By Keza MacDonald
Now 25 years on from the outbreak, Seattle is completely overgrown. Abandoned cars are still lined up on the highway, rusted and rooted down by vegetation bursting through the tarmac. Skyscrapers still pierce the sky, their metal skeletons exposed by the bombs that were dropped in early, vain attempts to contain the fungal sickness that was spreading through the population. In any one of these buildings, there could still be the infected: aggressive runners, who still retain at least the appearance of humanity, or the skin-crawling clickers, hosts who have long since lost their sight and selves to the fungus – or worse.
As usual in post-apocalyptic fiction, there are also other people out to do you harm. In The Last of Us Part II, you are Ellie, a 19-year-old survivor who happens to be the only known person with immunity to the contagion that’s destroyed humanity – but immunity won’t save her from bullets, or from being savaged to death, so whenever you get into a combat situation the tension is absurdly high. This isn’t a game with shootouts and explosions and powerful weapons – instead it’s desperate grappling with a knife, improvised molotov cocktails, hiding prone in long grass while people patrol with guard dogs.
In 2013, The Last of Us was one of the last truly great games to be released on the PlayStation 3, a trans-American road trip that pushed both the technological and storytelling boundaries of video games. Ellie, then 14, wasn’t centre stage in that game: instead it was Joel, a smuggler trying to deliver her across the country to an organisation that might be able to use her immunity to develop a vaccine. With apologies to anyone who hasn’t played it yet: that didn’t work out.
Seven years later, The Last of Us Part II is arriving at the end of the life of the PlayStation 4. The world is still devastated; there’s still no hope. This time we play as Ellie herself, on a different kind of journey.
“The first game is about the unconditional love that parents have for their child and how insane that can be – the beautiful things that love can make people do, and the scary things,” says Neil Druckmann, lead writer and director of The Last of Us and its sequel, and VP of its developer, Naughty Dog. “This is asking the same question but from a slightly different angle: if someone has wronged someone you love, hurt someone you love, how far are you willing to go to do right by them and bring the people responsible to justice?”
Naughty Dog is to story-driven video games what Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption developer Rockstar is to open-world ones: whenever the studio comes out with a new game, it’s an event that expands the possibilities for its genre. The Last of Us Part II’s extraordinarily realistic characters and performances and its arresting locations are part of this, but technology can only take things so far when it comes to storytelling. What distinguishes Naughty Dog’s games from other expensive, cutting-edge action games is that many of the best, most memorable moments come not from shootouts or thrilling set pieces – though Naughty Dog is famously excellent at those – but from conversations.
“We’ve discovered that we don’t actually need as much action as we usually think about with a game like this,” says Druckmann. “Those quiet, thoughtful moments where people are just talking, or where you’re walking around looking and interacting with a scene, are important in themselves – and then we move on to the tension.”
The Last of Us was already an extremely violent game, but Part II is even more so. In a short sequence premiered last week, in which Ellie weaves her way through the city to track down a woman in a heavily guarded Seattle hospital, we see the sort of graphic violence usually confined to the most intense horror movie. This is not playful violence; it is not exactly supposed to be fun, though plenty of players will surely nonetheless enjoy experimenting with the game’s tools for stealth and murder. Instead The Last of Us goes to immense lengths to make its violence feel consequential, in contrast to the casual pointing and shooting of most action games, in which you hardly give a thought about the body count you’re amassing as you cheerfully plough through hundreds of grunts.
“We needed to ground the violence,” says Druckmann. “It’s not completely realistic but we are going for believability. The feeling that we’re after when you’re playing these violent sequences, the adrenaline and tension, is more important than pure realism. That’s how we judge what’s too much, what is too little – to thread the needle and show the consequences of your actions.”
Video game storytelling has greatly improved in the past seven years, in both the indie and blockbuster spaces. Creators, designers and writers from ever more diverse backgrounds are using games’ interactivity and capacity for putting you in another person’s shoes to tell the kinds of tales about the kinds of people that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when even having a female lead character was a novelty. Against that backdrop you might wonder what yet another violent post-apocalyptic video game might have to offer in 2020.
But Naughty Dog’s willingness to tackle difficult and sometimes distressing themes and material, in a way that’s grounded in believable characters, make this more than just another zombie story. Like the best post-apocalyptic fiction, from the early seasons of The Walking Dead to The Road, it’s a story about people, and the extraordinary and horrific things they can do for each other, or to each other.
It takes some endurance to play a game like this, but in return you get an experience more affecting for its intensity – the kind of experience you can only get from a video game, where both the danger and the characters feel incomparably up-close and personal. – The Guardian
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