Whatever you make of The Last of Us Part 2, few could deny the game's visual craft is exceptional. It’s an experience full of beautiful vistas, intricate and complex pieces of animation, and a level of attention to detail that only a handful of other studios could even attempt. But all of that lustre is dimmed by a lingering question: how long did this take someone?
Late last year, Kotaku published a report into Naughty Dog’s culture of crunch. It detailed the months of overtime that developers were heavily encouraged to fulfil throughout the development of both Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part 2. That report, published in December, was based on TLOU2’s original release date of October 2019 being pushed back to February 2020, a result of internal delays that would cause staff to undergo several more months of crunch in order to finish the game. Then the game was delayed again until May this year, before being pushed back another month until now. If you pay attention to this industry, it's difficult, if not impossible, to play the game without dwelling on all those extra months.
TLOU2 is a game that thrives on its narrative and its tone, rather than the complexity of its gameplay. Like its predecessor, it’s an action RPG that’s built around stealth and cover-based shooting, with a little resource-gathering to provide tools that spice up the basics. The combat and sneaking is great as far as it goes but, as with Uncharted, it's not really what we're here for.
Players expect TLOU2 to be its own mini-world, a place that rewards exploration and paying attention. It's not just the story that matters, but the tiny details. Throughout the game you’re forced to make your own path, sometimes when you want to keep moving forward, and other times when you just want to explore. Often that involves breaking open a window with a brick, a bullet, or a well-placed elbow. These windows are something else: they shatter based on where you hit them, and moving through or even near a broken frame is enough to send quivering shards falling to the floor. At one point I noticed a jaggedy edge catching on my backpack. As you tread over them, you hear shards cracking under the lightest footfall. It’s kind of amazing, and part of that is how needlessly elaborate and thought-through it is, which is also what makes you wonder about the many people behind it. How many late nights and weekends went into each perfect little 'snap' underfoot?
When it comes to animation, it’s a slightly different story. This tweet features a gif of a moment where Dina helps Ellie remove her shirt, revealing the latter’s bruised and scarred back.
There's a scene in The Last of Us 2 where a character just...takes a shirt off, over their head, without any clipping, and it's probably the most technically impressive thing I've ever seen in a game?? Like have you ever seen a character do this in a game before? pic.twitter.com/v4AvYe0JGz
— Dan Hindes ? Wildfire OUT NOW ? (@dhindes) June 19, 2020
The more I watch, the more I notice; the way the fabric stretches as Ellie reaches for it, or bunches up as Dina pulls; the way Ellie’s ponytail pops back into place as her head comes free; how the light falls over her back; how both characters are handling the same shirt. From an animation perspective the effort involved in taking off this shirt is enormous compared to, for example, cutting off-screen for a moment and letting the player fill in the blanks. Which made me think about the virtual sleight-of-hand I take for granted in many other games. It made me think about the people who made this scene, and focused so intensely on getting something so minor so perfect. It's hard to miss the irony that this cutscene is developing the relationship between two characters, and furthering our understanding of Ellie, a character who in other situations downplays their own vulnerability.
The nature of TLOU2 means there's any number of other tiny things you could pick up on. I accidentally attacked a sack, and watched it collapse perfectly under the blow. It has the best physics for slack bits of rope our industry has ever seen. There's a PlayStation 3 console with such amazing dust textures you'll want to blow on it. There's a weirdly realistic sheep-herding minigame towards the end. Dogs sneeze. Ellie puts up her hood if it's raining and vice-versa. Every NPC has a name.
Just look at the level of care in this train asset, which I know is easy to miss because I missed it.
At one point in The Last Of Us Part II this wooden train set appears for all of about 3 seconds but is still accurate enough that you can build it in real life if you want pic.twitter.com/RAXvIP2hsy
— Nathan Ditum (@NathanDitum) June 19, 2020
At times you'll look out of a window and can imagine the frame's coarse wooden texture on Ellie's hand, almost feel each panel's corner grime, before noticing a little bunny hop away outside. And you do wonder who made that bunny, who put it there, and how much labour went into that three or four second moment.
A section of last year’s report always stuck in my head: “Naughty Dog’s managers would never tell people to work overtime - it was always an implication, understood and accepted by everyone. Many were happy to do it, hoping to cram in as many flourishes and features as they could, and eager to put in as many hours as possible to make The Last of Us II great.”
Whether or not that overtime was voluntary, TLOU2's lavish production raised two questions for me. The first is whether studios can make games to this standard without crunch. The second is whether the industry actually needs to make them like this at all. TLOU2 is a well-made game but, for me, it was not a better experience because of ultra-realistic glass, elaborate animations, or the endless ‘flourishes’. Instead those same flourishes made me think of uglier things and blotted the product. They became a distraction every time I spotted one, and a reminder of the kind of studio culture that, some say, is required to produce games like this.