Brushing a pine tree while riding a horse, Ellie makes the branches’ accumulated snow fall. Look toward the ground and the horse’s steps realistically imprint on a few inches of frozen precipitation. Sometimes, it’s the little things; Last of Us: Part II has a lot of little things.
A character removes their shirt – perfectly, no clipping as polygons clash with one another. Videogames spent decades learning to talk, but speech is only one conveyor of intent; these digital performances convey anger, distress, worry, and happiness. Ocean waves rush onto a beach, sand drying as water recedes. Then the violence. A headshot leaves a hole clean through the victim’s skull. Stab someone with a knife, they bleed properly. This all took years to achieve. Only Naughty Dog’s payroll records know the true total.
All of this, yet the industry is still stuck on 1962’s Spacewar.
Last of Us: Part II is, obviously, not Spacewar. Not entirely. It’s a story of Ellie and Joel, wandering through a now eerily prescient, post-pandemic world, one where America resets, and the western genre’s values rule. At times, Last of Us: Part II is more western than it wants to admit, hiding behind soapy relationship and pregnancy melodrama to draw attention away from tropes like forming cities, stronghold raids, and a central revenge parable.
And still, it’s Spacewar, or Space Invaders – choose your own early shooting game reference point. Last of Us: Part II’s core still involves pointing a weapon and pulling a trigger. We’re still playing the same game.
Last of Us: Part 2, for its decidedly fictional infectious outbreak, leans on reality. It uses digital models to render precisely real-ish people. Its story is that of genuine, emoting characters, sharing problems, feelings, loss, and fears. Through technology, Last of Us: Part II enters a fight for this industry – it’s less about tiresome anecdotes concerning videogames making more money than movies (although videogames want nothing more than to be movies), but showing a mass audience, “Look at what we can do now!”
Yet this is window dressing on top of the thing videogames never moved on from. Weird, childish things, because in Last of Us: Part II, Ellie finds pills granting her additional strength, healing, or abilities. To justify the overlong, burdened playtime, Last of Us: Part II hides trading cards on various shelves or on an off-beaten path. Someone needed to build that path to hide that card so a player will eventually wander to it, maybe knocking some snow around in the process. It’s a question whether the publicly known development crunch from within Naughty Dog is worth it. Does the snow need to fall from a branch if it means the team works weekends for a month?
Videogame realism is an odd thing. In something like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, its goofy tone and surrealism help bend the rules, like an ancient ruin containing ammunition for Nathan Drake’s gun. But in Last of Us: Part II’s serious, thematically jolting story, it’s fair to ask why certain windows cannot be broken, why certain ledges cannot be climbed, or why Ellie continues to care about superhero trading cards as she hunts her rival, limping to the climax, soaked in blood.
And through that realism, it’s a wonder why the assembled pieces of videogames so strictly adhere to shooting things. It’s easy to say there’s an American fetish for gun culture, yet numerous games from European and Asian studios employ firearms. No, it’s something deeper than that, an ugly comfort that comes from violence in this medium. Last of Us: Part II bemoans revenge because revenge leads to violence, then hypocritically spends 20+ hours maiming people, slashing their throats, or blowing off their heads. Eventually, this becomes routine; each chokeout uses the same animation routine. It’s not that an animator needs to lose more of their personal life to an exploitative career path to design more death throes; rather videogames need less death throes in the first place.
Here we are, captivated by a sharply composed (if outrageously lengthy) story, drawn in by well shaped characters, yet to get to any meaningful, compelling plot, Naughty Dog asks us to play Spacewar, where heroes and villains strafe one another, hiding behind things, pointing weapons, and pulling a trigger.
Last of Us: Part II’s best moment isn’t an action scene (a few, certainly, do stand out). That’s when Ellie and Joel visit a decaying museum, Ellie’s eyes glistening with joy, her face rendered as a smile. They trade barbs and banter. Ellie puts hats on dinosaurs. It’s reminiscent of Left Behind, still the best thing to ever come from Last of Us, a content expansion of the first game where Ellie explores a mall, coming of age alongside a friend, no guns required (at least in most scenes).
To think of the emotion videogames are now capable of, how readily they can express interactivity without scrounging for collector cards, or ammo to shoot stuff with. It’s such a waste to still be playing Spacewar.