The Last of Us Part I’s Problem isn’t Price, it’s Hubris

There's a line even for one of the greatest games of all time.

Back in June, Naughty Dog released an extensive breakdown video about the changes that would be coming to The Last of Us Part I in the PlayStation 5 remake of the 2013 PlayStation 3 game. It began with studio Co-President Neil Druckmann talking about how the team remaking scenes from the first game for flashbacks in The Last of Us Part II sparked an interest in what the original game might look like on modern hardware, rather than on a PS3 or up-ressed and touched up for a PS4.

The video stops short of explicitly linking that thought to the creation of the PS5 remake, but given reports about how the remake came to be — meaning beginning with a different team entirely — that’s not surprising.

Public knowledge of the remake began a year before it was unveiled at Summer Game Fest 2022, as a Bloomberg report revealed Sony’s Visual Arts Service Group, a support team within the company’s first-party ecosystem, began work on a PlayStation 5 version of The Last of Us as part of an initiative to expand upon PlayStation’s biggest franchises.

The Last of Us Part I's Problem isn't Price, it's Hubris

According to the report, the team was never properly acknowledged by Sony and wasn’t given the budget to hire more people. Instead, Naughty Dog employees were brought on to the project, and the dynamic shifted as Last of Us veterans were now attached to a remake of the game they’d worked on two console generations prior. Eventually, the remake shifted almost entirely over to Naughty Dog, and much of the leadership from Sony’s Visual Arts Service Group has since left the company.

Divorced from the original report, The Last of Us Part I, a mostly faithful remake of the 2013 game, feels like the natural conclusion to PlayStation’s recent pivots. It’s a full-priced game launching close to the release of an HBO TV show based on the series that is, at least visually, on par with its sequel. It’s a $70 product that will likely remain expensive compared to the PS4 remaster that launched in 2014 by the time the show airs next year, and game adaptations like The Witcher have proven people will buy a game if they’re getting into the TV show. From a business standpoint, it all clicks. Sony happened upon a Last of Us remake in its attic just in time to capitalize on it.

Now we have a remake of a game that was already available on PlayStation 5 through backwards compatibility. It’s pretty much exactly what Naughty Dog has positioned it as: the definitive version of a nearly-decade-old game that sure does look pretty, especially in cutscenes where it draws attention to the updated models that now feel more in-line with the game’s otherwise photorealistic art style than their stylized PS3 counterparts.

The Last of Us Part I's Problem isn't Price, it's Hubris

Every time I wanted to feel jaded about all of the above, there was a moment where the lighting came into the frame just right over the refreshed environments, or I caught a glimpse of co-protagonist Joel’s chest hair coming out of his button-up flannel. Replaying this game in this fashion and with all this baggage was swinging back and forth between feeling numb to the changes made on PS5 and muttering to myself “I fucking love this game” when I saw one of my favorite moments play out in the visual overhaul. To call The Last of Us Part I low-effort would be dismissive of the ambitious and impressive technical work, but it’s more accurate to call it unimaginative. Even as a person who played the original Last of Us and its PS4 remaster multiple times, I found myself becoming desensitized to the PlayStation 5 visual update during most gameplay segments. The cutscenes are where the visual updates were most apparent, and to their credit, they look great.

Does that merit The Last of Us Part I’s full-priced $70 price point? I can’t really say, and that comes less from me advocating for anything the remake does and more from acknowledging disparity in how we talk about games as a monetary investment — it feels like we’re trying to talk about money and experiences on some universal level. No sweeping declaration can account for the ways economic inequality and the inward, emotional fulfillment an individual gets from experiencing a piece of media determines how much money something is worth.

We talk about video games’ value based on metrics the internet has made up and expect everyone to hold to the same standard. That can be a cost-per-hours basis that argues you should get a certain amount of play time per dollar you spent on the game, but in the age of Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Premium, even that notion has become more complicated. Games are being dumped into subscription services that collectively outpace any math a person decides to ascribe to time spent playing a video game.

Some might argue that The Last of Us Part I doesn’t bring enough changes to the 2013 game beyond the visual overhaul and small mechanical changes like how Joel and Ellie’s bow operates to merit $70. Conversely, someone like me who adores the series might be willing to pay that price to see the original Last of Us looking on par with the sequel, if not better. That’s on top of the extensive accessibility options that make the game playable to more people than it was nine years ago.

The Last of Us Part I's Problem isn't Price, it's Hubris

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When companies put out products, especially in video games where prices fluctuate based on a perceived value, there’s often an feeling that because a game is on a store shelf, we are being directly, personally asked to buy it (which isn’t helped by the self-aggrandizing way Sony talks about this series in marketing), which leads to heated vitriol that gets directed at a project like The Last of Us Part I rather than simply choosing not to buy it. It’s deemed “too expensive” based on parameters that no one seems to agree on. Acknowledging why that disagreement exists feels more productive than trying to comb through each video game that comes out and holding it to a specific, bulleted list of standards and wondering why there’s dissent on the topic. Especially as the medium has evolved into so many different kinds of experiences that don’t neatly fit into market expectations set decades ago by people who don’t even work in the industry anymore.

Some people want a game that will last them 80+ hours if they’re going to put down that many dollars to buy it, whereas some value an experience in a way that isn’t quantifiable to a dollar amount. I don’t know who’s reading this, and I can’t speak to your monetary reality. I can’t tell you if The Last of Us Part I is worth $70 on PlayStation 5, because you probably already know if it is, to you, or not based on the description Naughty Dog has given. But I can speak to whether or not I think it’s worth your time, and if you’re not a die-hard Last of Us fan who would like to see Joel and Ellie’s story made to look as good as its sequel, it’s not. The PS4 remaster is readily available for much cheaper. The mechanical updates are nice, but small enough that only the most well-versed in the series will recognize them.

The Last of Us Part I's Problem isn't Price, it's Hubris

To me, this remake’s price point is the least concerning thing about it. That price tag will drop as time goes on, but what The Last of Us Part I symbolizes will persist when it’s down to $20 or free on PlayStation Plus, and has more troubling implications about Sony’s vision of the series and the PlayStation brand.

Whether I think the game is worth your money isn’t the issue, it’s that Sony is releasing The Last of Us again on PlayStation 5 and raising all these questions about its value in an act of hubris. It’s a profit-driven assertion that Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic story is such a cultural moment that it needed to be redone to meet modern standards a third time, less than ten years after its original PlayStation 3 release and while it’s readily playable by cheaper means. It’s all in the service of expanding it into a multimedia franchise it can capitalize on to the detriment of whatever integrity it might have had before as Sony chases the prestige of Naughty Dog’s catalog, and according to reports, at the expense of its other studios’ autonomy.

The Last of Us Part I is a definitive version, but it’s a caricature of the game that launched in 2013. It was a game often cited in tiresome conversations on whether or not AAA games can be art, but nine years later, The Last of Us Part I is a reminder that for as artistic as they can be, to the people making big decisions, they’re simply products to be dragged back onto the assembly line, packaged, and sold.