This article originally appeared on the blog of Heretic, the magazine of We Are Libertarians.
I won’t have any direct spoilers, but this is a review about The Last of Us Part II. So, if you don’t want to hear anything at all about it, stop reading now!
Before I really rip apart this shameful game, I really have to establish what makes good writing so good and bad writing so bad. It’s not a matter of preference, it is absolutely quantifiable.
William Shakespeare was an absolute giant when it comes to dealing with death. Each life that gets snuffed out is powerful, from villain to hero. The loss of life hits the comprehensive reader on many different levels. Most are sad, undoubtedly, but Shakespeare makes sure that each one has meaning, mixing other emotions into this sorrow like a master baker folding flavors into a dough.
He is not blunt or singular when it comes to illustrating death. Sometimes, the answer to the question of death is more questions. Julius Caesar’s fall is one of many great examples where one event sparked a fire in the cast and the audience alike to look inside and question concepts from power and revolution to friendship and betrayal.
You might say, “What if the writer wishes to convey the senseless or irrational loss of life? Wouldn’t making death important detract from that?” And that’s a great point! But Shakespeare, along with other notable existential and nihilist authors like Camus and Crane, are able to make an audience see these greater messages in the killing of their cast. Conveying a message of futility in the struggle is a message in and of itself, albeit a depressing one.
In life, death leaves us heartbroken and we can fail to see the momentary reason behind it. We, the readers, have an advantage over in-person disasters because we exist both inside and outside of the story. Like the characters in a play, we can be at a loss for understanding in the moment. But the perk to being a reader is existing both outside and inside all of the cast members for maximum perspective.
I am not trying to sound entitled here; making a statement with these tragedies is not for my benefit as an audience member. The reader is not owed an explanation by virtue of reading. Rather, this is a benefit for the writer to make their statement. There are some elite few, like Franz Kafka, that are careful to make every sentence they write worthy of paragraphs worth of analysis. Of course, this is a ridiculously high bar. But at the very least, even the lowest entry level author knows better than to let the death of a character go to waste.
Shakespeare should be required reading if you are a writer that attempts to deal with the realm of death. And you’re about to see why. Even if you can’t hit this high standard (nobody can, it’s OK), you see how death, in both small and large quantities, gets the sanctity needed to reach the reader with both feelings and a lessons.
So now that we’re familiar with what it takes to be the best, let’s see how some folks managed to be the worst.
The group of writers for The Last of Us Part II collectively failed the art of the script worse than any single amateur ever could. The first death is shocking and stupid. The rest of the deaths are just plain stupid. It’s clear they try to give these major murders and sacrifices some kind of impact with the “music” (I’ll get to this later), lighting (or lack thereof), and timing (which is really just making the scenes last for a long time). It becomes obvious pretty much everybody is gonna die and because they all lack personalities entirely, it’s only natural to detach yourself from their fates.
It does not help that the characters, including the central characters, lack any type of dynamic. They are all one-note in their emotions. Even when a character changes his/her mind about a course of action, the change is neither based on new information or new perspectives but some intangible and inexplicable mood, closer to a demon taking over their bodies than an actual change of heart; the idea that anyone on the team thought to give any character core values is laughable to all unfortunate souls who have finished the game.
At various points, the game plays through flashbacks like in a psychological thriller in which the protagonist remembers something that makes them behave differently than before. You’ve probably seen cases of moderate amnesia or seeing an item that causes childhood recollection used to this effect. But no one has memory loss. And no triggering object or event occurs. The director primitively crammed these hallucinations of the past as a tool to force the characters to stay on the script. By doing so, not only does the player have no idea who the characters are, it’s painfully blatant that the characters don’t know who they are either. They’re just doing whatever the writers wanted them to do based on how much coffee they’d had (or not had) on that particular day.
When somebody manages to live, it’s actually disappointing. The only idea the writers might have had is that everything ends in oblivion, all people are one dimensional meatbags, and death is a welcome break from this boring, slow slog of through life (and game). But sometimes an random bland person escapes in the game and so we’re left with not just an effort-free waste of time, but an effort-free waste of time that isn’t even worthy of conversation or critical thinking.
Game writers can potentially kill their whole cast of characters powerfully (see Red Dead Redemption I and II). But the lives of the inhabitants in this litter box of a game are like Pikmin or Lemmings. In these two games, while its advantageous to keep as many alive as possible, it’s cartoonish and silly when these minions inevitably die. Part of the charm is that the deaths are frequent and funny. Like these two games, The Last of Us Part II has so many deaths that you await them with a gleeful anticipation, completely devoid of devastation. It only adds to the comedy that somebody on the writing team saw fit to try to name these people and give them brief, unsympathetic, inconsistent, and yawn-worthy personalities, which is akin to the chore of memorizing the names and attitudes of cattle before they go to the slaughterhouse.
I am not opposed to simple, fun, and violent interactive media. Movies like Joker and Shoot ’em Up are legitimate diversions. Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises send out hordes of humanity at you while you indiscriminately wipe them out. It might look like the direction I’m going is the same one every alt-right Christian club goes after any video game depicting violence debuts. “If you kill people for fun in a game, you’ll kill people in real life!” they screech. I assure you, that is nowhere close to my point. I experience a euphoria from a good-old-fashioned bloodbath in a video game that makes me a very peaceful person outside of gaming sessions. Movies and games like this are just entertaining releases and no sane observer would ever be confused into thinking they demand imitation.
No, the danger of The Last of Us Part II is that without any semblance of reasoning why people live or die due to unapologetically lazy writing, it accidentally tells us to disengage in matters of death. It’ll either happen or it won’t, so why care? I can’t think of a more dangerous message to send than one that says, “Look at you guys getting all riled up about police brutality and contagious diseases. You can’t make a difference. And you might screw it up worse if you try. Let it go.”
The world is at the apex of an awakening to untreatable sickness and brutal murder. COVID-19 and the George Floyd backlash have given us over to talking about disease and assassination. Incredibly, this matches the game’s two motifs: viruses and murderers. How lucky did Naughty Dog (the developers) get when the circumstances of the world matched those of their creation? Had the game even been mediocre, they’d have organized a parade in the studio to celebrate this lucky break.
Heartrendingly, it turns out Naughty Dog actually knew how bad this game was. Instead of rushing the game when the world was hit by this crisis, like you’d expect a multi-million-dollar company to do, they actually tried to DELAY it until after the pandemic had passed. While it was too late to salvage this negligent project, at least somebody there had the sense to try and cover it up. The game was already a half-assed, half-witted, no-talent turd, so they attempted to make it forgettable by releasing it during a more mellow time. Unfortunately for them, the virus and protests grew in focus through new release date, cementing its place as a LEGENDARY standard for failure in the video game industry.
I should say that failing, even on a massive scale, is not always notable. Shaq Fu and Umbrella Corps were terrible games that had us demanding refunds. Dragon Age II and Postal III were let-downs because of how good the predecessors were. The Last of Us Part II combines the features of a horrendous game with the collapse of colossal disappointment. I wouldn’t be writing this review if it were just a bad game. This is the worst game ever made. And I mean ever.
I know this is an easy take. Even one day after it’s release, it’s universally hated. Even the good Metacritic scores, if you look carefully, tend to come from video game retailers who need the sales to survive. There’s scheduled a TV show based on The Last of Us on the schedule and the producers for that are already distancing themselves from this dismal trash.
The gameplay is slow, boring, and repetitive. I re-watched some of the big fights online to make sure I remembered them correctly for this article and was pleased that the YouTubers recognized how boring they were and trimmed down these thirty minute-ish repetitive grinds down into the couple of minutes where at least something is happening. The rest of the game is merely travelling between these dull fights. You’d like to get it over with quickly, but you constantly have to craft items that have no imagination in order to progress. The crafting is cumbersome and time-consuming. It’s not even that complicated, a real mental stimulation would have been welcome, but it was just a time drain.
The graphics, especially with character’s faces, take several massive steps backwards, especially when compared to other titles on the PS4. Most blood is just the color red on the given character model. There is an attempt to mask this with some liquid blood leaking over it, but the disconnect between the two dimensional blood and the spattered liquid blood makes it look even worse. It’s the equivalent painting a wall yellow and then taping a few pieces of wheat on it to represent a field. At one point, a character throws up and next the camera takes an angle in which you can see in front of her. The vomit is nowhere to be found. A character has his throat slit and the screen flashes to turn his skin green and his blood purple before going back to regular colors. I don’t know why they thought making him look like a space alien for a couple of seconds would make it more horrifying. For a game that is aggressively gross, they miss every opportunity to make the grotesque situations immersive. These glaring errors combine with the missteps addressed already to make it so that you’ll never have to worry about being “sucked in” to the game.
The soundtrack might also be the worst ever. I just listened to it and it’s mostly ambient noise with an occasional stock chord progression from a guitar and/or tambourine thrown in whimsically. I am not a musical theorist, so I don’t have the precise words to explain how feeble the attempt was. It hits the ears like a mix of a last-minute homework assignment and a cassette that got left on by accident in the middle of a lifeless, windless field. This becomes a huge problem that further ruins big moments. There are two artistic ways to go about amplifying tensity; the first is to have no music, the second is to have a crescendo. Instead, what we get is a middle ground where people are sneaking around corners or being strung up for crucifixion to the tune of a babbling brook and a lackadaisical strum on a banjo even though no brook or banjo are anywhere to be found. Did somebody forget to tell the artist this music was for an action-based zombie game and not a redneck sauna?
The performance they turned in on the voice acting inexcusable and unforgivable. If it was your kid’s 3rd grade school play, you’d walk out. A group on horseback will have one rider make the inflections with her voice like the horse is moving and the other will not. In one particular winter scene, a group of people inside a warm building can be heard chattering their teeth. Two people come in after riding out in the cold all day and speak as though they’ve been at the Bahamas. There’s got to be at least eight different ways to say, “Where is she?” which is a line that comes up frequently. Depending on who you’re speaking to, you might be desperate, direct, inquisitive, pleading, etc. But you’ll only ever hear it spoken one way. There’s lots of grunts, groans, and screams, that don’t match up with the action on the screen in sound or intensity. This is likely sloppy work on the programming side. If an attack happens, you’ll hear a random “hurt” noise, but the type of hurt was not considered by either the actors or the programmers.
If you think about it, the odds are quite low that you actually get to experience the worst product in any specific field. You will probably never use the worst broom of all time because it won’t test well, won’t be on the shelves for long, and the reviews will be so bad that you’ll stop yourself from purchasing it. There is a slim chance you will ever hear the worst songs ever written because they won’t be on the radio, the album won’t find a producer, and a good agent will step in and force an artist to drop a song from a track list if it tests poorly. For you to experience the absolute worst of something, you usually have to be incredibly unlucky, like getting hit by a bolt of lighting in a city or having an icicle fatally drop on your head.
Which makes The Last of Us Part II particularly momentous. All of the safeguards that should have stopped most of us from experiencing a truly 0 out of 10 game failed. The retail stores needed the sales, so they compromised their integrity by saying it was good. The studio over-hyped the game, submitting it for the most anticipated game of the year award in each of the last few years (it one on more than one occasion). Current events created a market need for a story that involves death through illness and mobs. With the entertainment industry suffering because of the downturn in the economy and the restrictions in place, the developer had to stick with the worst writers, musicians, graphic designers, testers, and actors they could access. Then they had to make them famous and disperse their abysmal work on a global scale.
Video games are wonderful things that can fill children and adults with a desire and a hope that they can be a superhero someday. Playing The Last of Us Part II is like watching your dog get hit by a car. There’s nothing good about it and nothing to be gained. At best, it’s harrowing and you will go through a healthy process so that you can move on. But it can also haunt you and scar you. Not in a way that helps you grow, but in a way that keeps you from growth. Surrounding this game is a league of superior games that tell you to fight disease, make good decisions, and stand up when you see someone being murdered by authorities. Conversely, this half-hearted submission unintentionally takes the stand that caring about important stuff is a waste of time.
The Last of Us Part II will live forever as a testament to a complete lack of effort. That’s actually a good thing, we can always use a reminder for what results happen when we give our barest minimum. My fear is that it will also be remembered for its glorification of surrender.
It’s one thing to be the worst game ever made, it has that locked up with no competition. But it’s another thing to tell a world of fighters to just give up. Who you are matters. What you do matters. Don’t let the folks who gave you this appalling affront to gaming tell you differently.