That Naughty Dog is extremely talented is not news to anyone. The studio has ascended to being one of the foremost and premier developers in the industry, and its track record over the last decade and a half is as close to impeccable as is possible. The release of a new Naughty Dog game is usually a moment where the entire rest of the industry takes notice – and with good reason. Time and time again, Naughty Dog has delivered incredible games, that have pushed and redefined the boundaries of interactive storytelling, while also being incredibly polished and engaging games in their own right.
The zenith of Naughty Dog’s ambitions was realized twice – once in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (which was the game that began their meteoric ascent), which blended pitch perfect pacing, incredible encounter design, and spectacular setpiece moments that added a sense of you actually, literally playing a controllable movie to proceedings.
Developers mostly deliver a paradigm shifting game such as Uncharted 2 once ever decade or two. Naughty Dog, however, delivered a game that, arguably, was even more seminal, and the ultimate realization of their vision for what video games can be. In 2013, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley delivered to the world The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic third person action adventure game that to this day is regarded as one of the best games ever made. There are many, many reasons for that game’s enduring appeal – it took a relatively tired trope (the zombie apocalypse was, if you can believe it, even more fatigued of a setting in 2013 than it is now), and then flipped it on its head with multiple subtle subversions and impeccable execution. It had extremely empathetic characters, with very relatable flaws and identifiable conflicts. It had top notch performances by the voice actors. And the gameplay was top notch, taut and nail-bitingly tense, blending elements of survival, horror, stealth, and action games in one package that, while not doing anything new, did what it did to near perfection.
There is a reason we are still talking about The Last of Us seven years after it came out – it was a lightning in a bottle moment, the single instance in time where you can say Sony solidified its reputation as a publisher of high quality content (remember, almost every marquee Sony game since has followed in The Last of Us’s footsteps to at least some extent), the moment where even people with no interest in PlayStation suddenly had to pay attention to it, the single moment in time that solidified a lot of people’s faith in Sony’s ability to deliver compelling content for their consoles even if third parties bailed on them (as they had earlier in the PS3 gen, when most announced PS3 exclusives became multiplatform titles). It’s not an exaggeration to contend that The Last of Us was, to at least some degree, responsible for the dominating success that the PlayStation 4 would experience, starting less than half a year after this game’s release. It should come as no surprise to anyone that The Last of Us is Sony’s highest selling game of all time.
The sequel to any such game has a lot of expectations riding on it – with The Last of Us, the stakes are even higher, because the original game was such a perfect, self-contained story that a sequel seems almost necessary. Do we really need a The Last of Us Part 2? Will a game like it stand out as much in today’s market, when so many other games (including almost every Sony first party game) have cribbed from it? Will The Last of Us’s laser sharp focus on just having a few mechanics, cutting out extraneous fat, be as palatable in an era of 100-hour open world games with loot and RPG elements thrown on top? And, more importantly, given the talent churn that Naughty Dog has seen (in no small part because of their culture for horrific crunch), which includes most of the design team as well as Bruce Straley (one of the two creative heads for the original Last of Us), can we even expect the current team to be able to recapture the magic?
It’s hard to know whether or not The Last of Us Part 2 will be able to recapture lightning in a bottle, to be perfectly honest. There are many things that are working against it – the original Last of Us was a new IP (meaning there was no baggage, and no expectations attached to it), and while it generated a lot of hype pre-release (especially after the incredible E3 demo), it was still being marketed in an era where Naughty Dog hadn’t yet fully become the Naughty Dog (though, in the wake of Uncharted 2, they were well on their way, of course). There is, of course, the aforementioned talent churn and personnel turnover, including half the creative duo that powered the original game to such stupendous success. And, regardless of your own personal thoughts on them, there have been undeniable shifts in the gaming market in the last seven years. Linear, cinematic adventure games were all the rage. A new game in that style, polished to literal pitch perfection in its execution, was bound to catch everyone’s attention. Things are very different now, and a game like The Last of Us Part 2 does run the risk of not having that same kind of universal appeal simply because of those shifts.
Then, too, we must consider that there have been very few instances of direct follow ups to these kinds of seminal games ever doing as well as the original did (even if those follow ups end up being beloved in their own right) – Mass Effect 3 isn’t as universally beloved as Mass Effect 2; Metroid Prime 2 isn’t as universally beloved as Metroid Prime; Dark Souls 2 is nowhere close to being as beloved as the original Dark Souls. And, just looking at Naughty Dog, Uncharted 3 was nowhere near as beloved as Uncharted 2.
Typically, this happens because of the aforementioned expectations factor. Once you have a game that catches everyone’s attention, you have a lot of eyes on you, and the pressure of a lot of expectations to deliver, expectations that can often feed on themselves and perpetuate the hype even further, leading to a self-sustaining cycle. Once there is that kind of expectation attached to a product, it is inevitable that it will end up disappointing someone or the other. It’s not even just a video games thing – look at, for example, The Dark Knight Rises versus The Dark Knight, or anything J.K. Rowling has written post-Harry Potter, and you will see this is a near universal trend. It’s basic human psychology, and it is impossible to work around. By simply existing, The Last of Us Part 2 has created a set of expectations around itself – and for at least some people, those expectations will not be met, and those people will be vocal about that disappointment.
There is also the factor of diminishing returns, though that’s not as much of a given (and it’s hard to even know how much it would apply in this situation), but a lot of times, the newness of something helps add a halo around it. Any follow-up is hypothetically disadvantaged because it lacks that newness – it by definition has to be more of the same, at least to some degree, because if it is not, then you risk alienating your fans in entirely different ways (look at Deus Ex Invisible War versus the original). It’s unclear if The Last of Us Part 2 will suffer from this much, if at all – there has been a near-decade gap between it and its predecessor, and assuming that the gameplay will have been expanded over the original is reasonable (and backed by the tantalizingly exciting glimpses at the game we have been afforded thus far). But there is still a possibility that it does kick in, even if only to a very minor degree.
The sum total of all these factors suggests that it is unlikely The Last of Us Part 2 is anywhere close to being as much of a seminal moment as the original game was. I do not mean this to cast aspersions on the game’s quality, nor do I mean this to suggest that it will be inferior to the original. It is likely going to be an incredible game, probably one of the top rated games of the year, and a frontrunner for the Game of the Year awards come December. But you can be very well received without being the kind of lightning in a bottle moment the original Last of Us was – again, just using Naughty Dog as an example, Uncharted 4 is extremely beloved, with rave reviews and record-breaking sales. For many, it’s even better than any other game in the series, including the much-vaunted Uncharted 2. But it’s Uncharted 2 that has carved its place in history as a major point in time for video games – in the process, of course, also burdening its follow-ups with having to deal with the pressure of that kind of expectation.
I fully believe The Last of Us Part 2 will be a bold and incredible game, and I expect to be impressed by it in so many ways come June. But at the same time, I don’t hold the expectation that it will be the kind of breakout sensation the original game was. Of course, there is a possibility that it happens – while rare, it has happened in the past (Grand Theft Auto 3 to Vice City to San Andreas, Super Mario Galaxy to Super Mario Galaxy 2, Halo to Halo 2, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to Skyrim). Maybe The Last of Us Part 2 surmounts the various factors stacked against it to emerge triumphant as yet another “lightning strikes” moment for Naughty Dog. But I at least take solace in knowing that, even if it does not, it’s still likely going to be a damn good game. Ultimately, that’s all I care for.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.