It’s time to have a discussion about online discourse in relation to video games.
Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II” released last Friday to some of the best scores of the year — if not the generation. The previous title — while I was admittedly not a fan of — was widely regarded as one of the best games of the last generation. By all accounts, the sequel has pushed the boundaries in both narrative and gameplay — asking difficult questions of players and offering some of the most violent and unnerving scenarios of perhaps any modern game. My review will come next week, but I wanted to address the online vitriol aimed at the game — vitriol that has led to a massive wave of user review bombing and Twitter harassment campaigns against developers and actors.
“The Last of Us” debuted in 2013, and was a complete tonal shift from anything Naughty Dog had ever created. From the colorful and wacky characters of “Crash Bandicoot” and “Jak and Daxter” to the pulpy adventures of “Uncharted,” Naughty Dog had a wheelhouse of fun games that were like cotton candy — easy to enjoy, but quickly forgettable.
The bleak, hopeless world crafted by co-director Neil Druckmann was as amazing as it was depressing. A viral fungus infected most of the world’s population, turning humans into bloodthirsty zombies, or worse, clickers — blind creatures with massive fungus growths that are even more deadly. The only thing worse than the fungus was the survivors, many of whom gave up their humanity to become robbers, pirates, murderers and even cannibals. The colorful, light-hearted worlds for which Naughty Dog was known were replaced with the video game equivalent of “The Road” — as evidenced by the first 10 minutes, in which the main character’s teenage daughter is brutally shot and dies in his arms.
The game was a resounding success — both critically and commercially — as Naughty Dog was established as one of the top developers in the industry. And then its downloadable content, “Left Behind,” released and discourse surrounding the game quickly changed. The expansion focused on Ellie, the young girl who served as the other main character of the game. In it, she’s revealed to be lesbian, which was hailed by many as a hallmark for representation in gaming. She wasn’t defined by her sexuality; it was merely a part of her character — a great character that received significant praise.
This new addition to Ellie’s character set off a significant portion of the Internet. For whatever reason, many were now offended by the representation. No longer was Ellie a well-written character with multiple layers in a well-written game. She was a token tool of representation that was being used to force a political agenda upon gamers. It was sad.
So when “The Last of Us Part II” was announced, and Druckmann confirmed Ellie would serve as the main character, the dark corners of the Internet erupted again. When leaks surfaced earlier this year after the game was delayed from its original May release date, many more began complaining. Ellie’s sexuality would play a major role in the story, and that just can’t happen in a big budget AAA release.
The initial batch of professional reviews praised the game, only offering concerns about the gratuitous, realistic violence. The story was well received and the writing was hailed as exceptional. By all accounts, Naughty Dog has released one of the best games of the generation — so long as you can stand the intense detail of the graphic violence. But many have come out of the woodwork to review bomb the game — an act of adding 0 score reviews with thousands of accounts. “Star Wars The Last Jedi” was subject to a similar campaign when it released in 2017.
As of right now, “The Last of Us Part II” has a 95 score on Metacritic — the best of any PlayStation 4 exclusive. Its user score sits at 4.1 with 59,950 reviews. By comparison, “Red Dead Redemption 2,” released two years ago, has a 97 score on Metacritic and a 8.3 user score with only 11,362 reviews. It’s hard not to see that Naughty Dog’s latest effort was targeted.
This is not to say that “The Last of Us Part II” is infallible. There are some questionable story decisions made, especially in regards to how certain LGBTQ characters are handled in the game. There’s also the question of how much violence is too much, especially with the graphical fidelity afforded by today’s hardware. Druckmann never set out to make a perfect game, nor did he expect to receive universal praise. But when a game receives nearly 60,000 user reviews within literal days of the game’s release, it brings into question, why.
We’ve seen countless times how hatred and bigotry can fester in the video game industry. While 2014 might seem like a lifetime ago, Gamergate is still recent, and its effects can still be felt today in the industry. Review bombing is perhaps the most juvenile method of expressing dissatisfaction, but it still has an effect on developers and consumers. The endless stream of monetized YouTube videos decrying “SJWs” and representation in gaming — as if giving more players of different walks of life the opportunity to play as someone similar to them is a bad thing — are equally harmful. They’re perhaps even worse, as those “content creators” earn money off their bigotry and hatred.
“The Last of Us Part II” is not a game for everyone, but not because of its representation. No one should turn away from a game, simply because characters fit a different archetype than what is accepted as “normal” or “common.” If anything, Naughty Dog should be praised for embracing diversity. Those who are offended by this need to reassess their priorities in life.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.