The Last of Us Part II

Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.

Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.

The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.

Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.

In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?

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The Last of Us

Introduction

In 2004, a student of Carnegie Mellon University named Neil Druckmann participated in a group project. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Entertainment Technology, and one of his professors happened to be friends with George Romero, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead. This 1968 classic is widely considered to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse genre. For this assignment, Mr. Romero compelled the students to pitch an idea for a video game. Mr. Druckmann’s idea merged the three works which left an indelible impact on him as a creator. It would feature gameplay akin to Ico, star a protagonist with a personality comparable to John Hartigan from Sin City, and the story was to be set in the world of Night of the Living Dead. The game’s concept centered on a cop would protect a young girl in a ravaged land filled to the brim with mindless, flesh-eating monsters. However, the cop had a heart condition that would act up every now and again, prompting players to take control of the girl in these situations, thus reserving the roles of the protector and the protected. In the end, Mr. Romero chose another project.

Later that year, Mr. Druckmann met Jason Rubin, the co-founder of a game company named Naughty Dog. Mr. Rubin’s company had made their impact on the medium on Sony’s PlayStation platform with their Crash Bandicoot series of 3D platforming games. It was a success that would continue into the following console generation with Jak & Daxter. After “bugging” Mr. Rubin enough, the co-founder handed the enthusiastic college student a business card. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as an intern before being promoted to full-time employee as a gameplay programmer mere months afterwards.

When his tenure at Naughty Dog began, Mr. Druckmann began to revisit his rejected game concept, thinking to himself, “What’s another way I can explore these characters?” The answer to this quandary came in the form of a comic book named The Turning. It was to be about a criminal who found himself tasked with escorting a young girl across a dangerous land. The roles would be reversed in the end when he is captured by erstwhile criminal partners and the girl saves his life. He intended to write and draw the comic itself. When he completed the script for a six-issue story arc, he submitted it to an independent comic book publisher. Unfortunately, much like George Romero, the publisher rejected the idea – Mr. Druckmann being told, “I like it, but I don’t love it.”

Meanwhile, as Naughty Dog was in the middle of developing Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, Mr. Druckmann asked co-president Evan Wells about joining the design team. Although Mr. Wells was hesitant about the idea, he allowed Mr. Druckmann a chance under the stipulation that he completed his design work after hours. Once Jak X: Combat Racing saw its release, Mr. Wells was convinced by his subordinate’s skill and put him in charge of design for their next project: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game and its sequel were commercial and critical successes, and Mr. Druckmann soon found himself as one of the lead developers for the series’ third installment.

As he worked on the design for the first two Uncharted installments, Neil Druckmann would often have dinner with co-worker Bruce Straley to discuss ideas about what they should do next. This time, his proposed story followed a man accompanied by a mute girl with whom every point of interaction was executed via game mechanics. During these sessions, they became intrigued with Cordyceps, a fungus that infects insects by taking control of their motor functions and forcing them to cultivate more of itself. This game was to be set in a world in which the Cordyceps began to infect humans, but only women fell victim to it. The girl was the only female immune to the fungus, and the hero had to transport her to a laboratory so a cure may be synthesized. The concept was vetoed when the company’s female employees voiced concerns about a game in which men had to band together against women who became ugly, irrational, and powerful. Not helping matters was its proposed title: Mankind. By Mr. Druckmann’s own admission, “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea.”

Undeterred by these numerous setbacks, he began to refine his idea, and in 2010, he and Mr. Straley felt it was ready to be pitched. However, it was rejected yet again when the higher-ups felt his new concept failed to mesh with his characters’ arcs. After weeding out the last remaining issues, Mr. Druckmann’s dream project was finally greenlit, being formally announced to the world in 2011. As Naughty Dog received innumerable awards and a large, dedicated fanbase with their trilogy of Uncharted games, this new title, dubbed The Last of Us, became one of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. At long last, the medium would have a title to show the world that video games had grown up and were every bit as worthy of being considered legitimate artistic cornerstones alongside film, music, and literature. This heavily promoted game was released in 2013, and saying that it received unanimous critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. Critics felt it was one of the medium’s greatest artistic achievements while fans fell in love with the characters and the setting. Essayists have gone into great detail about the game, its themes, and how immaculate the experience is as a whole. Many spectacular titles were released within the seventh generation of console gaming, but many insisted The Last of Us blew every single one of them out of the water. That it managed to somehow surpass Uncharted 2 in terms of accolades is no mean feat. Was Mr. Druckmann able to use his determination over the better part of a decade to create something that stands not only as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus and the seventh generation’s swansong, but also one of the greatest games ever made?

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Start Strong, End Strong

Pictured - A better ending than that of The Last of Us

Introduction

Regardless of the medium, a bad ending is one of the worst flaws a work can have. It’s one of the few mistakes that the author cannot recover from without resorting to sequels and extensive retconning. I am, and always have been, a stickler for endings. Indeed, I’ve made it a rule when critiquing that any work with a lackluster ending is not worthy of being deemed a classic and the highest score it could ever hope to get is a 6/10, which roughly translates to a B- in my book. While discussing the nature of story progression with my fellow games enthusiast, Aether, he perfectly illustrated why I insist on holding this belief.

“A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing.”

–Aether

This is especially crucial for video games; you want to reward your audience for overcoming a challenge and having the tenacity to see your work through to the end. Depriving them of a good ending is one of the worst insults any development team can dish out. In all of the games I’ve played over the years, three stand out as having endings so bad, the good memories I had of them were almost completely erased. They should be studied by writers as what to avoid when crafting and structuring their stories. In order to demonstrate my points, I will have to resort to spoilers, so if you are at all interested in playing the following games, feel free to skip those sections. Don’t worry though, should I mention other games in the following sections, I will be sure to include spoiler tags if needed.

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