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August 7, 2020
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Opinion: Backlash to criticism harms The Last of Us Part II

by Bryant Francis on 07/02/20 03:37:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Ever since I hot-taked way too hard about Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider in my pre-Gamasutra days, I have a new personal rule: I won't criticize a game until I've gotten to play it. Sometimes as a writer, I'm lucky enough to play games before they release, and a complicated web of embargos will influence how and when my articles debut. 

With The Last of Us Part II, I had to wait a couple of weeks while I played the game after its proper release to organize my thoughts, meaning my experience with the game was informed by an array of interesting writing and peeks into what was coming down the pipe thanks to reviews and critiques from other outlets. But as I proceeded through the Seattle wasteland, another voice barged into the critical space for Naughty Dog's newest game---its creators. 

Or rather, a specific subset of its creators, and in a limited case, Sony PR. While a great deal of Naughty Dog developers took to Twitter to celebrate players finding all the neat secrets and wonders the game has to offer, a select group of The Last of Us Part II developers began criticizing the criticism. Game director Neil Druckmann sent messages to journalists riffing on criticism of the game (one notable incident has been removed from Twitter, so I can't link to it), and Troy Baker responded to an off-handed comment by Bloomberg's Jason Schreier about the length of video games with a noxious quote from Theodore Roosevelt. 

This prickliness over criticism seems to not be isolated to a few team members. A few writers mentioned that after their reviews went up, Sony PR sent polite e-mails with brief questions about the nature of their reviews, an unusual step in the review process that's normally reserved for correcting factual errors that would be relevant to good-faith journalists. 

Baker's invocation of America's bear-loving, warmongering 26th president may have what tipped me over the edge. I have a particular dislike for this quote since it rewards creatives (or athletes; I saw it hanging in a gym in college) for centering themselves over the world around them. 

It's true that no one outside of the game-making process can properly evaluate what it was like to work on a particular game. But a damnation of critics like this not only ignores the work that goes into good criticism, it creates a defensiveness that tarnishes any relationship with even the mildest criticism.

Simultaneously, it props up an industry that loves to talk about how ideas should never be treated as sacrosanct, and always open to criticism in the creative process. 

In the world separating creative work from noxious or awful behavior from its creators, this is a mild case. It's far more difficult to even rewatch say, the Transformers films, knowing how one of its lead actors was sexualized and mistreated on set. But as I rolled into the final hours of The Last of Us Part II, every major dramatic beat of Ellie's journey felt tainted by that defensiveness. I can clock the last moment that I felt satisfied with the game, and from there to the last minutes, I could only see Druckmann and Baker's words in my head, even while the game demanded my full attention. (To Druckmann's credit, he has sought out some criticism of the game from writers like Carolyn Petit)

There's a pair of reasons for this. The first is that the back end The Last of Us Part II deals with vulnerability, trauma, and PTSD, as Ellie's long journey after surviving the events of the first game winds to a close. It's a heavy emotional lift, asking the player to empathize with Ellie and the people around her begging her to stop this revenge-fueled quest. It is controversial by design, an experience that will have some players nodding along and others bursting with anger. 

When creators interject themselves in a space that sensitive, it poisons the experience for players trying to navigate their own relationship with violence and trauma. The violence of The Last of Us series has long been a subject for debate, and every reaction to it, positive or negative, has been a totally fair one. 

But that leads into the second reason: when creators lash out in response to criticism, a new dynamic is established: one kind of response to a game is the 'acceptable' one, and will earn you praise, and in some case, exclusive access, from a developer. Another kind will see verbal abuse sent your way, with maybe some fan anger as well, especially if you're of a marginalized gender or are a writer of color (I am neither, and will likely endure little barrage for it).

Under that dynamic, even writing this piece feels mildly nerve-wracking. Will it influence my relationship with Sony PR? Will I be able to interview Druckmann or Baker on other projects they're involved in once it's safe to return to live events? The Last of Us Part II sells itself as a prestige game with prestige marketing, and a message is being sent that if you make even the mildest comments impinging on that status, retaliation may be in order.

It's already been tough to figure out how to write about The Last of Us Part II, with so much other reporting detailing working conditions at the company. If I dive into the amazingly detailed rope physics, am I obligated to interrogate the reported crunch that may have birthed it? If I marvel at the detailed animation, do I need to comment on a former animator who spoke up about his negative experience at the company? 

That's a particularly thorny subject because once again, Druckmann's comments poison the well. After said animator spoke up, Druckmann specifically tweeted out praise for the company's animation team, a tweet with very big "everything is fine, nothing to see here" energy. 

At Gamasutra, we have an unusual role as journalists. Our primary audience is people invested in the art and business of making games, and that primarily includes game developers and their adjacent colleagues. We don't often feel pressure to buy into hype, because we're waiting for a chance to dig into fascinating mechanical or technical details. We haven't built a site that relies on day-one reviews, but we still rely on close relationships with developers to tell these kinds of stories. 

Ours is a different path, and when we write criticism on this site, we try to do so explicitly with the goal of helping developers create better experiences for their audience. If Naughty Dog were the only developer I'd seen this behavior with, I might have reserved these thoughts for private conversation with folks from the studio. But it isn't, and more conventional journalists have made that clear. 

Game journalism has spent the last decade going through an emotional growth spurt, putting in the work to try and tackle more sensitive issues, and to make game criticism sound less like car or technology reviews. That shift can create divides between the folks who make games and the folks who cover them. 

I hope that the people who make games take a moment to re-evalulate their response to external criticism. That isn't an ask to brush it all off--every creator needs space to vent about players or journalists who don't understand what they went through in making a game. And with the abuse hurled at devs every second from toxic players, they deserve the ability to remove themselves from the conversation if it's beyond their threshold. 

But I can definitively say that watching developer backlash to criticism tainted my time with The Last of Us Part II. In a game where characters grapple with who they are and how they feel about their terrible, beautiful world, I felt less agency to explore that journey with them.

I felt encouraged to only accept what the game handed to me, to not question it, to not be curious about its implications or underlying premises. 


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