Why I won't be buying The Last of Us Part 2: Principles and Unethical Behaviour in the Gaming Industry
With the damage to storytelling and brutal crunch on its employees. I can't support Naughty Dog's next release.
The Last of Us Part 2; it’s certainly one of the most anticipated titles as the curtain falls on the eighth generation of game consoles. Let’s cast our minds back to December 2016; Sony’s PlayStation experience event. The sequel was announced and the crowd went wild. At the time the first trailer went live I was certainly all in on the hype. A sequel to what many call one of the greatest games of all time; between it and CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, The Last of Us 2 was the only title I was dead-set on purchasing. That is until April 2020; as many of you may know, Naughty Dog suffered a catastrophic leak. Crucial details of the game’s story began to spread all over the internet and fans were very unhappy.
Furthermore, details of a saga have begun to emerge from the company; an industry titan now seemingly in for a devastating downfall. Abusive work practices, the possible forcing out of fellow employees and most recently the pandering to trends in entertainment writing. It’s believed that the developer is now a shadow of its former self, with upwards of 70% of its former staff having left the company. With the controversy having reached breaking point and the game now a month away from launch, I’ve now decided it’s time to vote with my wallet. Saving myself about £60 is an obvious reason of course, but for this particular product, it goes further than that.
To preface this discussion, I loved The Last of Us back in 2013 and indeed every other game in their catalogue since the Crash Bandicoot days; from the exceptional story to its intense gameplay, it really was a grand masterpiece to send the seventh generation off on. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, though of course, it wasn’t perfect. No game ever is; the artificial intelligence had problems at times and the platforming puzzles got a bit repetitive, but the title remains a superb offering almost seven years later. What you remember about Naughty Dog’s crown jewel is the bond that grew between Joel and Ellie, something strengthened through the adversities they faced. I recall starting the game’s prologue, which left me stunned at Joel’s heart-breaking loss. The way Naughty Dog so quickly and efficiently got me invested in the characters, feel for their struggles, spoke volumes of their writing talent at the time.
With the story being such a crucial pillar of the experience, every performance was so powerful, so viscerally capturing the brutal world of the game; the moment that hit me hardest was in the latter half of the game where Ellie, in a fit of rage, slashes one of the villains to pieces; Joel finds and stops her, holding her close and promising he’ll never leave her alone again. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching moments in any game I’ve played. Now, if the spoilers are to be believed, these characters we spent so much time investing in are now getting thrown under the bus in pursuit of absolute inclusivity and the notion of “subverting expectations” that has become so begrudgingly popular in modern entertainment.
Now we’re getting into the deeply controversial side of things. It’s frustrating to have to put this in bold: No, I am not homophobic, sexist or transphobic and a refusal to buy the game should not instantly brand someone as such. Where The Last of Us: Part 2 is falling flat is with its approach to story. Inclusivity is a worthwhile talking point on a base level; it allows us to consider how and why we portray characters the way we do in entertainment media. However, when approaching storytelling, it’s important to remember one thing; there is a danger that striving for inclusivity at any cost can severely damage your writing. It becomes more about ticking off inclusion boxes and less about the story and characters. Looking back to The Last of Us again, we had the character of Bill, an old associate of Joel’s met early on in the story. The first time playing, I never knew this character was homosexual; it was subtle, left to the background for the player to discover on their own. The writing focused on his humanity and previous dealings with Joel, rather than his sexual orientation and it made the writing all the better for it. That scene where he finds his old partner having hung himself, shows an emotional side that lies underneath his seemingly controlling ways. The same is also true in The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC; there’s a brief but impactful moment where Ellie shares a kiss with her best friend Riley. It was a simple yet delicate scene, showing how close the two were to each-other, only to have their bond shattered by the arrival of the infected.
Instead I disagree with the creative choices made for the sequel’s story. It’s believed that Anita Sarkeesian, the rather contentious commentator on women and their roles in video games, was consulted by Neil Druckmann during development. Whenever I hear she’s involved in a major project like this, alarm bells start sounding. As someone who chose to put their thoughts out on the internet like so many of us have, Sarkeesian is fully entitled to her opinion and the endless abuse she’s received over the years has been disgusting, but simultaneously her perspective shouldn’t be immune from challenge and wider debate. Of course, there are a portion of people online who are truly ignorant and bigoted; that’s an infuriating inevitability. Though I and other less vitriolic members of the community view Anita as someone who imposes their views on others, to the point it drastically affects the direction of a given narrative. She’s ferociously focused on her own ideas, but the issue comes when she stifles any alternate points of view and disallows any picking apart of her work. It happened before with Bioware’s Mass Effect: Andromeda and that game’s story and characters were far weaker, struggling to connect with players who had enjoyed the previous games, myself included.
The overarching point out of all this is that writers and creative artists should use restraint when using consultants and not veer too hard towards political correctness, otherwise you’ll lose the weight and impact of your story. This is where the internet phrase: “Go woke, go broke” comes from; you take a story and inject it with an overwhelming focus on political correctness. As a result, the wider community chooses to boycott your project in droves. These kinds of upsets have happened before, most notably in film; the Ghostbusters reboot in 2016 and more recently Terminator: Dark Fate in 2019. Both productions were female-led stories; fair enough, that’s certainly not a bad thing in hindsight. The problem was that these movies pushed this point so hard onto audiences that it influenced their production, marketing and scripts, leading to worse films as a result. This overzealous attitude toxified the discussion and eventual release; by painting everyone who didn’t go and see the films as misogynistic and sexist, Ghostbusters and Dark Fate both bombed at the box office, forcing the studios to go back to the drawing board and put aside their misguided focus, or even cancel altogether. Naughty Dog is now under the same damage control situation, with attempts to take down videos that discuss the recent spoilers; they should have seen what happened previously and rethought their efforts in piecing The Last of Us 2’s story together. Not necessarily pandering to fans, but balancing out their inclusivity with mature writing.
Now I’ll talk about the other side of Naughty Dog’s controversy, the rotten work culture. Crunch is a very serious issue in any workplace, but it has grown far more pronounced in the creative and entertainment sectors. Staff are worked down to the bone, rarely given time for rest and leisure, and in extreme cases, are hospitalised by burning themselves out. It’s been reported by Kotaku that Naughty Dog developers were subjected to gruelling 12-hour days, sometimes even longer, on a regular basis. As a developer at the top of the industry, the expectation for perfection every time really puts the strain on employees. Paying full-price, especially through pre-orders is a voice of approval telling the higher-ups at Naughty Dog that it’s ok to continue putting their staff through hurtful employment practices.
I had a similar experience with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s a chapter late in the game that sees your character marooned on Guama; it didn’t take up much game time but my only thought playing it was: “This piece of the game is unnecessary; they could have condensed it down or left it to a cutscene”. Soon afterwards I found I wasn’t the only one with this mind-set; Guama laid bare the often-brutal toil game developers are put through. Staff at Rockstar were forced by management to slave away on this and other game components for weeks on end, so much so that they missed family gatherings and other personal events. Druckman’s alleged behaviour for the last six years, combined with the ever-increasing crunch at Naughty Dog, ranks as the biggest reason not to support their latest release.
For these reasons, I won’t be buying The Last of Us: Part 2 in June out of principle; the issues of toxic work culture and the damage to storytelling has now gone too far. I sympathise with the developers who saw a product they worked on for years leaked too soon, but my greater concern lies with how much they’ve been overworked. Something needs to change at Naughty Dog and many other companies at the top of the business; while they used to be one of my favourite developers in the industry, I’ve been left greatly disappointed in recent weeks.
Thanks for reading, I hope this will promote a healthy discussion, rather than boiling into a shouting match. I’d ask that you keep your comments civil. For those who haven’t been spoiled and are still buying the game on launch; if you enjoy it, more power to you. I’m not about to shame others who are still excited for The Last of Us Part 2. For myself however, Naught Dog is now a company that has a mountain to climb to regain my support. I suppose I’ll wait until the next PlayStation.