How Naughty Dog addresses the main criticisms of the Uncharted series in TLOU2
Naughty Dog’s two flagship franchises – The Last of Us and Uncharted – couldn’t be more different in how they handle tone. The PlayStation studio wears its influences on its sleeve with pride, often referencing cinema as one of the driving inspirations behind its titles.
But where Uncharted takes its cues from in the popcorn action movies of decades past, The Last of Us has always been a more grounded affair – spiritually more in line with Children of Men than Indiana Jones, more The Road than Romancing The Stone.
This has led to a fair amount of criticism for Uncharted, and protagonist Nathan Drake in particular. The series is supposed to be the interactive version of all your favourite adventure movies – you’re supposed to feel like a happy-go-lucky explorer with a crack shot and dry wit.
But the difference between who you are and what you do is stark, to put it mildly. In the average Uncharted game, you run up a bodycount of hundreds – if not thousands – by the time the credits roll. Your search for ancient booty turns you into a murderous pirate, an unrepentant thief with a thirst for blood.
Nathan Drake in the cutscenes does not feel like the Nathan Drake you play as.
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In The Last of Us: Part 2, Naughty Dog has taken this criticism and turned it on its head. At its core, the game is a revenge story – automatically, Naughty Dog is justifying a certain amount of bloodshed and murder in just how the game is positioned.
“They're incredibly different pieces, right?” explains Halley Gross, writer at Naughty Dog. “Uncharted is swashbuckling and and wish fulfillment, and The Last of Us is trying to reflect this the world we see around us – commenting on tribalism, on ego. We’re hitting some pretty challenging themes in this, and that’s fully intentional.”
Where you’d play as Nathan Drake and commit indiscriminate murder for the sake of gameplay beats, in The Last of Us: Part II everything feels much more intentional. Even in the part of the title we’ve played for preview – titled ‘Finding Nora’, the section you can see in the latest State of Play video – you see how Ellie is driven by her rage, by her anger, by her single-minded goal.
Not only does this justification make you, as a player, feel more in line with her as a playable character, it also adds tension and meaning to more or less every encounter you have in the game.
“We grew up with Ellie. We’ve seen this young girl who's been formed by an incredibly traumatising world, and how that kind of person has to survive,” Gross explains.
Ellie is small – she’s a 19-year-old woman in a world inhabited by the fungal undead, and guys twice her size. But her stature is actually a benefit in combat, with The Last of Us 2 pushing you to take advantage of stealth and the environment in order to come out on top.
“It can't just be the Nathan Drake-size dudes who would survive in this world, right?” Gross explains.
“Her size and style also allows for a different kind of gameplay style that you might not have in other experiences. She is small so she has to dodge, she has to quietly approach whoever's out there, she has to be scrappy.
“You have to constantly think about how you’re going to engage with setups in a way that is more strategic.
Depending on your play style, or how much or little you empathise with how Ellie goes about achieving her goal, you can opt to murder everyone in sight, or bypass encounters almost entirely.
I chose to play Ellie as a methodical strategist – wiping out everyone and anyone she saw at any given time, in order to leave no one behind that could trace her.
But Gross wants to point out that you don’t have to play the game that way at all.
“Our hope is that anyone playing as Ellie, even if you don't agree with her choices, will relate to her on some level.
“We wanted to make the most dimensional character you've seen in games, and so hopefully people will find some facet of her that they can identify with.
“Even though she is, you know, a scrappy 19-year-old woman and maybe most people playing are not scrappy 19-year-old women!”
Even from one small section of the game, you see what Naughty Dog is trying to do with Ellie. Though she’s a pretty quiet protagonist, her intent seethes through the screen, and pushes you forward through the unrelentingly tense world The Last of Us, Part II exists in.
I felt an almost constant disconnect between who Nathan Drake was and the character I played as in-game, and The Last of Us, Part II – almost intentionally – seems to turn that dissonance on its head.
Naughty Dog has pulled out all the stops to really make you feel like you’re walking in Ellie’s shoes, making the decisions she makes, experiencing the horror and the rage that she feels, and the result is frankly one of the most compelling stories we’ve seen in games for years.
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