Image from Android Central (protagonist Ellie embattled literally and metacontextually)
2020 opened with wider spread acknowledgement of the terrible Australian bushfires destroying much of the titular nation continent. It was also coinciding with the United States extra-judicially murdering the top ranking general of Iran and nearly plunging America into yet another needless war, one that could’ve led to a third world war in many people’s minds.
Once the bushfires and the threat of hot war passed, a respiratory illness originating from Wuhan, China literally plagued the most populous country on the planet until it spread to every continent save the one place it couldn’t: Antarctica of course.
Early on, China, Iran and Italy were the ones who suffered most until the terrible response in prevention and quarantine for the virus led America to have the most cases and deaths of any nation on the planet. Brazil’s also horrible response might have it eclipse our numbers by Summer’s end.
On top of that, the coronavirus has led to the greatest economic crisis in American history with unemployment numbers far eclipsing both the 2008 great recession and even the Great Depression of the 1930s’.
On top of that and perhaps further fueled by frustration over those issues came worldwide protest over police brutality and misconduct with the inciting incident for the as of this writing ongoing protests being the brutal, nearly 9 minute choking of an innocent man in Minneapolis, all by a group of cops who knew they were being filmed and verbally accosted but simply didn’t care.
The world has not seemed so volatile in such a long time, least of all in my limited life experience, having been born less than thirty years ago.
Multiple incidents from history that were occurring separate from each other like the 1918 erroneously named “Spanish” Flu, occurring and helped spread by the concurrent First World War, the economic crash of 1929 that created the Great Depression and the race riots of the 1960s and of 1992 in LA are all having a new variation at the same time.
When it comes to the American psyche, it is in a poor, deteriorating place. A recent poll( that I didn’t myself take) revealed that as of June 2020, only 14% of Americans consider themselves very happy. Only 63% of Americans consider themselves strongly patriotic, a steep decline from the last polling year of 2013. The world is unhappy, sick, scared and very uncertain of what the future will bring.
Will we get overwhelmingly desired positive change in a system that is tailor-made to protect its own interests and curve popularly desired top-to-bottom reform? The defeat of Bernie Sanders’ populist election campaign that was running on many poll-approved policies by the establishment Democratic Party through a last minute consolidation around status quo standard bearer Joe Biden has left many feeling cold to any hope.
Even as protesters nationwide continue to press the issue, helped along ironically by the police’s widespread brutality against them garnering sympathy and support, is even that enough against the many in power where absolutely nothing can dissuade them from the seductive promise of maintaining the awful status quo through monetary favor?
With a broken system having seemingly intractable power and many fearing honest to god systemic collapse being the only way that system could be defeated at this point, what is the average American to do? Well, if you have the money, which could be a serious question for more than a few, than why not play an engrossing well made video game?
If you’re looking for a quality experience, especially with the highest selling console of this generation, the PlayStation 4, then there is by Metacritic score no better option than the newly released The Last Of Us Part II.
Its opening review scores tallied to an incredible, weighted score of 96 out of 100. As more reviews have poured in, not including the few that do not score theirs, it is now at 95 out of 100, the same score as its beloved, acclaimed predecessor, The Last of Us from 2013. The original just so happens to be one of my current all time favorites.
And yet, it does not appear to be truly as acclaimed as the critical consensus would have you believe. While there were some critic detractors, it is absolutely nothing compared to the preemptive and scathing consensus of gamers who have been exposed to the unfortunate leaks for the game from late last April. I myself have been exposed to them, my curiosity over the negative response to them too great.
Of course, for the fairness of all who either weren’t thankfully exposed to the spoilerific leaks as well haven’t played the game yet, I will not be mentioning a single, solitary thing about them. There may be some inferences and mild hints as to why there is such pushback, but that’s it.
The user score for TLOU2 is 3.4 out of 100, a far cry from the professional opinion. Seeing as how the game launched just yesterday, it would be nearly impossible for one to have played the entire game without rushing through it. Even the rushed attempts wouldn’t allow an honest takeaway of course.
Yes, some non-reviewers did get advanced copies and could’ve finished the game but the majority of the the overly negative reviews are meant to express opinions, honest or not, that have been bubbling for a month and a half.
As was noted by none other than a YouTube reviewer (Skill Up) that didn’t have a positive opinion of the game, The Last of Us Part II has had over 20,000 user reviews in the span of roughly two days. The lifetime number for the first Last of Us is around 9-10,000. Just a reminder, that game is now seven years old.
So, the vast majority if maybe entirety of those Metacritic scores are based on those who have not yet or won’t play the game, base it entirely on their unfavorable opinion from the leaks, have only played a portion of the game or are just trolling with no actual investment in what is going on with the game.
This is far from the first time that Metacritic has had this problem. The contested eighth episode of Star Wars, The Last Jedi, was also review bombed on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Over time, the user score came to reflect a less severe but still divided opinion of the film.
Unlike the second Last of Us, The Last Jedi was not victim to pre-release leaks tainting the preconception of Rian Johnson’s contested entry into Star Wars. At least that film’s detractors detracted once the film was out and they had actually seen it.
Captain Marvel, a recent entry in the gangbusters success that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was also plagued by preemptive “review-bombing” as it’s called. There were no spoiler-related leaks for Carol Danvers’ cinematic debut, but a mostly sexist backlash at the character and her having the “Captain Marvel” mantle.
There were also some that may have had less mean reasons for disliking Captain Marvel before and after her launch, like just finding the character not interesting enough or the film being too obvious in its pro-female empowerment message. Whether or not anti-SJWs were the direct reason for the film’s backlash is beside the point.
What’s happening to The Last of Us Part II is not new. It’s not even the first time it’s happened for a video-game. Even crazier, sometimes the review-bombing tactic comes from a not so misguided place.
In 2012, Mass Effect 3, the hotly anticipated trilogy capper for one of the most acclaimed space sci-fi video game properties ever, was released to critical acclaim as expected and hoped for. But for both fans and critics, that game had a now notorious catch in its reception: the ever despised ending(s).
I won’t delve into why that was not so much contested but outright hated as that is one lengthy tangent and I do love my tangents. The point is, eight years ago, people review bombed Mass Effect 3 in protest of the game having a very poor destination in store for those who crafted their own tales through three pretty large and great games.
Some games are reviewed bombed, not so much for poor narrative direction but in terms of practices the game is pushing. Star Wars: Battlefront II(2017) was blasted mostly due to the gambling-like nature of its micro-transaction system, which often kept away important multiplayer features through a randomized item system that you had to unlock through a grueling amount of online playtime.
Being able to play Star Wars heroes and villains just one time like Luke and Darth Vader involved nearly a day’s worth of play. To say nothing of how the “loot box” system gave you the “option” to get around playing for them by paying real world money for hopefully a good, grabbag haul. So, gambling in a Star Wars game, that is accessible to children. Not a good look and the huge poor user scores on Metacritic made note of that.
It wasn’t just reflecting a unfavorable opinion of the game, it was an act of protest towards publisher EA’s greedy practices and a desire for them to stop. I wonder if the review-bomb campaign for TLOU2 also counts as protest, but there is a difference between protesting narrative choice and monetary manipulation inserted into an otherwise okay Star Wars experience.
Getting back to the major point of this article, I don’t personally think it is just considerable disagreement on what the leaks spoiled to disgruntled, maybe even heartbroken fans of the original. It is not just that some may have bigoted disagreement with the inclusion of gay and trans characters. The main playable protagonist of the game, Ellie, was already revealed to be gay in the well-recieved expansion for the original game, Left Behind.
I think a great number of dissenting voices against The Last of Us Part II, both professional critic and gamer, are upset by how, necessary or not, the sequel is more dark,bleak, violent and willing than ever to challenge your sympathies with its characters than even the original, which was thematically and tonally, far from a picnic in its own right.
This leads back to The Last of Us Part II’s timing of release with the real world. Developer Naughty Dog, also renowned for their work on Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Dexter and Uncharted, could not have known nor prepared for the troubled state of the world that their latest game released in. That is not their fault.
While the dark themes and messages of The Last of Us part II, based on what I know and Naughty Dog has allowed themselves to express pre-launch, don’t necessarily correlate with the topics of the times, they do paint a pessimistic, harsh picture of humanity and what we may if not will become in a societal collapse.
This is not new to the narrative genre that The Last of Us is part of, as the wildly successful Walking Dead multimedia franchise can attest. Hell, George Romero was making that argument fifty-two years ago with the first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. As the Heath Ledger Joker put it: “When the chips are down, people eat each other.”
The Last of Us, both the first and second games, are the latest in examining how against all efforts, it’s rarely the infected monsters like zombies or in Last of Us’ case, Clickers, that are the true danger. It is humanity, which due to the collapse of both society and communication, becomes more tribal, mistrustful of others. The bitter truth is that that mistrust is hardly unwarranted.
Maybe the first Last of Us’ release in 2013, a less miserable and uncertain time, while hardly ideal, was what lent the first game a far more accepting embrace from both players and critics. The lack of pre-release spoilers and players generally experiencing the original’s now iconic and consistently applauded twists and turns may have contributed in the first game’s near universal approval in spite of still being a grim take on humanity’s post-apocalyptic future.
Simply put, while The Last of Us Part II may very well be a excellently crafted, expertly realized tale of revenge and the tragedy it perpetuates, it’s release with such strife engulfing the world, especially concentrated in America, may make it a game that is harder to appreciate.
It might be harder for players to emotionally grasp and accept the controversial narrative path the leaks exposed, even if the game’s execution and build-up of that divisive path actually makes logical sense and expands on the original’s themes.
In a time like this, players are looking for games that while they may still have mature subject matter, aren’t quite so grim or willing to toy with player emotions like Last of Us Part II.
Released earlier this year was Doom Eternal, a mostly light-hearted yet extremely visceral experience that makes the act of brutally slaughtering evil creatures from Hell an entirely guilt-free, cartoonishly fun experience. As harsh as the playable Doom-Slayer’s actions are to demonkind, you aren’t meant to feel bad about your actions unlike the authorial and mechanical intent of the new Last of Us.
There was also the first entry in the ambitious remake/re-imagining project for Final Fantasy VII, released last April. It does feature a dystopic setting involving themes of poverty, corporate oppression, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and even the protagonists second guessing their own actions.
Yet, it’s much more palatable due to a teen rather than mature rating and having a breathtaking mixture of audio/visual beauty, much more clear cut heroes/villains overall and a more obvious invitation from the developers to enjoy the experience and have fun.
The Last of Us Part II, while not without elements that can be construed as fun or at least investing, is about experiencing a bleak tale and controlling a person whose moral compass grows dimmer and dimmer the more her pursuit of revenge takes her closer to complete vengeance.
It’s not just the divisive/ hated spoiled plot elements, its that the tone and expected mentality to play the game in is anything but escapist. You are indeed transported into a quite different world, but it doesn’t give you escape from an experience in the real world that is also not sad and dark.
Like the original, there are reportedly moments of levity, even warmth to be had which is supposed to make the dark that comes either to you or by your virtual hand feel more pronounced.
I am not saying Naughty Dog shouldn’t have made this game. It is an expression of their team and their creative talents. They likely made the game, not just to capitalize on the critical and commercial success of the first, but to push what they thought needed to be pushed story-wise from the first.
However, it would not be unlikely that the studio’s own worldview and perspective on how the world has been turning since the game began development in 2017 has painted a darker framing for the next Last of Us. Perhaps this more pessimistic title is a reflection of their own emotional turmoil at the state of affairs they have been living through, directly or not.
Neil Druckmann, the game’s director and lead on its story, bases some of the darkness and misery of the second game on his life experience growing up on the West Bank in Palestine. Perhaps the anger, fear and frustration Druckmann grew up with as a Palestinian before moving to America is part of where The Last of Us Part II draws its bitter messages on what humans are and can become.
I can’t speak for the future in general. I can’t tell you how bad or good things will become as time passes. I imagine things will get worse before they get better if even that, but I can’t know that.
I also can’t speak for the reputation of The Last of Us Part II overtime as a piece of experienced media. Will opinion outside the critic’s bubble warm to the game despite its dark, narrative intention? Will the qualities that critics have been praising in great numbers be eventually reflected with the playerbase? Have the dishonest actors in regards to smearing this game created an permanently tainted impression? I don’t know.
My mind and my hopes for what this game means to me could change drastically once I have the chance to finally play it. If it wasn’t for me being in a transitory phase of moving into a new Colorado home, I would already have started playing. Perhaps what I had then experienced in that game would’ve given a different tone to this article.
Would this article even be written had it not been for the extenuating circumstances surrounding this game and my own life? Much like how fans would be feeling had it not been for the April leaks, I will never know and not knowing that is just as frustrating as anything else regarding the compromised discourse for The Last of Us Part II and its possibly ill-timed release.
Image from WallpaperSafari (Ellie’s expression here speaks to a lot of different people now for a lot of different reasons.)