What does it say about the industry to reward The Last of Us Part II? Is it an endorsement of crunch? Back in March, Jason Schreier wrote about an industry problem that surrounds the game. Developer crunch. People working long hours, often unpaid overtime on games that are too long, are announced too early and take too long to make. Naughty Dog was also an earlier subject of Schreier’s in his book Blood, Sweat and Pixels where he chronicled developer burnout he dedicated a chapter to the critically acclaimed developer. They crunched to get Uncharted 3 done in two years. The Last of Us was a passion project. Lead developer Bruce Straley was ready for a long vacation when he was pulled over to reboot Uncharted 4. One and a half games with brutal development periods later with Part II Straley finally retired. 7 years of development and a 6 figure budget in order to make the best game. Was it worth it? I said so in my review despite an ending that meanders and still comes up short. The game has some breathtaking moments, and a compelling story. But there might be better examples of game development at the studio level at least that are worth mentioning.
If the GA’s were still giving out Studio of the Year like they did back in 2015 to Witcher developer CD Projekt Red (of all people) I think the awards would play out differently. For one the award would instead go to Ghost of Tsushima developer Sucker Punch Productions. This is a company that followed up a good not great game with their best ever work. It is a beautifully crafted experience. [It also might be the only physical game release I bought this year.] The definitive swan song for the PlayStation 4, a great immediate exclusive follow up to The Last of Us and a summer treat. I look forward to finishing it.
One game that I think defines the year best, although I doubt it comes to mind when Chris Nolan uttered the words “masterwork of storytelling” is Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch. It connected everybody at the beginning of the pandemic allowing celebrities, politicians and fans to share with each other and brought the world together on a level only the medium of video games can possibly do. It was even a platform that was campaigned on for the U.S. Election.
Two games that weren’t nominated but pushed the medium forward Half Life: Alyx for VR, and Microsoft Flight Simulator pushed incredible technological boundaries and rewrote the rules on what games are capable of. They were also great. Being able to fly a 747 from Tokyo straight into my house (if you have 13 or so real time hours) is some incredible real-time technology and developer Asobo studios have made a grand and completely different follow up to A Plague Tale: Innocence with equally stunning technology. Valve returned to the gaming foray with another Half-Life game that is arguably the best VR game ever made. But the cost is still too high. Still, I would have liked to see more recognition. Maybe with the Academy DICE Awards in February in Vegas, they will get their shine.
Storied developers like id Software crafted a new Doom game (Doom Eternal) expertly designed corner to corner engineered with pure fun zero controversy. A violent video game with zero controversy? That’s an achievement on its own. I haven’t played Hades yet as its a PC Switch exclusive (I only got my dedicated Graphics Card last month) but any game that can shine in that many categories deserves a special mention. Maybe I’ll steal my brothers Switch he bought with his Christmas money.
The Last of Us Part II isn’t objectively better than any of these games. But regardless while courting controversy, it does set the bar for storytelling and subtext in ways the others can’t touch. The voice acting, performances and graphics really are incredible. And small improvements like crouch do open up the world of gameplay possibilities. In my review I spoke about how it engaged me in a way games haven’t for years and for that it is deserving. Even if it is an endorsement of the worst habits of the gaming industry: poor production management, hypocrisy, sequelitis, needlessly bleak violence that faces no reaction from those that need to hold it accountable. Its a fair reflection of 2020.