In the heart of downtown Seattle, nature has reclaimed the silent streets. Deer graze peacefully outside the Seattle Public Library. Trees have grown out of control, and shrubs have sprouted up on the sidewalks.
While these may seem like viral nature videos from the start of the COVID lockdown in March 2020, they actually come from the critically acclaimed video game “The Last of Us Part II.” Created by the game studio Naughty Dog, “The Last of Us” series explores life in a post-apocalyptic society that, like our own, has been ravaged by a pandemic.
Set in 2033, players control Ellie for most of the game, one of the last survivors of the Cordyceps fungus pandemic. “The Last of Us” originally came out for Playstation 3 in 2013, so anticipation for a sequel had been building ever since its popular release.
However, with only two months until the game’s June release and hype at an all-time high, Naughty Dog developers found themselves in the midst of a pandemic — and it was not the Cordyceps fungus. As the pandemic began to hit the United States at full force, Naughty Dog developers were sent home and left scrambling to complete the game.
According to co-president of Naughty Dog Evan Wells, the transition to stay at home was tough, but the developers were able to adjust through constant communication.
“We didn’t have a master plan; we were kind of just learning on the fly,” Wells said. “People were sending messages of how to get this to work or how to get that to work, and after a few days we were operating pretty well.”
Although Naughty Dog’s employees adjusted to working from home with relative grace, the pandemic continued to impact the game’s production, and the release was eventually postponed for six weeks.
For some fans, however, the delayed production was not the biggest issue. In a pandemic full of stressors and hardship, millions looked to video games as a getaway — but going to a world where those stresses were echoed was no longer an escape.
“In some cases, I would get emails or messages from friends saying, ‘Hey Josh, don’t be offended if I don’t play your game,’” said Josh Scherr, a writer at Naughty Dog. “And of course you have to say, ‘Oh of course, I totally understand.’ I’m not even sure I would want to play a game set in a pandemic in an actual pandemic.”
Some fans, however, found the complete opposite to be true, as the dialogue and storytelling made the game feel like a departure from the real world.
In fact, according to Sony, “The Last of Us Part II” was the fastest selling Playstation 4 exclusive game to date, selling 4 million copies within its first three days of release. “The Last of Us Part II” also boasts a 60% completion rate, which is higher than any game on Playstation.
“I think there is sort of an art imitating life, life imitating art cycle there that intrigues people,” Wells said. “I think more than anything that people just need an escape and this was a nice game for them to lose themselves in.”
“The Last of Us Part II” uses dialogue and storytelling to separate it from many other games, however the idea of a post-pandemic apocalypse is not a new one. Whether it be the new Netflix series “Sweet Tooth” or the classic “Contagion,” the pandemic drama or horror film has always been popular. According to Scherr, however, this could change soon.
“I think what you’re gonna see are a lot more stories that instead of ones that offer the anhillilistic thrills of no-rules I can do whatever I want, I think you’re gonna see more that are about coming together and rebuilding,” Scherr said.
Deemed “hopepunk,” these stories are often set in very flawed worlds, however, the characters must ultimately nourish hope and come together to weather the cold surroundings of the outside world. While “The Last of Us Part II” may not exactly be a story of hope, it is still a story of growth.
“The story of the game is very bleak,” Scherr said. “But it still offers a note of optimism that these characters who went through so much and also caused so much pain to others are capable of growth out of their mindset.”