(I’ve tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but some are inevitable, so if you plan to play The Last of Us or The Last of Us Part II, I’d recommend you play them before reading.)
Recently the UK establishment has mentioned ‘levelling up’ a lot. In this case, it’s a fairly harmless appropriation of sub-cultural language, albeit irritating and untrue.
I’m a lifelong gamer. I’ve watched games across all formats adopt, adapt and evolve the idea of levelling up. Increasingly realistic, rewarding and granular expressions of growing experience. It contrasts curiously with real-life; our instant access to an accelerating mass of human knowledge seems inversely proportional to our wisdom as a species.
It’s rare in a modern blockbuster game to complete a ‘level’ in the sense of say, Space Invaders or Pac Man. Instead, you’ll likely (role) play a character and have a complex variety of variables that can be adjusted and finessed to give each player a more unique experience as they progress. The challenge will increase for sure as you progress, but you’ll have a rewarding choice of potential approaches.
So it was with The Last of Us, the game released by studio Naughty Dog in 2013, the twilight of the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle. Playing (mostly) as the character Joel, a smuggler living in a horrific, dystopian future, you could level up various weapons in various ways as you moved through the story.
And what a story. This was the first video game to reduce me to tears. Now, like I’ve said before on this blog, that’s not difficult… I weep like a mum at a wedding with the smallest provocation in a good movie. It’s frigging embarrassing. But I’ve been playing games as long as I’ve been obsessed with movies and nothing had come close to this before.
It was a story about being a parent, about sacrifice and about the sometimes wholly selfish decisions we all take to protect the ones we love. The play’s the thing. Or rather, with humble apologies to Big Willie Shakes, the story is. Stories are what we live for. We all want our own story to have meaning, hope, and a beautiful ending. And in our fiction, be it books, films, television or videogames, we want those vicarious lives to move us as much – or more – than our own.
Seven years later, after a few false starts, and in the grip of a real-life pandemic, many of us are back in Joel and Ellie’s world, where society has broken down after the Cordyceps outbreak some 25 years earlier in game-time.
Nature has reclaimed much of a world torn to shreds by the outbreak and by mankind’s futile attempts to beat it with heavy ordinance. That world feels as real and tangible as our own. The technical standards here are without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen in a game. The quality of the animations – especially the eyes – induced a kind of reverse uncanny valley effect on me, where it almost became difficult to separate the digital characters on the screen from real people. It was… well, uncanny. There are plenty of videos on YouTube now showing the barely credible attention to detail, like fresh blood melting snow, or the zipper tags on Ellie’s rucksack moving independently according to her current mode of transport.
Once again, this is a one-player game (yeah, yeah, difficult only child, does not play well with others) and the story is king. Or… it should be. We’ll get to that.
What is unquestionable though, is that Naughty Dog wants to take you on a journey again. The original game left us with a beautifully written ending. It took you to a place where you confronted the insanity that walks hand in hand with love. It made you play through a version of ‘the trolley problem’ and answer the question, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And to get you to that point, it made you grow to love these characters.
We accept that with books and films. That’s why people cry at the end of Avengers: Endgame, or Romeo and Juliet. But a video game? They’re for kids, right? No-one cares when Sonic dies for the umpteenth time. It’s annoying, not sad.
For me, then, this was the levelling up of video games from a hobby into art. As I’ve grown older, I’ve naturally had less time to play games, so I probably missed a few great titles, but from the opening, sickeningly inevitable emotional KO to that incredible ending, this was the most engrossing game I’d seen, the closest to a really good novel.
And if we’re comparing it to a novel, or film, then the closest match is probably something like The Road, although Ellie is a damned-sight less whiney than the boy in that story. A gruelling, nihilistic trip through a horrifying, all too believable dystopia, where the veneer of civilisation has crumbled as quickly as our buildings and infrastructure. And of course, the Cordyceps fungi are entirely real, albeit they don’t prey on humans… yet.
You can see where I’m going here, right? Last of Us Part II wants to level up the emotional challenge. Surprise!
Other reviewers have compared it to a revenge western. If the first one was The Road, then this is more like Unforgiven, the classic Clint Eastwood movie from 1992, where once more nihilism is king, no-one is a hero and pretty much everyone dies. Yep… there were moments when playing this that I had to remind myself it was entertainment. Pac Man this ain’t. Not unless you played as one of the ghosts and learned he had a tragic backstory involving murder, soul-crushing revenge, hatred and multi-generational civil war.
Where the game is most daring and where it will live long either in infamy or praise is its decision to challenge the most fundamental aspects of videogames. Killing, shooting and gleeful violence are as hardwired into this culture as beer gardens are to British summers. Sure, we all know people who buy the latest consoles when they come out and never play anything but the annual FIFA game or other sports simulation, but overwhelmingly the most successful games year on year are either shoot-em-ups or at least something that involves an element of killing. It’s a simple fact. I’m not interested here in the debate about videogames leading to violence. Lots of things lead to violence, especially guns and a toxic culture. But Forbes tells us that for each of the last five years, the best-selling games have either been Call of Duty shooters, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption II, which is a Western where you play an outlaw, or Assassin’s Creed, which, well, it’s not about hitting a ball off a wall, is it?
Red Dead wasn’t necessarily all violence, but it kind of goes with the territory and Rockstar’s most successful title is Grand Theft Auto. GTA V is the second-best-selling game of all time and is tremendous fun, but controversy and – let’s face it – casual violence, follow it as closely as a bodyguard follows their client.
True, the first best selling game is Minecraft, which is less about violence than unbounded creativity. I’m not making these points to damn video games… video games are frigging awesome, and if you don’t happen to like them, too bad, you’re missing out on some incredible stuff.
But violence is woven into the fabric of gaming as surely as privilege is woven into royalty. It just is.
Last of Us Part II tries to make you question all of that by first setting up an inexorable journey of vengeance that will be felt as keenly by the player as the protagonist, then flipping that on its head by making you play as the antagonist.
It’s not easy. I wasn’t sure whether I could keep myself playing once I realised just how far the rabbit hole went. But that would be the response of a weakling or a coward. I hated that character, as much as I felt paternal love for Ellie by the end of the first game. It was not pleasant having them as an avatar, living in their world. But by that point, Ellie herself had already done some unforgivable things.
It’s not poetry. In places, it’s ham-fisted and trite, but the fact that this studio has created a game that challenges you emotionally as much as it does gameplay-wise is nothing short of wonderful. It truly is an unforgettable experience and something that you must sit with after completing it to process what you feel. It sticks around, like a doppelganger.
As I said earlier, the story doesn’t quite win out. If the goal is to make you question your violent motivations, then it only succeeds with the major characters. Sure, regular enemies now cry out the names of fallen comrades and express grief at their loss. And yes, the death scenes are grimly, viscerally realistic (the gore in this game is challenging to say the least). But the central mechanic of the game still revolves around killing a bunch of enemies and it’s still breathlessly enjoyable. The challenge is perfectly pitched and by the end, I felt like a Goddamned ninja. Now, sure, you can get through these sections without killing anyone if you want to. I snuck through a few areas that way, especially when opposing forces were fighting one another. But the mechanics just make it so much fun.
When playing as the antagonist, you naturally witness the effect of some of this ‘fun’ violence, but as ludicrously advanced as the game is, it still can only really do this for certain key scenes. Those key scenes work though. No-one worthwhile likes killing animals, but after a certain point in the game, it can become a necessity to survive. But then the game twists the knife by making you see a certain one of those animals in another light altogether. Much like the protagonist switcheroo, you see personality, and like Jules said in Pulp Fiction, “Personality goes a long way.” When a character has multiple dimensions (more than you often find in a Tarantino movie, ironically) their death or suffering or existence as an object of hatred suddenly becomes harder to live with.
In the end, I feel that this stands up as another piece of art, as accomplished as the first game. But did I enjoy it? Well, absolutely. It’s a magnificent achievement and the care and attention to detail that has gone into it are simply staggering. There is no question that Naughty Dog has just taken games to the next, er, level (bet you didn’t see that coming). As the new console generation launches later this year, they now have an extremely high standard to measure their games against. Did I love it? No. I doubt I’ll ever play it again. It was too bloody gruelling. I’ll almost certainly replay the first, and I’ll almost certainly pick up one or two of the Uncharted games (also produced by Naughty Dog) as my PS4 enters its twilight.
There is something else to be said here. If each of these games is as good as a novel, that’s a truly wonderful thing. However, I can pick up a paperback novel for four bucks. Last of Us Part II is currently retailing on Amazon for £43.99 in its cheapest format. Now, it is clear and it is fair that some, maybe many, people will not like this story or actively hate it. Because of the price, and for that reason alone, I do understand some of the anger online. But death-threats against the actors? Really? That takes fuckwittery to a whole new level of stupidity and let’s be honest, the gaming community hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory over the last few years. Grow the hell up.
To finish that Shakespeare quote from earlier, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
In both the game and its players, it would seem.
If you want to see the best reviews of the Last of Us Part II, then check these out. Spoilers abound though, you’ve been warned: