*Warning* While I try to avoid explicit spoilers, implicit spoilers may be contained within the review
Once again, Naughty Dog strikes gold with a brilliant coming of age story that highlights the complexity of individual identity, dutiful action, and Justice. The Last of Us Part II explores these themes through a creative non-linear approach that enrichens the emotional stakes of the players. For a true narrative game to excel, the story and development teams must fire on all cylinders. Fortunately, The Last of Us Part II doesn’t merely rely on the laurels of the original. By sharpening the cinema qualities of music, detailed visuals, and direction that brought the predecessor to the forefront of gaming, and through a complex tale accompanied by engaging mechanics, The Last of Us Part II successfully carves out a place in gaming history.
Personally, I was quite hesitant to invest much hope or energy for the sequel. While the first installment is an important piece of my gaming growth, I was afraid that the developers would largely use the success of the first game to create a mere adventure game where players were able to spend more time with the characters they cherished from the first. Oftentimes in film and games, sequels fail to hit the narrative marks of their predecessors, so they rely on familiarity of characters to breathe life into their stories. Honestly, that is understandable, because it is quite difficult to strike gold twice. The Last of Us Part II courageously sought that rare material. Though, to be honest, the first third had me questioning their success.
While I was impressed with the attention to visual detail, and the voice acting immediately pulled me into the game, I was feeling less and less excited through the first third of the story. It seemed like Naughty Dog was merely giving me an opportunity and excuse to have an intense adventure with a beloved character; however, as the game’s perspective shifts, they crack into an almost Shakespearean tragedy enriched by postmodernist narrative techniques. Like the first installment, the writing, directing, and development, inspired a deep and conflicting emotional experience.
At the core, The Last of Us Part II is a revenge narrative contextualized through concepts of identity. For this reason, parallels to Hamlet kept racing through my mind as I played deeper into the story. The structure of the narrative creates a unique perspective to tell the story. In the past, I have seen revenge narratives normally do one of two things; either the narrative embraces the protagonist’s duty, and, enamored, we watch as our hero rains down holy vengeance on the characters we hate, or the narrative simply warns the hero of the vague damage of revenge, and, at the end, the character steers away. The Last of Us Part II rejects those two narrative structures; instead, they force the players to experience the demonic depths of personal duty while watching the collateral sabotage that inevitably spirals out into the things we hold most dear.
While players must invest some time before this story matures, the story eventually percolates into a boiling of brilliance. They develop both platonic and romantic relationships through a non-linear mechanic. Normally, I am not a fan of using flashbacks to fill in a quick piece of information. It is akin to relying purely on coincidence to move the plot along. These writers, however, use the structure to deepen pain, slowly grow relationships, and add larger perspective to the character’s narrow view. By the end of the game, I was wholly invested in characters that didn’t even register for me in the beginning. Much like the ghost in Hamlet, these flashes of memory are more than exposition, they are moments in the story in which the characters’ drive for vengeance is refueled. Both the player and the character reopen wounds that reveal deeper pains. Accompanied by deliberate mechanics, The Last of Us Part II uniquely binds the player with the character in a way that approaches the empathetic connections in written literature.
The mechanics, on the surface, could be considered the weakest spot for The Last of Us series, and maybe Naughty Dog as a whole. There is a world of possible improvement for the shooting mechanics. While I believe this problem can easily be adapted to, I believe this problem is actually used to motivate players to a particular play style that enhances the story. If gunplay is fluid and easily accessible, that feature becomes a core component of the playstyle. With a system that works but is flawed, players will be more motivated to rely on the intimate and brutal stealth play. Your weapons have heavy sway, less than dependable accuracy, and are restrained by behind-the-shoulder camera angles. Their gunplay system isn’t awful by any means, but it seems to nudge the players away from instantly using guns as their primary tactic.
When the developers combined persuasive mechanics with complex story-telling, they created an interesting sensation for the player. There was a moment in the game where I felt oddly disgusted by my own actions, not necessarily the character’s, but mine. I hadn’t felt that emotion within a game before. When I play Grand Theft Auto, I enter into that particular dream which allows me to do all sorts of nefarious deeds; however, in this story, I am experiencing the complexity of morality and the human experience as a whole. So, when I was making this character beat the life out of someone in an intense moment of the plot, I felt this peculiar contradiction. It was my thumb hitting the square button, making a character do something I didn’t want her to do. All the while, I also knew that I was being compelled by the game to do it. Much like the inner contradiction of the protagonist, I was compelled by an external duty which ignored the root of who I am internally. The writers and directors artfully synergized a variety of components to increase the connections between player and character.
I am confident that we will see volumes of critical essays on the themes presented in this narrative. While playing, I could easily imagine writing analyses based on the ethical themes of deontology, utilitarian principles, and concepts of Lex Talionis among other themes of ethics and Justice. On the other hand, I could also see deep themes exploring human intimacy, existential despair, and other concepts of Self. When seeking strong narratives in the academic world, we look for stories of complexity instead of simplicity. The full team developing The Last of Us Part II successfully created a complex narrative of humanity which, once again, demonstrates the literary potential of the gaming medium.
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