There comes a point in The Last Of Us II where you encounter a baby, and for a short moment, everything is good in the world.
I wrote a couple of years ago about Yakuza 6’s Haruto, and how at the time it was easily the Best Baby In Games because the Yakuza team took the time and effort to make him a person and not just a prop. He had fat lil’ cheeks, and chubby lil’ arms, and he gooed and gaaed, and you had to change his diapers, and he was perfect.
Haruto now has some serious competition.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
There are a lot of jaw-dropping moments in The Last Of Us Part II, for a variety of reasons, but maybe the only time I let a “holy shit” slip audibly was towards the end of the game, when I first laid eyes on baby JJ.
Unlike almost any other video game baby you could ever think of, JJ isn’t an accessory, or a piece of the environment, an occasionally-squirmy bit of emotional set-dressing. He’s a character, as alive and individual as Dina and Ellie. He makes sounds, he looks around, and completely deserves being the entire focus of the initial farmhouse scenes.
The whole farmhouse sequence begins by picking JJ up, and as soon as we do, we can see he’s so much more than a Video Game Baby. He clings to us, notices the environment around him and responds to basic stimuli. He’s happy sometimes, fussy at others and cries, and sometimes we know why, and sometimes who knows, he’s a baby!
JJ isn’t there as an exercise in timelapse, to simply to say, oh hey, Dina’s kid came out. He’s there because this is now a family, and they act as a family; Ellie is tending to JJ while Dina cooks, and her advances are gently rebuffed in a way that any couple who has gone through this transformation in their relationship will instantly relate to.
A baby changes your life in obvious ways — you’ve got a mouth to feed! — but in countless imperceptible ones as well, and the real beauty of The Last Of Us II’s rural epilogue is how these are all captured and on display thanks to the arrival and behaviour of JJ.
He’s just so fucking cute. From the second I laid eyes on him I wanted to reach through the screen and squeeze those chunky cheeks. Obviously he’s a supreme feat of animation (Naughty Dog, please forward me any baby-in-a-mo-cap-suit footage immediately), and just like with Yakuza 6, the effort put into creating an actual baby pays off when it comes to the parts of the game being built entirely around him.
Had this been a standard issue Video Game Baby, a basic model making some generic baby noises, the resulting drama would likely have fallen flat. Hollywood knows this all too well. But make that centrepiece a living, breathing, cute-as-hell baby and almost anything that happens next is going to have some emotional heft to it.
And so it is that when Ellie makes a very bad decision, only to return later and find Dina moved out, it’s not the fact that Dina is gone that’s heartwrenching. It’s that JJ, the one person in this game who is truly innocent to all the horrors that have transpired, is gone as well.
Revenge is the cause of many casualties in this game — all of them, really, since that’s the central premise TLOU2 is built around — but the destruction of this family unit, the only really wholesome thing we get to enjoy all game long, hurts more than any grisly murder we’ve witnessed in the entire rest of the game.
And it’s all because they put a cute, fat lil’ baby in the farmhouse.