The Last of Us 2 came out this weekend.
Now, I was really late to the Last of Us party – I didn’t play it when it first came out on the PS3, heck, I didn’t even play it when it was remastered for the PS4. It was only when the game was released free for PS+ players that I downloaded it, and even then I delayed a bit because I was still kind of engrossed in the Pheonix Wright trilogy, which I grabbed on the Switch around the same time.
When I eventually did play it, I did so knowing that much of it had already been ruined for me. The game’s iconic ending, for example, had been spoiled for me, and my brother (who had played it when it first game out) complained so much about what an awful person Joel was that my expectation for the guy was pretty goddamn low. In fact, I’d say the most surprising thing about The Last of Us was how much I liked Joel. Sure, the dude was a jerk, especially at the beginning, and he said some pretty awful things throughout the story. But maybe this is just an indication of the kind of toxic male relationships I’m accustomed to, but the fact that he would change his mind and apologize – usually really quickly, which might actually be a mark against the game’s writing – meant a lot to me.
The dude clearly cared, is the point. And those moments of softness that peppered through the game were what ultimately made me like it. I admit, I didn’t find the Giraffe moment as heart-wrenching as so many other people did (although Ellie just dropping the latter in her excitement was a great moment of defying gameplay expectations), but there were lots of other moments – the puns, the guitar, Joel finding her comic books (which Ellie never appreciated as much as she should have, dammit) – which really stick out in my mind.
In short, I would consider myself a fan of the Last of Us. Which is why I’m almost proud to say I have no plans on playing The Last of Us 2.
Because… to be honest, guys, I don’t really get it.
Here’s the thing, Naughty Dog make good games. It’s clear they know what the hell they’re doing, which is why Sony treat them like their golden geese. And while I sometimes had problem with the pacing and direction of the Last of Us, the overall writing, the characterization, was incredibly well done. The way they told a story, revealed characters, explored this post-apocalyptic world was a master class, as I’m sure anyone who designs games can tell you, and they seemed to understand that the darkness inherent in an honestly-portrayed post-apocalyptic world needed light to contrast it. In short, the core of the story needed to be about love and people and hope (even Joel’s decision at the end is a reflection of a certain, selfish hope) because the layers outside that core will inevitably be dark and heavy and uncomfortable. Naughty Dog seemed to understand this.
So when the Last of Us 2 was announced and the creative director, Neil Druckmann, said that the story would be “about hate”, I didn’t quite get it. Sure, saying a story is “about hate” is vague and unhelpful, but also, the reasoning behind centering a story around hate was honestly baffling to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very possible to make a good story with “hate” at the heart of it, but it has to be done carefully if you don’t want it to come off as… gratuitous, I guess? Because “hate” isn’t the same thing as “revenge”, or “justice”, because those two words, while ‘angry’ words, are also words that imply a certain satisfaction. It means someone wronged you, but you were able to avenge that wrong. “Hatred”, conversely, is frustrating. “Hatred” is often mixed with powerlessness as you remain unable to address the thing that consumes you. “Hatred” cannot be remedied through the actions of others, or even yourself, but rather, through self-reflection and evaluation. There’s no sating “hate”. There’s no filling up on it. Hatred is boundless heat that can be directed and maybe even energizing but ultimately unable to satisfy. Making a story about honest hate is making a story that’s bound to be unsatisfying and shallow.
The Last of Us had hatred in it, of course. There was lots of hate to be had in the Last of Us 2. But since the story wasn’t about that hatred, it could be resolved: Ellie starts off hating Joel, but they grow to love each other as they travel together. Joel, as well, starts the journey with no shortage of self-loathing, but through loss and sacrifice and coming together with Ellie learns to not only love himself but also to open himself up to others in his own, gruff dad sort of way. When you center a story around love, then all of the nasty stuff that surround it can be resolved, because Love, unlike hate, is a “solution”. Hate doesn’t solve anything, whereas love absolutely has that power.
In short: I don’t want to play a game about hate.
For one, there’s just too much of that crap in real life, right now, for me to want to grapple with that stuff in a video game. “Hatred” is the national discourse, and people are currently protesting and rioting in the streets for it. Police have been killing people on behalf of it. Our president has been leading this nation thanks to it. Hatred seeps through the real world like a gross, ugly plague, and while a game about hate could probably address that topic with grace and with dignity and maybe even with intelligence… I had no reason to suspect The Last of Us 2 would be capable of doing that.
Think about the other stuff their marketing team was “bragging” about while trying to hype up the game: that each enemy would have a unique name, and a story, and that their friends would cry out in anguish as you killed them and the dogs had names and you had to kill the dogs and the dog owners would weep when they realized their dogs were dead and all that stuff. On the surface, that sounds like it’s an attempt to make us relate to the enemies we fight more so you’re supposed to feel bad about fighting them. It sounds as if they’re trying to make a more realistic, engaging world that you have to navigate with Ellie on her quest for revenge. It sounds like it could be alarming to her a man cry out for his brother once you shoot him in the head.
But that’s just the surface reading. Take five seconds to think about it and you realize that’s all just… window dressing. In second-to-second combat, you’ve got a lot going on – too much to appreciate the mournful cries of some random dude who’s boyfriend you just shot. Moreover, if this happens as often as the pre-release hype would suggest (they said every person would have a name), then it would just become more… background noise. You’d filter it out of your head, you’d become numb to it, and numbness might be the exact opposite of hatred. Hatred is a burning that drives you forward and fills you with a fire in your gut. Numbness is dispassionate. It’s hollow. And I have a hard time believing you can play 20+ hours of this game and not grow numb to it.
But most importantly – how is any of that, the dogs and the names – how is that supposed to make you hate? If the point of the story is about hate, then you, the player, should carry at least a fragment of that hatred with you as you play, so while you might not agree with what Ellie does, you can at least understand it. Carrying that “fragment of love” is a big reason why you can sympathize with Joel despite his actions at the end of the first game. If the story is about something as big as hate, you can’t just comment on it with “hate is bad, don’t do it” – you also have to get the player to understand it. Because it’s through that sympathy that you actually say something and learn something about the nature of hate. That’s how you tell a good story about hate.
Names for dogs and people? That doesn’t do that. That accomplishes nothing. All it did was communicate to me that The Last of Us 2 fundamentally didn’t understand how to tell a story about hate. It makes me think that The Last of Us 2 is just an angst-filled, wanking session for people who want to feel edgier and more ‘adult’ rather than tell a meaningful story. It makes me think that Naughty Dog didn’t actually learn anything from their own damn game.
Maybe I’m wrong. Some reviews appear to agree with me, while others call it a masterpiece. I don’t know. I don’t plan to find out.
I’m not interested in any more hate.