With a TV adaptation on the horizon, these groundbreaking stories will finally get the audience worthy of them.
The HBO TV adaption of Naughty Dog’s magnum opus The Last of Us had been on my radar since the first whisperings of it appeared online. Then the cast was announced; Pedro Pascal would be taking the role of Joel Miller, a brooding firm-browed man of few words with a morally dubious past, and Bella Ramsey would portray Ellie, a pun-loving 14-year-old girl whose existence could save humanity. It was as if HBO had reached into the heads of disappointed Game of Thrones fans and plucked out the only casting choice that could ever conceivably make up for the flaming-hell-pit of a final season.
My first thought? Thank goodness. Thank goodness The Last of Us, and eventually The Last of Us Part II, stories of biblical proportions, would finally be showcased to an audience that would pay them the respect the gaming community denied it.
I came to the games uniquely as a viewer, not as a player. I watched the story through the hands of my partner, who played through the quests so I could enjoy the narrative. I didn’t have to contend with the supposedly sluggish pacing or repetitive gameplay. Therefore, I was able to view it as a narrative piece first and a game second. This, I guarantee, will be the next global series. It has all the pressure points that catapulted Game of Thrones to success, and doesn’t include the aspects that some found difficult to ignore; namely gratuitous nudity and violence towards women. Further, the downfall of Game of Thrones will help inform the success of The Last of Us. With a carefully paced storyboard already there, the creators can look at the failings of those final two seasons and ensure they don’t make those same mistakes.
The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II tell the story of a post-apocalyptic zombie world, where being torn apart by a zombie hoard is a concern secondary to the horrors that the surviving humans inflict upon each other. The Last of Us games are subversions of expectations in the most original way and Naughty Dog’s storytelling—not necessarily its game play—is what makes the games miraculous.
The first game is a beautifully told father-daughter style adventure quest across America. Joel finds meaning in his life after the tragic death of his daughter, and Ellie slowly grows into a survivor in her own right. It’s safe to say The Last of Us was universally loved by the gaming community.
The second game was highly anticipated and a teaser trailer released by Naughty Dog presented it as everything the fans had been looking forward to—specifically, what mischief will Ellie and Joel get up to in their next adventure?
But Naughty Dog games are first and foremost unexpected. In the first hour of the game, a muscular woman with a blonde braid that puts Heidi’s to shame slams a golf club into Joel’s head, killing him. Ellie watches, pinned down to the ground by a gang of cronies. The gaming community broke down.
Ellie survives and is unrelenting in her revenge mission to find the woman, Abby. For players, controlling Ellie on a mission to avenge Joel is familiar, acceptable, and most importantly on the right side of this fictional history. Then, halfway through the game, time goes backwards. You wake up, three days in the past, and the player starts the story again—this time as Abby.
This was too much for a large and vocal section of gamers. They couldn’t play as the woman who killed Joel. That was only half of the problem for them, however. The other problem for them was the way Abby looked—Abby was a woman with muscles. Although cries from the community started with genuine betrayal they felt they had suffered at the hands of Naughty Dog regarding the storyline, they ended with an expression of disgust towards Abby, with many of the comments made being transphobic in nature. These complaints were especially harmful considering the game itself includes a trans character.
When I looked further into the fallout after the release of The Last of Us Part II, I was disappointed. It had all the trappings of the scourge of the gaming community, digitally lashing out; attacks laced with transphobia, misogyny, and brattish-ness.
Gamers are excellent online organisers. They rushed in droves to Metacritic, leaving tens of thousands of negative reviews. Currently, the user score stands at 5.7/10 with 65,475 negative reviews.
The creator Neil Druckmann and voice actor for Abby, Laura Bailey, received their own personalised attacks online. Druckmann was on the receiving end of “death threats and anti-Semitic remarks”. Laura Bailey received personal hate messages from players, some of which she shared on her Twitter account.
The creative team, at the heart of what many critics have called the best franchise of all time, suffered greatly at the hands of their audience. Ultimately the game was largely praised by critics and ended up winning Game of the Year, but the unrelenting voice of the unhappy overtook the conversation.
It wasn’t pure misogyny that initiated the campaign against the game, its characters, and its creators. If you scour the message boards and reels of comments, you don’t see the simple small-minded misogynists you might have expected. Instead, you see a group of people who are feeling deep betrayal—lulled into a false sense of security from the first game, enough to exhibit genuine emotion, only to have the character that taught them to love taken away from them.
Maybe a part of me can understand the upset, but I think the actions taken as a result fundamentally speak of a rot on the edges of the gaming community, a rot that Naughty Dog got swept up in for daring to tell a different sort of story. The TV adaption marks a sort of rebirth for the storytellers, who are involved in the production alongside Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin.
Watching The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II, I felt uniquely lucky. I was able to drink in the tale, even as someone who didn’t play videogames. The TV show, set for release in early 2022, is a chance for the story to be properly appreciated by dynamic and diverse audiences of TV. The tale of Joel, Ellie, and Abby will be watched by potentially millions, and finally be commended for the masterpiece it is.
Words by Rosie Featherstone
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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