#iwouldntrecommendit: the last of us, part 2: a world with no people

Doc Burford
79 min readDec 28, 2022

I don’t get much out of other people’s dreams.

The human brain is a vast neurological labyrinth of fat and nerves and electrochemical impulses that, during moments of unconsciousness, gifts its person with bizarre sequences of human imagination. You close your eyes, you drift off to sleep, and you experience some really weird stuff. Upon waking, if you remember it (and studies have shown that everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers dreaming unless woken up mid-dream and asked to share the details immediately), you may find the dream slips away quickly, and a story that made sense as you slept no longer makes sense in the telling.

This is why I don’t get much out of those dreams; they’re imbued with a sense of meaning, but five, ten, sixty minutes on, and the dream stops meaning a lot. Only bits and pieces carry any weight, and what little weight they carry sounds silly when spoken aloud.

We don’t tell stories like dreams. Our stories are logically constructed. We start off with “a man walks into a bar,” and we build up to something before we end with “do you really think I asked for a twelve inch pianist?” Is the story interesting? Only if the audience wants to know what happens next. Was it worth telling? Only if the audience got something out of it on an emotional level. Intellect matters, but not nearly as much.

A dream story is hard to make interesting because it’s a series of scenes, the brain haphazardly filing away memories or conscious thoughts into long-term memory (or so I’ve been told); it’s not an emotional process, it has no profundity, it’s just weird because the brain’s doing administrative tasks in the background. It’s not what stories want to be like.

When I evaluate a story, I don’t evaluate it on dream logic, I evaluate it on the impact it has on the audience. “But Doc,” you might protest, “that’s entirely subjective!” Yes, that’s why I use the expertise I’ve developed in understanding the mechanics of the art form and how it’s most effectively deployed to understand what the artist wants. Some people have argued you can’t really know an artist’s intent, but the people who say this are always people who don’t study the art form; students of the form are more than capable of expressing what the art is attempting to accomplish. I’ve yet to meet an artist with any serious background in the craft who says that it’s impossible to know what the artist is thinking.

Like, check this video out of a drummer working through how Enter Sandman is structured; he’s anticipating it, he’s learning from it, he gets the craft.

It’s a fantastic video, and check out the comments! One of my favorites is: “This guy looks like he can see the matrix whenever he listens to a song.”

It’s no secret. It’s not magic. Larnell Lewis here is an artist; he understands his craft. When you watch those glimmers of understanding flicker across his face, that irrepressible grin as he puts everything together, how can you feel anything other than your own sense of joy and inspiration? He gets it.

We can do this, you and I. We can take a story, look at it, take it apart and uncover its secrets, because while dreams are seen as having a mystic quality… the thing about stories?

Stories are works of craftsmanship.

If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:

paypal: paypal.me/stompsite

patreon: patreon.com/docgames

venmo: @forgetamnesia

cashapp: $docseuss

ko-fi.com/stompsite

Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.

What Deserves Our Attention And Why?

I’m kinder, I think, to stories told within limits. When I hear someone films a movie with a camera phone and somehow it looks good, I’m impressed. When I find out he spent several hundred thousand dollars on post-production to make it look as good as it does, I’m less impressed.

Craft matters more than end result; an indie movie pushing the absolute limits of a $15,000 budget is far more impressive than a $250,000,000 spectacle that safely follows an established formula. Quality of craft and volume are two separate ideas, and creativity bred through limitation is awe-inspiring in a way that safe, focus-tested work just can’t be. Ambition is half the awe.

A lot of millennials like me grew up in a society that praised hard work, but results matter a lot more; imagine being tasked with moving a bag of rice and you decide to move it one grain at a time. Sure, you can work really hard moving a bag of rice from point A to point B, you can spend a lot of time moving that bag of rice, but if you could’ve just put it on a hand cart and pushed it over instead of painstakingly carrying each grain one by one until the entire bag was transported. Effort isn’t what matters, the technical qualities of the tools aren’t what matters, the only thing that matters what someone accomplished with the limitations imposed upon them.

I know people out there who like to say that AAA games, projects funded by major publishers with budgets in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, almost always retailing in stores with prices at around $60–120 USD, depending on which version you buy, lack soul. There’s an idea that if a game is made by one person, the vision can be clearer, and if the vision is clearer, the art is purer, but most indie developers are motivated to make games for the same reason that most AAA developers are: it’s their trade.

Still… I’m willing to be more forgiving of an indie game with a development and marketing budget of $250,000 than I am an AAA game with a development and marketing budget of $250,000,000, right? Like… I’m fairly confident that the director of The Last of Us Part II, Neil Druckmann, was paid more during the preproduction of his game than the entire budget that I had for my latest game; the more money he has, the more room he has for criticism.

So, I have a policy, and the policy goes like this: if it’s an indie game with a tiny team and basically no money behind it, I’m not gonna be too harsh. If it does things I don’t like, I might even avoid naming the game unless I’m writing explicitly about that game. As an example, a long while ago, I wrote on twitter about how dumping lore at the beginning of a game could really kill the momentum early on and hurt the game; I didn’t name the game that made me feel that way because it would be punching down (or sideways). I can inadvertently turn people away from a small enough game to the point where it would be existentially damaging, and who knows whether the developer ought to know better or is just working within constraints?

An AAA title like the Last of Us Part II, though? That’s fair game; it’s got a metacritic score in the 90s, it’s got a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s one of the most advertised game of its year, it’s the crown jewel of a multi-billion dollar corporation’s portfolio. Nothing I say or do really matters in the grand scale of that; less than 1% of 1% of everyone who has any awareness of or association with TLOU2 will even read this piece.

Someone tweeted at me earlier after I expressed my displeasure with the game with a statement that was basically “that’s unfair to all the people who worked hard on it.” So let’s be clear: I am speaking in good faith about the game. I played it, I discussed it with friends I respect, and I am doing my best to formulate my honest to god opinion on this.

The goal is to be helpful to anyone who reads the article; you should be able to walk away from this having learned things that will help you make or understand games on a higher level.

The limitations on this particular game are a lot different than the limitations of games with way, way, way less funding.

Yes, people worked hard on it, but you can’t use “man hours spent” as a defense of something. Millions of man hours went into Twilight too, but that’s fundamentally a work of fiction that attempts to legitimize a very harmful and abusive relationship, so it can get right into the sea. Effort expended doesn’t matter; results within limitations do.

And The Last of Us Part 2 basically had no fucking limits.

In fact, someone who worked in the game said as much after he left the studio, which tried to break the law and prevent him from speaking.

When you have a budget in the nine plus figure range, there is absolutely no criticism, if it’s well-informed and in good faith, that’s off limits. If we apply ourselves and our expertise to openly and honestly discuss this game, then we’ve done right by our audience and the team at Naughty Dog, even if we ultimately think the game has failed in some way. Effort expended is not a shield, especially when the effort was expended due to mismanagement, rather than skill. Wasted time due to management is wasted time; 100,000 extra man-hours loses its appeal when it’s because someone leading the game doesn’t know what they want. Taking all the time in the world to figure out your game through relentless focus-testing is a sign of less creative capacity, not more.

And we are talking about the creativity here, so remember: uncreative hard work is still uncreative.

There’s another problem too, and that’s this: games are an artform that we care about deeply, right? I mean, it’s why we’re here, it’s why we don’t just return a disc immediately after playing, it’s why we’re talking about games months and years and decades after we first played them. We give a shit, so we should be keenly aware of the fact that every game released has an impact on people, and that impact can influence the way games are made in the future.

I play lots of bad games in part because it pushes me to go “oh, I wouldn’t do that,” where a good game might be the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter medicine go down a bit more easily; it might hide the failings — we might be tempted to explain them away because overall, the experience was delightful.

I’ve been playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses lately, and I have to cut through what I love about the game in order to be able to acknowledge its flaws; a much worse game makes it much easier to see those flaws for what they are.

An indie game that I got free on one of the many game services that give away free games isn’t likely to have a significant impact on industry creativity; a game developed by a studio that actively sends its PR after people who take issue the game or aspects of its development, however? That might actually impact video games.

It might impact the entire industry in a bad way.

We need to stand up to that. If a game’s got some flaws, a reviewer says as much, and Sony or Naughty Dog’s public relations bombards them with “you should give us better scores” when they had hundreds of millions of dollars and years of labor and thousands more bodies than other teams, then the gloves are off.

We must be honest in our criticism — as we discussed in the Cyberpunk Part 1 piece, if you have to conjure up false criticism for your point to stick, then you are wrong and off base. Be honest, relentlessly so, so your argument sticks, because if you are wrong, and people discover you’re wrong, they will use that as an argument to empower the very thing you wanted to criticize. If you’re honest, no one can defeat your argument.

Why is an AAA game fucking up so bad? Well, when something succeeds, business people decide “this is the winning model.” They don’t actually know why the thing is successful, they just know that it is, so they decide all the tangible qualities of the thing are what make it successful. People decided that since several games featuring male leads sold, those games deserved all the marketing budget, and games with female leads didn’t. When people didn’t know about games with female leads because marketing was afraid of handling it, those games didn’t sell well, and lo and behold, the marketers said “look, this proves games with female leads don’t sell!”

It was all bullshit, but that’s how the human brain works; it seeks out patterns everywhere, and most of us are horrendously bad about seeing patterns where there aren’t any. There’s a whole thing about the human brain’s development and adult brains basically optimizing to allow the better filtration of information by seeking patterns, but it’s not perfect and that leads to something called Apophenia.

Apophenia was a term originally coined to describe how the early stages of schizophrenia results in patients seeing patterns and feeling that there’s some meaning to those patterns when there is no meaning at all. Imagine seeing a green car when you go to work, and just before you walk through the workplace’s doors, you see a different car that is also green. Some wire in your head goes “green car! green car again!” and insists it’s a pattern, but it really isn’t; your brain was simply primed to notice another green car. That specific version of the phenomenon, a mix of confirmation bias and selection bias, became referred to as Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

Now, the term apophenia is more broadly applied to things like the way gamblers assume there are patterns to the various games they play that will give them an edge, when this is often untrue. It’s like seeing numbers one day at random, winning the lottery with them, and deciding those numbers possess inherent meaning, when really it was just coincidence.

Imagine a scenario where two similar games are released side by side; one game is about pirates and one game is about ninjas, and the pirate game sells really well. Maybe the developers on the pirate game go to conferences and talk about the brilliance of their design, or YouTubers make lengthy essays about why the game is successful, and people start copying components of those games in the search for how to make better games.

Maybe earlier that summer, a really good pirate movie had been released and people were looking for their pirate fix so they bought the game with pirates on the cover, while the ninja game didn’t get marketed well and a really bad ninja movie came out at the same time, so people were kinda down on ninjas.

For marketers, this idea of extremely unpredictable market dynamics is terrifying, so they try to invent shitty algorithms to support their doing shoddy work, but unfortunately for them, well… targeted marketing doesn’t work. For businesspeople, it’s terrifying because they’re supposed to make more money every quarter than every previous quarter to keep investors happy. Everyone wants a formula; everyone wants art and entertainment to be simple, but… the truth is, like everything, art is craftsmanship, and while it can be taught, it’s never as simple as a formula. It requires a lot of trust from the marketers and the executives towards the actual craftsmen making the product, and they’d rather be sold snake oil algorithms that promise to find ‘what people want.’ They’d rather trust the snake oil salesman than the actual craftsmen, because the snake oil offers to make their job easier.

In a capitalist hellscape where companies are endless maws that must be fed at all times, businesses would rather invest in properties with predictable formulas and listen to hucksters that tell them about scientifically sound methods of guaranteeing popularity than they would simply investing in actual craftsmen who know their trade, because these rich motherfuckers don’t trust the craftsmen they employ as much as they trust a book that guarantees you’ll make a banger every time if you just follow this simple formula.

But that’s crazy!

Think about it; on the surface… who picks a game out of a Wal-Mart glass case because the designers made sure all the room exits had shining lights coming through them? Fucking nobody does that, despite all the videos telling you that’s what makes for effective level design. Does that actually make a game good? Will that actually make the game sell? Hell no, man!

The game sold because people wanted a pirate game more than they wanted a not pirate game, and because the pirate game had a really good marketing budget so more people knew it existed. An acquaintance of mine never marketed a game they worked on until it went in the indie bundle for racial justice; lo and behold, they saw a huge spike in (positive!) reviews after that because people who were interested in the game finally discovered it existed.

Leading lines in your level design doesn’t compel people to buy it and almost certainly doesn’t cause people to recommend it to their friends — it might not even be good game design, despite all the YouTube videos saying it is, but more on that later. Unfortunately, because it’s simple and promises to solve all their problems, people like hearing it because it’s comforting to believe that there’s some secret and if you just adhere to this set of rules, you’ll make a surefire seller every time.

This means that a very successful video game can end up doing a lot of detrimental work because people assume everything it does makes it good, and by imitating what it does, the medium may actually be diminished. An issue I take with The Last of Us Part II is the way in which the messaging from Sony and Naughty Dog tried to push it as this Big Important Game That Brings You Closer To Its Characters By Adding a Jump Button.

Of course, some of you may recall that Uncharted games, like Naughty Dog’s immediately prior game, Uncharted: Lost Legacy had jump buttons, and that certainly didn’t make the stories better or more emotional.

We see this time and time again. A developer tries something, and either they, Youtubers, journalists, customers, or even the publisher’s PR guys show up and start talking about how crucial it is. Take God of War 2018, for instance. The PR folks brought up that the game was all one-take, and predictably, getting this bullet point in their inboxes led to a lot of journalists mentioning it — and even crediting it — with making God of War a better game.

None of the reviews or criticism I read were capable of articulating why never cutting was the right move; someone had told them “this is what makes our game good,” it stood out, so they decided it was, but lacking any understanding of why, they not only failed to explain why the one-take camera made the game good, but they also didn’t consider that it might have made the game worse.

See, the funny thing is, a few people who said ‘yes, the one take thing is great’ also said ‘you know, a lot of those bosses kind of suck. They just keep fighting this one guy over and over again.’

A thoughtful reviewer would have connected those points — the limitations of the camera put constraints on the fights the series was normally known for. The fixed camera, I’d argue, was the reason the game’s quality suffered in comparison to its predecessors. The journalists simply regurgitated marketing copy, just like the little soldiers Sony’s PR wants them to be. They didn’t question the connection between what they liked and what they didn’t.

Years ago, one of the same people who reviewed God of War and praised the one-take camera while complaining about the boss fights without seeing the connection, was editing a piece of mine. He told me he didn’t like the use of my word “experience.” I offered my reasoning, that “experience” is the way to describe the total package — since we were talking about a section of the game that was thematically coherent, and I was talking about how everything from plot to lore to quest design supported that theme, referring to the complete package as “the experience” made sense.

He relented then, but remained one of those mid-aughts editors who had the idea that certain words should be banned from games writing for no particular reason, which is a weakness that always caused that particular cohort’s work to suffer. That generation loved to focus on the individual components without seeing how they worked together. They’d get caught up on “i’ve seen this word too much” and start losing the forest because of all the trees.

A game is not a series of disparate mechanics. A game is a gestalt, an assemblage that communicates more than its individual components alone.

Some people think this means “sure, even though everything about the game is bad, but I like it, so it’s good. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.” That’s not what that phrase means; that’s not what a gestalt is. A gestalt is something that carries meaning through the combination of its symbols that is not an inherent property of those symbols.

A punctuation mark like a colon and a right parenthetical mean little on their own. Combined, they create a smiley face, like so:

:)

That’s what it means for something to be greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true of games. It’s not just one mechanic or two that we can observe in isolation, it’s how they play off each other that’s crucial to interpreting, understanding, writing about, and, yes, even making games.

You can’t just dump in a ton of mechanics that worked separately and hope they work together; game design is chemistry. Each of your elements interacts with the others!

I’ve watched as certain game designers in the educational space talk about design, and I’ve seen people who graduate their programs talk about design, and I’ve seen people who hang around them talk design, and the thing I keep noticing is how many of them come away from those courses with an expectation that game design is strictly dictionary-definition “game” design, which isn’t accurate at all.

Long time ago, people made things like pong, and somewhere along the way, someone went “wow, these are games!” (which they were) “and they’re on video” (which is like, sure, true enough I guess) “so we’ll call them ‘video games’!”

And the name stuck. And then you’ve ended up with people going “all of these things must be designed as games,” to which they most often look at board games.

But think about how small of a mindset that is; how useless it must be. It doesn’t take into account everything from flight simulators to visual novels. Not everything should be structured like a board game, and most ‘video games’ aren’t even strictly games, even when some of them have game-like components. Immersive sims, for instance, are games built around the idea of letting you inhabit a fictional, coherent reality. Thief is a game about being a thief in a fantasy world — it follows all the rules and logic you would expect as best it can.

Once they started introducing board game mechanics, they ended up making things like, well, Underworld Ascendant, which is… uh, not very good. On Steam, 58% of the user reviews are negative. That’s not great!

So you end up with a lot of poorly-designed video games that fixate on individual mechanics in their most game-like state, without any regard for what the game itself ought to be doing.

Video games should be made to order, as it were. What I mean by this is that every dish must be made with a consideration for how its ingredients interact; you may find that trying to put dill pickles in your ice cream isn’t exactly the tastiest treat, or that too much salt can make a dish inedible.

Unfortunately, a lot of poorly made games just throw all the “objectively good individual mechanics” into a stew and we get something far worse than it could have been if the game was more bespoke, less assembly line. But if there’s one thing Sony’s first party studios do well, it’s assembly line design.

(all my screenshots are normally mine unless stated otherwise; this screenshot is from a USGamer walkthrough and not one I took, because I didn’t have reference handy, which is probably why it has black borders, a problem with PS4 games you have to adjust manually on your console)

When talking with people who’d worked on God of War, a common refrain I heard was “this game was held back by the one-take camera because we spent a lot of time doing that and couldn’t do a lot of more ambitious things as a result.” The sense of smallness I felt when playing the game, a sense that shouldn’t permeate a game that features dead giants and the world serpent, stems from this.

And the funny thing is, God of War isn’t the first game to do this! We can go back as far as Half-Life. For third person games, at least as far back as Dead Space (which disguises its cuts on the loading screen) or Dead Space 2 (which has exactly one cut because Isaac passes out). Neither game was meaningfully enhanced by the experience; in fact, one could argue that Half-Life 2’s “A Red Letter Day” would’ve been served better as a cutscene.

Heck, one of the reasons my own games feature cuts is because of experience I had doing long takes back in film school; it rarely makes the work better and often only exists for the director to try to show off. I mean, consider this:

When I was working on Homefront, we brought in John Milius (filmmaker of Conan the Barbarian fame) and we showed him our single player prototype, a standard walk-and-talk through a post-apocalyptic community. It was meant to show what the player’s experience might be and that we could handle cinematic storytelling seamlessly intermingled with gameplay. He kept suggesting that we cut between moments — that we shouldn’t be spending time walking down stairs where nothing happens, that it had to be way trimmed down; but we insisted that he didn’t understand. “That’s not how games work, especially First Person Games — they’re contiguous experiences. This is what players expect, and it’ll break the immersion if you do it any other way. I mean maybe in film, but..”

Turns out we were wrong.

Is Wolfenstein: The New Order a worse game than Homefront? I’d argue cutting to those cutscenes is a lot more compelling — you remember BJ Blazkowicz, but can you say the same about… whoever the protagonist of Homefront was? Seriously, I had to google him, apparently his name was Robert Jacobs. When I ran an edit pass on this paragraph, I could remember BJ, but I completely forgot Robert Jacobs’. I still can’t envision him in my head, still don’t know who he was or what he cared about. I know so much about BJ.

I remember this one kid I grew up with who, at a Boy Scout camp, carried a kid from his cabin all the way to the adults a mile away after a medical emergency. His parents demanded he get a medal for this, but the thing was, the kid he’d carried?

The kid was diabetic and needed a snack, which he’d been keeping in his backpack for just such a situation. The kid who ‘heroically’ carried him to adults wasted a lot of time that could’ve just been spent listening to the person in need and getting him what he needed. But still, his parents wanted him to get an award for his effort, even though that effort made things worse.

My point here, which I’m hoping to reinforce and reinforce and reinforce is that people will tell us “oh we spent a lot of time on this so it’s good,” or “oh we did this monumental task we didn’t have to do, so I deserve praise.”

And the worse thing is that you’ll have people seeing a game like God of War 2018 sell a billion copies and assume it did so because of the oft-cited-in-reviews single-take thing and not the actual things it was doing well (like the refined combat) or the fact that it was one of the most heavily marketed games in the entire world, or the fact that it was the seventh installment in a massive global brand, where each prior game had contributed significantly to the game’s mindshare.

“This game did well because we designed it good” is not a fact.

I’m bought Pokemon Violet sight unseen because it’s Pokemon, not because of any specific design tweaks, not because it had some mechanics that always work on all situations, not because it was anything other than Pokemon, the brand I’ve come to associate with fun video games.

We, as developers, often attribute success to obvious factors and tales designed to wow us about how expensive and difficult to make stuff was, rather than really looking into the how and why something works or doesn’t, and that leads to our bosses, the suits whose only creative priority is “to make more money this quarter than last so I can cash out with a golden parachute early” demanding we make games with features that might make our games worse.

What do we want here? Do we want good games or do we want to shamelessly rip off things without understanding why they work?

So, to my friends who ask me “why give your headspace to the expensive video game that everyone’s talking about when there are ten million other, better, more interesting video games out there?” I can only say:

Because The Last of Us Part II is a bad, bad video game, in so many ways, and the ways in which it is bad may actually cause harm to this medium we know and love.

“But, Doc, I liked The Last of Us Part II.”

One of the difficult things about talking about art is that sometimes people like things that have problems and talking about those things honestly can be perceived, even though it’s not meant as such, as an attack.

Like, take Twilight. I know people who really enjoyed Twilight, despite its deeply problematic relationships that tried to normalize some really gross shit like “deciding to get married to a literal baby.” I get that you got something out of it and it meant something to you, but it still said that “this adult werewolf wants to marry this baby” and I’m not trying to judge you as a person when I say that “deciding to marry a baby” is a fucked up idea.

It’s a difficult thing to contend with the fact that sometimes we like things, sometimes they mean the world to us, and then news comes out that the people who worked on them weren’t great. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that something about ourselves or our enjoyment must become invalid once we’ve received new information. I’ve seen people trash things I know they loved just because they don’t want to go “oh, I loved something made by someone awful,” or “oh, now that I understand the work, I feel like I’m a terrible person for ever having enjoyed it.” No! Don’t deny what the work did for you! That was real, that happened! You shouldn’t deny your feelings just because you’ve learned information that would’ve changed how you felt if you knew it in advance.

My belief is that we have to be honest every step of the way, because that’s the only way to create useful criticism.

I’ve met people who’ve gone “well now that we know this person was garbage, let’s go back and shit all over his work that we used to love” because they believe that their consumption of a work reflects back on them — if they enjoyed Harry Potter as a kid, then they think people will hate them now for J.K. Rowling becoming, or at least publicly announcing, that she has transphobic views, so they start to say “well, Harry Potter was always bad.” And maybe it was! I don’t know, I never read Harry Potter.

But remember our number one rule: do not be dishonest in your criticism. It’s unfortunate that people who have awful views can also be people who write things that are meaningful to us, but we must not lie about the work. We can separate the art from the audience. I think The Last of Us II is reprehensible for reasons I’ll be getting into soon — that doesn’t mean I think you’re reprehensible for enjoying it.

Further, we must not criticize the people who like work that we don’t, not unless we know why. If a Nazi tells us “yeah I like this because it validates my worldview,” then okay, maybe you should be asking questions. But generally, it’s best not to comment on the fans unless the fans are actually doing something awful in relation to the work itself, like harassing creators because they wanted a better ship, or misunderstanding the point of the game to say “Ellie is totally a good person how dare you say she’s kinda a bad person even though that’s literally the point of the game.”

The problem occurs when people get overly defensive. You say “The Last of Us is kinda bad, y’know?” and they go “oh, you talkin shit about everyone who likes it?” No, dumbass, I’m talking about the game. People are allowed to enjoy dumbass shit. Calling it dumbass shit ain’t doin shit to you unless you’re an insecure fuck who thinks that your life is being invalidated by someone’s comments about mass media, at which point you should consider the massive, gaping need to work on yourself that you are so clearly demonstrating.

Here’s a single-paragraph example: I watched Thor: Love and Thunder. It was fun, bit like a Dorito, not really nutrient dense like a steak, you know? Shot very poorly, like they didn’t know what they were making and had to rush some CG shots.

I take issue with how Marvel stans have responded to criticism of any Marvel film by acting as if anyone who doesn’t pretend it’s more than just cinematic Doritos is somehow a snob, rather than someone who simply doesn’t feel the need to pretend junk food is a steak. Saying “this Dorito is not steak” is not an insult, it’s a statement of classification. Doritos are objectively not steaks. They’re corn chips.

As long as we are honest and we don’t criticize the audience for enjoying the work, we’re doing well. If the audience crosses lines — like, say, issuing death threats — okay, maybe it’s worth mentioning them, but don’t just watch a movie and go “you know, i bet shitty people like this movie.” Unless you can build that case, don’t make that claim.

We must be compassionate, and we can never judge a person for their consumption — unless, as was the case with Detroit: Become Human, ya’ll had ample opportunity, and when presented with the facts, several people said to me “those allegations about the studio are probably made up,” and when Quantic Dream was found to have committed those acts in a court of law, those same people shifted to “well we should give money to the leadership that’s very wealthy and abusing their employees so they can keep people employed.”

Once Quantic Dream brought those games to PC, suddenly, a lot of people I knew who defended them were open to the possibility they were abusing employees and spending money on their games was bad. I don’t think it’s unfair to suspect the defense there was rooted in some… maybe ulterior motives regarding PlayStation exclusivity. Pretending to be compassionate towards employees until the games were no longer exclusive is a mask off moment — you use people in need as an excuse to pretend your consumption of a product by shitty people is an act of benevolence, that doing this makes you morally good. It’s absolute horse shit. You wanted a Sony exclusive that was pretty, and you pretended to be moral until it stopped being an exclusive. I see who you are, and no one respects you for acting that way .

Okay, so there are times you can judge for consumption. But… most of the time? Let’s not. And let’s certainly not let it impact our criticism of the work. One of the worst human beings I’ve ever met likes one of my favorite albums. They can’t take my enjoyment away from me; basing our enjoyment on who likes or dislikes a work is ridiculous.

So, sure, I don’t know how you get past the whole Jacob/Renesmee thing in Twilight, but I’m not judging you in this piece, I’m judging the work. Heck, please remember that I’m writing this work and talking to you as if it’s a direct conversation, but I don’t actually know who’s reading this. Hopefully I get famous enough that people remember to read this essay hundreds of years after I die and it’s still useful. Bro, you might be one of my best friends reading this, you might be living on fuckin Pluto a millennium from now. I don’t know. I’m not judging you; I cannot do that and pretend to be useful. I am telling you what I am observing the work do based on the expertise I have in this particular area. I hope that you get something useful out of it.

I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment of a thing, but if there’s a problem, and if I believe that problem will cause damage, then I’m being irresponsible not to talk about it, right? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not the be-all, end all of art criticism; I’m a person with several degrees in storytelling, a professional storyteller, and someone who has worked on a bunch of video games, mostly NDA’d. Like… I have worked very hard to perfect my craft, and I’m nowhere near perfect, but I have developed some expertise, and so I’m speaking from an informed perspective.

No matter how much of an expert I am, though, you do not have to take my word as gospel. Maybe something doesn’t sit right with you but you’re a beginner and you’re not armed with the language you need! That’s okay, come talk with me when you’re ready. Maybe you’re a seasoned pro and you think I’m way off the mark. That’s cool too, let’s have that conversation; I’d love to learn from you, especially if I’ve put something ignorant out into the world and need to undo it. But I think, given my expertise, I’m on the money with this one.

I’m doing my best here! I can’t do any more than that. I’m going to assume you are too, so I’m not going to ask any more of you than that.

Here’s a weird pivot: I knew this kid who only ate peanut butter sandwiches. Dude wouldn’t eat anything else. Any meal, no matter how good? Peanut butter sandwiches. Why? I don’t know. I think he liked the safety of the routine. But he refused to break out of that cycle for so, so, so long. Now that he has gotten over that fear… he’s so much happier.

Sure, it felt comforting and safe to stick with the reliable choice, but by consuming as much cool stuff as possible, there’s so much more that we can accomplish. If we stick to the same few ideas… how can we find new things to love?

Would you rather have one thing to love or fifty things to love? The more experiences you have, the more great memories you’ll have too! Developing literacy might seem daunting, but it’s so worth it! There are so many new favorite things to find. If I never broke out of my own meal routine (usually pot roast on sundays, mac n’ cheese or sandwiches for lunch, and various arrangements of beans and meat for dinner), how would I have discovered my favorite food ever, Nasi Goreng?

One day, a guy I knew, Manny, an exchange student, brought me some chicken curry, pulled out an extra fork, handed it to me, and said “try this.” It was delicious; I asked him where he got it, he told me “Malaysia Cafe.” I went there, was intimidated by the menu, asked the lady at the front what she recommended, and she told me Nasi Goreng. I tried it, fell in love, and eat it every time I go back to Wichita. Heck, I’ve dreamed about the stuff. It’s my favorite dish.

I’m still looking for more favorites.

I think a lot of people in games are, but they keep eating peanut butter sandwiches every day. They play the games that are focus-tested into oblivion, whether that’s God of War or The Last of Us or Assassin’s Creed XXIV or whatever. They don’t break outside that mold. But… there are so many new favorites to find out there; do you really want to be content with just the focus-tested, soulless paste?

But… let’s say you’re content. You really don’t feel like need new things to love, or you’re content simply to buy every major First Party Exclusive that comes your way and that’s fine. But you also want to make games. Let me appeal to your ego instead.

In my screenwriting classes back in film school, every semester, several guys would come to the class writing a revenge flick starring a woman who had been assaulted and goes on a roaring rampage of revenge. It was basically just a retelling of “I Spit On Your Grave.” These guys always came in thinking that people would love their scripts; they felt they’d written something important, something that would do something.

“Yes,” they’d say in the class roundtable discussions, “she gets assaulted, but this empowers her.” These guys meant well, but they had no literacy at all, so they wrote these really awful, trashy scripts that fell flat, and as they went through school and developed literacy, they’d start to go “huh, yeah, that was bad,” and they’d write better scripts (I can’t recall any of them returning to the premise either) that people cared more about.

The more movies they watched, the more scripts they read, the more they’d realize that writing to a formula that the text books offered wasn’t enough to make their works good. They had to develop literacy; the more movies they watched, the more predictable plots they avoided, and the better they got at telling stories that impacted the audience the way they wanted to.

Nobody wants to walk up on stage and tell a joke and get no reaction from the crowd. An uncaring crowd is the worst one. You want people to care. You can’t do that if you don’t watch any movies or read any books or play any games.

This is the same reason that game design that just slaps on mechanics we know are good or bad — I think often about the famous game design teacher who once argued that we need a new term to describe games that are good despite ‘objectively bad mechanics’ like boss fights and 3d platforming. “How can Shadow of the Colossus be good?” he mused “with objectively bad mechanics?”

He was a fool; the truth is that there are only appropriate and inappropriate mechanics; there are no good or bad mechanics. The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine about ‘real time away missions,’ a mechanic I enjoy. He bristled. “I fucking hate those mechanics.” Okay, why? “Because I have to log in, even if I’m at dinner with my family, or I feel I’m missing out. I prefer Monster Hunter’s version, where it takes a set number of mission completions to a real timer.”

“Ah,” I explained to him, “the kind of mechanic I’m thinking about is not using a real time clock. It’s for a singleplayer management game, like Frostpunk; you’re running a town in real time, you’re sending people away to do missions, and then they return with resources. But you could stop the game indefinitely and come back — the game doesn’t persist when you’re offline.”

“Oh!” he said, “that’s great, that’d be totally fine, yeah!”

Appropriate mechanics, not objectively good or bad mechanics. Deployed in an MMO, that could be frustrating. In a single-player management game, it’s great. So understanding how and why mechanics work is crucial to understanding how to deploy them.

“But Doc! If that were true, why are you mentioning it with regards to a wildly successful video game? You’ve claimed that just because a game is successful doesn’t mean it’s good, and that good or bad design is only about the way it’s implemented, but don’t the numbers speak for themselves? Great sales and great reviews? Surely I can just copy The Last of Us and do extremely well.”

Well, first off, remember the comment from the former Naughty Dog developer above — the game is successful because of all the money Sony put into it which gave it shitloads of time to polish the dumb turd to a shine. Do you have Sony money?

Besides, Twilight made a shitload of money, but how much cultural value does it have now? Is it still resonating with audiences? Not really. Ever heard of movies like Sharky’s Machine or Arthur? Probably not. Blade Runner made less money than either of those back in 1982. But Blade Runner was good, and it lasted. The others? Maybe not so much.

The Last of Us Part II is successful, but I’d argue that it’s because it has one of the biggest marketing budgets of 2020; it has essentially bought success. Any game with that marketing budget is gonna make a bunch of money. I guarantee you that Sony didn’t give an equivalent budget to, say, Knack 2. Would Knack 2 have sold as well? Probably not, for of a lot of complicated reasons, but if it were marketed more heavily, it certainly would have sold a lot better.

If you can buy prominence, then prominence isn’t an argument for quality. A work does not last simply because it’s being spoken about a lot immediately — that’s golden parachute executive thinking, not artistic thinking.

So, look: I don’t want you to feel bad for liking this game, even though I’m going to talk about several of this game’s problems. My favorite reactions to my pieces are when people tell me they’re helpful, and that’s because I believe that’s what criticism ought to be; I want to live up to the criticism I love reading. I want you to come away from this piece armed with tools to help you appreciate games more. But you have to want it.

Problem is… well, look, this isn’t just an issue in games alone, but there’s an issue with criticism today where a lot of critics seem to want to consume media and say “I really liked it and you must too,” or “it’s really garbage and I’m gonna tell you what people don’t WANT you to know,” but very few people actually seem to want to understand how the medium works.

Long time ago, an ex-games critic wrote a manifesto called “New Games Journalism,” where he argued that “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game.” This was around 2005. By 2018 or so, we still had games critics acting like this was something new when it was already passe. I recall several games websites launching with their editors acting like they were hot shit because of statements like “we’re gonna talk more about how culture deals with games than what buttons actually do.” A while back, I encountered a freelance critic saying “hey, critics, your work matters more than the games you cover,” as if one person writing “this game made me reconcile with my grandpa” had done something more important than the game that made them reconcile with their grandpa, you know? The work did something to the player. I think the thing that caused the healing mattered more than reporting that the healing had taken place for a $100 paycheck on a mid-sized games website, y’know?

A little while ago (if you are surprised I’m about to defend someone from Naughty Dog, please reread everything prior to this until you understand why this is no surprise), a Naughty Dog artist got asked how to do portfolios and she responded with actually good advice that included advice to, y’know, practice. Instead of “thank you, this was very helpful,” a bunch of people got mad and accused her of classism… because they didn’t really want to apply themselves. They were mad she said one of the components of developing skill is, in fact, practice. That’s just a hard truth of the world: becoming an expert takes time and effort; it’s not classist to say “you have to spend a lot of time developing a skill.” They got super mad at her because she said “you have to try.”

If you want to understand games… like, there’s no two ways about it, you have to try. That’s the long and short of it. Passively enjoying a product that was marketed to you and explicitly playtested to make you enjoy it won’t make you a better artist. Are you a passive consumer or do you give a shit?

I want to empower you here, but you have to want it. You have to want more than you have. If your response is “I had fun with the game so I don’t care,” then… okay. That’s okay! That is the level at which you want to enjoy games, and I respect that. This piece will be completely useless to you in the same way that a barbell is useless to someone who does not want to lift weights. This piece is for those of you who are curious, who are passionate, who want to make great games and write great criticism.

I want to share the beauty of this artform with you. I want to show you Why We Do Shit. And that’s… like, that’s the entire point of this blog, or any column I’ve ever had, or any post I’ve ever written. I want you to come away from this understanding that pressing buttons has a specific effect on you; there is a craft to this artform, and anyone can learn it. It isn’t magic. You can do anything with games if you understand and respect the craftsmanship. Ask how the designers made choices that led to specific effects; ask why they did what they did! The more you know, the more literate you’ll be, and the more things you’ll find to love and the better you’ll be able to express yourself.

You can fuckin do this.

But… well, while I typically like to discuss problems and games that address those problems, The Last of Us Part II is… really, deeply, truly flawed, and as a result… this one’s gotta be just a bit different.

So let’s fuckin go.

Here’s a Story Summary With Some Commentary

The Last of Us is a game I have written about here. Because The Last of Us 2 borrows from that — and because my essay is also a sequel, I recommend reading that essay first.

This is criticism — not “everybody’s a critic” criticism that Teddy Roosevelt got mad about one time, but like the form of communication designed to educate people about art — which means I am examining the work in its entirety. If you care about spoilers, come back to this after you’re done playing. Form your own opinions before you read the rest of this shit anyways; I personally avoid all criticism of a thing until I personally have actually consumed the thing and formed my own opinions so other people aren’t really coloring mine.

But, let’s recap the entire plot before we start discussing how it works (or doesn’t). The Last of Us starts with a fairly typical apocalyptic story opening that channels contemporary disaster movie imagery to show protagonist Joel Miller losing his daughter (I have a lot of questions like: how was the military on the scene and aware they needed to kill infected people so fast while Joel and everyone else seemed entirely unaware of the infection at all?). Twenty years later, he’s a smuggler in a world controlled by an apparent fascist police state, and he ends up being tasked with delivering a girl to the resistance forces.

Why? Well, the girl’s resistance to the zombies.

Oh, right, I should probably mention this: there are zombies in this game world; as with all zombie stories, Naughty Dog gives them a new name that isn’t ‘zombie,’ so they’re called ‘clickers.’ They’re basically the reason civilization has collapsed and can’t simply rebuild — they’re the natural threat that makes the world dangerous. As with all zombie fiction, zombies are not really important on a dramatic level, they’re the background noise that makes the world the way it is. Point is, this is a game about a post-apocalyptic collapse and the adventure of a bad man who has to take a girl across country.

She’s foul-mouthed, he’s a literal murderer, they deserve each other. This dysfunctional pair makes it across the country, more or less screwing everyone over as they go, slowly bonding and treating each other with a tenderness that isn’t extended to the rest of the world.

Again, you should definitely read my analysis of the game if you want my actual thoughts on it; I’m recapping this to set up The Last of Us Part II because that game also recaps all of this at the start and it’s crucial to understanding what happens next.

The Last of Us ends with Ellie needing to die in order to cure the world and Joel, who has used Ellie as a surrogate for losing his daughter a first time, fucks up and kills the world’s last surviving neurosurgeon and everybody else in a homicidal rampage to keep his not-daughter safe. Then he lies to her about it and the game ends.

Joel is, in other words, an irredeemable piece of shit who uses the game’s major female character for personal therapy. To him, she is a replacement for his lost daughter.

He basically explains this at the beginning of the second game to his brother Tommy and adds that “she must never know.” Then we get a group of mysterious strangers who are looking for Joel to obviously kill him ’cause of the whole murder thing he did (though, like Harley in the Birds of Prey movie, it seems like he is unsure which crime he did led to his capture), and from then on, we alternate between Ellie, in an idyllic-ish settlement (the night before the game begins, someone says something homophobic to her, and when the game begins, he is made to apologize by the rest of the townsfolk, so it isn’t perfect, but a lot of people are doing their best to make it a good place to live, including correctly fucking on bigots and making them apologize), and Abby, the big, beefy badass who wants to find Joel and definitely do violent things to him.

Now, just so you know, I’m going to recap the entire game before we take it apart so you have an idea of how this works, even as a refresher if you haven’t played the game. Here is what happened, told as entertainingly as possible.

Eventually, Abby encounters Joel through happenstance (there’s some great facial animation/performance happening here, kudos to this) and kidnaps him and Tommy. Ellie is worried because Joel hasn’t checked in and seeks him out. Then we get this scene.

Sorry, that’s The Walking Dead, I meant this scene:

Sorry, no, not that one either. That’s John Wick. I meant a scene where Ellie gets hit on the head and sound fades out and she watches helplessly as someone uses a blunt instrument to kill someone dear to her, which is Joel.

After Ellie gets better, she decides to go do some revengeance. Well, no, her uncle Tommy decides to get revengeance, and Ellie basically uses “I’m going to go rescue Tommy” as an excuse to do some revengeancing of her own. Dina, Ellie’s girlfriend, decides to go with her. True to Naughty Dog form, Dina and Ellie have witty banter that’s fun to listen to; the studio has always been great with performance and getting fun banter between its characters during the down times in the game; the art team’s work is stellar, as always.

Anyways, lots of stuff happens in Seattle, where the game takes place; we do things that aren’t typical for video games (discussing the importance of a Torah and then leaving it exposed to the elements in the middle of Seattle for some reason, not even closing the door for the cabinet it’s in, which, as a former librarian and airplane restorationist kills me), we have some great rope puzzles, we have some very neat wide linear levels (though they serve no narrative purpose; they basically exist to let us find crafting materials which pad out the game’s needlessly bloated 30+ hour runtime), we have some really good “shoot people in the legs” shotguns (it blows their legs off and they scream about it, which is immensely satisfying game feel), and we have oodles of dollars spent to make this a very pretty game.

Ellie’s main opposition are the “WLF,” or “Washington Liberation Front,” or the “Wolves,” so named because “WLF” is one letter off from Wolf. These are the people who killed Joel. Before we encounter them, we find lots of notes that say the government totally sucks and the WLF rose up to oppose them. Then we find out, as the plot progresses, that the WLF are just as bad as the people they replaced! Gasp! The WLF instituted a curfew after opposing the government’s curfew, threatened to shoot people just like the government they replaced, and all that jazz. Basically, one totalitarian regime replacing another.

At one point, Dina reveals she’s pregnant and went on this journey anyways, which seems very foolish. Ellie sets off on her own, and then the game does the very Naughty Dog thing of revealing to us that the person we thought was one character (Tommy) was actually another character (our good friend Jesse from the start of the game who I didn’t mention until now because he just kinda showed up and became relevant to the plot). There’s a good complication here in the form of Jesse being Dina’s ex and the father of her baby.

Anyways some shit happens as Ellie tries to find Abby, she and Jesse split up, and she goes after Abby on her own, Abby isn’t where she thought, but Mel and Owen (characters who helped kill Joel) are, and Mel is pregnant (like Dina), but both of them try to attack Ellie so she kills them in self-defense.

And then, for the first time in the game, Ellie expresses regret about killing people. She has brutally killed a lot of people to get to this point, but she’s sad now. Maybe she has a rule against killing pregnant women, I don’t know, but it’s such a whiplash from what she’s done this entire time, murdering countless helpless people in her quest for revenge. You could argue that maybe she’s hit by the realization of what killing a pregnant woman means because of Dina, but the game never actually bothers to do any narrative lifting here. Those are dots you want to connect if you have something to say.

Whatever the case is, suddenly Abby shows up, takes Tommy hostage, and when Jesse runs in the room to stop them, Abby just reacts and shoots — putting a bullet through his face, brutally killing him. No closure, no nothing. He’s alive one moment and dead the next. That’s not really special; we’ve seen it in games before:

(not my picture; found it on google — all of the pictures I post are usually screenshots I took, but this one was a google image search! sorry! didn’t know how to get back to that point in RE7 quickly)

This is a cop in Resident Evil 7 who dies about three seconds after this picture was taken in game. Brutal, shocking character deaths are nothing new in games, but… we’ll get back to that.

Anyways, then… we cut.

We cut back to Abby, a few years previously. We meet her dad. He seems like a good, kind dude. Like The Last of Us, there’s a scene of the two dealing, in hushed awe, with an animal — this one a zebra that’s caught in a fence, rather than a giraffe like in the last game.

Skip forward, we find that Abby’s dad is the doctor Joel kills in The Last of Us; he explains to Abby that Ellie has to die to save all humanity. Abby’s dad is conflicted; Abby says what amounts to “I’d die for the rest of the world, so if you had to kill me, you should,” so you know she’s already morally superior to Joel “I will murder and lie about it” Miller.

Skip forward a bit, we see “oh no, her dad died,” skip forward even more, we see her in the WLF camp… only to discover that they’re not the monsters that they seemed to be when Ellie killed all of them (and a pregnant woman). In fact, we meet the pregnant woman, Mel. She and Abby are friends, but she was apparently weirded out by Abby’s whole “murdering the dude who killed her dad” because unlike all the other killers, she’s a medic, and as medic stereotypes go, they have to be incapable of empathizing with angry people and stubbornly idealistic about these things to provide our protagonist with some resistance. We also see farming equipment (just like Ellie’s home base!), children and daycares (just like Ellie’s home base!), and an overall idyllic home life; a stark contrast from the people who just ran around killing the shit out of everyone they saw. Guess even the despotic bad guys are human too, huh?

Hey, wait, is this a theme?

About horseshoe theory?

(horseshoe theory is a half-truth, the idea that the more extremist people go, the more similar they are. the truth part is that extremists display similar behavioral patterns — like entrenchment in a specific idea regardless of evidence. the falsehood is the idea their positions become closer — a lot of people will use this to say that people who say it’s okay to punch nazis are just as bad as nazis, which isn’t true. it’s always good to punch nazis.)

Orders are that Abby, Mel, and their pal Manny (who is a gregarious dude who seems kind of badass and up for anything, a mirror counterpart of Jesse, because of the horseshoe shit) need to go find Isaac, the leader of the Wolves/WLF, for a secret mission. Throughout the course of the mission, Mel warms up to Abby and Abby ultimately saves her life when she’s wounded. When they get to the base, well, it turns out that one of their own got killed and another — Owen, Abby’s ex — is missing.

So Abby tracks down Owen but gets caught by Scars — oh, right, I should probably have mentioned that there’s another faction in this game. On the roulette wheel of “stereotypical post-apocalyptic gangs,” which has cannibals, S&M LARPers, people who have eschewed technology in favor of religion and a simpler life, and a biker gang of slavers, they’re the religious ones. And they really hate outsiders too. Just like the WLF.

Anywho, two of them, Yara, and her brother Lev, rescue Abby. Lev and Yara are on the run because the religious bigots hate outsiders, but they also hate trans men too, and Lev is a trans man; he is being hunted by the Scars. So this unlikely trio partners up in order to escape, Abby leaves them in relative safety and tells them to get moving (a real “The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend” type moment), and then she goes and finds Owen.

Owen accidentally murdered his buddy, and Abby needs to bring him in, but Owen wants to fix a boat and run away. Abby’s like “no come back” and he’s like “and what, murder people like you do?” and she gets pissed so she shoves him into a wall, and he chokes her back, and uh…

source

Yes.

Then we cut to her back in the hospital, finding her dad, but the imagery is trippy because it’s a dream, and she sees her dead dad, and wakes up, and… decides… to rescue Lev and Yara.

So she does that.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the protagonist of the game gets fucked — literally — so hard that she has an epiphany dream that pushes her to… go… save some people. And this is how she turns from being a cold, hardened killer to someone who has one person to protect, just like Joel.

Yara’s in danger, but Lev knows a shortcut to the hospital, so he shows Abby the way. Shit happens, various complications occur, yaddah yaddah, eventually they get back to the aquarium and Yara gets saved. For whatever reason, regardless of all the character development that previously occurred, Mel says some shit about how Abby will never be a good person. I think what they were going for was jealousy, but the moment doesn’t seem to happen because the characters are established as relating this way; it happens because Abby has finally done something good, so the plot demands she now be made to feel sad.

Naughty Dog did this in Uncharted 4 (Elena flies all the way around the world to appear in Nate’s hotel room to berate him for going on a dangerous mission right after the emotional high of Nate rescuing his brother Sam in an exciting car chase; Nate has to kiss and make up with her but she leaves immediately because some people can just afford to fly all the way around the world to whine in person for 5 minutes, I guess) and Uncharted: Lost Legacy (after a dramatic and thrilling moment where Chloe and Nadine rescue and ride an elephant, Nadine gets mad at Chloe, they have a fight, she runs off, and we have to kiss and make up). It’s part of their formula that is just so obvious I’m not sure it works.

“Emotional highs must be followed by characters getting brought down” is a thing that can work really well — but remember what we said about there being no good or bad mechanics, only appropriate ones? Well, the same is true for stories. Naughty Dog has a template, and it’s one they follow with apparent thoughtlessness. This happens because this is where in the template it needs to happen; it doesn’t happen because that’s who the characters are, it happens in greater service to the template.

So Mel goes “you suck” and storms off, Yara finally has a moment to talk to Abby at length for the first time since they met and basically goes “you’re the reason I didn’t die, so you’re not all bad,” but then it turns out Lev has run off because he wants to convince his mom to run away with Yara and him. So… the two of you chase him down, but then you find Manny, who’s pinned down by sniper fire, and eventually the sniper kills him dead (just like Jesse!! parallels!), you and Yara make it to the Scars camp… annnnnd… it’s idyllic?

Don’t get me wrong, they’re all hateful bigots, but like, they have farms, and suspiciously aged log A-frame houses (the apocalypse happened like 25 years prior? so the cult was founded and set up in that time), like… it looks exactly like one of those church camps I could’ve been to as a kid. There’s sheep! There’s plentiful food and cozy fires!

Hey, wait, what is it about this game setting you up to think a group of people are horrible monsters only to reveal that they’re actually shitty to outsiders but their home life is actually kinda good?

And then… you find out that the WLF are attacking and the Scars are protecting their children (like the WLF, they have children! this is the third time we have seen this dramatic horseshoe theory shit!). Yara gets killed by WLF (in the same way as Jesse and Manny; brutally, quickly, and without any closure because it’s meant to shock you, because they keep hitting the exact same beats), Isaac confronts you but then gets killed himself, you take off running with Lev, he’s like “but they’re your family!” and Abby’s all “but you’re my family!” (I think I got this word for word but I’m not going to replay to check because I definitely got the sentiment) and I’m groaning so hard just thinking about this.

Then some dude shows up and he occupies some place of like… Being A Threat but he is just some guy whose face you shred open who keeps fighting until you kill him? He fights like one of generic enemies you see but has more health and has multiple phases that don’t alter the gameplay; he’s just… kinda there to be a boss I guess? And to let you horrifically mutilate a man by cutting his face open with a scythe?

And finally

finally

after nearly 30 hours of game… you return home… to find Owen and Mel dead.

Just like Ellie, you had a fight with people (instead of Joel, it’s Mel and Owen), and just like Ellie, you return to find them dead, and just like Ellie, you decide to get revenge, even though you’d be better off not doing that. So, as Abby, you go after Ellie and you find her and you nearly kill Tommy but don’t and you absolutely kill Jesse and then… you exhibit mercy after a boss fight where you nearly kill the pregnant (HEY! MORE REPETITION) Dina (“she’s pregnant!” “good!” “Abby, don’t!” “okay fine, but I better never see your face again”) and… then Ellie is on a farm back home with Dina. The baby, JJ (Abrams? Joel/Jesse?), is probably a year old, and Ellie has some flashbacks so when Tommy shows up and says “I found Abby,” Ellie’s like “cool, I’m going to go murder her even though she let me live and it’s over.”

Dina is like “please do not do this, I’ll divorce you if you do,” and Ellie’s like “no! goodbye wife, I’m divorcing you, fuck to you, my adopted son” and goes off to get even more revenge, despite having literally everything she wanted on a farm with the love of her life.

As someone with literal PTSD, the idea that Ellie has these super vivid flashbacks that cause her to lose control over herself and abandon the people she loves so she can go get revenge does not feel true to life. In fact, it feels as offensive as when people write stories about depressed characters getting ‘cured’ just by being happier; it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the condition. With PTSD, Ellie’s more likely to be sitting in ways that make sure doors aren’t behind her, having trouble sleeping, severe panic attacks, long periods where she’s back in the emotional state of the PTSD without the same stimulus, and things like that. But vivid flashbacks? Not really a thing, no.

Ellie would have to be one of the shittiest people who ever lived to choose murder over love. This just feels like awful tropes about mental health and the amount of anger I feel at how poorly this was portrayed cannot be conveyed in words.

The game, to me, felt done here. It felt like it should have been just one game, where you play as Abby only and do her story, but whatever. It would have been much stronger on a dramatic level. It did not need most of its content.

But then we go back to Abby, who is looking for the Fireflies, the faction that she was a member of before her dad was killed and wants to rejoin since the Wolves are crazy and fucked up just like everybody else. That’s the family she thinks she knows.

As we were streaming, my buddy (and television writer) Phil said “ugh, we’re gonna have slavers.”

I went “what?” and he goes “see that logo? that’s not fireflies, we haven’t had slavers yet, so it’s gonna be slavers.” Earlier, when I mentioned religious fanatics, slavers, S&M LARPers, and cannibals, I failed to mention that we got the cannibals in The Last of Us 1, and I called it live on stream, which was hilarious. Now Phil was telling me that Naughty Dog was going to do it twice in a single game; I could hardly believe Naughty Dog was that fucking cliche.

Well, fellas, Naughty Dog is exactly that fucking cliche.

The slavers take Abby and Lev and we move back to Ellie. Ellie tracks down the slavers, kills them all, finds Abby, cuts her down from a literal cross, then Abby, emaciated and near death, cuts down Lev. Ellie demands they fight. Abby won’t, because Abby has truly become a good person as a result of her need to protect Lev (and her direct contrast to Joel, who absolutely would throw down right now, based on his past behavior), Ellie nearly kills Abby, then Ellie suddenly decides not to kill her because violence begets violence and nothing is worth The Cost™, and sits in the lake and cries.

Once again, Phil fuckin came through, as I was like “oh god dammit Ellie, I guess the moral of this game is that violence begets violence and there’s no answer” and he was like “no, I wanna see how this plays out; I bet she won’t go through with it.” And she did not.

Then we get back to the farm and of course Dina isn’t there because she said “I’m breaking up with you.” Ellie walks back to the house and has a hilarious scene where she tries to play the guitar but can’t because Abby bit her finger off and then she puts it down and walks off and that’s the game.

Woo! So. That’s the plot.

Where to begin, thousands of words in? Story, right?

How about with the game design instead?

again, not my picture. weird. most of my pieces are. maybe because I didn’t take many screenshots? this is that capitol building i talk about in the next paragraph

You Thought I Was Gonna Talk About The Plot But It Was Me, Level Progression!

Given the length of the piece, I’m not sure it would be wise to spend a great deal of time talking about what’s wrong with the game design at large, so I’ll say this: some time ago, some dudes made some YouTube videos going “you know what makes The Last of Us so good? This level where you see a building in the distance, then you go into a building, then you come out, and you’re closer, and then you go into another building, then you come out, and you’re closer. It creates a sense of a journey.” It’s crucial to know that The Last of Us doesn’t do that all game — you basically get this, as I recall, with the Pennsylvania capitol building and the hospital in Salt Lake.

Remember that whole really important section where I talked about how the suits look at things that don’t make games better and listen to social media feedback and decide that it is? And that makes games worse? This section is about that.

In The Last of Us 2, it happens… a lot. It happens when you go to the Ferris wheel at the aquarium. It happens when you go to the skyscraper shortcut to get to the hospital. It happens when Ellie goes to the hospital. It happens when you’re in the big open space and you need to get into a hotel. It happens on your way to the WLF outpost. It happens time and time and time again. In fact, it’s about 90% of the game; I think I counted nine specific examples, which is like 30 hours of game. You move from point A to point B while cutscenes occur every so often. These cutscenes either exist to demonstrate relationships, provide a twist to existing knowledge, or progress the revenge plot.

There’s nothing wrong with cutscenes doing that; that’s what they’re there for, advancing the plot and hopefully getting us to care about why characters do things, but when your plot is two characters getting revenge on each other with almost identical story beats and very obvious comparisons to each other, all the oxygen gets sucked out of the room.

This is actually a problem with video games as a whole.

I’m working on a different essay now (UPDATE: in case you were wondering how long this essay took to write, that essay was July 2021, it is now December 2022, and the “now” above was in fact written spring 2021 or so) where I talk about the idea of what makes for good encounter design, and a big part of great encounter design is variety. It’s one of the reasons why we can go back to even simple arcade games from the 1980s and see the lava level, the water level, and so on. The goal is to create a sense of visual variety that makes the player feel progress while keeping the player from being bored through excess repetition.

Great games tend to be varied games. Look at how every colossus in Shadow of the Colossus is different, or how Breath of the Wild is often praised for having a compelling world (with desert, jungle, and snow biomes, among others) while simultaneously, and understandably, criticized for having those really, really boring dungeons that all look the same.

Why is Resident Evil 4 considered a perfection action game by many; what makes Halo games so replayable by so many? It’s because they have rich, exciting encounter variety! You’re doing a lot of different things over a long period of time, and this is always going to be more engaging than doing the exact same thing every time.

It’s one of the reasons why roguelikes are theoretically interesting but often not; if you make a good one, like Caves of Qud, you generate a breathtaking amount of variety that keeps people interested, but the dozens of roguelikes that aren’t interesting to most players are the ones where the randomness is predictable; Destiny 2 had an event every Easter and Halloween where there were like 20 different chunks of a map and it wanted you to run through those 20 chunks over and over again (it’s like 10 minutes a session I think?). Players very quickly got familiar with those chunks and the experience became a mindless drag.

So! When a game is entirely about a journey, moving from A to B to C, and the emotional and traversal beats repeat themselves, the game loses a tremendous amount of energy. It’s like a car with too much drag; it’s not exciting to drive. It’s a problem with games ‘cause a lot of people just create lots of places to do repetitive gameplay in and leave it at that, because games are strong at systems and content creation is difficult.

It’s more of a problem with The Last of Us because making every major story beat about “a big building getting closer” deadens the emotional impact. And look, level design is storytelling, right? You are working through scenes, the story is saying “and then the characters went from A to B.” In games, the problem is a lot of this is just “gameplay breaks up the story,” rather than “the gameplay is the way in which we tell the story — this fight is happening because it means…

In good stories, things happen for narrative purpose. It’s not just “oh, you’re getting bored, here’s a zombie,” or “hm, something needs to get in the way of our characters to spice things up,” it’s like… “Jack Traven is trying to keep the bus above 55 miles per hour but the road is out ahead and the clock is ticking,” The complications in a good story directly relate to the thing the character needs, and they never repeat themselves, because the audience already knows what will happen, which robs the scene of any narrative energy.

Do you see why this is relevant to The Last of Us 2? It seemed like a pivot when we went from a lot of story discourse to level design, but that’s because we never left story discourse; the goal was to show how gameplay and story are the same thing, and how gameplay that isn’t related to the story in a game ostensibly about story is actually bad storytelling. You’re diluting your narrative gasoline with water; the dramatic engine won’t run.

As Mamet, one of the 20th Century’s greatest playwrights (despite his repugnant politics, he’s a fantastic and astute dramatist) said:

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?

2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?

3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

So it’s not enough to have variety — if all your variety is just “how do I open this door? How do I get closer to that big object in the distance,” you haven’t created meaningful variety, because you have the same acute goal in every scene: how to get past a barrier?

In writing, we call this a “double beat.”

A double beat is when you encounter the same acute need multiple times within the movie, or you impart the same observation to the audience multiple times (a double beat, a triple beat, etc). The audience loses any impetus to keep watching if you repeat yourself. Once you’ve shown ’em how the trick works, pulling a second, third, fourth rabbit out of your hat loses its power. But if you go from pulling a rabbit out of your hat to sawing a person in half to breaking free of chains while submerged underwater for an impossible length of time… then you’ve got something interesting.

Naughty Dog, through their formulaic narrative structure, is all about the double beats, and the incessant need to show the parallels between every single faction in the game greatly bloats the work without adding anything of value to it. It is simply More Stuff, and most of that stuff is either traversal or repeating the whole “everyone is the exact same, there’s no difference between good or bad” kind of teenage immaturity horseshoe theory that they are espousing.

There is nothing of value here because the story’s rotten from the very core. It’s a theme without worth.

in other words, naughty dog hasn’t changed since this accurate depiction of their work circa 2010, which is not my image

It is repetitive because it is trying to hammer home a point without varying anything at all. It makes the core mistake that we discussed when talking about walking sims (of which I’ve made two, so don’t think I’m hating) — it confuses subject matter for meaningful execution.

Consider the overwhelming ignorance it requires to say something like “Can we make you feel hate, guilt, shame? Which are interesting feelings that are totally unique to videogames.” This speaks to a profoundly junk-food-fueled media diet.

If you actually consumed lots of media, you’d know not to say stupid shit like this, because you’d know these feelings aren’t unique to video games. After Elem Klimov made Come and See, he retired, because “Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” Come and See is one of the most profound works of anti-war sentiment ever made, a truly harrowing, powerful piece of fiction about the cost of human violence.

And he was holding back, because Come and See was based on lived experience: “As a young boy, I had been in hell… Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.”

This is a person who understands human nature and did his resolute best to explore it. Contrast that with someone like Druckmann, whose initial pitch for The Last of Us 2 was merely a gender swapped Y: The Last Man (if the unoriginality wasn’t enough, he had to be told by a woman how fucked up it would be to make a game about two dudes going through a world killing zombie women), and whose inspiration from cordyceps appears to have been this article on Cracked.

apropos of nothing

Where Klimov lived a human apocalypse, Druckmann certainly hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong; I was regaled with a grand, epic tale of how Druckmann had witnessed a man hung right in front of him as a child, and how that made him grapple with intense feelings of hatred for the murderers, so much that he wanted revenge. Such a tragedy would be an incredible artistic motivator, as it was for Klimov… if it was true, but it isn’t.

After chasing down the game of telephone, I found out that what had actually happened was that, in his 20s, Druckmann saw footage of a man being executed on television and got angry about that, realized it was wrong, and that’s what inspired this insipid tale.

That lines up with what we discussed in our last piece: The Last of Us is a series about copying what other, more successful fiction has done; rather than drawing from real life, from human experience, it copies something else.

It copies aberrations.

inspirobot invented this without me asking it to

What a Twist!

Wanna know a secret?

I’d actually like to work with M. Night Shyamalan because I think he’s a great director. Where he became a bit of a meme for people, I think, was when he became known for his twists. He’s great when he’s directing unexpected material, but when the twist becomes expected, then it becomes harder for people to pay attention to his actual skills as a director, which I think are tremendous. So people started looking for the twist, and they stopped taking him as seriously as they should have.

Personally I’d love to see him direct, like, a remake of Chinatown or something, not because of the twist, but because Robert Towne’s script is so goddamn brilliant and Shyamalan’s mastery of suspense is so strong that I can’t help but feel it would be a new masterpiece.

Since suspense is basically all I write, I’d love to see him take a crack at my own work. How would he direct a story like Adios, where two men are talking about one killing the other but don’t want to get to it?

Twists are fucking awesome. I love writing them — I love building up to something that makes the audience go “holy shit!” but the key to writing a good twist is that the audience can’t see it coming. If they go in expecting it, well, you run the risk of turning your game into a meme.

If you were to, say, repeat the exact same twist over and over and over again then it might lose its impact.

You can’t just take “I think this will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” bolt it onto a story, and claim that makes your story just as good as Casablanca. You can’t claim it has something meaningful to say about human nature.

But that’s what Druckmann does, suggesting that saying “revenge is bad” will provoke interesting conversations like we don’t already know that.

The thing is, his stories are assembled out of nothing but twists.

In Dawn of the Dead, a big twist is that the biker gang are the monsters more than the actual monsters; this made sense, since George Romero’s stories are all socially conscious and dealing with people, but when he, and hundreds of other talented people, put twists in their stories, they’re doing it because the twists are unexpected.

If I know a horse behaves a specific kind of way, and I depict a horse then acting in a way it shouldn’t — like, say, a horse eating a human’s corpse with its gigantic teeth — I can impact an emotional response in the audience. What gets the audience to care is the aberration, the break from the truth.

We cannot, therefore, say that “all horses are like this aberration,” or include the same horse-eating-corpse-scene into every future horror movie.

We cannot take this further and say we are saying something about horse nature, something that will inspire important conversations, when our stories are based entirely on the twists in previous stories. The shock was from the break in reality; a story constructed entirely as a ‘best hits’ of other stories cannot say anything about humanity.

Were these sequences appropriate for the story being told, or are they there because they fit the template or are just popular scenes or references from elsewhere? How can people connect with the story if it’s nothing but twists.

A good story is one that is emotionally true — one that we can connect with and buy happening, whether the events of the narrative make sense (like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly having our characters stumble upon the Civil War despite being way too far west of where any battles happened). What matters is the internality of the characters — if they’re inconsistent, or change who they are based on the needs of the scene, and the story’s just a grab bag of scenes from elsewhere, then it is literally impossible for the story to have anything meaningful to say; it’s too disconnected from real people, feelings, and emotions. It’s just copying pop culture.

You can write Terminator 2 and make it an exciting action adventure that deals with a kid’s feeling of alienation and his parents putting too much pressure on him, or you can be someone who goes “I really like the scene where Terminator gives a thumbs up” and put that in your story and do absolutely nothing with it.

“Follow not in the footsteps of the wise; instead, seek what they sought,” the saying goes. If you just copy what the wise did, but you don’t know why, and you aren’t building towards anything truly human… then you’re just some guy selling merch, y’know? You’re not really an artist. You don’t get to claim your games are doing important things if all you’ve got is characters with the emotional depth of funko pops.

Repetition, Repetition

Over the course of several interviews, I noticed that Druckmann kept repeating an odd statement — that the game needed to be big. What did he mean by that?

Well, my suspicion is that it’s because of the rotten idea at the very core of the game.

We need to show you that everyone is the same and we’re going to do it by repeating the same thing over and over again.

This isn’t a song, where a riff works wonders; this is a story. Repeating yourself over and over again makes you into George Lucas on The Prequel Trilogy, boring people and leaving little to no artistic impact beyond funny memes.

So The Last of Us 2 wastes time on its horseshoe theory bullshit. The WLF seems bad but is actually kind to its own citizens. The religious people are the same. Abby chooses revenge, Ellie chooses revenge, the cycle of violence continues. Druckmann kills off multiple people in the story abruptly, with no closure — making sure that both sides of this story get it. He uses threats of violence pregnant women as a plot point to increase the drama in the story. They even follow roughly the same arcs.

He tells the same story twice.

Why?

Well, as I recall, some time ago, Druckmann mentioned that he loves Robert McKee’s book Story. McKee’s kind of a dumbass — he’s credited on one movie, a made-for-TV movie called Abraham, from 1994 — but he was teaching screenwriting as early as the 80s, despite not knowing anything about it. Much like Blake Snyder, whose book Save the Cat comes highly recommended by people who don’t know anything about writing (because, like Story, the actual intended audience are executives who don’t know anything about storytelling in order to let them offer notes with more appearance of authority), Story is useless.

(a fun fact about Save the Cat — the only reason Blake Snyder got “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! made was because Arnold Schwarzenegger saw it, thought it was the worst script he ever saw, and then pretended to be interested so Stallone would get the part and then look stupid for starring in such a bad movie)

(it worked)

One of the ideas McKee insists upon is the one that you should be able to summarize your story’s theme in a single sentence. I had a great talk with an actual screenwriter with more credits than McKee, and they laid out where McKee had got the idea from, though I can’t recall the source exactly. It was a kind of “ah yeah,” (eyeroll) “McKee’s just copying someone else, and it’s a bad point because narrative isn’t didactic like that.”

(As you know, we talked at length about messages in this two-part essay.)

So here’s The Last of Us, a game that repeats itself, over and over, because it’s stuck on this idea of showing the parallels between two characters. It isn’t so much interested in getting you to feel anything specific, it’s interested in the gimmick of showing two characters telling the same story.

Remember when we talked about how people might praise a game and give it scores and still complain, unable to realize that the thing they’re praising is the problem?

Well, consider that nearly ever review of The Last of Us 2 mentions it’s too long. Consider how quickly the game vanished from public discussion. Outside of Geoff Keighley’s awards show that always has The Sony Cinematic Over The Shoulder Game, The Last of Us 2 mostly vanished from public discourse.

When we talked about games that are too long, we pointed out that that’s usually a sign of people not caring. I’m at 50 hours into Fire Emblem Awakening, and only now am I starting to feel fatigue — that’s a lot longer than the 30 or so hours for The Last of Us, and I was feeling fatigue from that game mere hours in.

When people care, when people want things, they stick with the story; they can’t give it up because they have to know where it goes. A masterful storyteller is one that can keep the story going (though an equally masterful story can deliver maximum impact in a story of a single paragraph or sentence, like “for sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) A storyteller that loses their audience is definitely not telling a very good story. No one abandons a story they’re enthralled by. Nearly everyone abandons a story that bores them.

Given that a common complaint about The Last Of Us 2 was its length, I think we have a bit of a clue — people didn’t really care much about what was happening past the initial wow factor of the game, and to prove it, let’s talk about how poorly fans understood things.

In 2021, as I was writing this piece, I commented on a post someone made; they had posted a “happy mother’s day to wonderful mother Ellie from The Last of Us” or something, and I remarked how funny that such a sentiment was, because Ellie literally chooses to abandon her child when the child’s mother says “I will leave you if you do this thing,” and Ellie does the thing. She returns home to find that the child she abandoned is long gone — because she’s a horrible mother.

The entire point of the game, hammered home at the end, is that revenge is bad. Ellie’s quest for revenge cost her everything, including her chance at motherhood. She was told exactly what would happen and it happened.

The response to my comment? I had people calling me everything from psychotic to schizophrenic to ‘obsessed.’ It was a glib remark I made based on the hilarious misunderstanding of the script by some random person on twitter. People told me I should die in response. Literally.

I mean, sure, if you’re a die-hard fan of work you don’t understand, you’re probably not exactly the brightest bulb in the fixture, but still, it was a lot to deal with, especially for such a minor comment.

If you google the characters Joel and Ellie, you’ll find a lot of fanart that shows the good side of the relationship; The Last of Us is pretty clear that Joel isn’t a good person, but a lot of the fans only see the affection between the two characters, and they assume those positive emotions are good feelings.

So a fan sees Ellie being a mother to JJ in a single scene, and they decide she’s a good mother because she’s the protagonist, even though Ellie literally abandons her child to go murder a woman… whose father was murdered by Ellie’s father. She’s a rotten person to the core, fundamentally selfish, and a horrible mother. That’s the text of the game. It’s not even subtext, but the fans go “Ellie smile. Ellie player character. Ellie good. :)”

They see “Ellie abandoned her child” as criticism of themselves — there’s a reason most of the people who sent hate my way had Ellie or Joel as their avatar.

When we see fans of the first game who hated The Last of Us 2, many of them did it because they didn’t like playing as Abby. They liked Ellie, identified with her from the first game, and as a result, had to perceive Ellie as a fundamentally good person, because they identified with her.

Here we have clear cases of audiences rejecting the work itself because the work did a poor job arguing its theme and the audience was unwilling to buy it — it was easy for so many people to deny what was right in front of them in order to say “this character is good and pure and I like them.” They were afraid to confront the bad feelings of identifying with a bad person.

What I’m saying is, a lot more people connected with the vibes of the game than the actual message being conveyed — the idea that we should tell two identical stories, intercutting between them, to communicate an idea… well, that got lost, completely, on the audience. What they saw was “character I liked last time :)” and “some other character who is mean to her” and that was it. The people who ostensibly cared couldn’t even care enough to understand what they were seeing.

If the story was better told, it would have reached more people; it would not have just fallen by the wayside as soon as people were done with it. The familiarity was there, the polished-turd gameplay was there, but at the end of it all… the game just kind of came and went. It had no cultural impact. It meant nothing. It was 1982’s Arthur. No one really cares.

It’s a story that follows the Naughty Dog template. Things happen here that happened in other games. They happen because they happened in other games, or other films and tv shows.

“But, Doc,” you may be protesting, “isn’t a component of auteur theory the idea that an author works with similar themes and ideas?”

Absolutely.

So let’s go back to the title of this piece: “a world with no people.”

All Stories Are Human

A long time ago, one of the worst writers I’ve ever known — that is, someone who is employed as a writer but still bad at the job, not an amateur or beginner — asked me “why don’t we tell an alien story about aliens that’s so absolutely alien that it can’t be seen as human at all?”

I asked him two questions.

First, why would any human care about the story beyond simple curiosity?

Second, how would you propose a human escape their own head? The story will still be from the lens of the way a human — the author — perceives the aliens. The human brain anthropomorphizes things; they’ll anthropomorphize the alien too.

(also, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity attempted this. neat story)

Why do we make stories? Why do we tell them? What’s the point?

Well, that’s easy: we make stories to deal with experience and feelings. I wrote Adios to express a traumatic experience I had been through; other people found the story and found the honesty of my opinions validating their own experiences. While we had gone through different things — neither I nor my audience have ever been pig farmers who quit the mob — the truth of the emotions was obvious to the people who needed it. Since then, I’ve had people say that Adios helped them talk to family again, deal with problems they were facing, even reconsider the worth of their own lives for the better.

I am not the best writer in the world, but a consistent piece of feedback I receive is that people can’t get my stories out of their heads. They keep coming back to them, keep feeling them truly. I think that’s because of my philosophy, and that anyone operating under that same philosophy can achieve similar results. If you want to make work that lasts, be emotionally honest.

The Last of Us — and Naughty Dog games in general — are not. They are cargo cult stories. Pulling from a previous essay of mine on prestige games:

This plane cannot fly.

It’s not even powered — there is no engine to spin that propeller fast enough to generate thrust, the curvature of the wing is not adequate enough to generate lift. Its frame could not handle being buffeted about by storms. On and on I could go.

This is a cargo cult construction.

Here, we have a lot of people who saw something and did their best to recreate it. That’s admirable. It’s fascinating. It is, in fact, a valid means of artistic expression. There are some game ideas I have had, for instance, because someone described something to me and I did my best to create something inspired by the description rather than the source (ostensibly, this is how unicorns were invented; the theory goes that someone tried and failed to describe a rhinoceros).

I think the wonderful people who built the cargo cult plane knew their plane would not fly and weren’t trying to say “we can make a better plane than the one that was here six months ago, and everyone should take us seriously as True Aeronautical Engineers.”

But that’s what happens in games.

That scene lifted directly from The Walking Dead? The one where Joel dies? That’s a scene that understands nothing of what’s happening — it just copies a murder from another show and hopes you’ll feel the feelings that you had in that show. Rather than, like The Walking Dead, working hard to earn the emotions of that scene, The Last of Us hopes it can lazily copy the scene so you’ll feel the same emotions. But all stories are setup and payoff — carrying a single sequence over from elsewhere will only carry an echo of the feelings, and not the real thing.

I think that’s why The Last of Us 2 has so much “let’s go from A to B by dipping into a structure and then emerging closer to a landmark” levels, why it feels the utterly pointless need to tell a story twice, why it copies beats over and over and over again… is because it has no idea of how a story should be told.

The Last of Us isn’t doing what art should do — it’s not telling us a human story. Instead, it’s cribbing ideas and repeating other ones ad nauseum, hoping to imitate a story, but like a cargo cult’s airplane, the story doesn’t work. People thought it was too long (because it repeated itself), and people didn’t care what the characters were doing (because most of the game is about getting you to sympathize with Ellie while its cutscenes are about trying to make you dislike her), and people ultimately just kinda dropped the game after the marketing was over with it… because it was just… empty. It was vapid.

Like Benoit Blanc says, “it’s dumb. It’s just… so… dumb.”

Why’s it dumb? Well… because there are no people in it.

Oh, sure, they look like people, they walk like people, they talk like people (especially in the banter), and they emote like people. But they aren’t people.

They’re machines.

The Last of Us 2 is fixated on one thing, and that’s the point. Neil Druckmann, in his 20s, saw a man killed and got mad about it to the point of wanting to kill other people. They he realized that emotion was bad. He thought this was worth turning into a story — he wants us to know that revenge is bad and we shouldn’t do it. It’s a lesson every child learns, every human knows, but he seems to think none of us know that revenge is bad.

It’s a very small-minded view of the world, one which positions the thinker (in this case, Druckmann), as knowing something the rest of us don’t. He’s here to enlighten us by telling a story following a woeful misunderstanding of McKee’s book and copying scenes from other, better material without ever building up to those moments. He’s so doubtful of our mental faculties, that he hits us with the story twice, or maybe it’s because he isn’t clever enough to tell a story that contains the contrast he’s hoping to make but without double beats.

It’s arrogant, is what it is. It’s a position I have no respect for. This is a guy who doesn’t treat his employees well, who forces people to crunch, who talks as if his stories are important, but has nothing meaningful to say, who fails to connect with people because his works have no real, genuine, human emotions.

Ellie does things against her apparent nature all the time; she does them because the script calls for it. Everyone does. The script wants to achieve a moment, so it positions characters to do it, regardless of who they are. That’s the easy way to do things, the lazy way, and it’s common throughout Naughty Dog’s work, especially once Druckmann took the lead — which is why, I suspect, their best games are all ones Amy Hennig wrote on.

Ellie has to abandon her family so she can have that final confrontation with Abby. Ellie has to feel bad about murdering one specific woman so she can have a breakdown in one specific scene, even though Ellie murders tons of people. On and on it goes.

Ellie is not a person, she is a device. She is a machine that moves the plot forward. Her actions are not governed by real, true, human feeling, they’re things that happen so we can copy this scene from Children of Men, that scene from The Walking Dead, that other scene from Y: The Last Man. That’s all this game is. That’s all its ever been.

If you were to copy how it tells its story, you would not make a game as successful as The Last of Us. You would make a game that matters much less because you don’t have the kind of money Sony throws at other studios to make it happen.

Listen to the way they’re talking about the tv show; they’re hyping it up like the next big project. All the PR statements about “oh pedro pascal’s performance is so good they should remake the game” or whatever is just bluster to try to make you care.

But the truth is, most people played the game once and traded it back in at Gamestop. They gave it a game of the year award or two for the moments that carried them away, the characters emoting and stuff, but their lasting opinion?

“The game’s too long.”

A sign people don’t care.

And they don’t care because the characters aren’t human, the character’s aren’t really feeling things, no matter how much they emote.

When we talked about auteur theory, we said that auteurs often return to the same things, but that’s because they’re referring to feelings and emotions and ideas; that’s a world of difference from returning to the same formula. A real auteur still tells a story based on what the story needs, not trying to make it match the things they’ve done elsewhere. I’m personally interested in characters who want to be good but don’t know how to be in a world that seems stacked against them. Every single one of my stories about this approaches it based on what’s appropriate to the story. There is no formula, only appropriateness. See how it all comes back to that?

The Last of Us 2 is repetitive and derivative; if you were to copy that, you would not find commercial or critical success. It obtained that through marketing so aggressive that, like we linked earlier, Sony literally tries to get negative critics to bump up their scores to artificially inflate the response. It’s all caring about the acclaim, not the work itself.

A Little Story

There’s a narrative throughout The Last of Us 2 that goes like this: Ellie and Joel had a falling out the night before he died, just like Owen and Mel had with Abby. Because of this falling out, we’re led to think, throughout the game, that Ellie’s drive for revenge. So me and my seasoned screenwriter buddies were talking about the game and various scenes as we played it, going “ah, yeah, okay, this scene is setting up that Ellie’s upset because she didn’t get to reconcile with Joel.” There are several throughout the game; they convey, in more than just the dialogue, using shot language, framing, and performance, that Ellie wanted to reconcile with Joel.

This is a twist.

That scene at the beginning, where Joel said Ellie couldn’t know? The later scene where Ellie finds out? All of that distance between them that they spend the entire game talking about? All of that work they did to make us think that Ellie wanted to reconcile, that she did actually love him? That this was misplaced anger rooted in that?

Well, they toss it all out at the end, when they give us a scene showing that Ellie really did reconcile with Joel. Where it’s placed in the narrative, it feels like a nice, poignant capstone to the story… except the entire story led us to think that Ellie’s actions were rooted in the loss of that reconciliation.

I believe a bunch of us shouted “oh fuck YOU” when we got to that scene, followed by some of us asking “then what the fuck was the point of any of that?”

There wasn’t one. This game had nothing to it. It wasn’t emotionally honest, it just… copied stuff, using a rotten core idea and several rotten structural ideas to drive forward a game that had no real value. Rather than actually considering humans and how they work, it was fixated on going “see? horseshoe theory!”

If Ellie had reconciled with Joel, then… it really was like what it seemed like on the surface; she’s just a shitty human being, angry that she lost someone even though it was deserved, taking away literally hundreds more lives in her pursuit of her own self-satisfaction. Ellie is a piece of human garbage, a woman who abandons her child for her own greedy need to inflict suffering.

That could have been an excellently-told tragedy, but the fixation on trying to make existing Naughty Dog standbys and other pop culture references fit, the tragedy gets lost, and we’re just stuck watching the worst protagonist in video games be kinda garbage. It’s a milquetoast story. Its cultural value will only last as long as the corporation can keep milking cash out of it, but it doesn’t matter to culture at large.

The Last of This Essay

So that’s it for me. Here’s a series that has nothing to say, that pulls all its ideas from pop culture, but postures as if it has something meaningful to say. All it really has is… “murderers can be bad…” or “don’t do revenge because it is bad.” But a character switches from bad to good pretty much immediately after some casual sex with her ex and a weird dream about herself. The plot says “both sides bad,” but when it tries to parallel the Israeli genocide against Palestinians, it ignores the massive power differential that emboldens Israel to commit literal pogroms and take the homes and lives of people with no repercussions.

Like, it’s fucking insane that anyone would tell a victim they’re just as wrong as the perpetrators, and here’s The Last of Us 2 doing that same thing. It says “violence begets violence” like quoting a bumper sticker tier of wisdom makes it profound. It apes other, better things, with no understanding of why they work, acting like just copying scenes from better media will give it acclaim by sheer proximity

Back when the game came out, someone compared The Last of Us 2 to Schindler’s List, a very serious, award-winning Holocaust film. Some critics — particularly Jewish critics — took issue with this comparision; The Last of Us 2 is silly and pointless, but Schindler’s List is a sensitively-told film about a genuine disaster. Naughty Dog employees were happy to take the heaps of praise, but the second they heard “maybe the praise is overblown” they showed up and said you guys are overreacting! It was only when people said “the Schindler’s List comparison is overblown” that they felt the need to start quoting Teddy Roosevelt’s “it’s not the critic who counts,” (Troy Baker, lmao) or telling people to tone things down (Druckmann).

The game is fucking nothing. It’s meaningless. It’s a bloated mess of a game that repeats so much shit because it has no actual ideas. It’s just copying other people’s homework and thinking you’re too stupid to notice, that imitating better work makes it just as good, and if you don’t give it praise, you’re being cruel and unfair. It’s not saying “negative feedback” is unfair, it’s saying “even disagreeing with positive feedback or not outright giving us good feedback is unacceptable. We deserve praise.”

Bro, all you did was say that revenge is bad. You’re as deep as a fuckin bumper sticker.

Good games create meaning — they help us deal with emotions we’re experiencing. Like any good art, they help us process and navigate life. The Last of Us 2 does nothing.

Games like The Last of Us assume copying other things create meaning, but there’s nothing there; there can’t be. It’s playing at being capital-I Important, and in doing so, it holds us back. If we say “this is the best it gets” we are saying “so we will explore no further.” Do you really want to be stuck here? At rock fucking bottom?

Do you want people copying all the dumb bullshit this game did in the hopes they’ll get the same sales? Do you want games that feel just as empty and vapid as Naughty Dog’s games? Do you really want to stay here, to chain yourself to the Worst of Us in the industry?

Do you really want to sit back and go “yes, the peak of fiction is just spending tons of money to tell the most playtested, soulless story in games, a derivative riff on things that came before that gets in its own way through endless, pointless repetition?”

Is that all you want games to be?

Or do you want more?

I hope you want more, because there’s so much more out there. There are so many frontiers we have yet to explore, so many honest, true, and meaningful stories that have yet to be told. Why should we cage ourselves behind this, the dumbest and laziest of all game fiction? Why should we give power to the game’s expense when the game is not authentic, when it says nothing, does nothing, and means nothing?

If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:

paypal: paypal.me/stompsite

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cashapp: $docseuss

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Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.