Developers and critics: where is the line?
People have been praising the Last of Us Part II left and right. Even our own review has given this game a 10/10 score, labelling it a masterpiece. I don’t personally see it as such, but that’s the beauty of subjectivity. It can be easy to forget that reviews are, as much as some people deny, completely subjective. Metacritic scores and 10/10s add a layer of statistics to things, sometimes giving the impression that these numbers represent some objective merit to the game. They don’t. No single review holds the “correct” conclusions. There is no right or wrong with disagreeing with this game’s reception.
The line between game development and criticism can be a bit fuzzy at times. I’m a game audio dev and a critic myself, which at times has put me on edge wondering if I can truly be both. As part of a gaming podcast, would it be wrong to promote my own game when it releases? I’d never review my own game, but is it ethical to give codes to my peers? Should I tell them I’m involved, or would that sway their opinions? There are many moral quandaries with no real answer. But as someone who must consider these factors daily, I feel that those associated with TLoU2 have crossed a line.
In regards to TLoU2 being compared to Schindler’s List
In a Twitter thread by game reviewer Jeff Cannata, The Last of Us Part II was described as such:
“In a medium where everything is John Wick, The Last of Us Part 2 is Schindler’s List. And just like that film, there were times when I wasn’t sure I could keep going. It is a relentless emotional assault that I suspect will force even the most jaded gamer to feel empathy.”
Now, many people consider games as an artform, myself included, but this is kind of ridiculous. Point one, every game isn’t John Wick. Animal Crossing is a calm Ghibli-like adventure focussed around friendship. Resident Evil 3 is a schlocky horror action experience. The Last of Us Part II is a revenge-fueled action plot… which come to think of it, almost sounds like John Wick! Do you want to claim games as art? Great. Don’t start by reductively contending that all games are the same.
Additionally, it just isn’t helpful to compare mediums this way. Film has advantages that games don’t. This game has lots of cutscenes, and as such it could be described as “cinematic”, but that isn’t always a positive when it comes to games. Interaction elevates the engagement with the narrative. In fact, this game forcing you to play as the “enemy” pushes you to reconcile your hatred. That is a great use of interaction.
“It is not the critic who counts”: What TLoU2 & Troy Baker say about art and its critics
Perhaps the biggest overstep was done by Joel’s voice actor, Troy Baker. This was his reply to Jason Schreier saying video games were too long (later confirmed to be inspired by TLoU2):
Theodore Roosevelt did not say these words because he thought art is always great and critics are big meanies. This quote should be a powerful shield against self-doubt in the face of those who would tear you down, but here it’s been used as a battering ram. Rather than disagreeing with one comment, this is a major voice actor attacking any criticism of video games. This is outrageous, right?
In all forms of criticism, there is a contingent that maintains that critics are parasites. Artists hate that someone can come along and besmirch what they have made. Sure, without art, there would be no art critics. But the antagonism against those that speak about it is ridiculous. Critics are bullied, harassed, receive death threats and the like. Of course, this is not reserved just for games media. Hell, when the leaks hit, Druckmann received death threats over the spoiled game content. That might, according to some, entitle them to hit back. To, ironically enough, seek revenge against those that have wronged them.
Having said that, let’s not ignore that Druckmann and his ilk are responsible for bad behaviour in the industry. Naughty Dog put their staff under crunch. In this game that criticises violence, Druckmann bragged about the extent of realism in their portrayal of violence. This likely means that people have to be watching murders and looking at pictures of corpses. So not only are workers under pressure for the work they are doing, the work itself could well be having negative psychological impacts on them. Keep in mind, of course, that this would not be a talking point were it not for critics and journalists uncovering these uncomfortable truths. We can say that we’d be better off without games media, but without that, we’d have to take companies for their word. As such, no one would report on crunch and this practice would continue as intended.