The last year of The Last of Us Part 2 has been 12 months of learning just how much care and attention Naughty Dog puts into its craft. Even this far on from launch, it still feels like players are discovering new details about the survival horror sequel every week, from rare combat animations to fully formed fingerprints.
For some, these sorts of minutiae are pretentious frivolities, reflecting the 'we did this just because we can' mentality that Naughty Dog's working culture shares with few others, most notably Rockstar Games. For the rest of us, it only further speaks to the studio's talent and drive, seeking perfectionism in a creative medium where such an ideal is usually considered wholly subjective.
Regardless of your response to The Last of Us Part 2 (and almost everyone has a response to it), it's hard to deny the size of the imprint the game has now left across our culture, the PlayStation ecosystem, and Naughty Dog itself. The developer may have wielded obsessive levels of control over every forensic detail of its latest project, but a year on from launch, and it's clear that Naughty Dog was never going to be able to manage expectations for The Last of Us 2, nor the resulting aftermath of its release.
Note: The following discusses major story spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2.
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Replaying The Last of Us Part 2 with all the bells and whistles of its PS5 patch (alongside the Grounded Mode update that was released last year) has been an interesting exercise in retrospection. Now fully cognizant of where the story is headed right from the beginning, the parallels made between Abby and Ellie's story arcs are more tangibly felt, and it's easier to understand why some might have been turned off by the bothsidesism implicated within that structure.
On the other hand, I still struggle to relate to those who prefer Abby to Ellie, let alone others who suggest she holds the moral high ground throughout. The moment in which Abby learns that Dina – the woman she's holding a knife against the throat of – is pregnant, only to reply with "good", is still the point at which I tap out from sympathizing with her motivations.
Yes, Ellie also kills a pregnant woman, but unknowingly so, and she's utterly distraught by the revelation. Abby, on the other hand, is on the cusp of taking even greater satisfaction in the prospect of collateral foeticide, only to be snapped out of it by Lev at the last minute.
This isn't to join the chorus of various internet circles still smoldering over the mere existence of Abby's character, whose murder of Joel incited a wave of harassment thrown towards various Naughty Dog staff members, in addition to that of actress Laura Bailey.
There's no denying that lead writers Neil Druckmann and Haley Gross wanted to provoke a strong reaction to Joel's death, but they couldn't have predicted how venomous and nasty the response would be from certain corners of The Last of Us' fanbase, poisoning the discourse while steering it into laughable debates over the plausibility of muscle mass in the apocalypse.
If anything, The Last of Us 2 has proven that 2012's Mass Effect 3 ending uproar was but a canary in the coal mine, the first victim of a culture that now says a fan's entitlement to the story they have in their head overrules a creator's right to subvert those expectations entirely. It's the same kind of fan-servicing mentality that has crept into Hollywood, too; you only have to look to the equally incensed reactions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi to see the parallels.
Thankfully, Naughty Dog doesn't strike me as the kind of studio that would answer to that backlash in the way Disney did, namely with the heavily sanitized, toothless non-entity that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Druckmann has already talked about re-interpreting the story of the original game for The Last of Us TV show, in fact, suggesting that all the bile thrown his way by the loudest and angriest online aggressors has only inspired him to avoid ever capitulating to their demands.
Happy birthday, kiddo
With production of the TV show and Factions multiplayer spin-off ongoing, rumours of a Last of Us PS5 remake swirling, and confirmation that Naughty Dog already has ideas for a third entry in the series, The Last of Us' presence in pop culture is far from reaching the point of dissipation yet. Still, you can't help but wonder whether the studio is burned out on this particular apocalypse, given everything it went through to bring Part 2 to PlayStation 4.
Naughty Dog set out to make the most ambitious game it ever could, but many of its more nuanced achievements were immediately drowned out by expressions of gaming culture's worst impulses which, even a year later, still haven't quite died down. They are, however, finally starting to fade into the background, as Part 2's genuine fans continue to uncover more reasons to appreciate Naughty Dog's workmanship, right down to the tiniest details.
As it begins work on the next-generation of Naughty Dog stories for PS5, I hope the studio can take encouragement from this quiet, continuing legacy of the game that it built, and channel that positivity into its future, away from the noise of what was a truly unconventional launch period. Naughty Dog has come out of the last console cycle a little more weathered and beaten than expected, but it begins the next a little stronger for it.