If you’ve been looking forward to The Last of Us Part II, I’m sorry to report that much of it will be drainingly familiar. You will doubtless have tried to avoid the spoilers that spread, like a mist of spores, back in April. I would wager that, in recent months, you’ve wandered down vacant streets, veering sensibly from any signs of movement. And, when you roam the desolate aisles of your nearest supermarket, I imagine that your gaze has been sharpened for the telling glint of useful supplies. For those that look to art for escape, to be sucked into a world away from ours, this might graze too close to the bone. At one point, our heroine, Ellie, mentions a series of movies, saying, “Joel actually saw the last one in a theatre. Isn’t that crazy?” A theatre! Remember those?!
The game is set in the weary wake of catastrophe. Most of the planet has been wiped away by a fungus, called the Cordyceps, which turns people into mould-encrusted raveners. Those that have managed to remain human are faced not only with the daily threat of infection—contracted through a bite or by breathing clouds of foul dust—but the challenge of hanging on to their humanity, as it chips and peels against the elements. Ellie is mysteriously immune to the virus but as vulnerable as anyone to the slide, both moral and spiritual, into ruin. “How old were you when you first killed someone?” The question, which could easily echo through a courtroom, or from one grizzled soldier to another, is batted lightly between Ellie and Dina, two teenagers on horseback, shooting the breeze on a sunny afternoon. The answers? Fourteen and ten.
The pair are heading for Seattle, on a mission of revenge. The story begins in the frozen fastness of Wyoming, four years after the events of The Last of Us. Ellie and Joel, her friend and guardian, have settled into a survivor community in Jackson. The opening act is a slow, glittering thaw, as we’re grounded in these characters’ lives—the chores, the patrols, the stolen scraps of happiness. A snowball fight with a group of children is at once a tutorial, a sprinkling of texture, and a presaging of things to come: inviting us to consider what else, in the course of the action, might fall into our crosshairs. The developer, Naughty Dog, pulled a similar trick in Uncharted 4, as Nathan Drake, an ex-adventurer boxed in by suburbia, fell into a pretend firefight alone in his loft, shooting fondly at the spectres of his past. It was just about the best thing in that game, guaranteeing a lump in the throat; here the same technique is served up with a chill, a warning of approaching cold.
And so it proves. An act of brutal violence cracks the relative calm and draws Ellie out—cutting her adrift from Jackson, along with Dina, her lover, and setting her on a bitter path. The upshot of all the bitterness, as far as we’re concerned, is the chance to take in the landscape. How does it all look, four years on? Well, about four years worse. The bulk of your time is spent in Seattle: a rainy shell under a bruised sky, the target, we are told, of government bombing—hence the rivers, formed in the gullies of old, wrecked roads.
Naughty Dog remains an unparalleled purveyor of decay—maybe the only American studio that can match FromSoftware, in that regard. The art direction, led by Erick Pangilinan and John Sweeney, draws its power to unsettle from a simple understanding: that seeing a city razed by fire is fine for a quick blast of horror, but, if you want to get to the root of our fear, you’ve got to go green. Check out the huddle of pine trees, packed between the buildings downtown, or the writhing ropes of ivy overhead. (Naughty Dog opens the place up—as in the Madagascar section of Uncharted 4—into a non-linear sweep.) The reason these sights stir us, and why I’ve been unable to shake them from my mind, is that they offer a glimpse of the post-human. When the urban block is bitten and infected with foliage, we are met with the troubling beauty of our end, and of what will remain after we’ve slipped away.
In preparation for The Last of Us Part II, I replayed the original (the remaster, on PlayStation 4), and was struck by how strange it looked: almost comically vivid, splashed with colour, its darkness brooding under a bright surface. The new game, by contrast, is dimmed—all espresso blacks and leathery light. Its darkness is the surface. The motion-capture technology—with which every freckle, crinkle, and curve is rendered, and rolled into each performance—allows emotions to gust freely across faces, like passing clouds. I’m pleased to say that all this verisimilitude, airless on its own, is pressed into service as a palette for expressionism. Note the numbing white-blue of the early scenes, in Jackson, as though the pains of the past were on ice; or the rich, arterial red that bathes an abandoned hospital, through which Ellie hunts her prey.
The hunting, you’ll be happy to know, is back, with several new extras bolted on. You can now go prone, rustling through tall grass; shoot while lying on your back, a useful retort when knocked to the floor; and dodge incoming blows, the better to counter with a swing of your own. (Plus, you can now craft nifty suppressors, by fastening a plastic bottle to the barrel of your gun.) Your enemies, not to be outdone, have also upped their offense. The troops of the Washington Liberation Front—a military outfit with members on Ellie’s hitlist—are accompanied by dogs. These proud hounds will fix onto your scent and follow your movements, their owner in tow, gun in hand. Ellie still possesses the indispensable power to hone her hearing, darkening the world—if that is possible—and highlighting her enemies in ghostly white. By doing so, she can see the spoor trailing behind her, and lead the dogs sneakily astray.
The WLF (or the Wolves, as they prefer) are at war with the Seraphites (or the Scars, as the Wolves prefer), a band of religious zealots. They communicate, out in the field, by whistling to one another, and have the charming habit of hanging people they don’t like, and disemboweling them for good measure. All the more reason to go stealthy, I say, the better to avoid a nasty fate. How you want to tackle these encounters, often in vast, vertically designed areas, is up to you. Should you wish to go in guns blazing, the option is there—though, given the scarcity of scroungable ammunition, it isn’t always advisable. The ability to instantly restart each clash is enough to tempt you into trying a perfect run, or different tactics entirely.
Ellie is ductile, capable, but, crucially, only human. Her brand of violence possesses none of the valour that wafts, like aftershave, off Nathan Drake. It’s sweaty and vicious, carried out with an efficiency that’s bred by fear, and the animations have a dreadful shiver and snap. Witness the chunky spray of a headshot, or the deep, awful thud of a lead pipe and you may find yourself grimacing. It’s worth asking, too, how the game feels, or may bid us to feel, about such depravity.
At one point, we notice a character clutching a PS Vita—a shameless Sony plug, but with good purpose. On its screen, and blaring tinnily through its headphones, is Hotline Miami. Naughty Dog’s motive is clear. The most important moment in that game came courtesy of a man in a rubber chicken mask, who asked, “Do you like hurting other people?” The question was, in part, rhetorical; the answer, for any action game worth its salt, should be “yes.” However, it carried an accusatory ring, which rose above its genre and resounds here. Ellie’s real quest isn’t to kill but to break the long, noose-like loop of violence, before it tightens irreparably around her spirit. However, it’s a quest liberally strewn with gashed throats and cracked bones. In a game that makes hurting other people very fun indeed, it’s hard to have scenes that throb with moral conviction; or characters who labour to unburden themselves of hatred after bouts of savagery.
The heavier the theme the thicker it hangs in the air, and at the outset, when the mood was like iron, I was worried. I found myself looking for the light. Thankfully, the grim tone is pierced and peppered with shards of gossip, humour, and larky bickering. Fans of the first game will recall the scene in which Ellie happens upon a diary, left by a long-dead adolescent. “Is this really all they had to worry about? Boys. Movies. Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt. It’s bizarre.” How relieved I was, in the sequel, to hear talk of movies, of whether or not Ellie was wearing the same clothes as yesterday, and of who is sleeping with whom. It’s bizarre; even in the direst of times, when death hovers at the fringes of routine, life, and young lust, finds a way.
The writing, by Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross, has, in the early hours, a knifelike thrust. When it comes to plot fuel, there’s none more potent—leaded with emotion and demanding of our narrative loyalty—than spilt blood. Gross has previously worked on HBO’s Westworld, and there are qualities here that abound in great TV: the democratic development of supporting characters, the tactical stapling of story arcs, as they wind and bind through episodic chunks (Ellie’s journey is divided into days). Unfortunately, it also suffers some of the symptoms of lesser TV: the mid-season slump, the overcrowded cast, and the heavy-handed exchange (“Those were your fucking people!” “Hey, you’re my people!”) Druckmann’s dramatic style, which he has described as “simple stories, complex characters,” is, at times, turned on its head. We get a tale interleaved with time skips, a couple of roughly sketched subplots, and a slightly padded second half. The game runs roughly to thirty hours, and lacks the leaner, uncluttered drive of its predecessor.
Almost all the characters in The Last of Us, though they often arrived jaded and ready-spent, weren’t bent under backstories; we were with Joel and Ellie the whole way, from the moment they met, and most everyone who shuffled on and off the stage was as new to them as us. Compare the scope of the sequel, whose details seep beyond the bounds of what we see. Ellie keeps a journal, regularly furbishing it with drawings and scrawled thoughts. It’s a nice touch, but it’s also a crutch. Much of the connection between Ellie and Dina, for example, is crammed within its pages; on screen, we move, in no time at all, from the flush of a first kiss to a fortified relationship.
More time is spent on the machinery of Druckmann’s themes. What are they, exactly? Principally, that people are bound not only by common cause and shared belief but, more deeply, by the grey moral gloop in which they are all dipped, and thus by their capacity to scrub down the rot. But I couldn’t help but think that the point was driven home in the first five minutes of the original: people were taken into the street, tested for infection, and shot, pleading for their lives, by the ruling remnants of government. Within the next half-hour, Joel and his partner, Tess, executed a man for stealing from them. There was plenty of gloop to go around. Do we really need the numerous factions, in The Last of Us Part II, with which the same idea is weighted and worried over for far longer? I’ll point you to the relevant page in Ellie’s journal: “Scars. Wolves. Fireflies. Fuck all these groups.”
Where the game succeeds, though, isn’t in how close it scrapes to the level of prestige TV, or to films. Its coup is not, “Look how closely we can make games resemble highbrow art.” It’s more, “Look what previously fenced-off realms we can get interactivity into.” If the drama has quiddity, it isn’t only because of immaculate facial animation, fine acting, or writing that’s been gritted with freshly ground experience; it’s because you are anchored to it in action. Interactivity is wielded like a weapon—as sharp as a pen or a camera or a point of view. While its heftier parts fade, its small moments draw sharply into focus. It’s telling that the one that has lodged in my head is a line of incidental dialogue, optionally triggered during play. Two kids in a crumbling street, assailed by violence, governed only by insular regimes of hate and distrust: “We were born in the wrong time, man.” Indeed, would that we could whisk them out into ours, in which such horrors are unthinkable.