completely on the player maintaining a moral center in the hero of Lee Everett to ensure good intentions are passed on to the child characters of Clementine and Duck, all while dealing with cannibals and self-serving cults. No matter how horribly the world becomes mutilated by the worst impulses of humanity, bigotry greed or hatred, the good qualities of understanding and selflessness will still survive and lead to a hopeful rebuilding of what was lost; albeit much wiser.
The ending of The Last of Us posits a much darker outcome, a scenario where one man places his own personal comfort and wants above saving the world because he believes it has taken enough from him already. The good people die, you’re not one of them, and you are now trapped in your own personal hell with the rest of the monsters.
While that is a powerful way to end such an experience, a sequel has absolutely nowhere to go from there. As the trailer shows, this is still a story about the original duo, despite the more fertile ground of following new main characters. The immediate response would be an opportunity to spend more time with the characters of Joel and Ellie, to see more of their relationship. This is a disservice to how much ground was covered in the first game. We got to spend an entire year with Joel and Ellie in this world, all properly paced full of conflict and growth. Furthermore, their entire relationship now hinges on a falsehood, Joel robbing her of volition by his selfish actions and keeping her around to make himself feel better. Spending over twelve hours with a man learning to love and protect again is one thing, spending another ten or so hours with that same man’s protection corrupted into possessiveness will be just unpleasant.
For the most part, video game narratives are always framed as heroic, with sequels being an easy matter of just giving the hero a new evil to vanquish. Mario and Zelda have been doing it for three decades to critical acclaim after all. But writing has become more complex in recent years, getting away from the black and white morality in their more scripted experiences, with Naughty Dog’s dark future tale being one of the greatest accomplishments of this push. But these kinds of experiences cannot be iterated, doing so destroys the game’s integrity.
Finally, despite the creative director from the first game returning his attitude towards this sequel is suspect. At an official PSX panel discussing The Last of Us Part 2, Neil Druckmann was endearingly self-aware about the plausibility of this sequel, he even mentions how it can take the punch and meaning out of the original. But then he brings up the central theme he wants to explore. He said that the core theme of the first game was one of love revolving around Joel, which is fairly obvious given what occurs, but then says the second game will be the inverse: hatred with the focus being on Ellie. Upon hearing this, any lingering hope I had for this game tanked.
It severely limits anything interesting that can even happen. Ellie goes on a vengeance quest and from there either she and Joel go their separate ways or they fight to the death due to personal demons finally boiling over, all that’s missing is the eight hours or so of padding and filler. I don’t use the trope Grimderp lightly, a term used to describe dark and depressing storylines that become so unbearably dour and negative that it becomes indistinguishable from satire, but for what has been seen of The Last of Us Part 2 it feels quite appropriate.
Naughty Dog has some of the most talented artists, programmers, and writers in the entire industry. The Last of Us is of their most beloved experiences, one that didn’t need any sequels or franchise fatigue. By all means it will be pretty to look at and have some novel gameplay, but as far as I’m concerned anything they try will just be a case of not wanting to leave well enough alone.