Sony Interactive Entertainment
In 2013, Steven Spielberg – the most popular filmmaker of all time – explained to an audience at the University of Southern California why video games don’t move audiences in the same way as Hollywood blockbusters. “The second you pick up the controller, the heart turns off,” he said, ruminating about the “great abyss” in empathy that opens up between the player of a game and its characters.
A week later, The Last of Us came out. Developer Naughty Dog, who catergorise their games as an “active cinematic experience”, were famous for the Uncharted series, a homage to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones. Their stories beat with the same obscenely lucrative heart that Spielberg cherishes. Glittery and shallow, intensely sentimental and packed with big emotions and big explosions, Naughty Dog knows the Spielbergian formula – they write stories for adults who want to feel like children.
The Last of Us followed Joel, a bereaved father, and Ellie, an abandoned girl, as they fought their way through a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic America. The narrative was effectively moving by Hollywood standards; by the standards of video games, it was a revelation. YouTube bloomed with videos of weepy men streaming the game’s harrowing prologue. A sequel was inevitable.
Now, The Last of Us returns, with The Last of Us Part 2, named to echo The Godfather. The game tries to be profound, but it isn’t.
For those who have not played the first title, know that, though it won more than 200 Game Of The Year awards, sold more than 17 million copies, and provoked aggressively hyperbolic reviews, The Last of Us’s story is not original. It is an amalgamation of nearly every Hollywood and video game trope. It features zombies, a post-apocalyptic world and lots of guns and lots of murder.
The much-vaunted central relationship between Joel and Ellie relies on romantic heroism at its most generic – a damaged man is taught to love again by the stand-in for his (spoiler) dead daughter. Creator Neil Druckman, who told WIRED that he reads Robert McKee’s screenwriters’ bible, Story, every year, came to the idea after he also had a daughter. (The game was originally called “Mankind”, and only women got to be zombies – female staffers pointed out that “the way it’s coming off is you’re having a bunch of women turn into monsters, and you’re shooting them in the face.”)
Though it’s a demonstration of the narrative desert of the medium that the game’s story is held up as a gold standard, it was competently written. But where The Last of Us stood out as a landmark was not the narrative itself, but its delivery. Character’s faces, for instance, vaulted the uncanny valley. Their feelings were intelligible in their expressions; their eyes simmered with life. The scenes and set pieces were miraculous technical achievements – whichever way a player turned they looked cinematically composed. The Last of Us was the culmination of years of technological advances that now allow games to render cinematic production values and, when the writing was there, deliver a compelling Hollywood story.
The Last of Us 2 picks up four years after the last game. Ellie and Joel live in a bustling encampment that looks like a Wild West film set. Ellie is grown up now – in an early scene, she smokes a big spliff then has casual sex. Broody Joel croons hideous love songs on a beat-up gee-tar. Zombies remain abundant. The story orbits a decision Joel made at the end of the first game – cinematically, the game returns to this moment like a recurring nightmare. After one character caves another’s head in with a golf club, the player must set out in pursuit of violent revenge.
The game’s writing is not necessarily less accomplished than the first game, but it is more maudlin and hectic, less entertaining, and thoroughly miserabilist. The latter tone, in particular, seems a mistake – the original avoided moralising about violence; this tale centres on it. There’s a lot of “killing everyone in your way won’t bring soanso back” chat, and a lame formal trick that implicates – one of the more overused terms in gaming – the player in this violence.
While there is nothing wrong with popular art delivering moral instruction, there is when this moral is offensively simple – namely that amputating, curb stomping, and golf clubbing your way to bloody revenge is bad, and what’s more, might make the situation worse.
Despite the rank reaction of some of the gaming community’s cadre of incels and bigots to the welcome inclusion of diverse characters, we must conclude/hope that of the likely millions who will play this game, most know that killing is wrong. Drawing attention to this fact in the killing game you made isn’t profound or interesting, and doesn’t let you off the hook, either; you still made a game that makes sport of death.
More than anything though, The Last of Us 2, while still packed with exhilarating set pieces, is less impressive than its predecessor because games have now proven they can deliver cinematic narratives. Or, more accurately, they have proven that they can ape the narratives, references, idioms and techniques of Hollywood. Naughty Dog did it back in 2013, and the game was a landmark. God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 are just some that have done it more recently.
It seems appropriate that The Last of Us 2 comes at the end of a console cycle. It will be interesting to see if the next generation of cinematic games look beyond Hollywood for their inspiration – if they grow adverse to Hollywood’s mass-market formulae of setting, theme and character. Because the distinction between film and games has, in many senses, grown academic. What separates blockbuster games from profundity is, as with films, the financial logic of their blockbuster status – their need to generate return on investment and the stranglehold this need places on ambitious writing. These games have heart; we will see if they can achieve more.
More great stories from WIRED
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
💰 The Animal Crossing fans running in-game businesses
🤑 Inside the ‘bullshit’ get-rich-quick world of dropshipping
🎵 The secret behind the success of Apple’s AirPods
🔒 The UK’s lockdown rules, explained
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.