The Last of Us Part II endured one of the most highly anticipated video game releases of all time. Naughty Dog were well aware of the pressure leading up to its release. 2020, to say the least, had been an incredibly unpredictable year with its fair share of ups and downs.
2013's The Last of Us released at the very end of the PS3's cycle. In perfect symmetry, the sequel released at the tail end of the PS4 era. Naughty Dog's co-director and lead writer Neil Druckmann had set the world alight with The Last of Us. He delivered a landmark release that set the benchmark for mature and nuanced storytelling in videogames.
The game wasn't just a financial juggernaut and cultural phenomenon; it transcended the medium's boundaries and expectations. To then venture back into the fray with a sequel felt almost blasphemous.
However, Naughty Dog believed that it had another story to tell, and what a story it was. The Last of Us Part II was, for many reasons, a statement on how to create the perfect sequel for a video game.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the greatest sequels in video game history
The Last of Us Part II was as unpredictable and uncomfortable as the year it was released in. The story of The Last of Us Part II wants the player to feel cramped. It doesn't want the player to enjoy and concur with the choices that the characters make.
The intent is for the player to ponder and wrestle with uncomfortable ideas, and come to terms with the punishing reality of their favourite characters.
To understand why The Last of Us Part II is the perfect sequel, gamers must look at what a sequel should ideally achieve.
What does a perfect sequel mean in video gaming?
A sequel is an opportunity for a creator to take what works about a particular story. It is an opportunity to explore the depths and themes of the original's ideas to a greater extent.
Essentially, a sequel is the evolution of the original idea and should ideally take the audience on a new journey. It can be unexpected or fulfil the wants of the player.
As much as audiences would have loved to see more, and even play as Joel in The Last of Us Part II, that is not the story that had to be told. Whether the player agrees or disagrees with the direction the sequel takes; the story's purpose is to push itself to a new plain.
The medium of video games places the player at the front and centre. The player is an active participant in the story. No other art form can capture the essence and themes of a story as viscerally as a video game.
Through its gameplay, sound design, art-style, lighting, and controls, the story of the game truly comes alive. It feels close and up-front. The Last of Us Part II used every trick in the book to relay its themes and provoke extreme reactions: positive or negative.
That is the risk that a good story and a good sequel must take. It must risk angering its own audience in the hope that they discover the truths and the ideas that the story wants them to realize.
How does The Last of Us Part II achieve success as a sequel?
A new visual language
From a visual standpoint, The Last of Us borrows much from the medium of cinema to relay its themes and ideas. Naughty Dog's brand of action-adventure games are highly cinematic. One cutscene from either the Uncharted series or The Last of Us is evidence to how much cinematic value there is to these games.
A well-directed cutscene can be just as pulsating, heartbreaking, and devastating as an action sequence in the game. The Last of Us Part II feels visually distinct from the original in more ways than one.
The camera feels more kinetic and energized when compared to the static shots and stability of the camera in the original. In the sequel, the quieter moments still have the static shots, the pause, and the original's methodical nature.
When the action truly kicks off in the sequel, the camera will reflect the sort of chaos and uncertainty that the players and characters have to endure. There are far more shots in the sequel without cuts that keep the player and the character in the thick of things for uncomfortably long periods.
The sequel's identity is steeped in the visceral brutality of human nature. Visually, the game succeeds with flying colours in relaying that theme.
The colour palette, too, is drained of any conventional "beauty". Seattle is perennially under a gloomy cloud of greyish-blue that wears itself down on the player. In the lighter moments, the world feels as beautiful and welcoming as is possible in a post-apocalyptic world.
This contrast makes The Last of Us Part II visually distinct and a much bolder vision than the original.
Set-pieces and shades of Uncharted
The cinematic value isn't restricted to the cutscenes. The regular game is also a part of the equation. The player must, at all times, be ready to take part in the action. This is where the set-piece sequences of Uncharted have been able to excel.
In the original Last of Us, save for a couple of chaotic set-pieces, the game was fairly grounded and methodical in its approach. That is precisely what worked about the original as its core values lied in its characters and their interaction.
In the sequel, however, Naughty Dog are swinging for the fences. They truly want to display the absurd amounts of violence Ellie is willing to inflict on her quest. The action-heavy set pieces work their magic by showcasing the lengths to which Ellie and Abby are willing to go.
This decision could have easily backfired and alienated the audience; but because it was in service of the story and didn't take away from the immersion, the set-pieces felt right at home in the sequel.
There can be no argument as to how integral Gustavo Santaolalla's score is to the identity of The Last of Us. The melancholic guitars, banjos, and dangerously low-pitched drums form the sonic identity of the game. Neil Druckmann has stated that he cannot fathom a Last of Us story without him scoring it.
The Last of Us HBO series will definitely be helped with the Oscar-winning composer at the helm. In The Last of Us Part II, the soundtrack juxtaposes the dearth of joy and crushing darkness surrounding the characters with just the right amount of hope sprinkled in.
Tracks such as "Longing" and "Beyond Desolation" reflect the semblance of hope that the characters clutch onto. The addition of composer Mac Quayle with his thumping and borderline-oppressive tracks make The Last of Us Part II unique and fresh.
Mac Quayle's music in the game is a departure from the original, with its electronic stylings and bigger instrumentation, yet it never feels out of place. The soundtrack is in the player's face, and makes for one hell of a racket.
More than a flipping of the script, the newer sound is like an extension of the ideas from the 2013 classic.
A hard descent
The Last of Us Part II narrates a story of loss and the reclamation of humanity. Throughout the game, Ellie loses her humanity by committing brutal acts of violence, while Abby reclaims her's through acts of kindness.
In the end, Ellie clutches on to dear life with the little humanity she has left and possibly comes to terms with her loss and grief. A story of love descends into an exploration of hate before coming back full circle. Audiences are reminded to hold on to hope before the curtain draws on the sequel.
The video gaming community has seen its fair share of amazing sequels and ambitious storytelling. None have, perhaps, been as monumental as The Last of Us Part II.