Taste and Criticism: Appreciation for The Last of Us, Part 2

This essay contains The Last of Us, Part 2 spoilers. If you haven’t played it already I think you should.

A popular gaming YouTuber called Mr Blueberry begins his “Why Last of Us Part 2 Sucks.” video by saying “It can be hard to find an unbiased review”. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that includes his own but then goes on to give his rather (in my opinion) biased opinion on the game. That’s because “our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased” to quote “Some Quality Biases”, an essay I wrote after my last playthrough in 2022.

But nearly four years after its release, Reddit users still post thousands of comments decrying the game’s “poor storytelling”, “poor execution”, “woke politics” and “lazy writing” to its subreddits /TheLastOfUs2 and /thelastofus. It’s actually quite hard to find anyone on there with anything positive to say, not even that Reddit is the only place where the discussion is taking place, only where the strength of feeling seems to be so great so long after the game’s initial release. There doesn’t seem to be a place for anyone who did like the game to talk about it, though. Holding the opinion that I do (that part 2 was a good game) and reading some of these threads (or dare I say it, commenting) feels like walking into a room on fire: there’s so much hate that the only likely outcome is to leave feeling burned.

First I want to talk about some of the behaviours that seem prevalent in (online) discussions of taste, then I’ll look at why I still think part 2 was well written.

One of the most cynical of these behaviours I encounter online is typically expressed through the question, “How could you [not] like X?”. It’s suggested that the arguee is either: (a) some sort of raving lunatic or (b) not clever enough to understand. The latter’s more common but that’s in a way part of the egotism I’m about to describe: there’s no debate if the person you’re arguing with is mad but besting them intellectually is far more satisfying. Ironically though it’s the quality of the arguments and its justifications that gives us an idea of whether we regard them as good not (or whether we think they’re intelligent 1) 2, though I think we can all agree slighting another person’s intellect is probably not a great way to bring them round to our point of view.

It’s now so common that it’s become a bit cliche of modern criticism to call something a “masterpiece”. Usually when I see this in reviews it suggests the possibility that the critic has decided to elevate it to a level higher than any comprehension of its masterfulness. Admittedly though, that’s how I felt after experiencing the game for the first time: a body-shaking orgasm of emotion that I felt no need to articulate. As Pirsig wrote in Zen, “Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions”, or in other words it would be hard for me to describe what I liked about playing the game as I played it, but perhaps not if I were to analyse it afterwards. Thinking about creative expression in critical terms and explanations tends to take away some of my enjoyment. Isn’t it good enough to simply say, “I enjoyed it” without anything further? 3 This notion doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me: some writings are very clearly “better” than others and some works of art are widely regarded as masterpieces.

A friend once described me as “contrarian” for not having enjoyed the most recent Spiderman film. It was a critical and commercial success and I was definitely in the minority. I can recall the exact moment I realised I wasn’t enjoying it, when Peter says, “Hey, Strange! You know what’s cooler than magic? Math!” I’d imagined he might have said something so direly predictable as the scene was unfolding.

While my own sense of “good” writing is probably made up of lots of conscious and unconscious thoughts and biases, the following are some of the things I like:

  • I like it when details are shared implicitly. An English teacher once told me “Show, don’t tell”; this is especially true of visual arts, but yesterday I was listening to the audiobook of “An Artist of the Floating World” in which a character mentions his “pupils”, implying he’s a teacher. It would have seemed obstructive to the flow of the story for him to have talked about being a teacher, but it’s expanded upon later.
  • I like it when characters speak in a normal kind of way. Contrary to popular opinion, a lot of dialogue doesn’t read or sound like real-life conversation: you miss out on all the awkward bumps and pauses. Dialogue tends to have been edited but real conversations flows. Dialogue is also a great way to tell a story implicitly.
  • There’s great power in what’s not said, which is especially true of the ending to The Last of Us in which I found myself urging Joel to say what I wanted him to, but then he didn’t quite. Characters don’t have to do or say exactly what we want them to for us to find them compelling, but nearing the end of the game at times I found myself setting the controller down, not wanting to feel responsible for what Ellie wanted to do.
  • We have too many “triumph of good over evil” stories; what’s so compelling about The Last of Us is its moral ambiguity that left me feeling so conflicted. This was the game’s greatest strength.

Having read so many hateful comments online about part 2, it’s hard to write about something you enjoy so enormously without imagining its detractors and what they might say. Fortunately my blog doesn’t have a comments system because I write mostly for myself, but writing this post (and thinking about some of the different viewpoints on taste and criticism) was a real pleasure. Of course holding The Last of Us franchise in as high regard as I do, I’m guilty of huge bias which I’m sure comes across in places. Though as I look to take a break from gaming for the next few months I still can’t think of another title that even remotely holds a light to it. I’d love for the game’s creators to know how much playing the game warmed my soul.

  1. What most affects our perception of someone’s intelligence? Is it that they use long, multisyllabic words? I try to write my essays in the most concise way, though I’ve been told by non-native-English speakers I use “fancy words” (unncecessarily). Personally I think of the “fancier” words as being more concise i.e. you can use one word instead of many.
  2. I sometimes laugh when I read a horribly written comment that criticises the “poor writing”.
  3. When I first wrote about the game in 2020 I said “We seem to live in an age where everything requires some sort of justification but I’m not going to try to convince you why you need to play this game. It was meaningful to me and you’re reading my blog.”