Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II ahead!
I don’t enjoy horror-anything as a genre. It took me until about three years ago to watch The Blair Witch Project and while I’ve lived through endless parodies and poor imitations to know how it plays out, the ending still gave me nightmares. Similarly, I have never spent more than 10 minutes, solo at least, with any Resident Evil or Silent Hill game. I’d have to say Goosebumps “Night of the living dummy” is about my threshold and even then, there’s a “doll hospital” near to my house that I’d rather not walk past alone at night. I am simply not built for this stuff.(Maybe scratch that Night of the living dummy comment…)
So you may objectively ask, given those are my very limited boundaries, what on earth was I thinking by attempting to play The Last of Us Part II, a game which, if you really wanted to minimise it, is essentially about a zombie apocalypse? Well, something I do like is narrative-driven games and the thing about The Last of Us Part II is, after years of collecting a thesaurus worth of words like “masterpiece” and top 10 spots owed primarily to its predecessor’s characters, HBO worthy story, stunning scenery, emotion and atmosphere, you almost forget that The Last of Us part I (is that what we’re calling it?) and Part II are both, at their core, horror games.(Kill it! kill it with fire!!)
The Last of Us Part II, however, which I recently finished and loved but am still reeling from, wastes no time in reminding you. With limited transport and a toppled Jenga of decaying buildings, getting from A to B in the apocalypse is rightfully a bit of a slog; a dirty, dark, dog-murdering slog – and as Gerard pointed out in his review, that realism doesn’t always necessarily equate to a good time. I get that, it’s pretty standard gamification of an environment – navigate your way out of one building having narrowly avoided a cluster of Infected, only to find your pathway blocked before noticing another window ALL the way across the street just waiting to be elbowed open.(“I swear if this isn’t the right way…”)
But never has a game made me plead, “Please, don’t make me go in there,” quite like this did. Because as much as I want to get to that next story beat, what’s waiting is always bloody horrible whether it’s a gas spewing Shambler or religious zealots ready to string you up and gut you like a fish. Even when it is your turn to do the killing, it’s still horrible. Human enemies writhe in agony, their limbs fly off, their friends react to their deaths, and if you choose to carry out a long drawn out stealth kill, you’ll hear every last bit of blood gurgle from their throat. Yum-my.(I want that PS Vita!”)
Safe moments are not as safe as the traditional construct of video games and movies have led you to believe, which was bad news for me. When braving a horror film, I typically know the tell-tale signs for when I can remove the pillow from my eyes. Here, bad stuff doesn’t just happen at night. Oh no, these things come out in broad daylight, in the blistering heat of California. At one point I stopped at a table to upgrade my weapons and got attacked from behind. That moment terrified me, not because it was a jump scare (alright, maybe a little), but because I realised, oh god, nowhere is safe. I proceeded to spend the next 15 hours completely tensed up, suspicious of every corridor, dark or not, knowing that at any moment something could jump out at me. A lot of the time, nothing did but I found myself shouting swear words I wasn’t even aware I knew of, regardless.(“Not this time bitches!”)
Even during the game’s sweet moments of respite where you get to admire some beautifully detailed scenery, listen to Ellie play a John Lewis advert song on her guitar, or visit a comforting flashback, it is, to Naughty Dog’s credit, very difficult to shake the tension you’ve built up. In the museum level, for example, I took my time to wander around and inspect every little detail I could, knowing sooner or later I would be back falling into another dark basement with a big old neon sign over my head flashing “fresh Clicker meat”.
Sure enough, the illusion of safety was soon shattered as I made my way out of the museum, started to collect a few convenient supplies, enough to craft an item or two and typically a sign that “yep, you’re going to need those in a moment”, and my mind jolted back to survival mode with a mean old jump scare. Even in that touching father-daughter scene on the space shuttle, where Ellie felt safe enough to close her eyes and be transported to this other world in the safety net of a cutscene with Joel by her side, I was thinking “no, don’t close your eyes!” because I knew that the real world, just a brick wall away, was still a violent and unrelenting place. Zombies aren’t going to let you off just because it’s your birthday, Ellie!
Being the biggest boss battle you face, it’s unsurprising that the knotted monstrosity of a Rat King tops a lot of players’ “scariest moment” lists. It is, of course, suitably disgusting, heightened tenfold when you learn that this is an amalgamation of the first virus patients in Seattle who were left abandoned in quarantine when things got out of hand. As one of my friends pointed out, imagine if one of the infected attached to it hadn’t quite reached the same level of cordyceps as the others and still had some sense of being when the joining process began? I don’t know how possible that is within the game’s lore but it is horrifying to entertain.
But while it took me an embarrassing amount of time (and passing the controller to someone else) to get past this beast, I found the rest of that Ground Zero level to be even more unsettling. Consumed with fungus, there are clickers stuck in the walls, some alive, some long dead, and the notes from those left behind who slowly turned into these monsters are gut wrenching to read. I also got serious Jurassic Park raptors in the kitchen vibes when I heard Infected rattling on the hospital door handles as I waited crouched behind a gurney with a near empty flamethrower I’d regrettably been trigger happy with a few moments earlier.(“Fire will cleanse ALL!”)
I also found the Stalkers, first seen in The Last of Us: Left Behind, to be equally horrible. I don’t know if it was seeing their Groot-like heads popping out from behind office furniture that tricked me into thinking these little guys weren’t so bad, but I almost wanted to pet them (in the immortal words of the little girl at the start of Jurassic Park: The Lost World to a bunch of baby raptors, “Are you a bird or something?”) until they began rushing at me in packs.(She can’t “Not” touch!)
My mum, who doesn’t mind a horror movie and once squared up to a Michael Myers-inspired character at one of those live haunted house attractions to prove it wasn’t so scary, while I ran off screaming for the exit (I was 21), always reminds me that horror movies are much less scary without the sound. It’s true, it’s all very much part of the atmosphere. So (and I’m embarrassed by this) I took that wisdom up a notch by not only playing certain portions of TLOUII with the sound off but with episodes of Friends playing over the top instead. Having followed the many Twitter threads from Naughty Dog sound engineers detailing the painstaking process of manufacturing some of the game’s ultra-realistic effects, I can only really apologise for my cowardice. Could I BE any more of a wuss?(I suppose I could’ve worn a helmet!)
The point is, this game is bleak. It’s long, best experienced with intervals of Brooklyn 99 (insert your preferred comedy here) so you don’t feel completely dead inside, and forces you to do and murder things you won’t always feel completely comfortable or justified about. And that’s all true even if you’re not a wuss like me. That said, if you don’t brave it past the grime and gore, in my opinion at least, you’re missing out on a great story, interesting characters, an extraordinary detailed world, and that feeling that doesn’t come around very often, when you find yourself still thinking about a game’s themes and intentions long after putting your controller down. So, to my fellow horror novices, the ones used to hiding behind the popcorn, you’ve got this.
Well, those are our thoughts about The Last of Us Part II and its use horror, do you agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below. Also don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel and if you’re feeling generous feel free to donate to our Patreon, thanks for reading.