I grew up with a sweet-if-timid golden retriever named Phoebe. Passing a particularly adorable corgi on the street, I can’t help but swoon. I am very much a dog lover. Which is why it’s always tough to see attack dogs in video games.
I don’t begrudge a developer wanting to include an attack dog in a game. Attack dogs exist in real life, after all. But the video game attack dog is almost always a shorthand for mindless, deadly beast. Their AI usually consists of: Walk in a preset square, and if you see the player, sprint at them and try to bite their face off. Players, meanwhile, often have no choice but to use deadly force on these killing machines, usually ending in a pitiful whimper before the pup crumples to the ground in a heap. Attack dogs in games often feel like dumb beasts as a substitute for more grunts, a mere way to beef up enemy variety.
And now attack dogs are coming to The Last of Us Part 2. And it tears me up inside.
There’s really no better showpiece for enemy AI than 2013’s The Last of Us. The humans in that game take cover, sure, but they also fall back, call to their buddies, and work together in ways that felt groundbreaking at the time. Picking apart a squad of six or more post-apocalyptic marauders required careful stealth and planning.
Now, in The Last of Us 2, Ellie will have a much rougher time, thanks to the addition of attack dogs to some of these encounters. In the first game, Joel could essentially hide out and wait for enemies to come to him. That’s not going to cut it anymore in Naughty Dog’s sequel.
Attack dogs in The Last of Us Part 2 are usually paired with a human and very well-trained, as I learned when playing an early version of the game at an event in Los Angeles this week. Where a human might wander past a window that Ellie is hiding behind, an attack dog will latch onto her scent and start sniffing about. The human will make note of this with the line “got something, boy?” and follow closely after the dog.
The dog is actually directly tracking Ellie, and I can see the scent trail I’m leaving wherever I go. Standing in one place guarantees a swift death.
So how do I get out of this situation without making the easy (and awful) choice? I can toss a brick or bottle, creating enough of a distraction for the dog to lose my scent. If I’m out of stuff to throw, I’ll have to create enough distance between me and the dog for it to lose interest.
Keep in mind, though, that these sequences usually take place in scenarios when you’re absolutely surrounded by enemies. Sprinting away from one dog makes me visible or audible to another guard or, yep, another pup. The easiest solution is to go lethal, silently downing the dog with an arrow when it walks out of sight of its master.
But man, does that make me feel terrible. And it’s even worse when the human companion finds the dog’s body, letting out a heartbreaking scream. All of the humans in The Last of Us 2 are named (including the enemies), and they’ll accurately call out to one another, or cry out, “Oh god, Steven!” if they stumble upon Steven’s corpse. But those exclamations pale in comparison to the grief expressed when they find the body of their faithful canine. The unbridled anger and sadness gives me a clear flash of the lifelong bond that this guard and dog shared, through puppyhood, training, and now death.
Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Anthony Newman, co-game director at Naughty Dog, spoke with me about the inclusion of these dogs and how they fit into the game’s universe.
“Narratively, they’re interesting because I think what’s kind of at the core of The Last of Us experience is this kind of regrettable violence,” he said. “Being forced into these regrettable situations with these attack dogs only heightens that feeling.”
Newman was quick to note that it is absolutely possible to complete the game without harming a single dog. But that approach makes the game much, much harder.
After a sequence where I found myself killing a dog rather than have it rip Ellie’s throat out, I realized how perfectly such a terrible choice fits in the world of The Last of Us Part 2. The dogs in this game are mindful, loving creatures, trained to protect their masters at all costs. To kill such a creature has to be a sin. For my sake, I hope no one’s keeping track.
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