Written by Daniel Gavilovskis
Video games are considered the second most effective form of mind control after narco-hypnosis and, like narco-hypnosis, much of what makes games powerful goes on in the mind’s unconscious. This is true of any story. Have you ever noticed how in The Matrix, while Neo is getting given out to by his boss, the window cleaner’s sud trickles like falling code? Or how in Casablanca, our libertine is shaded by shadows that resemble prison bars, almost as if he feels jailed by his surroundings? These are motifs that are so hidden you don’t even register them. But your brain does. Pile up enough of them and they can make all the difference, breaking a game, with you left scratching your head as to why you dislike it.
One pandemic-era game, in contrast to its predecessor, was incredibly divisive: The Last of Us Part II. Each person who loves/hates the game could write you an essay on why the co-protagonist is profound/bland, or how director Neil Druckmann’s social commentary is so relevant/obvious. There have been controversial stories before. But the game’s detractors struggle to put a finger on what it is that’s so wrong with the story. Because they only look at the surface story, they can only point to non-sequiturs and elements that work perfectly fine in other stories. What gives the game its identity on the subliminal level?
The CNN/Fox divide: Certainly, moral ambiguity was a part of the 2013 original. But the meat of TLOU consisted of killing enemies that were fairly unequivocally – and in typical game fashion – bad. When it wasn’t hunters looking to steal your shoes and burn the body it was pedophilic cannibals or faceless stormtroopers. The ending served almost as a ‘gotcha’ twist, making us reconsider the protagonist’s brutality in a new light. But in Part II, enemy NPCs have names. They gossip about food rations before begging for mercy or mourning their dog. A kind of post-truth moral greyness clings to the story and gameplay. Druckmann himself said the game is about “tribalism, trauma”, and how political opponents get dehumanized in the pursuit of ‘justice’. To anyone who was paying attention to Druckmann’s home country, it all seems eerily similar to the political savagery that was burning through the States during the game’s production. Partisan rifts, conflicts arising from accidental escalations or the brainlessness of leading higher-ups. A common theme is people being unable to see that they’re all driven by the same familiar old feelings – comradery, revenge, pride. At the best of times, characters will see the enemy faction as hopelessly ignorant. It’s THEM that started it. If only they could come to their SENSES. The Truce was a ceasefire broken in retaliation to the Seraphites stringing up an entire squad, in retaliation to shooting those kids, in retaliation to them shooting our guys etc etc etc. Sounds like how Twitter threads escalate. Halfway through the game, our perspective shifts to that of the previously irredeemable villain, whom we play as for the rest of the story. By doing this, the game compels you to empathize with them in a way that feels remarkably like scrolling through the social feed of a partisan opponent. As Renoir said (and here’s a quote to win brownie points with your professor): “in this world, there is one awful thing: everyone has their reasons”. Time and again we see the same hopeless patterns of recrimination and tit-for-tat spurred on by miscommunication and misunderstanding that Druckmann would be privy to every 6 o clock, and it shows in a story with a hectic new preoccupation. Is this the reason some players felt so detached from the story? A common complaint about Part II is that it doesn’t feel like a Last of Us game, and it’s hard to pin down why. And yeah, looking back at the fresh-faced 2013 original, the difference in how enemies are portrayed is striking. On the other hand, some have praised Part II for its relevance. But it’s important to remember that what is relevant at one point may seem outdated in the future. Only time can tell.
2013’s Fan reaction: More than anything else, the aesthetics of Part II takes cues from the fan reaction to the original game. Recall the announcement trailer in 2016. The scene: A bloodied hand, presumably Ellie’s, reaches into the frame, vermeiled with an intricate floral tattoo. The first thing it does is reach for the kind of acoustic guitar a school kid would have gathering dust in a corner, and, surrounded by bloody viscera in a room that resembles the original’s start screen, begins playing a morose country tune. Coming Soon. The fan reaction to the trailer was overwhelming, and it turned out to be a perfect summation of the game’s aesthetics, which included an innovative guitar playing mini-game. At first glance, it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? Wasn’t there a cutscene of Ellie playing the guitar in the original? Well no, but Joel did mention he wanted to be a singer. Another line towards the end has him suggest he teach Ellie to play the guitar. And of course, there’s Santoalla’s guitar score. And that’s about it. Again, The fan reaction, largely on the internet, after the release of the first game was unmissable, certainly to the developers. Just YouTube search “Last of us cover before:2016” to see the evidence. A literal avalanche of fingerstyle covers, fanart, fanfiction, spoofs, theories, discussion about the ending. Hundreds of hours informed the next instalment, in which one scene has Ellie playing the entirety of Take on Me (sad version) in the vein of a bedroom Youtube cover. Sure enough, clipped and wrenched from its context the scene’s pulled in 11 million views. Not logically but aesthetically, a floral tattoo would seem out of place in any zombie-infested post-apocalypse, but it makes more sense as an unconscious continuation of the fanbase’s aesthetic, which had fans getting tattoos of iconography and characters and fireflies and then sending it to Druckmann, who absorbed these cues as unknowingly as he utilized them. (Writing a 20-hour story isn’t easy, after all. And you can’t help but take cues from whatever dominates your own life.) Those same firefly sigils you can now see in Ellie’s journal, an all-new mechanic that houses pencil sketches of characters that look eerily similar to the same fan art that fans were sending Druckmann. Being 19 at the story’s outset, Ellie is finally old enough to play the original game. Not only that but she’s also morphed into the exact demographic of said game. And while Part II’s aesthetics seem to connect back to Part I, this is only an illusion and causes some cognitive dissonance in the player’s mind.
There’s something to be said here about the trend of modern franchises rolling around in the muck of their legacy. If it isn’t enough for a Halloween film to bring back ageing extras who had 5 minutes of screentime in 1978 rather than risk a new idea, or a Matrix reboot to have Keanu WATCH a projection of the 1999 film, then maybe remember the near-forgotten Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Soppy violin stings and shots that ooze over ghost-traps and dusty uniforms like an ectoplasm on a pornographer treat these props with such reverence that you’d almost forget that Ghostbusters was never a particularly sincere film. Words to describe it would include dry, sarcastic, detached. Flat shots lingered on Bill Murray’s cocaine addled ad-libs in the throes of an absurd premise. So then 2021’s Afterlife doesn’t even celebrate the 1984 film. It celebrates the memories of toys, merchandise, Slimer twinkies (Americans). A monument to nostalgia. That’s the state of American media production in a nutshell. And I think most can feel that it’s not conducive to original, exceptional storytelling. It’s like a mirror reflecting a reflection of a reflection endlessly until all you see is a crude green blur. I won’t say The Last of Us Part II is on this level. It’s still an exceptional game that, if nothing else, tries to subvert expectations, which is more than can be said for most of the aforementioned SeaBoots. But it’s a tendency I’m diagnosing right now in case it spreads. If it keeps up, what would the third instalment be about? Ellie learning to cope with survivalists who make consumer decisions based on leaks? Hopefully, TLOU doesn’t become a snake eating its own tail like so many franchises. It never ends well for the snake. It either throws up over itself or disappears.