19 Thoughts on The Last of Us Part II

19 Thoughts on The Last of Us Part II
  1. “Hey, I thought this was a music newsletter!” That’s true, but it’s also anything I want it to be. Today, it’s about video games. (Also, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about video games here—then again, if you aren’t a subscriber, you’d have no way of knowing that.)
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  3. Another warning: this thing will be loaded with spoilers for both The Last of Us games. There will also be story spoilers for other games, including but not limited to Spider-Man. Don’t complain—this is unavoidable. This edition of the newsletter will always be free, so if you haven’t played any of these games yet, just come back when you have if you still care about my opinions.
  4. OK, so: Video games! We’ve all been playing a lot of them, huh? Anecdotally, even people who don’t usually play video games are playing video games more now. It was impossible to buy a Nintendo Switch at the beginning of the pandemic, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons was something that a ton of people were doing in between baking sourdough and going to protests. There’s few better ways to escape the outside world than through video games, provided you keep things reasonable with how much time you’re devoting to them.
  5. Brief rundown of the games I’ve played since the pandemic started:
    • Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (World Tier 5’d my character I started a year ago, started having violent dreams, also got annoyed with the game and deleted it off my PS4’s hard drive)
    • Diablo 3 (Two back-to-back seasons that I fell off of after my wife started playing Animal Crossing)
    • The Binding of Isaac (Only for a little bit, although I’ve poured far too many hours into this one on my Switch)
    • Dishonored (Beat it, loved it)
    • Fallout 4 (Returned to an old save, uncovered most of the map’s locations, did something stupid at some point and was unable to beat the main quest, I think it’s currently sitting under the television now)
    • Darksiders (Made it halfway before realizing it’s just a terrible game)
    • Darksiders 2 (Same, only I spent 20 minutes with it max)
    • Red Dead Redemption 2 (Beat it, beautiful, one of the best games I’ve played probably ever)
    • Borderlands 3 (Spent way too much time on this one, to the point where I’m considering giving away my copy so I never touch it again)
    • Spider-Man (Beat it, loved it)
  6. Let’s look at some of that list another way. The Division 2 is about a post-pandemic war zone populated by several warring factions as well as an oppressive, technologically adept government presence. Dishonored: post-pandemic steampunk dystopia thing with heavy and oppressive government presence. Fallout 4? Come on. Even Spider-Man—fucking SPIDER-MAN!!!!!!!—took a hard left into pandemic territory in its third act, the virus of which LITERALLY KILLED AUNT MAE. I know that not every video game is, y’know, about post-apocalyptic or pandemic-themed stuff. Regardless, either it’s a dominant vibe in video games or I just really hit a wild streak of bad luck when it comes to stuff I reach for to help take my mind off things.
  7. That’s why, when I started The Last of Us Part II in between Borderlands 3 sessions back in June, I put it down for more than three months afterwards. Just a few hours in, I was like, “No thanks.” I was already getting the Intense And Serious impression from it that I clearly wasn’t in the mood for, so I filed it away and figured I’d return to it at some point. After Spider-Man, I threw myself into The Last of Us Part II with gusto and pretty much powered through it in a week and a half.
  8. The Last of Us Part II is obviously an achievement. I own a PS4 Pro, but I imagine it would look just as good on running on a regular PS4. Everything looks great even though you spend half the game in the dark with a goddamn flashlight. It’s big and intense with massive set pieces, and it sustains a level of intense suspense and brutality throughout every moment of gameplay. It’s not “fun” to play, which is something I was very aware of while I was pouring my time into it—and the fact that I continued to do so anyway is a testament to how it succeeds.
  9. Is it better than The Last of Us? Probably, yeah, but I think that has something to do with the standards established by that game. Until the ending, which I thought was an interesting wrinkle to hang the story on, I found most of the narrative to be almost comically maudlin and cartoonish—like someone did up a “gritty, prestige TV show” in crayon. Instead of striking some sort of nuance, The Last of Us Part II pushes those qualities so far into the red that it’s almost virtuous (albeit in a very anti-virtuous fashion). At one point, two characters start talking about abortion like it’s the weather while digging through a flooded, hallowed-out recreation of Seattle. This game is so absurdly miserable that it’s almost kind of funny.
  10. So hilariously miserable, in fact, that I literally laughed out loud upon beating it yesterday and seeing the prompt for a “New Game +” mode. Who in their right minds would want to play through something like this again?
  11. The Last of Us Part II is pure, uncut melo-trauma in a way that few games I’ve played have been able to effectively achieve. It’s impossible not to be invested in the plot while playing, because every moment of the gameplay is invested in pushing the plot forward. It holds your attention, which is why it has the highest completion rate of any major PS4 release. It’s the kind of game that was made to do things in which the main point of praise put forth towards it is “This game is doing things that other games simply haven’t.”
  12. Is that a good enough reason for this game to exist, though? Let me rephrase that, perhaps in a way that’s a little more charitable: Is that a good enough reason for this much game to exist? Even at a 25-30 hour runtime, The Last of Us Part II feels endless, as you’re churning along from encounter to encounter, barely scrapping by and watching your character horrifically die over and over again. Arguably, the entire Santa Barbara section on could’ve been trimmed if not gotten rid of entirely, as the game’s narrative enters new levels of preposterousness when it comes to unceasing hatred and cruelty. It seems like a guarantee that, at some point during The Last of Us Part II, you ask yourself, “What’s the point of all this, anyway?”
  13. It’s not the violence I have a problem with. I mean, don’t get me wrong—this is, without a doubt, one of the most realistically gruesome games I’ve played in recent memory. But, like, so many video games are just loaded with violence. Right after I finished The Last of Us Part II, I wanted something to clear my brain of all the super-serious garbage—so I loaded up Far Cry 4, a “fun” game where you run around and shoot people in the head. I’m just inured to it or whatever at this point, it’s like playing through an action movie. I couldn’t even get upset whenever I had to kill a dog that was attacking me because, like, it’s a dog in a video game that’s attacking me. What am I supposed to do? Let it kill me? I’m not playing a video game to think really hard about how unfair life can be or whatever. I’m playing it so I can beat it.
  14. It’s not that I don’t “get” the overall message of the game, either. I mean, how could I not? No one’s going to award this thing for subtlety or anything. Revenge begets revenge, hatred solves nothing, endless cycles, PTSD, blah blah blah. There’s nothing “new” ideas-wise going on in this or the first game when it comes to narrative, and I suspect that being seriously impressed by the HEAVY THEMES of this game requires having not consumed much of the last decade’s post-and-sub-Breaking Bad television.
  15. When it comes to holding The Last of Us Part II's narrative under a microscope, it might be instructive to hold it against something like Red Dead Redemption 2—a genuinely affecting and, by its end, emotionally devastating story about watching yourself become outmoded by the march of time, as well as watching the natural world slowly erode as that march continues. The Last of Us Part II doesn’t come close to making any sort of real impact in regards to messaging beyond “Life is suffering and pain, and it’s all inevitable.” I can more than stomach such a message when contained to a two-or-three hour film, but a game that takes more than a day’s worth of hours to complete? I can see it wearing on some heavily, and I also just think it’s banal.
  16. I said on Twitter last week that The Last of Us Part II is reprehensible, which seems like giving it too much credit in retrospect. There was a good Jaime Brooks Tweet recently about how awful the Grand Theft Auto series is as a whole, and while confronting the most visceral of what The Last of Us Part II had to offer I thought a lot about the GTA V missions where you’d kidnap unsuspecting people and bring them to a cult in the desert for indoctrination. Putting something like that in a game seems more theoretically evil than anything Naughty Dog cooked up here.
  17. There is an edgelord-esque quality from this game’s supposed attempts to force compassion, though. When you kill non-infected human beings in The Last of Us Part II, the AI humans surrounding them freak the fuck out about their dead compatriots in a way that’s supposed to heighten the pain of what you’re doing, but only comes across as an emotionally tortured version of “Oh my God, you killed Kenny! You bastards!” Every time someone shouts “Jesus, Jason’s dead!” or whatever in this game, it’s almost like Naughty Dog are yelling in your face, “Are you triggered? Do you feel upset yet?” I feel like we have enough of that escalating-dare behavior in modern culture that I don’t need it from video games, too.
  18. Look, I beat the game, so I clearly enjoyed playing it. I liked forcing my way through encounters, I liked throwing pipe bombs at people, I liked sneaking up on infected zombie-like things and stabbing them in the neck. I liked rummaging around all the drawers of all the empty places, just as my wife once said she liked Skyrim because all you needed to do is open and close drawers everywhere. The big set piece in the hospital basement with the disgusting and terrifying blob monster was unbelievable, very tense and exhilarating. More often than not, the game does the trick.
  19. I also thought the big final fight between Abby and Ellie was effective cinematically, although I found it draining as well. Just end the goddamn game already! We all have somewhere to be!
  20. It feels like The Last of Us Part II is owed some profundity of thought when approaching it. I say “owed” because, when it comes to art, I don’t think that’s a very good place to be. Serious consideration should be earned, not demanded—but it seems like Naughty Dog’s cruelest gesture embedded within this game is to wear all of us down until we admit that the Big Serious Game is Big and Serious. Others have done more with less, in gaming and elsewhere, and after this installment I don’t think I really need any more of The Last of Us.

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Jamie Larson