Naughty Dog Studio's “The Last of Us Part 2” Is Adored by Critics and Abhorred by the Gaming Community
How homophobia casts a shadow on one of the best video games in modern history.
Every year thousands of video games are released and enjoyed by people all around the world. In fact, the video game industry is valued at an estimated 60.4 billion dollars according to one source. Video games are enjoyed all over the world by all manner of people. Men, women, children, the elderly; it seems like every year there are more and more people playing video games. According to gamesindustry.biz, in 2020 more than 214 million people said they play video games for at least an hour every week. What was once an industry struggling to remain relevant has transformed into one of the largest and most profitable forms of entertainment in the world.
A large contributor to that increase in popularity has been due to the advancements in technology that allow game developers to create fully realized worlds that were previously only available as wishes for the future of the industry. Not only do those technological advancements allow for more detailed worlds to be created, but the characters that inhabit those worlds are now dynamic, complex, and incredibly detailed depictions of people from all walks of life. Gamers now watch actors perform as their characters in-game, instead of just hearing their voices. Motion capture has allowed actors to fully immerse themselves in the roles they play and that influence has changed the landscape of the gaming world forever. For example, in 2013 a video game studio called Naughty Dog released a post-apocalyptic action game titled ‘‘The Last of Us’’ on the Playstation 3.
The game tells the story of Joel, a Texas man dealing with the loss of his young daughter while also fighting for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world overrun by zombie-like humans. And Ellie, a 14-year-old girl with natural immunity to the virus that has wreaked havoc on the world for her entire life. The game chronicles their journey together as Joel attempts to bring Ellie to a group of survivors who think they can create a cure for the zombie creating virus. The game garnered critical and universal acclaim and received dozens of awards for its gameplay, sound design, and acting performances. So when a sequel was announced that would continue the story of Joel and Ellie the video game community was overjoyed. Piece by piece the information slowly started to trickle in about the game everyone was anxiously awaiting to release. Then, on June 19th, 2020 ‘‘The Last of Us Part Two’’ released on the Playstation 4 to universal critical acclaim.
With over 121 reviews from critics on the aggregator website Metacritic, the game is currently the 6th highest scoring game of all time for the Playstation 4 console and recently became the video game with the most awards for “video game of the year” with 261 awards surpassing the previous record holder which was the 2015 open-world adventure game, ‘‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.’’
So how can such a universally acclaimed video game have a user review score of 5/10 on the same website, Metacritic? With over 152,000 user reviews, and almost half of them negative, the answer becomes more clear. However, to fully understand why one of the most awarded games in history is also one of the worst in the eyes of the gaming community, we first have to examine the role that homophobia plays in the video game community.
As an avid video game player, I was elated when I saw the exhaustive list of glowing reviews for “The Last of Us Part Two.” I remember so much about that game, but the characters of Ellie, Abbi, and Dina are the pillars that the game is built upon. In my playthrough, I experienced a spectrum of emotions. I hated Ellie, I was afraid for Abbi, and my heart broke for Dina as I watched all their stories unfold. Through it all, I was shooting, running, hiding, and crafting the tools of my survival. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with “The Last of Us Part Two” and it will forever remain one of my favorite games of all time.
After I rolled credits on it I started hearing that there were many people who thought the game was terrible. I couldn’t believe it. I read incendiary review after review of players who believed that this masterpiece of a game that I had just experienced was one of the worst they had ever played. I told my wife about this phenomenon and she was in disbelief. She watched me play the entire game tip to tail and couldn’t believe that people could be so dismissive and hate-filled towards something that was executed so perfectly.
If you read user reviews for this game, phrases such as, “they ruined the series” and “this was all a forced agenda game for the LGBT community ” will appear frequently. The latter comment comes from the fact that Ellie is gay and Dina is bisexual and, over the course of the game, the two start up a relationship. Much like real relationships, theirs is filled with misunderstandings, miscommunications, and seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet somehow, they persevere. This depiction of a gay couple in such extreme conditions, yet still being nervous people navigating the waters of young love was a point that stood out to me as well as my wife, who identifies as bisexual.
Genuine criticism of art is something I enjoy and is always welcome. The film critic for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips, once told me in an interview, “ Criticism has nothing to do with objectivity, it’s all about informed subjectivity.” When we read or hear criticism we expect it to at least be informed enough to create a coherent argument for whatever point the author is trying to make. But when it comes to criticism for “The Last of Us Part 2” the “critics” are not informed and the “criticism” is not well-intentioned or eloquently stated. It comes fired out of a hate cannon into a text box filled with thinly veiled statements of homophobia and sexism. Below I’ll include some examples of the type of “criticism” I’m talking about.
“Glaring feminism and LGBT references do nothing for those movements. They just annoy fans who enjoy good stories. All that did was make characters colder and less relatable.”
“Thanks Naughty Dog for destroying my favourite game and characters with your sjw crap. Wtf have you done to Joel and Ellie.. youve gone from a heros journey of redemption, family and love to this dribble. Shame on you…”
“Forget the SJW crapfest, Abbey(sic) is poorly written and a 10 minute backstory doesn’t make up for the[…] ruination of another [character].”
I sat down with my wife, Molly and we had a candid conversation about what this game meant to her as a bisexual woman and the story she tells is different from many of the reviews you might read on Metacritic.
We were discussing the frequency of authentic depictions of bisexuality in media when Molly had the following to say reflecting on the character Dina in The Last of Us Part 2. “I appreciated seeing her. Because I feel like bisexual characters are not portrayed that much in the media and when they are it's kind of like stereotyping them…like bisexual people are all sex-crazed maniacs.”
“I think it’s important that we’re telling this story and that we’re showing a representation of this kind,” said Molly. “I think it was nice to see this just as a real relationship. It’s just two people loving each other and trying to get by, and I think that’s important for people to see.”
When we include perspectives and characters in media that look, love, and worship differently than what we are typically exposed to, it challenges us to see what was previously an “other,” as an extension of ourselves through the media we choose to consume. We owe it to everyone who has felt marginalized or outcast to include stories of people from every facet of humanity imaginable so that we can better understand what it means to have those experiences.
That is precisely why this controversy angers me so much. I’m not angry that people said hurtful things on the internet. That happens all the time. I’m angry that there are people who would rather try to diminish something wonderful and exceptionally well done just because they can’t deal with seeing an experience that isn’t theirs played out on screen in front of them.
I think one of the worst parts of this situation is that even though the game contains a lot of violence and the comments surrounding it can be so hateful, the game’s director and lead writer, Neil Druckmann, believes that at its core, this game is a story about love. In an interview with Greg Miller from Kinda Funny, Druckmann had this to say about his game.
“Both games explore the most wonderful things love can provide, like when you see Ellie and Joel in the space capsule, and how much these two characters are willing to do for each other, and these really sweet moments. And the worst things that love can drive you to, which is… some of the worst atrocities that happen in the world happen in the name of love. And so much, to me, this game is an exploration of finding these characters that struggle with that and make sometimes horrible decisions, flawed decisions, human decisions, and then finally finding ways to decouple their ego from the violence they’re committing.
And that’s Ellie’s journey throughout the whole game. Her ego is so wrapped up in bringing these people to justice, and it takes her hitting complete rock bottom for her to finally wake up. That’s what this game is about.”
So many people missed the mark of what this game represents. Is it without any faults? Some think so. Is it a hallmark of video game technology and storytelling? Without a doubt. But I think the thing that this game will be remembered for is helping to usher in a new age of video games. Games that tell stories for everyone and anyone while still being fun, engaging, and breathtakingly beautiful. I will probably never stop talking about this game, and I hope that if you have the means you can experience it for yourself because it is truly a sight to behold and an experience unlike any other.
“The Last of Us 2” is a story of love and mistakes and heartbreak that all culminate to leave the player feeling sad and lonely. For some, feeling that way isn’t why they play video games and that’s perfectly fine. We as individuals are free to enjoy all kinds of entertainment. However, we should never let hate destroy greatness in any form because no matter the medium, art that can make someone feel overwhelming emotion is art that is worth celebrating.