Year in Games

2020's most controversial video game reveals the worst thing about fandom

A perpetual motion machine of outrage.

There’s no game that more aptly encapsulates the high-stakes, exhausting deluge of awfulness that was 2020 than the newly minted Game of the Year — The Last of Us Part II.

The passage of time will undoubtedly mellow the bitter taste of The Last of Us Part II as a work of art. An aggressively miserable tale unleashed on the world at the worst possible time, it’s also a boundary-breaking work of interactive storytelling, with artfully crafted characters who are impossible to forget. The exhilarating, often terrifying combat strips away the “gaminess” from life-or-death encounters in a way where every scenario feels wholly unpredictable and chaotic.

Yet even six months post-launch, it’s still impossible to separate TLOU 2 from the ugly circumstances surrounding the run-up to its June release.

At the tail end of April, a massive gameplay leak revealed numerous pivotal story details, including the death of a fan-favorite character and a new muscular female named Abby, who rumormongers baselessly claimed was transgender. While post-launch reactions to the game were mostly positive, the loudest response to the leak was overwhelmingly negative. Some fans were disappointed by the plot twist, while others were angered by what they perceived as Naughty Dog and game director Neil Druckmann’s desire to “force” left-leaning views about gender and sexuality into the game.

Ellie ponders whether to be cruel or merciful during a pivotal scene in 'The Last of Us Part II.'Naughty Dog

The most divisive aspect of TLOU 2 is that it asks you to play for a significant stretch of time as Abby, the ostensible villain of the story. Like it or lump it, this shift in perspective forces you to realize that all the heroic “gamer stuff” our protagonist Ellie has been up to is actually pretty horrible. Though the story’s condemnation of violence can be ham-fisted at times, it’s nevertheless a remarkably effective riff on the “play as the bad guy” trope.

Still, Abby’s appearance alone was enough to inspire a wave of review bombing and hate speech, along with countless attempts to spoil the game’s story for unwitting social media users. Much of this anger seemed to stem from the idea that LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming characters are offputting to “real” gamers, implicitly assumed to be straight men.

This kind of gatekeeping is sadly nothing new for gaming, or for fandoms in general. It’s a symptom of a more pervasive tribalism in which literally any and all personal interests are reconfigured as adversarial. The Last Jedi is a case in point — any opinion about Rian Johnson’s Star Wars movie is a de facto political statement. There are no shades of gray — you’re either with us or against us.

It’s easy to wave all this off with a Star Wars prequel meme — as Obi-Wan says, “only a Sith deals in absolutes,” right? We can dismiss the Abby-hating trolls running riot about TLOU 2 and congratulate ourselves for taking a more enlightened view. But it doesn’t change the conditions that allow this scenario to repeat itself again and again. In the last several days, we’ve seen these patterns of rhetoric re-emerge in the hostile fan response to negative Cyberpunk 2077 reviews, particularly those written by women.

Abby challenges a clicker in 'The Last of Us Part II.'Naughty Dog

As repulsive as some of the responses to The Last of Us Part II have been, it’s frankly tough to unequivocally root for Naughty Dog and Sony in their attempts to manage the game’s reception over the last several months. Sony’s unusually restrictive review embargo requirements sparked criticism and debate among gaming journalists, and Druckmann’s (understandable, though probably unhelpful) inability to resist feeding the trolls further eroded the possibility for a middle-ground point of view about the game.

That cycle of outrage has given rise to a scenario where it’s impossible to criticize TLOU 2 without being lumped in with the bigots, or to praise it without being dismissed as an SJW Sony shill. This sentiment persists even months later — The Last of Us Part II claimed several major honors at The Game Awards on December 10, including Game of the Year. If you were watching the event on Twitch, you likely saw all-caps howls of “rigged” every time Naughty Dog’s game claimed another award.

The cultural challenge of manufactured outrage runs far deeper than gaming or toxic fandom, and it’s unlikely to disappear anytime soon. For now, the best response may be to tune out of social media and play a video game instead.

Year in Games is an Inverse celebration of 2020's best new video games and most memorable gaming moments.

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