Marketing can be a tricky beast when it comes to most major AAA games. Do you show players the full scope of exactly what they can come to expect when picking up your game? Sure, it’s respectful to your audience, but you risk becoming Kingdom Hearts 3 – a game with an abundance of trailers that left nothing to the imagination when players finally got to play it. Alternatively, do you craft some engaging cinematics, showing off the concepts of your world and the stories that exist within it? That maintains the game’s mystique, but it can leave your audience begging for more in a bad way. Even the most hyped games from the biggest studios suffer from overindulging in the world of pre-rendered cinematics. I’m looking at you Death Stranding.
Whichever way you look at it, marketing a triple-A game is a tight-rope walk between withholding too little and revealing too much, and it’s an art that most developers have never truly perfected. Yet, one studio that has been straddling that line with ease over the last few years is Naughty Dog. There’s no denying that The Last Of Us: Part II was a game on the lips of many PlayStation owners long before its 2016 announcement, but I don’t think anybody was expecting its marketing strategy to be as bold, mysterious and utterly engaging as it has been. In short, we still know very little about The Last Of Us: Part II; so little in fact that a trailer confirming that Joel would have a prominent spot in the story received explosive media attention and sparked video reactions of fans crying with joy.
If the sequel was being unveiled for the first time, these reactions would be par for the course for a massive franchise like The Last Of Us, but what’s so easy to forget is just how long ago Part II was officially announced. I remember sitting in my tiny dorm room during my first year of university and watching Sony’s 2016 PSX conference, goosebumps rising up my arms and down my back as we got our first look at Ellie and Joel’s newest adventure. Cut to three years later and I’m a graduate; my whole university journey is quickly fading in the rear-view mirror.
That’s a long time to wait for an already announced game, let alone a sequel to a title that came out six years ago, but as I watched the game’s major presence at Sony’s recent State Of Play, I found myself craving my next trip into the world of The Last Of Us more than ever. Whether intentional or not, Naughty Dog’s restrained approach to unveiling information about this long-awaited sequel has transformed The Last Of Us: Part II into a mysterious commodity that still has enough coverage to feel transparent. I know what the game’s packing in terms of themes, gameplay changes and tone, but I still have no idea what the major beats of Part II are or what to expect when I finally get my hands on the game, and that’s fantastic.
You only need to look at the buzz after State Of Play to realise that The Last Of Us: Part II’s marketing has turned the already long-awaited sequel from a mere game into a mainstream event. That’s no easy feat. Few titles ever truly accomplish the level of all-encompassing hype that Naughty Dog’s latest offering has behind it, and while the iconic nature of the franchise’s first entry surely doesn’t hurt, the sequel’s marketing has launched it to the next level. Through a handful of trailers, interviews and small updates, Naughty Dog has created a gradually unfolding synopsis with major narrative gaps that encourage fan speculation and theorising.
In turn, the studio’s various reveals, details and trailers have become cryptic puzzle pieces that have generated more questions than answers. What could’ve been a dull three-year wait that outlined the major aspects of the game and left nothing to the imagination has become an enthralling campaign of cliffhangers, dramatic character reveals and a whole host of enigmas. It’s almost as though The Last Of Us: Part II is shrewdly dancing around major plot arcs, slowly teasing more through each trailer despite keeping its cards close to its chest.
What drives Ellie on her revenge-fuelled rampage? Where’s Joel been? Who is the mysterious woman in the second trailer? We might’ve seen a fair amount of this world through the game’s trailers and chunks of gameplay, but the truth is we still barely know anything about Ellie’s next adventure. Fans theorised since day one that Joel wouldn’t make it past the opening act, his strange ghostly presence in the announcement trailer reeking of the classic ‘protagonist finds guidance from their hallucinated former mentor’ trope. Yet, instead of getting out in front of the theory and stating it wasn’t true, Naughty Dog let fans speculate. In fact, they let them speculate for three whole years.
Not plastering Joel’s face over the promotional material for the sequel was definitely a bold move, but it’s the perfect example of what makes this game’s marketing so different. Establishing the narrative that Ellie was embarking on an anger-fuelled adventure to avenge her former mentor was easy to buy into. Fans could get behind the tragedy and understand it, but as Naughty Dog slowly pulled back the curtain on The Last Of Us: Part II, we soon realised that this story might not be as cut and dry as it seems.
Even when confirming Joel’s status at State Of Play, we’re still left questioning where he’s been, why his relationship with Ellie is strained and what his presence means for The Last Of Us: Part II. His appearance is yet another example of Naughty Dog laying down a puzzle piece that, in turn, makes you realise that the puzzle is wider in scope than you ever imagined. It’s a testament to the studio that even after explicitly showing Ellie’s grizzled surrogate father figure in the flesh, a select subset of fans still believe he’s going to kick the bucket during the sequel’s opening.
Then there was the game’s second trailer. Following the sequel’s rousing announcement teaser, Naughty Dog went dark for almost a year, not showing anything about the game until Paris Games Week the following October. This could’ve (and for most companies, probably would’ve) been a perfect time to subtly remind players that the game still exists with another trailer of Ellie and Joel. Instead, Naughty Dog dropped potentially the most cryptic trailer to date; one that didn’t show any of the The Last Of Us’ pre-existing cast, but the plight of three new characters.
Granted, a major reason that Naughty Dog has the luxury to play around with such cryptic and elusive marketing is that Sony’s first-party line-up is stacked enough to fill The Last Of Us Part II’s ‘killer exclusive’ slot. While the studio has been gently teasing the game, we’ve had the likes of God Of War & Marvel’s Spider-Man come in to take the limelight, delivering a big exclusive to rally the PlayStation crowd as they wait. But – whether merely through Sony’s smart scheduling of blockbuster first-party entertainment or an intentional marketing strategy – it does ask the question of whether less is more when promoting games.
Some of the best marketing for big recent titles has came through smart, thoughtful content releases that feel measured, planned and substantial. It may not have exceeded expectations upon its debut, but Fallout 4 had a similarly phenomenal marketing push, purely because the game wasn’t even announced before it received a major 30-minute information drop and a release date five months from its unveiling. There’s also the aforementioned God Of War. People were worrying about the game before release due to seeing limited gameplay sequences and cinematic trailers, but it wound up shocking players due to the host of surprises it held both in terms of story and gameplay.
What is or isn’t good marketing is obviously subjective, but as a consumer who misses the days where jumping into a big new game felt exciting, mysterious and unpredictable, The Last Of Us: Part II remains an unknown commodity that I can’t wait to finally unravel when it drops next February. Despite the fair amount of footage on hand for the game, I can honestly say I know absolutely nothing about Ellie’s next adventure, and that’s the most thrilling selling point of all. Well, that and getting to listen to Joel’s gravelly old voice one more time.