Troy Baker, the actor who portrays Joel in The Last of Us, revealed at Manchester Comic-Con that the upcoming sequel, The Last of Us Part II, would be Naughty Dog’s “most ambitious game” ever.
But that ambition will inevitably be overshadowed by the fact that this is unquestionably Naughty Dog’s most controversial game as well.
The Last of Us was the definitive masterpiece of the seventh generation of consoles because it so skillfully depicted the sincere relationship between the protagonists, Joel and Ellie. Their rapport struck emotional notes few games had at the time – and haven’t since.
As they traveled across ravaged post-apocalyptic America, it wasn’t the overbearing collapse of the world that guided the story, but rather the very human emotions of a select few people trying to survive.
A weighty pathos coursed through the title free of rose-tinted, saccharine embellishments – cruelty and levity stood side by side as they do in the real world. From the death of Joel’s daughter in the opening hour of the game to that loss fueling his paternal instinct to protect Ellie, the player had to contend with the beautifully framed aftermath of a tragedy, a second chance for Joel, a displaced and twisted story of redemption.
The mature narrative-driven gameplay left little scope for controversy other than an in-house push from marketing hacks at publisher Sony to remove Ellie from the box art, which ultimately failed.
The highly anticipated sequel, The Last of Us Part II, is a different kettle of fish entirely as controversies have brewed alongside the build-up to the game’s release. Tempers flared and we saw sensibilities offended based off a series of trailers released by Naughty Dog.
The controversy began in 2017 when gamers accused Naughty Dog of using trailers filled with gratuitous violence to hawk their blockbuster title.
Amid the hazy backdrop of a torrential downpour, a noosed, possibly pregnant character narrowly avoids disembowelment, while another has her “wings clipped” as goons take a hammer to her outstretched arms.
The brutality on display leaves little to the imagination, and Naughty Dog came under fire for using women-on-women violence to sell their game, with a particular emphasis on the harrowing scene having no clear justification other than as a spectacle to shock.
Reddit was awash with criticism, including the following post:
“The point is that the original game was incredibly deep and earned the violence by bringing us to a point where we cared about the characters. This trailer reduced the world to a Mortal Kombat cartoon…shoving our faces in masturbatory torture porn for its own sake.”
Sony retorted that the trailer depicted the sequel’s central theme of revenge and the idea of deep-rooted animosity. Jack Ryan, president at Sony Interactive Europe, said:
“The Last of Us obviously is a game made by adults to be played by adults. I should never prejudge this but it will probably be rated ‘18’, I think it’s fair to say. And there’s that market for those people who like that sort of game. Adults who like that sort of game.”
Fast forward to E3 2018 where Sony treated fans to a more jovial – but no less controversial – trailer.
Nestled amid a glimpse of game footage played out in a murky swamp on the border of a city reclaimed by nature, Naughty Dog teased a touching same-sex kiss shared between Ellie and returning deuteragonist from The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, Riley.
Social media erupted in a deluge of accusations that appeared to ramp up in their lunacy. From Naughty Dog having a “gay agenda” and the scene falling foul of The Last of Us cannon to a subsection of fans decrying the sexualization of Ellie’s character, the Internet’s more unsavory denizens reared their heads in unified dismay.
Among the choice pickings was this bigoted nugget that The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann quickly rebuked:
Fans on the other side of the fence were quick to point out that Ellie and Riley’s romance was hinted at previously.
“The reveal of Ellie’s sexual orientation in the trailer is NO SURPRISE. It was confirmed she was of the LGBTQ community after her romantic interaction with Riley. It was already confirmed, it’s canon. Deal with it.”
For a game that Sony has yet to stamp with a definitive release date, The Last of Us Part II has attained new polemic heights for Naughty Dog, and there’s little sign the storm will abate anytime soon.
With the developer’s track record of delivering quality games, including the acclaimed Uncharted series, it’s certain both the controversial violence and Ellie’s sexuality have a clear narrative purpose. In many ways, the two trailers counterbalance one another. They define the dichotomy of The Last of Us universe perfectly.
Naughty Dog isn’t in the business of peddling controversy for the sake of exposure. Tough subjects garner heated reactions, and the publisher deserves admiration for soldiering on regardless.
But there’s a very real risk of eclipsing Naughty Dog’s ambitions with over-eager judgments on highly stylized four-minute-long trailers and gaming’s ongoing issue with diversity.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of, nor should they be attributed to, CCN.