Without spoiling anything about The Last of Us Part II, there's an note in an aquarium and the information within it gives important context to the story and contrasts the critical decisions characters have already made. One of The Last of Us Part II’s major themes explores vengeance and how communities get lost in cycles of violence. This small note reflected those themes and called out major characters on their actions. It was an important story beat, tucked away in an easily ignored note.
In some ways, The Last of Us Part II 2 is the cutting edge of big budget video games. It has big emotions, fancy rope physics, and lovingly animated t-shirts. Despite some valid criticism, including our own review, the majority of critics and fans love it. It’s one of the fastest selling PlayStation games of all time and, coming at the end of the life cycle of the PlayStation 4, represents the bleeding edge of what the system is capable of.
And yet, one of the primary methods it uses to tell its story has been common since System Shock came out in 1994, and it feels exactly as antiquated as that sounds. For all its technology and attempts to push the boundaries with deep character work, far too much of The Last of Us Part II's story is told via notes that characters are writing down and leaving behind for no logical reason.
The Last of Us Part II is a good game that I’m enjoying, but every half an hour or so my journey of revenge and devastation set against the backdrop of a fungal borne zombie apocalypse grinds to a halt when I have to stop to read a note. The Last of Us II is littered with them. Notes about suicide, notes with hastily scrawled goodbyes to love ones, notes telling long dead friends how the writer died, and notes filled with numbers that will inevitably pop open a safe of goodies adjacent to the note. They stretched credulity in 1994, and in 2020, they're outright laughable.
The results are still ridiculous. The notion that 25 years into the total collapse of society, survivors of a zombie apocalypse will be writing and passing each other notes like soldiers in the American Civil War is already hard to believe. But those are just one small genre of notes in the game. Most of them come from characters who are narrating what are usually the last and harrowing moments of their lives, and they somehow have the desire and calm to jot down some lucid thoughts, which are conveniently useful or expository to the player. I can buy one, maybe two, of these last minute confessional type of notes. But there’s so many in The Last of Us 2, and I can’t help but imagine a person who’s bleeding out from a gunshot wound stumbling around a long abandoned apartment looking for a pen and paper so they can tell their buddy the code to the safe in the next room in case they happen to find his corpse.
The information they convey is actually very interesting. Much of The Last of Us Part II takes place in a Seattle that has fractured into several factions, which result in revolution, occupation, and war, and most of that information is conveyed in notes. It's an interesting and convincing tale of a community unable to heal from trauma and division, I just wish another character told me about it, or that I could derive more of that information just by looking at the environment, or that I could absorb that story in any other way than literally reading a page of yellow legal pad.
Notes in video games are a shortcut—a way to deliver exposition without having to produce more costly and time consuming animations, voice over, and gameplay. Of course, big budget video game developers and The Last of Us II's team at Naughty Dog specifically already suffer from brutal months of crunch to finish the game, so it's understandable that not every corner of its world or beat of its story is fully acted out and rendered in 3D. In fact, if anything, the heavy reliance on notes shows that often The Last of Us II's ambitions are often bigger than its capabilities.
These notes work better when reading them are diegetic and, to The Last of Us Part II’s credit, the player can read most of the notes in the handwriting of the person who posted them. Contrast that with Doom Eternal where all the lore is delivered via journal entries that have to be accessed from the in-game menu and examined like an email.
The Last of Us 2’s notes are better than Doom Eternal’s lore dumps, but they still feel out of place. So many of them are the last testament of someone who is literally dying as they write the note.
For all its lauded technical achievements and storytelling twists and turns, The Last of Us 2’s gameplay is rooted in gaming's past and the damn notes prove it. I love reading, but when I sit down to game that part of my brain shuts off. I don’t want to pour over the epistolary of a zombie-bit survivor as they apologize to their friends and family while I’m rifling through cabinets looking for rags to make molotov cocktails. I don't want to do that even if the writing is good, which it mostly is here. It breaks up the action, disrupts my immersion, and always makes The Last of Us Part II feel less realistic.
These notes speak to one of The Last of Us Part II’s biggest problems—it’s an aesthetic advancement of the form, but it's still rooted in old ideas, many of which have felt old for years before it was released.