It’s June 18th, 23:59 and I am sitting on the couch in my basement staring at the countdown that’s projected onto the wall in front of me. It’s the final seconds before the release of The Last of Us Part II. A game that I certainly had on my release radar, but deliberately tried not to get hyped for. Still, here I was, in the middle of the night, waiting for the game to be unlocked. You can’t deny your inner child, can you?
Ready for bed, I just wanted to take a short glimpse at the opening scenes to get a feeling for what kind of a game I would be dealing with the next weeks. But that glimpse turned into a full hour of game play, during which I had the most wonderful and unexpected surprise: An in-game acoustic rendition of a song by the fucking best band in the world!
That was the moment when the spark re-ignited all over again. In that very moment my initial awe for the technical quality of the game gave way for ecstatic goosebumps. I fell for it and decided to devote myself completely to the story – come what may.
With the original The Last of Us Naughty Dog set out to tell a story of fatherly love within a bleak apocalyptic setting. And somehow they managed to take all the right turns during development and create a timeless classic.
A different approach should be taken for Part II. An uncompromising story of revenge that shows you first-hand what it means to meet violence with counter-violence. And how nothing good can ever come of it. Naughty Dog wanted to create a game about hate and ironically, by doing so, they managed to unleash one of the biggest shitstorms in recent gaming history.
With all their bold design choices, the extreme display of violence, the political agenda and the extraordinary narrative, they haven’t only created an absolutely unique game, no, they’ve also managed to split a once passionate fan base into “haters” and “fanboys”. A toxic community full of hatred and insults.
People started to act like little brats who’s had their candy ass taken away. They review-bombed the game into oblivion and even issued death threats on social media (what the hell!? This is a game for adults, so behave like one!).
A game about hate that produces nothing but that. Hmm. If it weren’t so sad, you were almost led to believe it was a big, brilliant marketing move – yet unfortunately it‘s nothing like that. It’s safe to say that The Last of Us Part II has left nothing but scorched ground.
I don’t wanna debate the quality of the game in detail here. I liked it very much and found it fascinating to see how your own emotions change along the ride, how sympathies shift over the course of the game or how certain events suddenly appear in a different light when they’re observed from a different angle. That was something I haven’t experienced in a video game before.
Also, it’s certainly the best guitar simulator ever!
One thing that hopefully all fans can still agree on is the music by Gustavo Stantaolalla. The Argentinean multi-instrumentalist has once again provided the emotional backbone of the story. Accompanied by Mac Quayle, who masterfully scored the tense action sequences, Santaolalla’s score is sparse and delicate and, more than anything else, human. Even though this is a horror game, the music focuses on the emotional aspect and introduces themes on guitar, banjo and other obscure stringed instruments.
The score is further enhanced by a highly effective utilization within the game. The composers or producers often use stillness and pauses as a stylistic choice. Even the characters are often communicating non-verbally only through their facial expressions and eye play (which is absolutely fantastic to watch!) and are supported by the very carefully chosen use of music.
Mac Quayle on the other hand brings you to the edge of your seat. His electronic soundscapes almost operate on subconscious levels, dragging you into the scene and constantly tightening the screws on your nerves. As disparate as all of that may sound, the overall impression is surprisingly harmonious. The score as a whole adds a level of depth to the bigger picture and grounds the game in reality. Together with the thoughtfully placed vocal performances within the plot, The Last of Us Part II creates its very own musical identity.
Please check out the Official The Last of Us Podcast if you’re interested in Santaolalla talking about his unusual choice of instruments and how accidents and mistakes define his characteristic musical style. Or, for that matter, what game director Neil Druckmann originally had in mind for the story. Or how Ellie actress Ashley Johnson incporporated the loss of her father into her performance. Either way, it’s a recommended listen.
Music in general plays a very important role in the game, with the Pearl Jam Track Future Days being representative for the overall theme:
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself”
We witness an emotional downward spiral, mainly told from two different perspectives. That’s probably the reason why Naughty Dog had named their first two official wallpapers “Duality” (#10, #11) – and I’ve picked up on that theme and adapted it for various designs of mine (#8, #9, #12, #13).
The other covers deviated more and more from this rule and should rather be seen as separate works. Two covers were deliberately designed in the style of the first game (#2, #3) in order to give you the chance to bring a consistent look to your digital media library. In the first one I worked with digital character models by Naughty Dog artists Frank Tzeng and Soa Lee, who have generously published their incredible work on ArtStation.
The vinyl sleeve (#6) was originally meant to be a back cover as the negative space in the middle would’ve been a perfect fit to place the tracklist. But unfortunately I didn’t find a matching counterpart for the front cover, so I reluctantly had to skip that idea.
For some covers I turned entirely to licensed stock images (#5, #8, #9), except for the graffiti logo or tattoo of course. I spent an awful lot of time browsing through various stock image websites, looking for nice pictures of mold, fungus and spores. Yikes! Other sources used range from the official artbook cover (#4) over a dedicated, alternate main menu fan-art (#7) to officially licensed poster design by Kevin Tong (#12, #13).
The concluding covers (#14 to #17) below are again based on official material, this time by designer Alice X. Zhang, who came up with four different illustrations that were licensed for the steelbook editions of the game. They were also used however in animated form for the PS4 Premium Dynamic Theme and that’s the source I’ve utilized for my custom covers. Captured, cleaned, enhanced and enlarged, they serve as a background wallpaper made up into four different digipack designs.
With The Last of Us Part II Naughty Dog have given us a game that can be discussed, dissected and questioned in so many ways. It’s tackling serious topics like survival, loss or post-traumatic stress, all wrapped up in a perfectly paced experience that avoids the beaten sequel-paths of “more, bigger, louder”, but instead takes a new, rather difficult approach.
And that is the real achievement here, one that cannot be valued highly enough.
I can only beg all developers out there to please, please fuck all the haters and keep doing what you intend to. Because creative freedom must still be worth something in this world!