If The Last of Us Part II is meant to be the game of my generation, we’re in big trouble.
When this game debuted on June 19, 2020, it quickly became one of the most controversial mainstream releases in the medium’s history. Director Neil Druckmann considered it his magnum opus, and critics, by and large, had nothing but praise for the game. The same, however, could not be said of fans – many of whom rejected it as an inferior follow-up to a beloved masterpiece. To critics, it was the greatest sequel in entertainment history since The Godfather Part II, but to fans, it may as well have been Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Before the game launched, significant portions of the story had been leaked onto the internet. Overnight, Naughty Dog’s reputation was sullied. Mr, Druckmann was no longer considered one of the medium’s few remaining artisans, but rather a pretentious hack who cheated his way to the top by forcing Amy Henning out of the company. Whether or not the latter half of this supposition is true is likely unprovable, but that such a large portion of the fanbase latched onto the theory spoke to how far he had fallen. Exacerbating matters were some rather unfortunate quotes that ascended to scornful memehood, though his company’s mishandling of employee bonuses and extended crunch periods did little to endear him to the public.
Discussion of the game itself could only be described as a minefield. How bad was it? A legion of deeply unpleasant dullards sent death threats to the voice actress portraying a character whose actions immediately proved controversial. It would be bad enough to subject the writing staff to such treatment, let alone the personnel who had little involvement in the creative process. Indeed, if it’s anything that saved the game from being a complete wash, it was the acting performances. Sure, they’re in service to a misbegotten story, but the cast tried their best with the material they were given.
Although the backlash was ugly, I once again find myself even more disappointed with how the ostensible professional critics handled it. They demonstrated a remarkable ability to approach the backlash from the moral high ground only to lower themselves to the levels of those they despise and keep on digging. It simply wasn’t possible to dislike the game for its myriad shortcomings. It had to be because these people were all the same far-right, anti-progress trolls behind the infamous Gamergate controversy in 2014. I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t at least some ring of truth to these assertions, as the backlash to the leaked footage had an extremely nasty undercurrent of homophobia and transphobia to it. However, those fulminations did not form the crux of the criticisms lodged against the game. As difficult as it may have been for the critics to accept, it was possible to dislike the game without being a bad person. Nonetheless, anyone disliking the game whose opinion carried any kind of weight got painted with the same brush – context be damned.
The particularly shameful words of Lucy O’Brien – the then-executive editor of features of IGN – were emblematic of how toxic professional discourse had become. It could very well have been the single worst social media post ever composed by a game journalist to date, which, given her stiff competition, was no mean feat. Nine months prior to the release of the game, she had taken issue with the controversial, far-right YouTuber Jeremy Hambly, better known as TheQuartering, likening him to a “women’s gossip rag” while lamenting the perceived twisted, over-sensationalized nature of his content. She ended up resembling that remark when she labeled those who criticized a sex scene from The Last of Us Part II virgins.
(Aside: Am I the only one who thinks the use of the term “women’s gossip rag” is rather sexist or is it just me? It seems a bit hypocritical either way.)
That the executive editor of IGN would have such poor theory of mind is quite shocking. One would assume that being in a position in which there is a 100% chance you will be exposed to opinions and subjective experiences differing from your own would necessitate training to civilly resolve any potential conflicts stemming from the disconnect. Evidently, it was not a prerequisite when she herself applied for the job. To be fair, she did backpedal slightly later that day, but the way she phrased her apology felt very insincere – as though she only issued it to save face and not because she realized she was wrong.
Friendly advice: apologizing is not the time for you to double down on your offending comment.
Irrespective of whether her apology was sincere or not, her initial posts still betrayed an extreme lack of common sense and self-awareness. They were traits typical of the average, contemporary journalist, but that didn’t make it any more palatable. It was especially unfortunate because a significant part of what made Gamergate proponents so contemptible was their tendency to virgin-shame men who stood against the chauvinistic ire that defined the movement – “cuck” being their go-to insult for them. Yet without any irony to be found, the ethos was picked up by someone who vehemently opposed them. The scary thing is how easily she adopted that ultraconservative language. Had I not been privy to the context, I would’ve assumed that post was issued by a stereotypical, dimwitted, alt-right provocateur. That it came from someone fancying herself a politically active liberal brings to mind the famous, often referenced “He who fights monsters” quote of Friedrich Nietzsche’s.Fortunately, unlike many of these cases, there were a few people who provided a beacon of sanity in the ocean of madness. I referred to the conversations surrounding The Last of Us Part II as a minefield – a metaphor I cribbed from Patricia Hernandez of Polygon. Normally, I tend to consider Polygon articles rather emblematic of the contemporary critical scene. In other words, the articles are insipid, off base, and the authors thereof have proven themselves fundamentally incapable of parsing anything that doesn’t perfectly line up with their worldviews. Granted, knowingly or not, Ms. Hernandez herself ended up contributing to said minefield a day later when she, in typical game journalist fashion, crusaded against a nonexistent problem plaguing the community so she could claim the moral high ground. Specifically, she assumed enthusiasts hated the aforementioned controversial character because they don’t know how to deal with muscular women, and not for the myriad provable reasons they cited.
Here’s some more friendly advice. I’d say gaming as a whole deals with muscular women just fine. If you meant “gamers don’t know how to deal with muscular women”, just say so when titling your piece; that is far clearer. But you can’t keep a good clickbait generator down, can you?
In all seriousness, even if her actions ended up being more than a little contradictive, I do commend Ms. Hernandez for writing one of the most cogent articles to ever emerge from that site. She notes the bizarre guidelines Naughty Dog imposed upon the press, which included “DO NOT include any beat-by-beat descriptions of pivotal narrative or cutscenes moments” and “DO NOT reveal the fate of ANY character or the inciting event”. Considering what the entire purpose of a review is, these restrictions would be like telling a developer to program a game without using any kind of technology.
Ms. Hernandez homed in on why Naughty Dog sought to make the journalists’ jobs unnecessarily difficult; it was a matter of control. Naughty Dog had badly lost control of the narrative – both in the sense that they literally lost control of the narrative to whichever entity plastered the details onto the internet’s front page and, from a metatextual standpoint, their goodwill was leaking like a sieve. These limitations were therefore a desperate attempt to regain control of a vehicle seconds away from crashing into a cliffside. Unfortunately for them, the damage was done. While the game was a bestseller, many fans became disillusioned with Naughty Dog. Even those who enjoyed the game wanted to distance themselves from the developer as a result of the scandals, not wishing to get smothered with drama.
When everything was said and done, people were left dumbfounded that such a respected group could fall as far as they did. Personally? I found Naughty Dog’s loss of goodwill to be a very predictable disaster. Ms. Hernandez was correct in why Naughty Dog imposed such draconian guidelines, but I propose that they were never in control of the narrative to begin with. The only thing I found shocking about Naughty Dog’s goodwill drying up was how suddenly it occurred. As soon as the original game debuted back in 2013, I knew that the company would eventually attempt to wrestle above their weight class, and The Last of Us Part II was how their misstep manifested.
Why is it that these developments ultimately didn’t take me by surprise? The answer to that is a little complicated. It was admittedly a little more than a gut feeling before these events panned out, but with the power of hindsight, I find the answer lies in two different aspects: Neil Druckmann himself and his audience. By examining these parties in detail, I aim to explain why, by reading the writing on the wall, I knew The Last of Us Part II was an inevitability.
A brief warning before I begin this editorial in earnest. I am writing this under the assumption that those reading are familiar with the original game. You will be warned ahead of time when I discuss spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, but because examining both games is necessary for understanding the backlash, you can expect me to go into plot details for the original at any time.
Rising Through the Ranks
Shortly after The Last of Us Part II was released, Mr. Druckmann posted several messages on social media in response to the backlash. For the most part, there was nothing objectionable about his posts. In fact, I found I agreed with a majority of what he said. The haters were absolutely in the wrong for harassing him and his staff for making a game they didn’t enjoy. However, there was one comment he made that I couldn’t get behind.
Mr. Druckmann assumed that the vitriolic reaction towards him was the price for challenging the status quo. He is not inherently wrong; whenever one challenges the status quo, it does carry the risk of enraging those who have a vested interest in preserving it. “So, if you agree, why do you have a problem with it?” you may ask. It’s because I agree with the sentiment, but not the person who made it. Mr. Druckmann’s downfall came about because he completely misread his audience. I get why this problem tends to get glossed over because most pieces trying to pinpoint where things went wrong assume the original game is a timeless masterpiece. This ignores the fact that an overwhelming majority of the problems people have with The Last of Us Part II actually originated in its predecessor.
A lot of detractors derisively described The Last of Us Part II as what happens when a pretentious art student somehow found themselves in charge of a major developer. That assessment doesn’t quite do his situation justice, however. While I do give Mr. Druckmann credit for wanting to champion various progressive causes, challenging the status quo requires a leader, not a follower. The reality is that Mr. Druckmann rose through ranks not by challenging the status quo, but by giving his fans exactly what they wanted. When the medium was still reeling back from Roger Ebert’s assertion that video games can never be art, The Last of Us seemed to provide the ultimate, irrefutable counterargument. His other work of note included the Uncharted installments, which were also simple, risk-adverse, audience-friendly products that helped him retain his following. It was when he tried to cast off the stigma of being a follower that he received a nasty wake-up call as half of his audience left him.
At the end of the day, his wasn’t an artistic identity he crafted himself; outside forces crafted it for him.
To be clear, this is not a call for artists to bend their knee to their audience. The Star Wars sequel trilogy provides an unusually perfect microcosm of how badly fan pandering or a lack thereof can backfire. While The Last Jedi caused many to give up on the trilogy due to its quixotically experimental nature, The Rise of Skywalker arguably failed even harder because it tried too hard to be a crowd-pleaser.
The problem is that because Mr. Druckmann climbed the ladder precisely by bending his knee to his audience, he was not in an ideal position to get experimental. The press and fans considered him and Naughty Dog pioneers, but I find they had far more in common with the generic, disposable pop act of your choice.
Like many of those groups, people were more familiar with the content than the artists behind them. Mr. Druckmann wasn’t exactly an obscure figure, but, for the most part, hardcore enthusiasts were the only ones who knew him by name. Tellingly, it wasn’t really until after the backlash to The Last of Us Part II that I heard people throwing his name around regularly. Alternatively, they had much in common with MTV in how they claimed to be pioneers when they were practicably too conservative to take real chances.
Because of how things panned out, I liken Mr. Druckmann’s game to Dennis DeYoung’s ill-fated attempts to elevate Styx with their 1983 album Kilroy Was Here. Granted, that was a little different because there is no real evidence to suggest Styx fans hated Mr. DeYoung’s experiment, although it did manage to break up the band not unlike Naughty Dog with their 70% turnover rate when producing The Last of Us Part II. Instead, the takeaway is that, like Mr. Druckmann, Mr. DeYoung got where he was by selling a large audience on very simple ideas manufactured with calculated precision. It wasn’t impossible for him to experiment to great success, but the results only succeeded in highlighting his shortcomings.
Some more out-there musicians such as Captain Beefheart and Gibby Haynes wouldn’t have had this problem, as they cultivated an audience willing to follow whatever strange idea they cooked up next. Mr. DeYoung didn’t have that luxury – and neither did Mr. Druckmann. Indeed, for the longest time, I thought of Mr. Druckmann as the anti-Hideo Kojima. The latter always threw bizarre ideas out there, and because he codified the stealth game to many people, he ended up becoming a leader. When he went off the rails with Metal Gear Solid 2, it did result in controversy, but the game was still respected, and eventually came to be regarded as one of the greatest ever made. It’s because he had a loyal fanbase willing to go along with the zaniness. Mr. Druckmann, to his eventual detriment, played it safe. If he ever had an idea, you could safely bet at least one other team proved its viability first.
It also doesn’t help that even Naughty Dog’s attempts at being progressive weren’t as forward-looking as they thought. Mr. Druckmann and his team were determined to follow Hollywood’s example even in 2020 when said community was busy speeding off a cliff in a formula one car with malfunctioning brakes – and that was before the pandemic hit and halted all of their projects. Like much of Hollywood’s output at the time such as The Last Jedi or Hustlers, The Last of Us Part II tries to be progressive, but said attempts came across as very manufactured and artificial.
A big part of the problem was that the progressive attitudes guiding Hollywood originated in a boardroom staffed by cynical, disinterested marketers rather than artists or activists who actually cared about these causes. Consequently, you would get these extremely out-of-touch films that, despite their positive social messages, don’t even come close to doing the causes justice. In worst-case scenarios, they would actively ignore the voices of those they claim to represent. You got the sense these teams slapped together progressive-sounding pieces because they thought that’s what the kids are into rather than to effect positive change. In other words, they were more interested in pushing progressivism as a brand than as a social movement. Sadly, they were still often defended as the genuine article because confirmation bias became a serious problem in critical circles in the late 2010s.
Leaders provide audiences with an experience they never knew they needed. Followers chase trends until the audience gets sick of their directionless meandering. Naughty Dog’s lack of ambition proceeded to cost them big time when they learned, too late, that they couldn’t sell their audience on their more transgressive ideas. As they did not demonstrate any leadership qualities before 2020, it was unsurprising that even their attempts to blaze a trail saw them continuing to blindly follow another’s example.
Know Your Audience
As I was typing up my review for The Last of Us Part II, I listened to what the detractors were saying about the game. Because the actual gameplay was fairly decent, I considered awarding Mr. Druckmann’s work a middling grade despite the problems I personally had with it. Nonetheless, I wanted to know what those criticizing the game were saying because something about the story still felt off, and as a non-fan, I knew I would need to understand why people liked the original, but not its sequel. Unsurprisingly, many of the same internet personalities who called out The Last Jedi were similarly critical of The Last of Us Part II. I’m glad I heard them out because I had a muted reaction to the sequel’s contentious scenes, so hearing why, exactly, they didn’t work was very valuable to forming my assessment.
However, as I listened to the various podcasts, something about their argumentation hit a particularly discordant note. The Last of Us famously ends with Joel deciding to forsake humanity in favor of saving the one person he grew to care about. He accomplishes this by murdering the Fireflies, preventing them from synthesizing a vaccine for the Cordyceps infection. This is because, in order to make said vaccine, Ellie would need to be euthanized. A vast majority of the sequel’s detractors insisted that, while morally dubious, Joel made the right call. They did made sensible arguments, pointing out that vaccines are for viral, not fungal, infections, Ellie’s sacrifice would have been in vain, the lack of infrastructure in this universe makes distributing anything nigh-impossible, and the Fireflies were not as altruistic as they presented themselves to be.
These were all good points, but one detractor made a very peculiar argument that, after letting it settle, made me realize one key component behind the backlash’s severity. This individual argued that even if the Fireflies had a 100% chance of synthesizing the vaccine by killing Ellie and subsequently beamed the, for the lack of a better term, antibodies into every single uninfected human on Earth, it would do little good. The reason? The humans in The Last of Us, possessing little in the way of rationality, are still killing each other off wantonly. The reason I thought it to be odd is because granting immunity to the infection to even just some people would be a net benefit for humankind. It might not save them from getting killed off in an ambush, but having the cure would be objectively better than not having it. So why would it be argued that a cure or immunization is impractical?
It was as I laid my thoughts down in my review that it struck me. Naughty Dog had always touted themselves as progressives. Mr. Druckmann, a male feminist, boasted how he and his company handled their female characters. Rather than oversexualizing them like many contemporary AAA titles, they sought to give them more practical designs. Even just the fact that, in a piece of downloadable content, they revealed Ellie is bisexual was highly transgressive at the time. Plenty of games before then allowed players to decide their characters’ sexual orientation, but this instance was canonical. Although the execution varied wildly, it was clear Naughty Dog sought to be as progressive as possible.
That does not mean they successfully cultivated a progressive audience.
Even before The Last of Us Part II was released, I heard plenty of people rushing to Joel’s defense. One of the most common defenses was that those to believed him to be in the wrong wouldn’t understand unless they had kids. It’s an utterly ridiculous argument because I’ve heard plenty of people who don’t have kids defend his actions. The argument this individual made, on the other hand, betrayed the leanings of the more vitriolic detractors. Considering the sheer amount of anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs thrown towards the creators of the game, I think it’s safe to assume that an especially cacophonous, vocal minority of detractors came from ultraconservative factions.
As such, it reminded me of the backlash the LGBT-themed indie effort Gone Home received in 2013. However, there is one key difference. While the backlash to Gone Home was at least, in part, an ultraconservative invasion, the one The Last of Us Part II received came from within. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “How could Naughty Dog have bred such a conservative audience if The Last of Us itself highly progressive?” You have to dig beneath the surface to find your answer. The Last of Us was ostensibly progressive, but a careful examination of its scenario reveals a persistently chauvinistic undercurrent. Preventing Ellie from getting raped by David in a quick-time event was the most obvious example of that, but it can also be observed in how the game ended.
The prevailing train of thought guiding contemporary conservatives was highly susceptible to the nirvana fallacy. That is, they would often assume every problem had a perfect solution and reject any proposed alternative they considered imperfect. This tendency was especially observable in how they handled mass shootings. To them, these events were as unpreventable as a natural disaster or a pandemic. Yes, they were tragic, but they couldn’t be helped. Any solution short of completely stopping them was pointless – even if the alternatives could save hundreds of thousands of lives in the long term. Otherwise, it would be like asking the heavens to stop a hurricane or the Earth to quit trembling or a particularly deadly virus to cease to be.
Why do I bring this up now? It’s because the argument against the vaccine to the Cordyceps infection stems from that exact same fallacious reasoning. There’s no point in making even the tiniest sacrifice to the status quo because it doesn’t address the fact that people are still getting into faction wars and killing each other off like it’s the Wild West. Even if the vaccine only saved 1,000 people in the long run, anyone with these sensibilities would deem it a failure because it did nothing for the deceased.
It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that, despite Mr. Druckmann and company’s best efforts, they crafted something that fit in a little too comfortably with conservative values. That Mr. Druckmann and his team took a deliberately ambiguous stance regarding Joel’s morality made it even easier for conservatives to find something of value in their work. Even ignoring its ambiguous political stance, it’s easy to construe a story that demonizes those seeking to find a cure for a horrible disease as an anti-intellectual or anti-progress allegory, which both results in an entire cavalcade of unfortunate implications and runs counter to the company’s ethos. This is why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when it came time to craft its sequel, Mr. Druckmann forced himself to steer away from away from that direction. In doing so, he ensured that his self-described magnum opus would leave a significant portion of his fanbase with nothing.
Now obviously, The Last of Us was a smash hit with progressives as well and plenty of progressives, including myself, were highly critical of The Last of Us Part II. However, considering Naughty Dog cast such a wide net with the original game, it stands to reason that people outside of their intended demographic were drawn in. It wasn’t impossible for Mr. Druckmann to get that portion of the audience to accept his progressive ideas, but because he rose to his lofty position by giving them exactly what they wanted, he did not establish the charisma required to pull it off. It was therefore unsurprising that when he commanded them to jump, they opted to throw a middle finger in the air instead.
Lying to and/or Threatening Your Audience Is a Bad Idea
Have you ever ordered a meal at restaurant only for the staff to serve you the wrong item? From there, one of two things could happen. You could either attempt to make the best of things by trying to enjoy the wrong meal or inform the waiter of the mistake to get it fixed. Now, for anyone who decided to raise the issue, I ask this: how did the waiter react? Did they apologize and fix the mistake or did they tell you that they wanted to subvert your expectations by not giving you something you asked for despite blatantly advertising it on their menu, and if you write a bad review of their service, they’ll threaten to sue you? I’m going to take a wild guess and assume nobody reading this has ever experienced the latter scenario. Of course, they wouldn’t; that is PR suicide, but Mr. Druckmann and Naughty Dog cared to disagree.
Now, I want to reiterate that Mr. Druckmann did not deserve the torrent of racist and anti-Semitic remarks directed at him for making this game. Nobody does. In fact, on some level, I do have a degree of sympathy for him. To put all of your blood, sweat, and tears into a passion project for seven years only to be met with thousands upon thousands of people telling you that it’s bad is incredibly draining – even if their intentions are pure.
That does not mean Neil Druckmann is entirely innocent.
I can sympathize with Mr. Druckmann for having ambitious artistic aspirations, but at the risk of sounding insensitive, I must point out that he brought quite a lot of the backlash upon himself. Within days of the content leaks, various creators on YouTube began discussing the leaks. This spurned Mr. Druckmann and Naughty Dog into issuing DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedowns, removing every video discussing the leaked footage. It was not untoward of them to issue these takedowns against videos that actually showed the footage due to the illegal nature by which it had been obtained. What was untoward was the fact that they issued DCMA takedowns against the channels merely discussing the details without showing any footage.
Again, on some level, I can see where Naughty Dog was coming from because context does count for a lot, and I believe Mr. Druckmann when he called it the “worst day of his life”. Nonetheless, there is a fair bit of cognitive dissonance to be found in how a writer constantly hammers into the heads of his audience that actions have consequences through his narrative only to not realize – or worse, not care about – the consequences of his own actions. Thanks to YouTube’s notoriously bad policy regarding infringement and fair use, many of the people who discussed the leaks were hit with copyright strikes. This potentially deprived them of income as their channels got demonetized. It’s very unsettling watching such a large corporation throw their weight around, striking down opponents they know can’t fight back. It reminds me of how the Disney-commissioned Star Wars sequel trilogy warned viewers of the dangers of unchecked, unregulated capitalism. This coming from the same company that transparently attempted to monopolize the American entertainment industry.
It also evidently never occurred to Mr. Druckmann, Sony, or Naughty Dog that once a development this major leaks onto the internet, the bell has been rung. Arguably, doing nothing would have been a smarter move, for it was through their efforts to suppress the leaks that I myself learned what, exactly, they entailed. I didn’t have a horse in this race, so if I learned of it easily enough, I wager most fans active online did as well. Even if I wasn’t looking forward to the game, I can empathize with the sheer despair of the disappointed fans. It’s horrible whenever someone whose content you admire loses their way. Naughty Dog writers always had a bad tendency to not think through their implications, but this is the first time their failure to do so affected the real world.
WARNING: The remainder of this section, against Naughty Dog’s wishes, discusses the fate of certain characters in The Last of Us Part II. Skip to the next section if you wish to play the game blind.
But, that’s not the complete story. If the content leaks only confirmed that Naughty Dog was going to give their audience more of the same, they likely wouldn’t have spread as far as they did. In fact, if that were the case, I get the feeling the audience would have done Naughty Dog’s work for them in taking down the offending footage. The very fact that the content leaks contained a controversial development all but ensured it would spread across the internet in record time.
The epicenter of the controversy stemmed from a new character: one Abby Anderson. This character was introduced to fans in the boldest way possible – by killing the protagonist of the previous game. This by itself ensured that a significant portion of the fans would hate her, but what they learned next shocked them to their core. She wasn’t the main antagonist of the scenario; she was the deuteragonist. Yes, after she gets her revenge on Joel, the player is forced to control her for what is essentially the second act of the game. This culminates in a boss battle against Ellie – the very character who provided Joel’s moral fiber. If there was a faster way for Mr. Druckmann to cause his audience to turn on a character, it has yet to be found.
Astoundingly, even this isn’t the main issue with the development. There is an inherent risk in introducing a new character to a series that has either gone on for a long time or had a significant gap between installments. After all, if the dynamic between the current cast works so well, such a significant change to the status quo runs could very well ruin it. Furthermore, an exposé carried out by Jason Schreier of Kotaku revealed that one character had undergone extensive rewrites due to playtesters unanimously hating them. It’s not unreasonable to assume, based on her importance to the plot, that the character in question was Abby. This is to say that Abby would’ve been considered a polarizing character whether or not the content leaks occurred.
So what is the main issue? The answer is straightforward enough: Mr. Druckmann and his team outright lied to their audience. As Naughty Dog teased The Last of Us Part II in the seven years between installments, they were notoriously secretive of the plot. Players knew for a few years that Ellie would become the main protagonist of the sequel, but many of them had one question on their mind: “Where is Joel?” Their answer ostensibly arrived in the form a trailer that dropped in 2019.
Joel finds Ellie in a room of people she personally murdered. This is no longer the optimistic Ellie from the first game; something has prompted her to go on a roaring rampage of revenge against an enemy faction in Seattle.
She tries to prove to Joel that she doesn’t need his help, but true to form, her adopted father figure is right there to lend a hand. “You thought I’d let you do this on your own?” he asks.
In the final product, Joel is already long dead by the time Ellie journeys to Seattle. In fact, his death is precisely what causes Ellie to go to Seattle in the first place. The question is instead asked by her friend, Jesse. The scene where she plays her guitar in a room filled with corpses doesn’t happen either. This stunt is reminiscent of the maligned trailer to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. A24, the distributor of the film, had been no stranger to amoral marketing campaigns, having previously attempted to catfish single men on Tinder when promoting Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. However, as bad as it was, those who made the trailers didn’t outright lie to potential audiences, instead deceiving them by presenting real scenes out of context.
People were still rightly angry at A24, but it was nothing compared to what Naughty Dog pulled off with The Last of Us Part II. Making Joel seem like a significant part of the experience when he had been effectively reduced to a supporting character – albeit an important one – was straight-up false advertising. They knew people were waiting for Joel to show up in the trailers. What they did was take the sheer joy their fans felt and stomped all over it, pointing and laughing at them for getting invested. For them to callously manipulate their audience in such a fashion was incredibly tasteless even by their standards.
These weren’t the only falsehoods either. After the project was announced, Mr. Druckmann insisted that Ellie would be the only playable character. Because you spend a fair portion of the game in control of Abby, Joel’s killer, that is obviously not true. If that wasn’t enough, this game introduces dogs as enemies. Many players, noting the visceral violence of the original game, were worried they would have to kill the dogs in similarly gruesome fashions in order to proceed. Naughty Dog representatives assured them they wouldn’t, but this too was a lie. While some action sequences involving dogs can be skipped in theory, there is one quick-time event that results in Ellie brutally killing a dog – Abby’s, no less. Plus, there’s just the simple fact that the dogs are such annoying enemies, leaving them alive is impractical.
You can withhold information from your audience or even lie to them concerning small details. In fact, one could make the argument what Naughty Dog or A24 did is preferable to making a trailer that spoils all of the plot twists. Even so, you still have to realize what, precisely, you’re getting your audience excited for. If you drum up a lot of hype for one specific narrative and don’t deliver it, you’ve failed your audience. Hideo Kojima did get away with it when he created Metal Gear Solid 2, but, once again, that requires a leader, not a follower. Even then, it still took several years for people to accept the game for what it was, and he managed to save face with the impeccable Metal Gear Solid 3 in the meantime.
Conversely, I don’t get the sense that Mr. Druckmann and his team went to such great lengths to hide information from their audience so they could challenge conventions. Much like Steve Gaynor and The Fullbright Company with Gone Home, they did so because they inferred their potential audience wouldn’t support the game if they knew what really happened. Because Naughty Dog had no faith in their audience, it is of little wonder that their audience had no faith in them.
If You Can’t Take Criticism, This Is Your Destiny
“It’s a story about right and wrong written by people who think they are always right.”
Those were the words of an anonymous, disappointed fan from Japan who purchased a copy of The Last of Us Part II. The game was highly divisive in the West, but it did manage to find an audience. Eastern fans weren’t as charitable; they outright despised it. In Japan, the backlash was so severe that game stores eventually refused to take the discs back when their customers sought refunds. One Korean streamer, who went by the e-handle TVCrank, responded to the game’s signature scene by removing the disc from the console and destroying it with a pair of scissors. Fleeting evidence suggested that outside circumstances caused the scene to hit too close to home for him. Although this may sound like a testament to the narrative’s power, the action went viral, and became emblematic of the backlash as a whole.
That anonymous fan hit the nail on the head with those words. Given Naughty Dog’s close proximity to Hollywood, it’s not a stretch to assume that the latter’s culture had an impact on the former. When those content leaks hit the internet, people immediately began comparing the game to The Last Jedi. It certainly is an apt comparison. Both works were products of a dogmatic culture that attempted to swat down non-believers once it was clear their idealism had not resonated with a large audience. Therefore, the words of the disappointed fan likely alludes to the frankly narcissistic, self-centered culture of Hollywood that, as Lucy O’Brien graciously demonstrated, betrays a seriously poor theory of mind.
Whenever something went wrong, there was a one-to-one chance that they would blame their failures on the audience. By 2020, it got so bad that the activities these entertainers, critics, and journalists engaged in was arguably tantamount to gaslighting.
If you didn’t like their output, it’s your fault for having bad taste. If their projects failed, it’s your fault for having interests outside of them. If creators actually listened to criticism and made changes to their work, it’s your fault for ruining the art. If a pandemic shuts down theaters, thereby causing box office numbers to plummet, it’s your fault for not wanting to risk your health for their sake. I’m sure if A24’s headquarters was destroyed by lightning, they would find some way to blame the audience for that as well.
However, while I do think there are several distinct parallels those two works, I also think The Last of Us Part II could be considered the American equivalent of Metroid: Other M. Like Neil Druckmann, Yoshio Sakamoto was a relative unknown before he unleased Metroid: Other M onto an unsuspecting public. He had been a major figure behind the scenes, having directed the beloved classic Super Metroid, but I think it’s safe to assume he wasn’t as well-known until after the release of Metroid: Other M. Mr. Sakamoto’s game received fairly decent reviews, but negative word-of-mouth caused it to flop badly. Between its bad gameplay and terrible story, I myself consider it one of the worst projects Nintendo ever had a hand in creating. Also like Mr. Druckmann, Mr. Sakamoto poured a lot of his soul into Metroid: Other M – to the point of being moved to tears during certain parts of its production. And then he too was forced to realize his ideas completely and utterly failed to move his audience.
Despite these similarities, there are two distinctions between the two releases. While Metroid: Other M was itself a passion project, it came about due to the executives forcing changes upon the game during the development process. Mr. Sakamoto had originally intended for the game to retain the series’ trademark show-don’t-tell style of storytelling. His superiors, on the other hand, wanted to draw in a domestic audience to complement the series’ primarily Western fandom, which resulted in the new, cinematic approach and, by extension, his most controversial decisions.
Mr. Druckmann, on the other hand, had complete creative control over his project, and while art snobs like to extol the value of the auteur theory, The Last of Us Part II showcased how horribly wrong it can go. To begin with, his position as vice president of the company ensured he had no one around to keep him in check. This is important to know because Neil Druckmann, much like Rian Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi, is an example of a creator who does his best work as a grunt than as a general. Indeed, by most accounts, he was not an especially effective leader. The company traditionally had a policy against using managers, but considering the sheer processing power of these machines compared to the those of the generation that came before, every single change was devastating for his subordinates. Developers would work on art assets for weeks at a time only for the many rewrites that occurred to render their efforts meaningless.
One former animator claimed that Naughty Dog’s reputation had become so bad, game animators refused to work with them. I repeat, the people whose games were invariably critical and commercial successes had trouble hiring talent. If they had their act together, animators would have been lining up to personally pay President Evan Wells out-of-pocket for the opportunity to work with such a prestigious company. As it stood, anyone even the least bit savvy avoided Naughty Dog as though it were the gaming equivalent of Amy’s Baking Company – the high turnover rate and poor management being two significant commonalities between the entities. Mr. Druckmann and his team eventually got the project finished by hiring workers from the film industry, but it did little to assuage his overworked subordinates – many of whom had to be hospitalized during the studio’s notoriously long crunch period.
What is the other distinction between The Last of Us Part II and Metroid: Other M? The answer to that question lies in what happened afterwards. Although Metroid: Other M was a worse game than The Last of Us Part II, it inflicted far less damage; only Yoshio Sakamoto’s reputation had been affected. Nobody, not even Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame, saw it as a sign that Nintendo’s days were numbered. It helps that, unlike Naughty Dog, Nintendo did not put all of their eggs in one basket. Many people criticized them for not coming up with new intellectual proprieties, but you could usually count on at least one of their major series to carry the company’s weight if the others were in a rut.
Mr. Sakamoto himself spent the next few years supervising and producing low-key projects such as Tomodachi Life and Rhythm Heaven Megamix. When he finally returned to the Metroid franchise, he and his company teamed up with the Spanish developer MercurySteam to reimagine Metroid II: Return of Samus. Although Nintendo managed to draw ire for banning a fanmade remake of the same game, their own attempt, entitled Metroid: Samus Returns, was itself widely praised. Although he didn’t direct it, Mr. Sakamoto’s production efforts were enough to restore his credibility. What I find especially admirable about this is that Mr. Sakamoto clearly took the criticisms of Metroid: Other M to heart when he produced Samus Returns. He could have easily written off those criticisms, yet he used them to improve himself.
This is important to know because I cannot envision Neil Druckmann being humble enough to admit his faults. Exactly what will happen as a result of this game’s polarized reception remains to be seen, but I am not counting on him to learn from his mistakes. If anything, I expect him to double down on what he is doing, and, just like his peers in Hollywood, dismiss any forms of criticism as haters doing their thing.
I can imagine some rushing to Mr. Druckmann’s defense, claiming that the extreme toxicity among the dissenters would discourage him from hearing them out. To that, I completely agree; the backlash did indeed have a very nasty side to it. The far-right political reactionaries spawned from the deepest recesses of the internet make taking helpful criticism very difficult. Plus, there’s the simple truth that if a person is constantly insulting you, it doesn’t matter how many valid arguments they’re making. You’re just not going to listen to them if they can’t be civil. I know if someone who repeatedly called me “Cuckmann” informed me my clothes were on fire, I would be tempted to not stop, drop, and roll out of pure spite. It was easy for Mr. Druckmann to lump the legitimate criticisms with the cavalcade of insults because to him, they were one in the same. In that regard, I do realize he wasn’t in an ideal environment to take criticism.
So, what was his excuse when he was in an ideal environment to take criticism?
Even ignoring Hollywood’s influence on their games, Naughty Dog as a whole had been complacent being only slightly better than their peers in the American AAA industry when they should’ve striven to be genuinely great. Had they paid attention to overlooked sectors of the gaming scene and discovered works such as Zero Escape, Undertale, or OneShot, they would’ve realized they were way behind the curve.
Mr. Druckmann and Naughty Dog had bitten off more than they could chew with The Last of Us, but it was when I reviewed Uncharted 4 that I knew they were on the precipice of self-destruction. As game critique became more sophisticated, enthusiasts eventually coined the term “Ludonarrative Dissonance”. Have you ever played a game only to realize the mechanics don’t support the narrative choices surrounding them? Then, you have experienced this phenomenon yourself. This term’s creation was primarily inspired by a key development in Ken Levine’s 2007 game BioShock. A significant plot twist in that game turned the entire story on its head. The problem is that the gameplay did not change to accommodate this twist even though, logically, it should have.
Now, this isn’t to say that a story is automatically ruined by such a disconnect. For example, in many Fire Emblem games, several legendary warriors and elite knights join your army in the later portions of the campaign. They’re there for players who lost units in the earlier chapters and need replacements. If you are skilled enough to preserve your first units, you will realize that the assorted mercenaries, novice mages, and other nameless soldiers are invariably stronger than the top-tier warriors hyped up by the lore when raised to the same level. This isn’t an issue because in terms of gameplay, it makes perfect sense. The later units are there to give the player a fighting chance if they messed up, but their comparative lack of power is punishment for poor skill. Sure, that aspect of the story doesn’t make sense, but the audience is generally willing to permit these discrepancies as long as the gameplay’s integrity remains intact.
Naughty Dog generally doesn’t have this luxury because while their body of work is characterized by a strong divide between their gameplay and their story, the instances in which they intersect are extremely jarring. It evokes a feeling similar to the Uncanny Valley effect in how you’re playing a game that constantly refuses to play by its own rules. The original Uncharted ends with a gunfight whose cat-and-mouse style would have been perfectly serviceable in a film, but was exceptionally clunky to play through.
Later entries would vary wildly in terms of getting the gameplay and story to synchronize, but there was one factor that constantly damaged the narrative’s integrity: the protagonist, Nathan Drake. It simply didn’t make any sense for the narrative to insist he is an easygoing, nice person when he racks up a body count that regularly puts Joel’s or Ellie’s to shame. It’s almost as though he is two completely different characters depending on whether or not the character is in control of him.
As a result, although BioShock was the game that inspired the term’s creation, Naughty Dog soon became its poster child. Eventually, this criticism made itself known to Neil Druckmann. How did he respond?
The same way you would expect a Naughty Dog writer to handle any other problem in their script: point it out, but don’t lift a finger to fix it. Celebrating their lack of creativity, you earn this trophy by killing 1,000 enemies in the span of a single playthrough. This is typically accomplished by resetting to the last checkpoint multiple times because the game has far fewer than 1,000 enemies to fight, but that’s beside the point.
The takeaway from this is that Mr. Druckmann considers placing the “Ludonarrative Dissonance” trophy in his game his crowning achievement. Not helping with the level design, not writing the scenario, not creating a virtual world, not seeing the positive reception to his work, but dunking on people offering constructive criticism. If he wanted to present himself as a crusader for progressive causes in video games, this outburst does not cast his character in a flattering light. In fact, when also considering his militant attempts to suppress the content leaks, it’s not difficult to see him as a bully who desires absolute control and throws tantrums when things don’t go his way. Rather than hear out his critics, he took advantage of his high status to openly mock them for having their opinions. No need to improve yourself if you can ridicule your critics’ credibility away, after all. That this didn’t prove controversial speaks volumes to how protective the critical circle was of him. Even the most sympathetic interpretations of his reaction cannot avoid the conclusion that he is remarkably thin-skinned.
Exactly when he came up with the trophy is unclear. He could have come up with it as early as 2013 following the release of The Last of Us or minutes before Uncharted 4 went gold in 2016. Either way, it was well before he became a controversial figure in 2020. If he couldn’t handle being criticized when fans practically worshipped him, the odds of him ever learning his lesson now that his reputation has been marred is practically nonexistent. Regardless of the circumstances, learning to take criticism is absolutely vital to growing as an artist. Mr. Druckmann proved he couldn’t early on, and I can safely say that in the seven years between the release of The Last of Us and its sequel, he didn’t budge an inch.
This is why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even The Last of Us Part II itself isn’t immune from this disconnect. While the series’ protagonists are morally dubious enough to the point where I can buy that they are the cold-blooded killers the gameplay says they are, the narrative still finds ways to be at odds with itself. To wit, sometime after receiving a bow, Ellie has the option to craft explosive arrows. When they hit their mark, the unfortunate recipient erupts in an impressive shower of gore. The problem is that the narrative also goes out of its way to show how disturbing violence is with one early scene in particular deeply scarring its protagonist, Ellie. Meanwhile, the explosive arrows and the effects they have on enemies wouldn’t feel out of place in a cheesy action film from the 1980s. The realistic, visceral violence displayed in cutscenes and the campy, over-the-top violence Ellie can inflict upon members of enemy factions in gameplay mix together about as well as oil and water. This means even when the story and the gameplay theoretically complement each other more effectively, the Naughty Dog team still finds a way to turn them into opposing forces.
Like many Hollywood types, Mr. Druckmann was wholly uninterested in accepting anything other than unbridled praise from outside of his circle. As such, things became interesting when the criticism emanated from a source he couldn’t easily ignore. Rob Zacny of Vice was more critical of the game and its themes in his review. Naughty Dog couldn’t leave well enough alone and sent a Sony representative to speak with him. Although the conversation was not confrontational, Mr. Zacny did describe it as unusual. The representative felt his review was unfair and they “dismissed some meaningful changes or improvements” that he suggested.
While there is no evidence to suggest Mr. Druckmann himself sent the representative, it doesn’t speak well for the company if every significant figure is as bad at taking criticism as he is. Once again, it’s clear that the company realized what little control over the narrative they had, and was doing anything they could to salvage the situation. There is no other explanation as to why they would focus on this one piece when a vast majority of the outlets were giving the game perfect scores. It wasn’t good enough for them; anything other than a perfect score was a loose nail that needed to be struck with a hammer. I can only imagine how big their meltdown would have been had I posted my own review on a major outlet.
Indeed, the biggest reason I saw Naughty Dog’s fall from grace coming from miles away is because I’ve seen this exact scenario play out many times before. This debacle reminds me of the downfall of Channel Awesome in particular. Their reputation was permanently stained in 2018 once it came to light that they weren’t the tight-knit community they presented themselves to be. CEO Mike Michaud’s refusal to acknowledge or apologize for the misogyny, mismanagement, and sexual abuse allegations resulted in a mass exodus of employees. Outside of Doug Walker and his immediate team of collaborators, only Brad Jones and Larry Bundy Jr. remained. The latter chose to stay not out a sense of loyalty, but as a joke because his videos had been ignored by the higher-ups for so long. Naughty Dog may not have been as blatantly unethical, but their taking advantage of their employees’ passion proved they were every bit as amoral. It is unsurprising that their unscrupulous practices blew up in their face as badly as it did.
There are plenty of other stories that could serve as an apt parallel to Naughty Dog’s. As difficult as it is to believe, Phil Burnell was fairly popular in the early days of YouTube, but now, he is considered a laughingstock due his antagonistic attitude and lack of skill. Similarly, Noah Antwiler was once a respected content creator, but one social media meltdown later, he lost everything. All of these downfalls came about due to one common factor: the mistaken belief that they were invincible and could do no wrong. They thought themselves to be above criticism, but in the end, their egos proved their undoing.
Indeed, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, once he realized his magnum opus didn’t go over as well as he had hoped, Mr. Druckmann responded thusly.
This goes beyond a poor theory of mind and into “not understanding what basic causality is” territory. It just continues to demonstrate Mr. Druckmann’s thin-skinned, egotistical attitude, and he has only gotten worse with age.
There is a documentarian on YouTube by the name of Fredrik Knudsen who delves into a variety of topics that only seem to get stranger the further you dig. Appropriately enough, his series is entitled Down the Rabbit Hole. When he made an appearance on the SomeOrdinaryGamers podcast after his channel took off, he revealed a great model for delineating the various kinds of criticism he receives. The first variety is a screamed profanity, which can be safely ignored due to how unhelpful they are. These kinds of comments say more about the person posting them than the target of their ire. The second kind is something to the effect of “I didn’t like this content and it’s not pertinent to me”. This criticism is a little more difficult to parse because it could just mean the work wasn’t made for that person. If that’s the case, it just can’t be helped. The third kind was the kind he actually found to be useful. It’s when the commenter tells you that something about your work is off. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, but if the person is being civil, it is worth hearing out their points – especially if many viewers are coming down to the same conclusion independently.
People like Neil Druckmann, Mike Michaud, Noah Antwiler, and Phil Burnell tend to see all types of criticism as the first, unhelpful variety Fredrik Knudsen described. To them, their immediate goal when it comes to receiving any kind of non-positive feedback is to discredit it in the fewest moves possible. This makes any kind of professional or personal improvement impossible as you squander away the goodwill you generated from your audience until, just like that, it’s gone. It is, admittedly, difficult at first to delineate these types of criticisms – especially on the internet where gauging another person’s intentions can be nigh impossible. However, it is a vital skill if you intend to throw your hat in the ring. Those who can’t tend to burn themselves quickly once their one good idea becomes insolvent or their audience moves on.
For any aspiring artists reading this, don’t be led astray by the critical and commercial success Neil Druckmann’s game has enjoyed; treat it as a cautionary tale instead. The adage that reputations take a lifetime to create and seconds to destroy exists for a reason. You may think you’re on top of the world, but you have to realize the goodwill of your audience is not a limitless resource. Lie to them enough, and they will learn to distrust you. Insult them enough, and they will learn to hate you. Belittle them enough, and they will learn to ignore you. Accepting the good and the bad that comes with fame and success is key to growing as both an artist and a person.