The following article contains major spoilers for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2. Proceed with caution.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a game that thousands of people have been awaiting for the last half a decade. As the sequel to one of the highest-rated video games of all time, Part 2 had some serious shoes to fill, and whether or not it succeeded is probably going to be the subject of debate for years to come.
However, I’m not here to talk about all that. I’m here to talk about one thing which, for the purposes of my early-access review, I dubbed “anti-fan servicing in The Last of Us Part 2.” Now the game is out, and now most people who wanted to play it have played it, let’s talk about what – in my opinion – is the one of the most egregious moments in recent gaming history.
(For reference, “fan servicing” is defined as follows: “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.” Though it sometimes applies to sexual references, it’s more commonly used to discuss Easter eggs.)
Before we hop right into it, let me paint a bit of a picture for you. Let’s travel back in time to September 2019, when social distancing wasn’t a part of everyday lexicon and when we knew next to nothing about The Last of Us Part 2.
Sony and Naughty Dog treated us to an extended trailer for the game, which showed off some of the themes of anger, hatred and even gave us a release date (before the game got delayed. Twice). All of this was all well and good, but one of the best parts of that trailer was the news that fans had been waiting for: Joel was not dead, and would be a part of the game.
Before this moment, Naughty Dog had been purposefully obtuse about Joel’s role in the game, leading to speculation that the character wouldn’t have a major part to play in the story.
The news was revealed in a now-famous scene in which a hand grabs Ellie from behind, she slowly turns to face her assailant with shock and sadness. She says to the off-screen figure: “What the hell are you doing here?” The trailer then cuts to an older-looking Joel, who says simply: “You think I’d let you do this on your own?”
It was a phenomenally-executed moment, and as you can see in the video below, gamers all across the world celebrated in the most wholesome ways possible.
Cut to June 2020 when I watched Joel get clubbed to death (literally) by new character Abby. It’s a very technically impressive scene, but as I watched the death of one of my all-time favourite characters in gaming I could only think one thing: “I’ve seen older-Joel in that trailer, so clearly this isn’t a real death.”
I began to use my knowledge from the trailer to weave together possible reasons for the people of Jackson faking Joel’s death. Did they want to use Ellie as a weapon to bring down the WLF for personal gain? Was this a ploy to send in their emotionally-charged young assassin to do their bidding without them losing any of their own fighters? Why were Tommy and Joel in on it? So many questions, so few answers.
I went through the stages of seeing Joel’s grave, walking through Joel’s house and generally have all these emotionally-charged moments that meant absolutely nothing to me, because I didn’t believe Joel was dead. I shed not one tear. It didn’t occur to me that Naughty Dog and Sony would purposefully create a moment for a game trailer (and apparently a moment that was also in the playable press demos showcased in 2019) just to try and hoodwink the fans.
When I finally reached the post-theatre moment when the hand reached across Ellie’s mouth, my heart leapt into my own mouth. It was here! Joel was back! Finally things would make sense!
…and it was Jesse. It was Jesse, speaking Joel’s line, in place of Joel. And then it because all-too clear that this was a marketing ploy. Whether it was created to deter fans from thinking Joel was dead (before the leaks hit, of course), or whether this was just to trick players into feeling angry in some fourth-wall-breaking capacity, I think it was incredibly misjudged and poorly executed. As a fan, I found it deeply callous.
I came away from that scene feeling completely let down. Not only had I been fooled by marketing, but I’d also had my experience of Joel’s death completely taken away from me. I did not accept that Joel was dead until the moment Jesse spoke those lines, and by then, the emotional gravitas of his death was lost behind a cheap trick which left me salty as all hell.
I’ve since spoken about this with a few people who’ve played the game. One of those people didn’t watch the trailer, so had no prior knowledge of Joel originally speaking those lines. I realised this was worse in a way, as it means that only fans who watched all the trailers would be as let down as I felt. This is exactly why I call it “anti-fan servicing,” because it’s a calculated move that will bypass any players other than fans who were eagerly awaiting the launch.
That being said, I’ve spoken to others who clearly didn’t mind the bait-and-switch tactic, even saying that it worked well within the world of the game and the expectations that had been laid out.
GameByte’s Brett Claxton, who received the brunt of my anger after he’d reached this part in the game, has a very different opinion to mine.
“I get what was done here because you want to try and make the audience not think Joel is going to be gone from the game so soon, even if it is something that becomes pretty obvious once you boot it up,” says Brett.
“Trailers, especially in other mediums, have done creative editing or putting things in that never make the final film. When the story beat happened it didn’t register in my head as a problem until I talked about it with the team.”
Of course, this is all just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to controversy in The Last of Us Part 2. I’m keen to hear others’ opinions on this though. Did you think it was well-executed? Did it tarnish your opinion of the game? Or did you not notice it at all?
Featured Image Credit: Naughty Dog