I tried to sabotage the hype for myself by diving straight into all the leaks and rumors that surfaced in April. Part of it can be blamed on journalist’s curiosity. After all, these leaks were huge, and my level of excitement was already pretty low. Seeing these leaks would’ve affirmed my biases. And sure enough, what I saw and read left me severely disappointed and angry. The leaks made the story sound trite, uninspired and misguided. “I knew it,” I thought. “They never should’ve made a sequel.” This was my mind-set as I booted up “The Last of Us 2.”
By the end of it, I had changed my mind. Despite my early and strict skepticism of the premise, I now believe the sequel to “The Last of Us” feels justified. It dives deeper into character motivation than ever before, and it’s at least as good as the first game, which many believed to be almost perfect. It does not worsen or remove that ending’s significance or impact. It grapples with its traumatic consequences directly, without any of the coy teasing and walking on eggshells that dominate much of pop art, including film.
While I will not confirm details within any of the leaks, I can deny some of them. Game director Neil Druckmann (who co-wrote the story with screenwriter Halley Gross) made an early claim that there were “a lot of other false rumors out there.” This is not a lie, and is a reference to many false narratives and plot summaries spread across sites like 4chan and Reddit. Some made up entire details and scenes, while making false assumptions about the story and its characters.
In April, an hour and a half of footage from the game leaked onto the Internet. Kotaku reported in May that hackers may have exploited a security vulnerability of a prior Naughty Dog game. The magnitude of these leaks was unprecedented, particularly for a narrative-driven game shrouded in mystery and mainstream anticipation.
The game’s release date was pushed up to June 19 after the leaks ravaged the initial rollout plan. Naughty Dog and publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment went into damage control while launching an investigation into the hack. Joel’s voice actor Troy Baker, a celebrated talent in the industry, also tweeted in support of the game: “You might think you know. But you don’t.”
Baker was right. I went into the game, armed with all the knowledge of the leaks, thinking I could fill in the blanks of the story. The game still left me in shock. It is very much an extension of the first game’s themes and storytelling tricks. It’s less concerned about the lore of the world, and more about how these characters find strength and meaning in a world stripped of it all.
Druckmann told The Washington Post that this sequel is “so much about hate and how we dehumanize each other. And you can see that happening with the leaks."
The leaks caused many players, including myself, to take nuggets of information and cast a blanket judgment on the whole game and its concepts before engaging with it. The fallout was nasty, spawning hard-to-avoid memes, many of which were hateful and based on the presumption that Naughty Dog is trying to cater to liberal audiences. YouTube influencers reacted immediately with disappointment to the story details, ready to turn down their excitement for the game. I muted my excitement in turn.
But as the game played out scene by scene, my skepticism was disarmed, and my mind was open to a story I thought I knew, but clearly didn’t. The game’s first few seconds comforted me. It begins with a confessional from Joel to his brother Tommy as he grapples with his actions from the first game. Tommy’s face expresses both horror and compassion as he comes to grip with what his brother did. The stories told on all their faces are unlike anything we’ve seen in games. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
If you were to break down the first story of “The Last of Us,” it would’ve sounded similarly trite and uninspired. “The Last of Us” was special because of the lengths the writing went to get us to know and understand these character’s motivations. Joel is a coldhearted killer, and we know that because we live through his trauma, and understand his decades of doing whatever it takes to survive. We understand Ellie because she’s a young girl looking for purpose and fulfillment in a world empty of it. We understand them both because we watch them grow and fight together.
“The Last of Us” was not simply a “father-daughter” road trip across America, any more than its sequel is a story about revenge and violence. Like a folk tale or historical fable, hearing it is not the same as living it. People loved Joel and Ellie because of how they grew on each other, how their personalities changed as their relationship evolved into something deeper, without conditions.
Here, in Ellie’s story, we have a tale about how the ones dearest to us are capable of wreaking the most havoc in our lives. We witness her happiest moments, and stay with her in her deepest anguish. No, it’s not a particularly new topic for pop art, even video games, to address. But it’s rarely been told with such discomforting bluntness. Even if I thought I knew the story’s beats (and I usually didn’t), the way it was framed and performed chilled my blood, even when it dared me to smolder in my own blood lust.
“The Last of Us Part II” still works, even in a so-called spoiled state, because it’s rare to play a video game that listens so intently to who its characters are, one that portrays them with doting sympathy.
In the coming weeks, I predict there’s going to be a lot of conversation around the events in “The Last of Us Part II”; how they’re portrayed, what the characters do, and how players feel about it. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated its intentions, it will divide opinion. There will be furious debate. And the only way you can honestly engage with these discussions is to play “The Last of Us Part II."
The stories of Ellie and “The Last of Part II" are one and the same: Beyond hope and rationality, they scream to justify their existence. The only way you can know and understand their argument, in the end, is to play the game.
Washington Post reporter Elise Favis contributed to this report.