'The Last of Us Part II' is set in a pandemic-ravaged America. Fans don't mind.

"Honestly, I have found that it has been a wonderful escape mechanism," one gamer said.
"The Last of Us Part II" is set against a global pandemic, but that hasn't made fans less likely to play.
"The Last of Us Part II" is set against a global pandemic, but that hasn't made fans less likely to play.Sony

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

Since its development was announced in 2016, the post-apocalyptic "The Last of Us Part II" has been one of the most anticipated video games in years. The majority of critics say the game, released June 19, lives up to the hype. Furthermore, the game's backdrop of an ongoing pandemic provides new relevance to a world once confined to fantasy.

"The Last of Us Part II," a sequel to "The Last of Us," released in 2013, has been praised as a triumph of visuals, writing and performances. The hyper-realistic graphics have been noted for pushing animation to a space that feels closer to reality. The storyline, with themes of queer love and familial vengeance and questions of morality, can feel more akin to an HBO series than a video game. (That may be because Halley Gross, who wrote for HBO's "Westworld," is a co-writer of "The Last of Us Part II.")

Indeed some critics have lauded it in language more common to literature, or religion. The Washington Post's Christopher Byrd called the game "an astonishing achievement — a searing demonstration of how a video game can marry heart-stopping gameplay, gorgeous environmental storytelling and anxiety-inducing moral complexity." Furthermore, he said, the game isn't just a game. "It's a meditation on loss — not simply loss of life, but of community, family, and individual capabilities — and the effort it takes to muddle through maddening grief."

Warning: Spoilers for the "The Last of Us Part II" are ahead.

The game picked up a 94 percent critics' score on Metacritic, but not all reviews have been glowing.

Referring to the game's developer, an Inverse game review read, "Naughty Dog plays it a bit too safe, investing all the creative energy into the plot."

Some user-critics have tried to tank the game's reviews for a host of reasons, according to CNET, and Forbes, with a crowd of gamers appearing to dislike the queer themes and the death of the first game's beloved protagonist. There are some claims that Naughty Dog pushed misleading trailers, which skewed expectations. Current Metacritic user reviews are a 4.5 out of 10. Critical writing has suggested that there was a political, and purposeful, early effort to sink those ratings before many people had played the game all the way through.

"The Last of Us Part II" is set in the United States after a global pandemic turns most people into mindless zombies. While our own real-life global pandemic appeared long after the game was into production, the overlap between real life and the virtual world hasn't deterred players from the game, despite the pandemic imagery and themes.

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Players who spoke to NBC News said they've even used the game to escape our reality, despite the parallels with the current state of the world. Psychologists said consuming media that reflects stressful events can sometimes help the consumer gain a deeper perspective.

"Honestly, I have found that it has been a wonderful escape mechanism," said gamer Robert Edelman, 26, of Virginia.

"I could see how it could have the impact where you're dealing with a global pandemic in the very personal sense of real life and your escape mechanism is going and playing a video game about a global pandemic," but the rich narrative has simply kept him even more engaged, he said.

In part one, "The Last of Us," the fictional "Cordyceps Brain Infection" virus has turned most of humanity into mindless zombies. At the end of the game, a smuggler named Joel brings Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan with unusual immunity to the virus, to meet a rebel militia known as the Fireflies. Among the rebels are doctors looking for a cure. Belatedly, Joel learns that Ellie can, in fact, provide a cure — but to do so she will have to sacrifice her life.

During their journey to the Fireflies, Joel and Ellie develop a parent-child bond. As the game closes, Joel finds himself unable to sacrifice Ellie. He kills the Firefly doctors, pulls an unconscious Ellie from the Firefly hospital and lies to Ellie once she awakens, after the pair escape from the hospital, telling her that she's not the only person who is immune and that the Fireflies had found others.

"The Last of Us Part II" opens several years later. Joel and Ellie have been living in a small town with other noninfected people where life appears to be starting anew against the backdrop of the otherwise zombie-ravaged society. But the perspective has shifted. While you embody Joel in game one, this time, you — the player — are Ellie, now 19. While patrolling the outskirts of the town for zombies, a daily chore among the residents, Joel goes missing.

Ellie discovers that a group of mysterious, uninfected humans, led by a new character named Abby, have tortured Joel. They brutally murder him in front of Ellie, launching us into the game's quest: Ellie's revenge.

What ensues is a journey of hyperviolence, trauma and vengeance that leaves most of the characters' lives in shambles against a desolate backdrop.

"The Last of Us Part II" marries beautiful graphics with heart-pounding gameplay.Sony

The violence is heartrendingly depicted. When one human kills another, there are agonizing screams and cries of despair by loved ones, and the setting often requires Ellie and others to don masks to prevent inhaling virus-carrying spores. But those two bits of realism haven't deterred players.

Adam Wright, 40, of North Carolina said it might seem odd to play a game like this at a time like now, because it doesn't seem like escapism. But for gamers it remains a respite. "This is the type of game that really allows" escapism, he said, "regardless of the content or the setting, because it's so story driven. It's like you're playing a movie."

For Wright, that comes from the game's immersive story mixed with the adrenaline rush of the revenge plotline. "It's just a constant kind of ebb and flow of a play on your emotions, but you definitely get that kind of endorphins kick," he said.

Stefan Dick, 27, of Virginia said the game helped shape his perspective that the coronavirus pandemic could be even worse.

"I still feel like it's an escape. When I originally started playing the game, I just didn't even think about the pandemic, because, well, it's a new game, right?" Dick said. After all, he said, although there are overlapping details, reality is "still a few degrees away" given that in real life "people aren't turning into man-eating monsters."

Dick, Wright and Edelman aren't alone in enjoying a form of entertainment that ties into a real-world issue. Although there is no one explanation why people will engage with media mirroring real-world problems, the perspective the game provides offers a clue.

"Leaning in to, say, video games that sort of parallel, to some extent, what they're experiencing in their life may give them an opportunity to process what's happening in the world but in a way that's a little more removed," said Lynn F. Bufka, senior director of practice, transformation and quality for the American Psychological Association.

Bufka said "The Last of Us Part II," which she hasn't played, might be a means of exposing people from a safe distance to their biggest fears about the pandemic — including their own susceptibility to illness, death and dire economic impact — while providing a far worse scenario for perspective. The game might also help players work through their fears as they see how characters like Ellie overcome challenges.

Benjamin Heath, 40, who lives in San Francisco, has been sheltering in place for over three months. Six San Francisco Bay Area counties were locked down against the virus on March 16 in the first order of its kind in the nation, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.

But even after all those weeks in lockdown, Heath said, playing the game has helped him put his quarantine experience in perspective.

"I could be playing a game that's lighter or more fun, but I like this game. I've been waiting for it for a long time," he said. "It just happened to hit during a global pandemic."

He added: "I feel very lucky that I'm able to stay in my house. I go out and walk my dog and wear a mask, and I can order food. It's not too hard, really, compared to what takes place ... in this game.

"That is much more bleak and cruel of a world than we have, so in some ways, it's sort of counterintuitive, but it feels like it's not this bad."

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Occasionally Heath feels overwhelmed by the heaviness of the game — but then he'll stop and take a walk. That having been said, he added, nothing will come between him and seeing the story of "The Last of Us Part II" through.