The Last of Us Part II, regardless of the discourse around it, is a fantastic piece of video game development that checks many boxes for effective storytelling.
Video games have progressed far beyond their confines as simple escapist entertainment and have now moved into the realm of a credible way to tell impactful stories.
While the indie games industry has always pushed the envelope further back, the AAA space has been reserved, for the most part, for the Hollywood-blockbuster approach to video game storytelling.
Through Uncharted and now The Last of Us, studios like Naughty Dog have proven beyond doubt that video games are an especially visceral and powerful way to tell meaningful stories.
Their latest release, The Last of Us Part II, invited all sorts of reactions that ranged from overwhelmingly positive to complete rejection of the story. Rarely ever in video game history has the story itself invited this scale's reaction from the fanbase.
So what exactly made The Last of Us Part II an incredibly visceral experience for the player? This article dives into the five things the game does incredibly well and how it elicits powerful emotion from the player.
5 things that make The Last of Us Part II an effective story-driven action game
Note: Spoilers ahead for The Last of Us Part II
'Show, don't tell.'
As the age-old adage in filmmaking goes, 'show, don't tell,' a similar philosophy also exists in video game development. Games like The Last of Us, which are incredibly story-driven and have a lot to communicate with the player, can often run the risk of simply telling the player something or showing it to them.
However, video games are an interactive medium, and simply watching something play out is not nearly as visceral as being the one to control the character as it does. Games like The Last of Us or Uncharted are made all the better when the player is involved in the action and making decisions rather than watching or reading about it.
The Last of Us Part II takes that concept and turns up the volume up to 11 regarding its execution. Instead of simply learning Abby's story, the players are uncomfortably put in her shoes and then watch her story play out.
This is meant to make the player feel incredibly conflicted as Abby's character is meant to be unforgivable in the player's eyes. But as the story moves forward, the player actively takes part in Abby's story and sees her develop as a character.
Empathy through pain.
Simply telling the players, they are meant to care for a character and be invested in their story is not nearly enough. The player must organically form a bond with the characters and develop empathy for them through the events they go through together.
The Last of Us Part II achieves an almost impossible feat by letting players empathize with perhaps the "big baddy." Abby brutalizes Joel in a complicated scene, making her character the easiest person to hate in the world.
Seeing Abby do that, the beloved character evokes an especially gut-wrenching reaction from the player. Then, The Last of Us Part II pulls its biggest move by letting players see Abby's story and play as her.
On a subconscious level, the player then begins to look at the version of events from Abby's point of view, quite literally. The player watches as the guilt takes a toll on Abby, and by the end, the player, although they might not still like Abby, has a certain level of empathy for her.
The Last of Us Part II is often described as a game with two-halves, where one is a revenge saga, and the other is a person's journey to reclaim their humanity. While true, it is also a game that talks about perspective and challenges the player's notions about objective right and wrong.
This makes for a compelling narrative in The Last of Us Part II, and the fact that it uses gameplay to enhance it is what makes it such an effective video game.
No punches pulled
It is easy to let the conversation around The Last of Us Part II revolve around its story or themes. But what makes that story, so incredibly visceral comes down to the technical aspects and design choices that made the game.
One of the biggest heroes of The Last of Us Part II is in the sound design. Each bone-crunching snap of the neck to the sound of the blood spurting out of a person's neck adds a ton of weight to the player's actions.
The world's brutality is not just relayed to the player visually, but gameplay-wise as well, and sonically too. Every aspect of the game's design, from the art-style, lighting, character models, and even controls, adds to the weight of the story and makes it feel all the more powerful.
The choice to let the animation of a brutal kill play out deliberately, or to let Ellie execute the many people she encounters along the way, adds to the sense of descent attached to her character.
The Last of Us Part II doesn't use violence for the sake of violence, but to reflect the toll that it takes on the characters in the game, as it starts to take a toll on the player as well.
It is deliberately long.
The Last of Us Part II, on average a playthrough, is about 20 hours long, which eclipses the original by nearly nine hours, give or take. The game's length might not factor in as a design choice many times, but it is in the case of The Last of Us Part II.
The game feels like it is being drawn out and stretched at the seams, for a reason. Many players felt that the game could roll the credits when Ellie finally retired to the farmhouse with Dina and JJ. That could've very well been a fitting ending to a brutally vicious story.
Yet the game doesn't end, and Ellie sets off on the warpath yet again, adding a good chunk of time towards the end of the game.
Theoretically, the game takes place majorly in Seattle over three days, but the player goes through the three days with different perspectives and makes it feel that much longer.
The Last of Us Part II wants the player to feel tired and want to be done with the brutality and senseless killing on the screen, precisely what the characters are feeling.
Even on the first playthrough, the journey was arduous, mind-numbingly violent, and extremely tough to witness. This design choice is nothing less than genius as it helps players form an organic bond with the characters.