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Ellie in The Last of Us 2 pointing a gun toward the camera. Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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The Last of Us Part 2 has become a minefield

Devs, critics, and fans butt heads over one of the year’s biggest games

By all accounts, The Last of Us Part 2 is a smashing success: The survival horror game has a 94 on review score-collating site Metacritic and has already sold millions of copies. Sony called it the “the fastest-selling first-party PS4 exclusive ever,” which would be cause to celebrate ... except for the fact that merely discussing the game has become, within large swaths of the video game community, toxic. It’s exhausting.

The dour stage was set before release, when part of the game leaked online. Sony, the game’s publisher, said it had identified the people responsible, but not before some of the game’s biggest twists had been made public. Upset by some of the story beats revealed in the leak and the game’s LGBTQ representation, some bigoted reactionaries began a campaign to spoil the experience for other folks.

“It was one of the worst days of my life when the leak happened,” Neil Druckmann, co-director of The Last of Us Part 2, said in a YouTube interview with Kinda Funny.

“A few hours later, [the leak is] everywhere and you’re starting to get hate on every social media you’re on, and soon that turns into death threats, anti-Semitic remarks, and just craziness I never could have anticipated,” he continued, stating that he never thought the game would get this sort of hate. It’s still visible on social media, where top replies to nearly anything from Naughty Dog will include responses like “The game is straight garbage.” It seems unlikely that these opinions are coming from people who have actually played the game, given that it’s impossible to explain how The Last of Us Part 2 could have racked up hundreds of negative user reviews on Metacritic immediately after launch.

The Last of Us Part 2 guide: The Seraphites collectibles walkthrough Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Discussion about the survival horror game was also hampered by unusually restrictive embargo guidelines, which included sentences like “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.” This prevented websites from discussing any specifics of the game’s story, which was tricky considering that the game reveals something surprising within its first two hours that impacts the remainder of its 20- to 30-hour journey. Curiously, at least one website, GameSpot, actually published two reviews, one without spoilers and one that dove right into those details. The latter was published after the embargo was fully lifted.

Why go through such lengths, especially when the internet was flooded with half-informed takes and speculation based on what had already leaked? Control. Naughty Dog no longer steered the narrative of The Last of Us Part 2, and this was one way to try and regain control. The studio had already gone to great efforts to maintain a tight grip on what folks knew about the experience. As Kotaku reported, Naughty Dog at one point showed a fake scene during a trailer to make people believe that a character would be more present in the game than they actually were.

The vibe around the game hasn’t gotten much better since then. On June 12, Vice published its review of The Last of Us Part 2, in which critic Rob Zacny said that while the game had “memorable moments” that made for great “spectacle,” he was less taken with the story and characters. “Nobody ever reconsiders their quest for vengeance,” Zacny wrote. “Everyone acts under a kind of vindictive compulsion that goes little remarked and unexamined.” Zacny went on to describe the game’s message as complacent, full of “oppressive bleakness and violence.”

While the vast majority of reviews have lavished The Last of Us Part 2 with all sorts of praise, a handful of outlets — Polygon included — have been slightly more critical of the blockbuster game. According to Zacny, Vice’s review prompted a Sony representative to reach out on behalf of Naughty Dog.

“They felt some of the conclusions I reached in my review were unfair and dismissed some meaningful changes or improvements,” Zacny told Polygon over Twitter messages.

Ellie hides under a car in The Last of Us Part 2 Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Zacny clarified that the exchange wasn’t “confrontational,” but that it was nonetheless “unusual,” as the site doesn’t typically have big publishers asking in an official capacity why a review reads the way it does. Such things can happen, of course, though often with smaller developers, or from publishers who have spotted a factual error in a piece that they want corrected.

“I was happy to unpack a bit of my reasoning, however, and received a perfectly cordial message in response,” Zacny said. Naughty Dog’s PR team declined to comment on Polygon’s inquiry about its exchange with Vice.

On social media, responses from The Last of Us Part 2’s creative team have gotten a bit more personal — and public. Co-director Neil Druckmann has been hopping into discussion about the game to wag his finger at journalists who were making fun of a tasteless post that had compared The Last of Us Part 2 to Schindler’s List. Other developers, like God of War’s Cory Barlog, closed ranks around Druckmann, going so far as to unfairly position dissenting opinion as an attempt to tear developers down.

Perhaps the defensiveness was unavoidable. When Naughty Dog’s leak first surfaced, plenty of game makers went on social media to express their disappointment that gaming outlets reported on it at all. Rather than seeing such reportage as a part of the job — it’s news when one of the biggest games of the year has a huge leak months before release — news writers were positioned as betrayers who weren’t on the “side” of developers. Now that the game is actually out, that tension between the people involved with the game and members of the press has only become more noticeable.

In late June, reporter (and my former colleague) Jason Schreier tweeted out an innocuous and fairly broad hot take about the length of AAA games, a subject that is often a topic of debate. No specific game was mentioned in the original post, although Schreier did mention The Last of Us Part 2 as an inspiration in a threaded reply. The tweet went viral.

In response, Troy Baker — the voice actor behind Joel, one of the main characters in both The Last of Us games — quoted Schreier’s tweet alongside a bizarre quote from Theodore Roosevelt about the value of a critic versus that of a creator. “It is not the critic who counts,” the quote starts. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat.” Hundreds of people then came down on Schreier for daring to say anything at all.

Schreier had already clarified that although The Last of Us Part 2 had been the game that inspired his tweet, his central message wasn’t specific or limited to Naughty Dog’s game.

“Games are too long because marketers believe they’ll only sell bazillions of copies and generate bazillions in revenue for stockholders if they can put ‘biggest world ever’ on the box,” he said, in response to another tweet on the subject. Schreier’s offhand critique spoke to some dark truths about the general state of the video game industry. He was referring to the push to make bigger video games as a means of justifying the $60 cost, and how that pads game length. Worse, that endless content push can also lead to crunch and burnout from the people who have to fill these worlds with endless things to do — including game developers at Naughty Dog, according to Schreier’s own reporting.

Still, Schreier clarified that his tweet was mostly a joke. “Any take that declares something definitive about ‘video games’ should not be taken seriously enough to warrant a 400-word Theodore Roosevelt quote,” he said to another Twitter user.

That protective shield around The Last of Us Part 2 can be seen any time the creatives or talent behind the game jump into critical conversations about it. It’s made talking about the game exhausting. On the one hand, we have bigots trying their hardest to tear the game down for its inclusion of queer characters. On the other hand, we’ve got the people who actually made the game putting their figurative fists up. On the third hand (go with it), we’ve got fans and professional critics trying to share their own takes on the game, good and bad and everything in between.

Protagonist Ellie as she appears in The Last of Us Part 2 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

And then there’s the game itself, which by proxy of its tense genre and heavy subject matter, is also onerous to trudge through. The Last of Us Part 2 would be arduous to play in any context, but it feels particularly oppressive right now, during an actual pandemic in which we’re all trying our best not to lose our minds. You almost can’t blame the creative team at Naughty Dog for being Too Online about all of this. They care about their baby, yes, but more crucially, there’s little else to do right now. The Last of Us Part 2 was, at one point, positioned as the PlayStation 4’s swan song, a grandiose heavy-hitter from Sony’s most esteemed studio, set to release before the next generation of video games. Instead, The Last of Us Part 2 leaked ahead of release and exploded into controversy.

If we’re truly taking the game seriously, nuanced and critical conversations aren’t just necessary — they need to happen without fear that you’ll be perceived as a bully or enemy. Not all Naughty Dog conversations fall into that trap, of course. I appreciated seeing a Naughty Dog employee say that there are many LGBTQ members on the team, and that not taking them into account threatens to erase them. And I’ve also loved seeing some workers dish about the extraordinary thought put into everything, like the act of breaking glass.

But, based on my own conversations with fellow critics, many have assumed an air of wariness about The Last of Us Part 2 discourse. It feels as if there are all these larger forces working toward maintaining the status quo when it comes to big-budget games. It’s not enough that the game is selling well, and that most reviews are positive; you can’t fall out of line with that general consensus, even as a joke, without having to worry about whether or not a publisher will be looking over your shoulder, or if hundreds of fans will blow up your social media. It is not an environment that is conducive to encouraging honest reviews or critical discussion, which is ultimately a disservice to the game itself.