As “Death Stranding” illustrated last fall, the relationship between film and interactive storytelling is evolving at warp speed — especially as “cinematic” video games continue to explore the various ways that having a controller in your hands might complicate and transform the way we engage with visual narratives. But no game has ever wrestled with those complications more viscerally than “The Last of Us Part II.”
We had a feeling that might be the case. The writing has been spray-painted on the wall since 2016, when game studio Naughty Dog announced that it was developing a sequel to the most revered title of its generation. Set in what’s left of a post-apocalyptic America 20 years after a mutant strain of the parasitic cordyceps fungus jumped species and laid waste to human civilization like a spore of blue mold bruising through a loaf of bread, the action-adventure game asks players to control a bitter man named Joel (Troy Baker) as he reluctantly escorts a defiant 14-year-old girl from Boston to Salt Lake City, where Ellie’s (Ashley Johnson) unique immunity to the plague might be used to make a cure.
From its unforgettable gut punch of a prologue to the shattering moral ambiguity of its final minutes, “The Last of Us” broke down the emotional barrier that had always limited video games to a frivolous distraction instead of a legitimate narrative form. This wasn’t just Sephiroth killing Aerith in “Final Fantasy VII,” John Marston meeting his maker at the end of “Red Dead Redemption,” or Mario discovering that the Princess was in another castle. No, this was a game that — through the raw humanity of its performances, the grace of Neil Druckmann’s writing, the flickering heartache of Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar score, and the player’s complicit role in pushing Joel to a place just beyond forgiveness — earned favorable comparisons to the likes of “Children of Men” and “The Road.” Its plot borrowed as much from classic post-apocalyptic fiction as its horror and stealth gameplay mechanics did from “Resident Evil” and “Metal Gear Solid” respectively, but the creative vision and technical prowess of Naughty Dog’s team crafted the whole thing together into an experience more emotionally affecting than any zombie movie ever made.
On June 19, however, Naughty Dog will do what no other video game studio or filmmaker has been able to accomplish in the seven years of zombie-related fiction since “The Last of Us” came out — release something better. While the gaming industry’s omerta-like approach to embargoes forces us to keep mum on many of the specifics for the time being (especially in regards to the game’s plot, which shouldn’t be spoiled anyway), it’s safe to say that “The Last of Us Part II” is a staggering achievement in almost every way; its immense story inflames the scar left by the end of the previous game in a way that feels necessary even if it won’t ever heal, the experience of playing through it is like being implicated into the dark heart of a great undead horror movie, and should earn Druckmann a spot alongside George Romero and Stephen King as one of the undisputed masters of the genre.
Stay tuned for a deeper assessment once the game has been played. In the meantime — for nervous fans of the first game, people who want to have the inside scoop on HBO’s next major sci-fi show, or anyone looking for the incentive to sink their teeth into something truly special — here are seven spoiler-free reasons why “The Last of Us Part II” was worth the wait.