The Last of Us Part II

Some notes on the controversial blockbuster sequel.

***Spoilers warning*** I’ll be liberally discussing all aspects of the game, so please do not read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

First a quick note about my play experience – I got the disc a week after the launch date, by which time there was already a massive storm online. Despite my efforts, I did have some key story points spoilt, so going in I was somewhat prepared mentally.

I could only afford to play a couple of hours a day, a bit more on weekends, so it took me a good two weeks to get through. My final session was a 5-hour binge on a weekday night, ending at 3/4am (that day at work wasn’t very productive).

I started the game late, was armed with some knowledge of the drama, and had the play sessions paced out – I felt all these were positive factors that helped me enjoy the game. To me this game is a flawed modern masterpiece, that deserves to be remembered as one of the most ambitious narrative games of the decade.

Narrative structure & theme

TLOU2 follows a very rigorous structure, which I’d break down as follows:

TLOU2 acts

The structure showcases the game’s risk-taking ambitions. In my view there are 2 primary risks taken: 1) the story decision to kill off the predecessor’s protagonist, Joel, as the inciting incident; 2) in a surprise switch at the half-way point, forcing players to play as Joel’s killer, Abby – and revealing that this is a game with dual playable protagonists on the opposite ends of a revenge plot.

In retrospect, to me the game’s real theme is about how people deal with trauma, via a story of hate-driven vengeance. The game delivers a traumatic event to players (Joel’s death), then forces players to go through the stages of grief (both in the game as Ellie, and in real life with their own feelings towards Joel). The perspective change to Abby is an experience in forced empathy, which to me is a secondary theme.

The perspective shift is not new as a literary device – Game of Thrones clearly leveraged this to great effect with memorable characters like Jaime and Tyrion Lannister. But this feels like the most ambitious example in a video game I’ve played, and the effects were fascinating. In the climatic fight between Ellie and Abby, like so many players, I did not want to hit the attack button. But, just like the predecessor’s climatic surgery room scene (which you revisit so many times in this game), the game does not offer you a choice. Thankfully, the game ends the fight mercifully.

I’m not going to go deeper on the narrative and theme – that would be a huge endeavor, and many people have already offered lots of great content. I’ll link here one video I particularly enjoyed.

Game loop & “level” pacing

The game’s narrative beats (the bullet points structure above) serve the long-term and mid-term motivations. At times this can feel ham-fisted: I felt Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle was a bit repetitive in its use of “go to point X to find the next clue about Abby’s whereabouts”. Anyhow, if we zoom in 1-2 levels further, we get to the layers of the “core loop” below:

  • Long-term goal, e.g. find Abby
    • Mid-term goal, e.g. go to Hospital
      • A series of “levels”, or set-pieces

My loose definition of a “level” here is a 5-20 minute section of gameplay made up of elements from the following:

  • Combat, stealth or non-stealth (sometimes forced non-stealth)
  • “Walk and talk”, the most basic way to deliver the story
  • Exploration, which is a lot of ambient storytelling (reading notes etc.)
  • Scavenging and crafting
  • Environment puzzles (some light platforming gameplay)
  • On-rails set pieces, e.g. car chases
  • Mini-games, like guitar simulator
  • Cut-scenes

From a player perspective, I wouldn’t say there’s any crazy systemic design innovations – these are the proven gameplay elements of Naughty Dog action adventures. The craft comes from the thoughtful sequencing & arrangement to create great pacing, and the insane polish (and the vast technical investments to deliver that polish).

What I thought the game did particularly well for pacing, was keeping players on their toes with surprises. Examples:

  • Have you grabbed by an enemy (either transitioning into combat or a cut-scene) as you go through a level transition (“squeeze through this space”, exit this door)
  • Give you a clear environment puzzle, then as you are moving towards the solution, have the floor collapse under you into a mini-boss fight
  • Give you a workbench (for equipment upgrades), as you start reviewing your upgrade choices, have enemies rush you and grab you from the bench

The game does these surprises very sparingly (like only once) – but they are very effective at making you second-guess yourself and stay alert. Is there going to be a jump-scare at that next workbench? (No.)

Also, they are done in a fair way – in the workbench example, these enemies didn’t spawn out of nowhere; they came out of a locked room in the apartment. So if you had planted some mines in front of that door before you engaged the workbench, you would have had the jump on them instead. This is the level of detail and polish that surpasses player expectations.

Transitions – in my view, any time where you go through a transition where you cannot backtrack (e.g. going through a door/gate and blocking it behind you, going down a sliding slope, jumping down a vertical), that’s usually a sign of a level transition, which serves pacing and possibly technical goals. There are also occasionally hard transitions after cut-scenes (teleporting you to a location), some of which I felt created dissonance (after having you struggle mightily for a few hours to get to a place, it seemed trivially easy how you got to another location).

There are some issues for me with the basic gameplay formula. Resource hoarding is a pretty big problem (at least at moderate difficulty). Thematically as a post-apocalyptic survival adventure, the game encourages players to engage in stealth through tight resource constraints. This is in conflict with utilizing the fun combat skills that players unlock. (The player could tweak the difficulty settings very granularly, for example increase the environmental resource amount to encourage more open combat.) To be clear, I actually agree with the game’s trade-off here: the combat is less fun, but thematically more immersive. But it’s one element why some players find this game un-fun to play.

Another problem created by the scavenging gameplay and ambient stortytelling is backtracking. That is, after clearing an area, combing back through it to open every last drawer, and trying to find every ambient story point / collectible. This is again in conflict with the desired pacing. And it also creates narrative dissonance – “I gotta hurry to rescue my friends… but after going through every drawer.” Even in levels/sequences where there was clear urgency, I couldn’t help but think – hey, maybe there’s some rare collectible here, I should take my time.

Lastly, the concessions in the buddy AI was at times immersion-breaking. As a Naughty Dog convention, there are many parts of the game where you have an AI companion. This serves important story goals (after all, without a buddy, it’s hard to have “walk and talk” sequences), and they can assist in puzzle and combat gameplay as well. But in stealth gameplay, they still land in uncanny valley too often – they can sneak around, and will look for positions of cover, but it feels like overall they are still treated as invisible to enemies. I’m not 100% sure of this – there was one occurrence where it felt like the companion was detected; but on the hand there’s probably a dozen occurrences where the companion should have been spotted, but was completely ignored (sometimes comically).

Problematic game length

This was the biggest issue I had with the game. If we take each bullet point in the 4-act structure above as a “chapter”, and each chapter roughly takes up 2-3 hours of game time, then we get to a 20+ hour game length. In my own experience, I got to the end of Act 2 cliffhanger after roughly 18 hours, and ended the game after about 32 hours. For a linear action adventure, it’s both an astonishing feat and an excessive over-indulgence.

I feel it’s the product of compromises – it was set that the game would have dual protagonists, and each protagonist’s arc demanded a experience that couldn’t be too compressed. But the end result is a journey that is both too long and still too rushed. There wasn’t space to flesh out the numerous side characters, and I’d loved to see more of the Seraphites’ story, for example.

I can’t help but think, what if this game was broken into 2 parts, and released episodically? This is most probably a terrible idea, with lots of risky questions – how will the episodes be priced, how far apart would the releases be? How many players would purchase the first episode but not the second? But to me it would seem to be a better match with the game’s ambitions, and could perhaps help position expectations better.

Alternatively – what if the “chapters” were unlocked at an announced schedule? Like an episode a week (more practically, maybe one chapter every couple of days)? There might be something here, if a narrative-focused game’s content release factored in the social media cycle – e.g. the weekly reddit discussion/reactions of the latest Westworld episode, and the community activity leading up to the next episode. Again, probably a terrible idea still…

Player expectations / toxic fandom

I feel we also have to talk about the massive community controversy since the game’s release. In hindsight, the marketing misdirection was probably too clever and came across toying with players’ emotions. And the overly-strict spoiler guidelines to reviewers was also a major lost opportunity to align player expectations. For example, I don’t think there would have been a significant downside for reviewers to discuss the dual protagonists setup – yes, it would have been less surprising in that moment, but the forced experience in empathy would still hold (and players would be less distracted wondering how long the Abby section would last).

I think I can empathize with much of the community angst, especially the most fervent fans who dived in on launch day and were shocked. That moment of shock, and initial grief, became a rallying call online, and took on a momentum of its own. In contrast, professional reviewers under embargo had to process that moment in isolation, and were obligated (professionally) to finish the game and reflect on the whole experience. This is perhaps one factor contributing to the gulf of opinion between professional reviewers and players.

However, this raw emotion of anger / denial is in no ways justification for the massive abuse (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and various other forms of prejudice / bigotry) hurled at the makers of the game. (Unfortunately, this is all too common these days – The Last Jedi and the 2016 Ghostbusters come to mind.) The sense of entitlement is out of whack. The industry, and the fans, need to reflect on this.

And I guess there’s some meta irony that a game about hatred (it’s futility and overcoming it) is the subject of so much futile hatred. It is after all, a video game, a work of fiction. Perhaps this was the 5D chess that Naughty Dog was playing all along. But at the end of day, as a developer, and as a player, I hope that we can see more games take risks like TLOU2, and I hope the controversy doesn’t discourage game-makers.

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