The Last of Us Part II
Released: June 19, 2020
Edit note 27/07/2020 – This is the third time I’ve tried to post this as for some reason it keeps going back into my drafts. Hopefully it’ll stay up now!
There may be some of you who read the leaks back in April and decided then that this game wasn’t for you. There is currently a loud section of the internet that is outraged over some of the decisions regarding the narrative and the characters themselves, some of which I can understand. This game is by no means perfect but the anger that is being expressing towards the game is bordering on the irrational side.
I didn’t see any spoilers, but I heard about the vitriol. How furious people were and still are about The Last of Us Part II is astonishing, to the point where people were review bombing the game just hours after release and the cast and crew have been inundated with hateful messages on their socials. I was nervous that my emotional attachment to the first game was causing me to ignore this apparent disaster that people were talking about. After having finished the game, I can say that this is without a doubt the most harrowing and exhausting experience that I’ve had with a video game and that was a good thing.
This divisive story should at least be played before passing judgements. I won’t be discussing gameplay in too much depth this post, though I may do another write up for that at another time. In this post I will be discussing major plot points and so if you’re not finished with the game yet or would like to stay as in the dark as possible, then this spoiler warning from this point onwards is for you.
If Naughty Dog have a story they want to tell they will do so in the way that they want to. When Druckmann tweeted very succinctly about this and the people in the comments went into an uproar, it lead me to believe that a lot of players who hate this game are holding onto a misunderstanding that stems from The Last of Us (2013).
One of the most beloved characters of this franchise is Joel and the first game takes us through his heart-wrenching story. It is because of this that some fans seem to forget certain details. Joel does not embark on a hero’s journey. He has been put on a pedestal despite the glimpses of ruthless violence that we see him display on numerous occasions. The brilliance of the first game was that even though we knew that Joel’s decision at the end of the game was wrong, we chose to look the other way because we understood why he did it, even if it meant telling a 14-year-old girl that her immunity was all for nothing. The Last of Us Part II doesn’t just expand on the consequences of Joel’s actions but it tackles even more complex emotions in both the characters and the players themselves.
Joel has been living in the safety and comfort of Jackson for 4 years and in that time he has let his guard down. To say that Joel’s death was undeserved or disrespectful to the character is insulting to those who created him. There is no one who loves Joel more or knows him better than Druckmann and Baker, and ultimately this scene is there because the story needs to be driven forwards. Not only does Ellie need cause to hunt down the WLF but so does the player. If the reasoning behind Ellie’s pursuit of this group was flimsy then the player would not have been so eager to join her and revenge is a powerful motivator.
The first game focuses on a father losing his daughter, the second revolves around a daughter losing her father. Before this game was released, we were being asked “How far would you go to bring the people responsible [for a loved one’s violent death] to justice?”, and Joel’s brutal murder invoked such a deep sadness and rumbling hatred in me. I wasn’t just hearing Ellie’s screams, I felt them and it shook me. I was ready to go to the ends of the Earth with Ellie because she was the vessel for my heartache, and I was determined to make the WLF pay. At first I accepted Ellie’s actions, my actions, but I could feel her drifting. It became increasingly harder to watch her inflict harm and I struggled to rationalise it as justified. They killed Joel and they revelled in it, so why was I flinching every time I was forced to press square to strike at Nora in the hospital?
The second half of The Last of Us Part II is probably the most controversial amongst players, but this is where the story truly shines even though initially I was not receptive to it. Abby infiltrates the theatre that Ellie and co have been using as their base of operations, kills Jesse and holds Tommy at gunpoint. The prospect of fighting Abby was dangled in front of me… and instead I play as her in a flashback similar to the ones with Ellie prior to this moment. Angry doesn’t even begin to describe it and for a second, I lost faith in the game. I expected to play only a short segment as Abby in some sort of cheap attempt to get me to have compassion for her. I begrudgingly played through this flashback scene but the more it progressed, the clearer the realisation that I was having became. The first game focuses on a father losing his daughter, the second revolves around a daughter losing her father.
The sheer number of parallels that I began to draw from this second act blew me away, the more apparent of which are those between Abby and Ellie. On both sides we have a love triangle of sorts, a pregnant party member, the death of a father, murdered friends and so much more. We play as Abby briefly at the beginning of the game, but her story truly begins after she kills Joel and we are able to witness how her journey plays out after she has enacted revenge for the death of her father. In Ellie’s case, her campaign is the build up to revenge and the progression of the cycle of violence. What really took me by surprise were the correlations between Abby and Joel.
As a playable character, Abby is very similar to how Joel played in the first game. Shivs reappearing was one of my biggest concerns after getting so used to the convenience of Ellie’s knife, but the ability to craft multiple at a time and to be able to upgrade how many you could carry was a welcome change. Although Ellie could handle herself in a fist fight, Abby is the one who can rely more so on brute strength, much like Joel. I felt more confident as Abby to go in guns blazing if stealth went awry and I was happy to be able to actually punch enemies again. Even Abby’s standard stealth kills resembled Joel’s and it often felt like a more refined version of his gameplay. Not only this, but Abby’s story is that of redemption after doing terrible acts. Mel describes Abby as the WLF’s “top Scar killer” and in spite of this, Abby becomes a protector to a couple of young Seraphites that saved her life. Travelling with a young companion who is trying to make sense of the world while on a personal journey to find themselves and thus creating a bond between the player and ally – it all sounds quite familiar.
I’ve heard a lot of negative comments surrounding Abby’s body, going so far as to claim that it’s not realistic even though she was modeled after the crossfit athlete, Colleen Fotsch. Setting aside the fragility of some people’s sexuality, there is a great amount of storytelling in just Abby’s appearance. In the flashbacks we see that she looked like a regular teenager but in the 4 years that she spent investigating leads on her father’s killer, she built her body into her greatest weapon out of a refusal to be hurt like that again. The changes that her body goes through right until the end of the game is a beautifully crafted narrative and her emaciated state will haunt me for a long time. In a similar vein, the layers on Ellie’s right arm tell parts of her story; the bite mark that revealed her immunity, the chemical burn to cover it up and the tattoo featuring the moth design that was on the guitar that Joel gifted her. Mindsets change to reflect experiences, and what better way to showcase this than to display it on their bodies.
The main issue that I had with the narrative was the pacing, which is a problem that many players have picked up on. In my case, I felt as though I was being thrown backwards and forwards a little too often, which created a jarring experience and sometimes cut the building tension short. In some ways this does demonstrate how Naughty Dog tried to open up the sense of exploration for a less linear experience, and this may be a result of initially looking to create an open world game. There were also criticisms about the length of the game, which are reasonable and I did find myself agreeing with them on some level as I felt as though some sections were dragging. In retrospect, I believe this was a deliberate choice.
The Last of Us Part II does not serve the player because it has a story to tell and this story is arduous and challenging. Never before have I played a game where it expected so much of me, because it actively works to make you feel uncomfortable and you have to push back to get through it. At the point where I thought I was at the end, I was dragged kicking and screaming back into the fray. I was tired and spent but I didn’t get a say because this game demands something from players, much like how Tommy does of Ellie. “You said you would make them pay” but at what cost?
Regardless of what is being said, I personally believe that the ending is so moving that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I finished the game. I thought that fighting Ellie while playing as Abby in the theatre was hard but nothing prepared me for the final fight. I didn’t recognise Abby at The Pillars and the futility of my pleading to Ellie began to set in. I was finished with this quest for revenge hours ago but Ellie wasn’t and she needed to muffle her demons. She needed to end this, but the strength that it took for her to instead let go of these emotions and choose to break the cycle of violence was overwhelming. I was drained by this point and that was mirrored in both Ellie and Abby. Haggard and broken.
On the surface this was a game about revenge and explores where this path will take you; it swallows people up whole and there are dire consequences to walking down a path that becomes harder and harder to turn away from. Abby did not gain anything from killing Joel and Ellie stood to lose the family that she and Dina had started, and yet they both went through with it anyway. The ending may not have been the conclusion that you were expecting, but when you go over the events again through a new lens you begin to see something new. Ellie is just as angry at herself as she is at Abby over Joel’s death, and this is because she knows that she should have forgiven him sooner but the chance to mend their relationship was taken away from her. Abby is still plagued by nightmares after having killed Joel and so we see glimpses of what is in store for Ellie if she doesn’t stop herself.
This is a game about empathy. There are no true villains because the characters cannot be so easily defined as good or evil, they are all simply human and trying to do what they think is right. When Ellie kills Owen and Mel, who was pregnant, we see Jesse and Dina in them. Jesse’s death was as shocking as Manny’s, even though the person on the other end of that rifle was Tommy. Even the Seraphites, despite seeing them hanging members of the WLF for being ‘sinners’, are humanised by characters like Yara and Lev and we even see the Seraphite children being transported away from the conflict raging in Haven. How can these groups of people be considered bad when all they are doing is trying to survive? What makes the Jackson group special? Is it just human nature to vilify ‘the other’?
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there are actions that have been taken by most of these characters, on all sides, that I struggle to forgive. I am a fan of Abby’s character development but I still wrestle with what she did because I know why she did it. Do I think that Joel deserved to die? No, but then I also don’t think that it’s a case of deserving or not. By having the final flashback between Joel and Ellie be one where they come together, after what is presumably years of not speaking, to make amends made things easier for me. The rift between him and Ellie was no longer weighing on him, and even in his final moments he was comforting Ellie. So Abby, I don’t know if I can forgive you but I’d like to try.