Less than two weeks before The Last of Us Part 2’s June 19 release date, its director Neil Druckmann, said he expected the game to divide gamers. He was prepared for some fans to hate it. I came across this prediction while preparing to write . I remember being struck by its pessimism.
Sure, between a gay, female protagonist and an ethnically diverse set of characters, The Last of Us Part 2 had the hallmarks of a game that would provoke one of the internet’s most sensitive, volatile segments. But I naively thought the game was absorbing, thrilling and even profound enough to blunt much of the predicted vitriol.
The past few days have proven me spectacularly wrong.
Look over on Metacritic and you’ll see that The Last of Us Part 2 has a score of 95, based on 101 critic scores. The user score? 4.1, from just under 65,000 people. Check out the game’s hashtag on Twitter and you’ll find tweets marvelling at its intensity and storytelling — wedged among tweets calling The Last of Us Part 2 a deception, an insult or, astonishingly, the worst game of all time.
Why are people so mad? The game has only been out for a few days, so only a small percentage of the people speaking out against it have actually finished it. Some of it is trolling, but some of it is more complicated.
Getting into it requires me to talk spoilers. So please, stop reading now if you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want it spoiled. Seriously. Last warning!
Die a hero
For the first couple of hours in The Last of Us Part 2, you’ll alternate between two different characters: Ellie, one of the original’s two protagonists, and Abby, a completely new character.
Abby has the physique of a professional CrossFit competitor, which had me pondering how she sourced enough protein in the Last of Us’ post-apocalyptic world to gain and maintain her musclebound figure. She’s traveling with an organized group that’s clearly on a mission. I wondered if scrawnier members of her community resented her for taking extra portions of chicken and steak.
That line of thinking was interrupted when Abby, in a cutscene during an Ellie segment of gameplay, swings a golf club at Joel, the other main character of the original game, and smashes in his skull.
You play as Joel throughout the first game and within hours, he’s dead. Ellie is the hero now. This, according to a vocal minority of apoplectic fans, is the issue.
It’s not just that the protagonist is a woman, or that she’s gay (although there is a lot of objection to that). It’s not just that Joel dies. It’s that Naughty Dog promoted a sequel that starred Joel, but he’s almost immediately replaced — by a lesbian lead.
This is unacceptable in the minds, tweets and Metacritic reviews of some angry gamers. They accuse Naughty Dog of sacrificing Joel to promote its social justice values. Except their anger, blunt and imprecise, glosses over an important detail. If you play The Last of Us Part 2, you’ll see that Naughty Dog killed Joel for a good reason.
Live long enough to see yourself become a villain
The Last of Us Part 2 is a revenge story. Revenge doesn’t just progress the plot, this is a video game about revenge itself.
After Abby kills Joel, her motive becomes the immediate question. She doesn’t seem like a bad person. Typically, if a game makes you play as someone it means they’re a hero of sorts. Is Abby a hero? Was Joel’s death justified?
Yes, we learn. Yes it was.
The original Last of Us follows Joel’s journey to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies, a militia group that sprang up in the Cordyceps infection’s aftermath. Ellie is immune to the infection, which turns everyone else into zombie-like creatures called The Infected, and the Fireflies want to study her. When Joel delivers Ellie to one of their hospitals, he learns they’ll have to perform brain surgery. She’ll die in the process. In response he kills everyone, from scores of Firefly army dudes to the doctor preparing for surgery, and “saves” the day.
That surgeon preparing to operate on Ellie? That was Abby’s dad. You find this out during the second half of the game, where you mostly play as Abby. Here you’ll learn that Abby’s motives for hunting down Joel are equally as legitimate as Ellie’s for hunting down Abby.
Both characters go to extreme lengths for revenge, sacrifice personal relationships in the pursuit of revenge, and have their moral values distorted by the allure of revenge. The game makes you scrutinize motivations, characters and redemption in a fashion remarkable for a AAA video game.
That’s why Naughty Dog killed Joel.
It’s unlikely that many of the people leaving 0/10 reviews on Metacritic or venting their frustration on Twitter appreciate this. Much of this activity occurred in the 24 hours after The Last of Us Part 2’s release. The game took me 29 hours to finish.
The pleasure of being wrong
I went into The Last of Us Part 2 expecting to dislike it. Naughty Dog’s modus operandi for its Uncharted series — dreaming up setpieces and then crafting a story around them — always rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t like it when video games borrow the visual language of Hollywood to tell stories.
It took around a dozen hours of playing the game for me to reverse my position, and it only got more absorbing from there. The Last of Us Part 2 rules.
The game is not perfect. Some say that it can feel clunky. I agree. It took me around 5 or 6 hours to get used to the character movement, which continued to feel unwieldy throughout. And as inspired as the story is, there are questionable moments where characters behave in ways that contradict their motives.
But Naughty Dog did so much right, between the complex characters, thoughtful story and exhilarating gameplay. Dwelling on the imperfections would be absurd.
But the people tanking the game’s score on Metacritic or tweeting abuse on Twitter aren’t interested in an honest appraisal of The Last of Us Part 2. This is obvious of the thousands of people spouting anti-woman or anti-gay bigotry, but it’s also sadly true of the thousands more who claim to be offended by the bait-and-switch Joel’s death represents, but who are unlikely to have played enough of the game to see where that road leads.
So that’s the bad news. Tens of thousands of people are taking advantage of internet anonymity to traduce The Last of Us Part 2. The good news? The Last of Us Part 2 is the PlayStation 4’s fastest-selling game ever in the UK, with US data yet to come but sure to represent a similar success.
Tens of millions of gamers don’t have an issue with diversity. They want to play games that take risks with their stories, even if tens of thousands make an issue about it. The Last of Us Part 2 takes those risks, and its 4.1 Metacritic user score is safe to ignore.