Last weekend, I dove headlong into the most self indulgent video game since Death Stranding: The Last of Us part 2. And much like Death Stranding, I loved every second of it. The game left me feeling depressed and emotionally drained from the level of empathy it forced me to feel. A big contributing factor to this was Naughty Dogs commitment to making their enemies feel like people and not just obstacles to overcome.
At face value, the game appears to be like many other stealth action games: stalk your target until no one’s watching, take them out, get discovered, take out a few more, hide and repeat with little to no remorse. That is until one of their friends discovers their corpse and yells, “They got Dana!” Wait what? That was a person with a name? No this is a video game, violence is fun, right? Remember Doom, RIP AND TEAR? As time went on after hearing countless enemies cry out for the death of their friends and being able to put a name to the face of my many victims, the tension of every encounter increased.
I started putting a lot more thought into the way the AI moved and their dialogue when on the hunt. I could feel a genuine murderous intent behind every action they took. In a set piece early on, you become cornered in a basement. Smoke bombs are thrown through the windows and enemies rush in for the kill. My hands were trembling at this point. I felt so vulnerable and I could feel how desperately these people wanted to kill me—not because they were programmed to do so, but because I’m the monster that murdered Dana, Alan, and their dog Lilly.
What’s even more interesting is that Naughty Dog have tried to evoke this feeling in their games for years now as one off story beats. In Uncharted 2, the final boss tried turning the player’s attention to the countless people they killed to get where they are now. In The Last of Us (part 1), the brutal finale uses the defenseless surgeons as a way to make players feel this empathy. But these moments are self contained, which allows players to shrug this feeling off easily. However in Part 2, they’ve embraced this as a core pillar and they make their players bathe in the guilt, regret, hate, and small windows of joy experienced by all the characters throughout it’s 30 hour run time. The key to this is the player experience provided by the AI design.