This article contains spoilers for The Last Of Us, BioShock, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and God of War 3. It does not contain spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II.
There’s a new trailer out there for the hotly-anticipated The Last Of Us Part II. It is, as you’d expect, dark and intimate - an unpleasant mirror image to Naughty Dog’s more grandiose adventure franchise Uncharted. It looks terrific, if discomfiting, and I can’t wait to play through this thing when, at long last, it releases. Check it out for yourself.
That’s not the only new Last of Us video online - but it is the only one you should watch. Last week, a substantial amount of footage from a development build of The Last Of Us Part II leaked onto the internet. Accompanied by a level list, the clips included multiple cutscenes, revealing a sizeable portion of the game’s story in what must be a crushing blow for the game’s developers and especially its narrative team. I have not watched or read the leak, and I won’t, because I want to experience the story the way it was intended - you know, inside the game. Why would you want to spoil it for yourself?
Many gamers couldn’t resist, of course, and as often happens, the loudest responses were violently negative. Furious gamers concluded that the real reason why the narrative team should be heartbroken is because - and I’m paraphrasing here - “the story sux lol”. Again, I haven’t read or watched any of it, so I’m not qualified to address the game’s actual story. But that’s kind of the point; neither are the people who are complaining about it. They’ve seen a portion of the game at best, and that’s simply not enough to judge the story as a whole.
(As a side note: some people claimed the leak represented a disgruntled contractor trying to punish their employer for poor HR practices like crunch. However, reports from Sony, and from Naughty Dog employees via Kotaku journalist Jason Schreier, suggested that the leak likely came from hackers unaffiliated with either company exploiting a vulnerability in the studio’s servers. Committed to their conspiracy theories, some continue to claim the studio and Schreier - who helped expose this game's crunch issues in the first place - are engaged in a massive coverup operation. It’s true that Naughty Dog has been frequently criticised for overworking employees. That's a problem that pervades the industry, and it needs to be addressed. But the leak surely only adds to the developers’ hardships, and not only because lost sales would only reduce their chances at bonuses. Like any working creative, I’ve been overworked and underpaid many times, but I still wouldn’t want my work stolen and shared outside the environment in which it was meant to be seen.)
Stories are not just collections of key turning points. They’re developed, by necessity, through storytelling elements large and small, each feeding into the rest. Character decisions have less impact, or straight-up make no sense, if you haven’t taken in everything meant to inform them. Spoiling yourself on the end of a story is like hearing the punchline before the setup: at best, your reaction will be “oh, okay.” Visual media take this a step further: the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road would sound laughably simplistic shorn of its dense visual storytelling, for example.
Even if the leak contained every single cutscene, though, it would still miss the huge amounts of storytelling that developers seed through environmental design and gameplay. Games are even harder to encapsulate in isolated clips than movies are, because interactivity is central to their storytelling - even games as cutscene-heavy as Naughty Dog’s. The ability to peer closely at production design elements, listen to audio tapes, and so on, are part of it, but interactivity makes an even deeper impact.
There’s a point in the final act of The (first) Last Of Us in which the main player character, Joel, rescues the secondary player character, Ellie, from a group intent on doing medical experiments on her. Of all the game’s harrowing moments, it hit hardest for me - entirely because of what it made me do. I made my way through waves of nasty armed guards, as I’d done many times before, reaching Ellie only to find myself surrounded by terrified, unarmed doctors blocking my way. After barely any hesitation, I shot one of those doctors - not because they posed any threat, but because by that point, the game’s bleak setting had taught me to distrust other human beings instinctively. Maybe I could have escaped without killing them; I don’t know. Anyone freshly tuning into that scene would be as shocked as I was - but wouldn’t understand why I did what I did.
My traumatic experience murdering medical staff wouldn’t have happened were it not for The Last Of Us’ many hours of narrative, mechanical, and emotional conditioning. Similarly, BioShock’s most pivotal cutscene literally only works by subverting your perceived control over the main character. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons uses a fucking controller button to elicit emotion, while What Remains of Edith Finch does it with a thumbstick. Merely watching someone fighting Zeus in God of War 3, you would completely miss the game’s sly mechanically-driven commentary on its own violence. Examples of this kind of storytelling - storytelling that actually happens offscreen and in your hands and brain - go on and on.
How The Last Of Us Part II turns out will be revealed - properly - when it releases on June 19th. It may well come to pass that it indeed "sux lol" - but it’s impossible to divine that without actually playing it. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be as bad as the angry gamer cohort suggests, largely because a substantial portion of the rage I’ve seen seems to revolve around the gender and sexuality of the main character. Looks like I’m gonna have to write that editorial again.
But hey - that’s art! Artists make a thing, and audiences respond to the thing, through whatever prejudices they bring to the thing. If gamers want their favourite medium to be considered art, they’ve got to deal with games that might not be to their particular tastes. And they’ve got to engage with the actual, finished, complete work before flying into a rage and making two-hour YouTube videos about how shitty it is.