The Last of Us Part II, the latest high profile game that blurs the lines between gaming and cinema, can take anywhere from 20 to 30 hours to complete. That’s longer than any season of The Wire, and over twice as long as the longest season of Mad Men. It eats up considerably more time than a full season of a typical broadcast TV drama. In the time it takes you to finish The Last of Us Part II, you can watch all eight Fast and Furious films—and make it deep into a full rewatch.
I can go on, but I think my point is clear: in comparison to movies and TV—the mediums its story aspires to—The Last of Us Part II is absurdly long.
It’s difficult for any story to justify that kind of length, but The Last of Us Part II’s is an especially bad fit for it. The game’s main draw—and the main draw for any game made by the studio Naughty Dog—is its storytelling. As tense as the combat and action can be—as satisfying as it can feel to avoid confrontation or systematically pick off a pack of enemies one member at a time—the focus is on the characters and their interactions. Although it’s full of flashbacks, and hinges on the player’s awareness of several years of trauma impacting its main characters, most of the game takes place over a few days. The entirety of its story, from the past that clouds the main characters and drives their motivations, to the worldbuilding of this post-cataclysmic Seattle and its warring factions, could easily fit into a single season of a TV show, and would actually have more room for developing characters and locations in that case.
More significantly, though, is the fact that it’s exhausting to spend so much time in a story fully devoted to hatred and vengeance. There’s not much levity in this game, and no comic relief. It’s a relentlessly dour tale about the toll violence takes on people and the inhumanity it can drive them to, and although there are moments of quiet reflection and playable flashbacks to more peaceful times, The Last of Us Part II is unwavering in its grim task. Imagine binging two entire seasons of Breaking Bad without Saul Goodman, Jesse Pinkman’s friends, or any kind of comic relief at all—that’s what playing The Last of Us Part II is like. It’s a steady stream of misery, which is just so taxing. You might argue that attempts at comedy would undermine the game’s heaviness, or somehow cheapen its message, but a broader range of tones and emotions would actually heighten the power of those moments, while making the whole experience easier to handle.
The bulk of the game, obviously, isn’t devoted to the cut-scenes or story elements. Most of The Last of Us Part II, reasonably enough, involves the player actually playing it. It might seem weird to criticize a game for having too much game, but too often these sections feel bloated and repetitive. As you travel from one gutted house to another, or ransack a city block of burned-out businesses, you’ll regularly have to contend with the game’s zombies or, worse, human enemies, running through the same tactics and techniques without much to vary up the routine. Sometimes the formula is livened up by a bit of exceptionally well-crafted level design, or the introduction of a new type of enemy, but several of those hours will be spent playing through scenarios that are too similar to one another.
From a videogame perspective, this is totally normal. Again, you expect a game to be a game. But when it comes to telling a story, these repetitive passages of play are an obstruction. They ruin the story’s pacing and feel like padding. They come off as a concession to what’s expected from games like this one, and not as a creative decision chosen for what would make for the best version of The Last of Us Part II.
This isn’t unique, of course. As long as 20 to 30 hours would be for television, it’s not that long for videogames. If a major would-be blockbuster’s story can be wrapped up in the same amount of time it takes to watch a season of Better Call Saul, the game will probably get torn apart online. Part of that relates to money—a new game costs $60, whereas that season of Deadwood is just part of your HBO subscription, so it’s far easier to break down how much you’ve spent per minute with a game than a TV show. Still, judging a story based on how much it costs is a bad way to look at these things. It does a disservice both to the work in question and to the people who made it. These expectations that a game needs to be dozens of hours long to be worthwhile are holding the medium back.
The unnecessary length of games like this ties into another pressing game design issue that’s far more important than creative or narrative decisions. This industry refuses to do almost anything to deal with its crunch problem, where developers work inordinately long hours for long periods of time. Crunch can lead to a variety of mental, emotional and physical health problems, as well as disrupting families and the social lives of designers. Naughty Dog’s extreme crunch during the development of The Last of Us Part II has been extensively reported on, and has been a long-running problem with the studio. If the studio’s games weren’t so arbitrarily long and overstuffed perhaps there wouldn’t have been a need to throw such a ridiculous and unhealthy number of work hours into it.
There’s been a lot of talk about the exceptional amount of violence in The Last of Us Part II, and how realistically it’s depicted. Those are important discussions to have, and ones we’ve been having for years. We need to be talking more about the problems surrounding the idea that games need to be a certain minimum length. Forcing games to reach what’s considered an “acceptable” length is unhealthy for developers, taxing on players, and generally at odds with the stories being told. If your unflinching treatise on the brutality of violence and man’s inhumanity towards man takes longer than watching every Star Wars movie, then you probably need to rethink how you’re telling your story.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.