I’ve always had an inclination toward Naughty Dog and their games. I first saw the Crash Bandicoot games around 2001-02 as a first or second grader at a neighbor’s house. I was a Nintendo kid growing up, but I liked going over to their house just to play Crash. I thought Crash was cool. Around that same time, the Jak and Daxter games were also being released. I mooched a PS2 off a different neighbor to play bits and pieces of that series. I’d also be introduced to other PlayStation classics like Sly Cooper and Kingdom Hearts. It was my early indoctrination into the PlayStation Nation. I’d finally get my own PS2 second-hand around 2007. The first games I bought were from those three series.
The next Naughty Dog game I’d catch a glimpse of would alter my attention toward the studio from a passerby to an active seeker. Probably around 2009, I saw a demo kiosk for a PS3 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves inside a Target. I remember the demo vividly: It was the first section when you arrive in Nepal. A massive armored truck chases you down an alley while you run and shoot at its grill and engine. At the end of the alley, when I felt like I was running low on ammo, the truck burst into flames and I escaped. But I didn’t really do those things, the character (who I didn’t know at the time), Nathan Drake, did them: I just controlled it. I think a connection was made then and there. Instead of using a cutscene, Naughty Dog games let me control the action and the story unlike anything I had experienced before.
From then on I was trying to get my hands on a PS3 and was acutely aware of Naughty Dog’s next game. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception was incoming and I could not wait. The reveal demo of the burning Chateau blew my mind. I wouldn’t get my own PS3 until Christmas 2011, bundled with Uncharted 3. I played the first few opening chapters before putting the game down, determined to play the series in order. I borrowed Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune from a neighbor on Christmas Day. I played the entire game in one sitting the next day with my PS3 hooked up to my CRT television: I wasn’t even playing in HD! I’d then go out and buy Uncharted 2 and then finally play Uncharted 3.
A few weeks prior to that Christmas, on December 10, 2011, the Spike Video Game Awards revealed Naughty Dog’s next game—The Last of Us. Leading into the awards, other teasers were dropped like breadcrumbs. I remember watching the cordyceps fungus video and seeing the cracked newspaper casing. I was hooked from the get-go, before Naughty Dog was even attached to the game. Finally having my own PS3 just a couple weeks later, I was eagerly anticipating The Last of Us. I went on a total media blackout for it, even hiding my eyes and plugging my ears during the trailer at movie theaters.
Naughty Dog was my reason to own a PS3. I remember reviews for The Last of Us dropped on my birthday in 2013. Reading Colin Moriarty’s 10/10 review on IGN was like unwrapping a birthday present. The game launched just over a week later on June 14, 2013. It is a time I will never forget.
I think the powerful allure of Naughty Dog games comes down to their uncanny ability to intertwine gameplay and storytelling. A saying that I’ve probably heard before, but it never clicked until writing this story, is “telling it on the stick.” Simply put, it is a design decision to tell as much of the story via gameplay as possible. Using the joysticks before text boxes or cutscenes to tell the narrative. This actively puts the player in the shoes of the character, creating a unique, empathetic bond. It clicks with players on an emotional level. It certainly has with me.
As The Last of Us Part II nears its release on June 19, 2020, I had an idea to write a history/editorial on the game. I had done so for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate; this seemed like a logical next history piece for me. I love looking back, gathering context, and analyzing how a game came to be. I find it educational and helpful to provide that information all in one place. My eagerness and drive quickly got the better of me.
What started out as an idea to explore the history of The Last of Us Part II has (in a Naughty Dog-like fashion) turned into something more ambitious than I anticipated. I want to take a look at Naughty Dog’s PS4 legacy; analyze their game design, explore their developmental history, and compile it all in one place. The Last of Us Part II didn’t just happen out of thin air. It is a sum of years of hard work, lessons learned, and the tireless pursuit of perfectionism.