What Does a Game Owe to Its Player?

‘The Last of Us: Part 2’ subverted the expectations of its fans. Is that a good thing?

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Gaming
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This article contains significant spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part 2.

On June 20, a few hours into playing the PlayStation 4 title The Last of Us: Part 2, the gaming YouTuber Justin McCarthy uploaded a video onto his channel, J’s Reviews. “I’m in utter shock,” he said. “It’s a betrayal of what made the first game so special…it really f*cking made me upset.” He vowed that he wouldn’t play it through to its conclusion. “I am done for right now,” he said. “I don’t even care what happens next. I really don’t.” 

A few days before that, the title had been described by the Washington Post simply as “one of the best video games ever made.”

For a release to find a markedly different reaction from critics and audiences is nothing new: Paul Fieg’s 2016 Ghostbusters remake and Rian Johnson’s 2017 Star Wars entry The Last Jedi were particularly explosive examples of such a dissonance. And there is, more broadly, little room for “meh” in modern culture: the response to almost every tentpole release involves righteous fury from fans who feel that their beloved franchises have been mishandled. Last year’s petition to rewrite the ending of Game of Thrones garnered over a million signatures. Viewers are still arguing about The Rise of Skywalker on Twitter, six months after its release. And the Synder vs. Whedon debate surrounding 2017’s Justice League movie shows little sign of abating.

Entertainment franchises have a tightrope to walk – to keep audiences engaged, without rocking the boat.

But the conversation surrounding The Last of Us: Part 2 is something different. By any standard, the extreme disparity in its reception since launching is unlike almost any other release: depending on who you listen to, it is either one of this generation’s best games or actual garbage. It’s a 10/10, or it’s thrown into question the entire purpose of gaming criticism. There is, seemingly, no grey area.

The Last of Us Part 2 Sony PlayStation UK Metacritic Review Bombing Naughty Dog game of thrones avengers justice league star wars rian johnson razbuten upperechelon

Naughty Dog

For those who missed the rise of this franchise, in brief: The Last of Us: Part 2 was released in June as the sequel to the 2013 horror-survival game, The Last of Us. Loosely, the first installment follows the story of Joel Miller, who finds himself shepherding a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, across a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic version of the U.S. The game drew almost universal acclaim upon its release, particularly for its depiction of the slowly-blossoming friendship between Joel and Ellie. It has since sold over 17 million copies – a staggering number for any release – and such was its impact that it’s now being adapted into an HBO series.

The sequel turns all of this upside down. In the game’s prologue, Joel is abruptly and gruesomely murdered by a new character, Abby, while Ellie is forced to watch. What follows looks to be a typical revenge narrative: Ellie sets off on a journey to find and kill Abby, and the player, as Ellie, will help her accomplish this. But halfway through, the perspective switches, and the player is forced to play through most of the remainder of the game as Abby herself. The character we had been led to hate is suddenly one we are forced to inhabit, as we retread previous plot points from the perspective of the villain (in one brutally memorable flashback, even playing catch with a pet dog that the player, as Ellie, had already killed). It’s a narrative flip that has caused incendiary outrage amongst some players, while being heralded by others as a stroke of genius.

“If fans were the best storytellers, they’d be the narrative leads in studios”

“It was a very confronting thing to do,” says Keza MacDonald, a gaming editor at The Guardian. “Video games tend to pander a lot to players and audiences: they get trapped within the confines of what they think their fans will like. So a lot of people – especially younger gamers – haven’t played much that’s challenging emotionally and thematically. So it was very brave of [the game’s developer] Naughty Dog to have essentially said, ‘Fans might not like this, but we’re going to do it anyway.’”

Video games aren’t alone in being held hostage by their preconceptions of “what the fans want.” Many felt that Game of Thrones’ sharp decline in its later seasons was due to an increasing awareness of fan expectations: keeping audiences happy meant that certain characters couldn’t be killed off, in contrast to the brutal, shocking killing of seemingly central characters that was once the show’s hallmark. A similar issue derailed the ending to the Avengers series of films: after a plot point in the penultimate film killed off several of the story’s primary characters, a deus ex machina in the closing chapter of the final installment saw almost all of them brought back to life, just in time for a neatly resolved ending. Entertainment franchises have a tightrope to walk – to keep audiences engaged, without rocking the boat. 

The Last of Us Part 2 Sony PlayStation UK Metacritic Review Bombing Naughty Dog game of thrones avengers justice league star wars rian johnson razbuten upperechelon

Naughty Dog

It’s a pressure which The Last of Us: Part 2 is not immune to. “It’s important to remember that this is a multi-million dollar, blockbuster game,” says MacDonald. “To make choices that make a game less fun is a huge gamble. Not just a creative one, but a financial one, for everyone involved.”

For some, the gamble didn’t pay off. For the YouTube gaming reviewer UpperEchelon, it fell flat: his video review of the game is titled “Masterpiece? ABSOLUTELY NOT.” For him, the game – in its effort to do something unexpected with the narrative – jettisoned any enjoyment for the player. “The buzzword they always use is ‘subverting expectations,’” he said. “But if the expectation is positive, and you subvert that, doesn’t that just make it bad? ‘Subverting the expectation’ that a game will have a meaningful, satisfying storyline just doesn’t add up to me.”

“This game seems obsessed with making you, the player, as uncomfortable as possible.”

He felt, too, that some of the substantive elements of the game’s negative criticism have been shouted down. “There’s value, of course, in doing something purely for the artistic vision and not caving to what you think the fans want,” he says. “I’m not going to fault them for pursuing their own message. But if you take Game of Thrones, by way of contrast: even when they would unceremoniously kill off a character, there were always a lot of characters left. There was still someone in the story that you could root for. With The Last of Us 2, there isn’t that. They really seek to tear down the characters that you love. And it’s a big ask to expect a player to stay with them through that, when they’re getting very little pleasure back.”

To him, the idea that a game could be worthwhile if it’s not particularly enjoyable might be a stretch too far for many players. “It can absolutely be done that a game can be unpleasant for deliberate reasons, and successful for doing so,” he says. “But a developer has to understand that the wider audience isn’t necessarily viewing it that way. And it might not be something they are ready for.”

The Last of Us Part 2 Sony PlayStation UK Metacritic Review Bombing Naughty Dog game of thrones avengers justice league star wars rian johnson razbuten upperechelon

Naughty Dog

How much fun should a game be? By now, we’re used to watching films or television series that can be gruelling, because we believe that doing so might be an edifying experience. In gaming, though, it’s not so simple: the player actually has to inhabit and interact with the world of the game. Challenging, upsetting, or unpleasant narratives are, perhaps, harder to swallow. But it’s a boundary that, in recent years, many developers and game designers (most notably Hideo Kojima, with his 2019 title Death Stranding) have experimented with. “I think the function of games in many people’s lives is something that doesn’t require too much thought: switch off, have fun,” says MacDonald. “But having games that do challenge you – that might not necessarily be that enjoyable, but do have something to say – it’s a vital thing for any art form.” 

Razbuten, a YouTuber known for his thoughtful, meditative takes on gaming, agrees. “There were moments playing The Last of Us: Part 2 when I was tired, I was done, I didn’t want to keep experiencing it. Frankly, if you’re not exhausted by the end of the game, I think you’re missing the experience. But I think there’s a place for that – it’s just not something that we’re used to seeing in major games. So many of them end up appealing to the lowest common denominator.”

For him, the phrase “subverting expectations” has become heavily loaded. “It became dirty after The Last Jedi,” he says. “Now, when a lot of fans hear it, they instantly assume it’s going to mean that a story they love is going to suffer. I think there’s a nuance in it that’s been lost: subverting audience expectations is a device, and it can be used well or it can be used poorly.”

The Last of Us Part 2 Sony PlayStation UK Metacritic Review Bombing Naughty Dog game of thrones avengers justice league star wars rian johnson razbuten upperechelon

Naughty Dog

Generally, he believes that a game’s willingness to risk audience satisfaction for the sake of a stronger narrative should be applauded. “I don’t think any developer owes any story beats to fans,” he said. “If fans were the best storytellers, they’d be the narrative leads in studios. I feel like a lot of the criticism is coming from people who don’t write. And their take of what good writing is, is not super informed.”

He argues, too, that the game’s challenges aren’t a flaw: they are a deliberate extension of its themes. “This game has caused actual grief for people. They are experiencing feelings of loss, anger, sadness,” he says. “A response like that shows how powerful this medium can be.” For him, being forced to play as Abby – a character that most audiences will undoubtedly dislike – is a thematically significant choice. “The whole story is about learning to live with someone you can’t forgive,” he says. “So the point of Abby in the game is for the player to experience that. She has killed a character that you probably spent 15 hours playing as in the first game. You cared about him. It’s impossible to forgive what she’s done. But you have to learn to live with her. I think that’s brilliant. And it’s a really interesting way to tell a story.”

In spite of its controversies, The Last of Us: Part 2 is an unqualified smash-hit. It’s broken sales records globally, and looks set to be the most successful gaming launch of 2020 by a clear margin. “Hopefully it might give other, larger studios a bit more confidence to go with what they creatively want to do, instead of worrying too much about fan reactions,” says MacDonald.

The Last of Us Part 2 Sony PlayStation UK Metacritic Review Bombing Naughty Dog game of thrones avengers justice league star wars rian johnson razbuten upperechelon

Naughty Dog

In early July, J’s Reviews uploaded its second video about the game – one that McCarthy considers his “real” review. “If there’s one thing I’m very bad at,” he says, “it’s admitting when I was wrong.” In this video, he acknowledges that the title is a “solid game, all things considered,” but still believes that the narrative experience falls short. “This game seems obsessed,” he says, “with making you, the player, as uncomfortable as possible.”

A couple of days after that video was posted, he reflected on his perspective of the game now. “Once the shock left me, I was able to see that overall the game is good – just not what I really wanted,” he said. “I don’t think games are made in a void. I think games should be made to – maybe not always make the audience happy, but they should at least make you feel satisfied. Trying to be deep for the sake of itself – it’s not a winning strategy.” 

Nevertheless, McCarthy decided to finish playing it through. “I just felt like I was robbing myself,” he said. In the end, after finishing it, he “felt heartbroken, like the series was forever gone.” But what if a third installment came out? “I don’t know what direction this story could go in after this,” he said in his final video. “I just hope with all my heart that I never have to play The Last of Us: Part 2 ever again.”

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