The Self-Indulgence of The Last of Us Part II
“If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” — Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
Let me be clear about one thing. In terms of gameplay, The Last of Us Part II is probably the best game that I’ve ever played. The game is set five years after the events of its predecessor, The Last of Us, in a world that has succumbed to a mutation in the cordyceps virus that allows the fungus to take control of the humans it infects. The Last of Us’s protagonist, Joel, was tasked with bringing the game’s secondary protagonist, Ellie, to a hospital in Utah managed by a militia group known as the Fireflies — where they hoped to study what made Ellie immune to the virus and reverse-engineer a vaccine. The game ends, however, with Joel snatching Ellie away from the hospital upon learning that there was no way to synthesize the vaccine without killing her. This sequel opens with them both settled at a survivor camp in Jackson County, Wyoming, managed by Maria, the wife of Joel’s brother Tommy. They’re making the most of a world without a cure before catastrophe strikes and upends their lives once more.
The change in protagonist from Joel to Ellie feels emblematic of the new realm of possibilities that’ve opened up to make the player’s journey more realistic. Though the game sticks to scarce resources and vicious enemies, it improves upon them, and introduces new mechanics that would likely be taken for granted in other games. Oftentimes, the option to go prone or squeeze through tight areas makes Ellie an even deadlier predator than Joel was, helping the player dispatch enemies or slip through areas undetected. Yet, this hardly covers the weapons the player has at their disposal including Ellie’s trusty switchblade (which makes crafting shivs obsolete) and a revamped bow and arrow (which now has a reticle instead of projecting where a shot will land). That I’ve replayed The Last of Us Part II as many times as I have in the months since its release last June cemented it as my personal game of the year. In fact, its release further highlighted the disappointment of Cyberpunk 2077’s launch because I hadn’t thought that the pure fluidity of movement at the player’s disposal throughout Ellie’s journey could work so smoothly on the same PS4 that I bought in 2014. Each successive playthrough saw me experimenting with Ellie’s abilities, ranging from aggressive approaches to completely quiet ones. However, the most consistent thing I did in each replay of the game was skip over its cutscenes. This highlighted a major issue that detracted from the overall playing experience: the story.
When the game was first announced, its director, Neil Druckmann, stated: “If the first game was really about the love between these two characters, this story is the counter of that. This…story is about hate.” As the trailers began to rollout, previewing the brutality that Ellie brought to the table, Druckmann appeared true to his word. In 2018’s E3 demo, the transition from Ellie kissing her love interest (a new character named Dina) to her killing a stranger in a foreign and estranged setting gave a strong impression of what sets her on her path for revenge. This was affirmed by an extended commercial which starts with Ellie distraught as she witnesses someone else presumably shot dead. It ends with Joel joining her on what seemed to be a solitary quest to avenge them.
With that in mind, I thought I had an idea of where the game’s story was headed: Ellie, after having to witness Dina get killed by invaders, would embark on a quest to avenge her death. And her determination to do so would likely build upon the tension between her and Joel that was teased in the game’s trailers — possibly due to the revelation that he lied to her about what happened to the Fireflies at the end of the first game. Only this wasn’t the case. Instead, it’s Joel’s death that sets the story in motion after he’s ambushed and killed by a group of former Fireflies led by a woman named Abby. Surprisingly, I wasn’t dramatically upset by the narrative decision to kill him. Of course, I was disappointed that the time I had hoped to spend with him in the present day was suddenly cut short. But seeing him in flashbacks and having Ellie explore Seattle with Dina injected a genuine sense of joy in a very dark journey.
My favorite moment happens as they explore Downtown Seattle looking for gas to bypass a checkpoint and come across a music store. There, Ellie strums “Take On Me” on a guitar she finds with Dina looking up at her, bright-eyed and beaming. It was one of many moments that reassured me that Ellie hadn’t changed much in the five years that’d passed since the events of the first game. And though I could see how scintillating revenge might’ve been to Ellie at first, these same moments assured me that the price of vengeance was not one she was willing to pay — certainly not after finding comfort raising a child with Dina after returning from Seattle. Thus, despite making a game that is so clearly centered on hate, Naughty Dog succeeded in showing how it can also leave you hollow. But, rather than conveying this message organically, the game’s jagged narrative structure made it feel more like I was being preached to instead of hearing anything remotely profound.
In a post-release interview with EuroGamer, Druckmann shifted gears when talking about the game’s intentions, stating:
We [said] it’s a game about hate, but that’s not true. It’s a game about empathy. It’s a game about forgiveness. The whole thing was constructed in such a way as to say, in the beginning of the game, we’re going to make you feel such intense hate that you can’t wait to find these people and make them pay…I believe that under the right circumstances, normal human beings are capable of that. So the exploration with this game is, like, how can we start with that state and then make you reflect on it? And then maybe, maybe…if something happens in the world outside of the game, there’s some of that is left over so you at least pause and say, OK, what is it like to be in this other perspective?”
With this in mind, what one might recognize in retrospect is how far Naughty Dog went to exacerbate the player’s feelings about Joel’s death in order to villainize Abby. For one thing there’s the trailers that led up to the game’s release. During Ellie’s second day in Seattle, the player might recall a scene from an earlier trailer which shows Joel arriving to help Ellie on her quest. Except, in the actual game, it is revealed to be Jesse, one of Ellie’s allies from Jackson, who comes to her assist. Even now, the trailer frustrates me because it’s one of many examples of Naughty Dog lying to consumers about the extent to which Joel would be in the game. It’s not unreasonable that they would tweak the game’s trailers to suggest that Dina’s death would be the inciting incident. I’d actually argue that Joel’s minimal inclusion in the promotional materials was executed well enough to get away with his early death. When juxtaposed with the vague imagery that suggested that Dina would die, I’d say that the main story was substantial enough to fill the gaps the teasers left to set the record straight. In light of that, the real problem lies in the extent to which this editing was done in these trailers. Because in later trailers not only was Joel edited into scenes that took place after he died, but there were scenes where Ellie’s character model in the present day was inserted into flashbacks that took place years earlier.
But, as if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the most infuriating moment of the game’s story comes a bit later: Ellie, failing to find Abby in her three days in Seattle, is preparing to return to Jackson with her allies. Suddenly, Abby breaches their hideout and proceeds to kill Jesse while holding Tommy at gunpoint. And just as it seems that the player will finally have the confrontation that they spent three days waiting for, the screen cuts to black and opens years earlier from Abby’s perspective. It’s there that the player learns that the Firefly surgeon who Joel killed to rescue Ellie was actually Abby’s father; and that in the years in between the events of the first game and the second, she was looking to settle the score with Joel. However, it’s hard to watch that sequence of events and not feel like you’re being preached to.
Naughty Dog positing Abby as a villain for the first half of the game, only to make the player experience her life story to make the player empathize with her is a contrived decision. There hasn’t been a gamer I’ve seen yet that didn’t audibly groan when they were thrown into Abby’s point-of-view. In doing so, the story effectively harps on the player by showing why thoughtlessly pursuing the cycle of violence is bad. It doesn’t feel as though the game is trying to show the player that its cast of characters are multifaceted human beings as much as it feels like it’s guilting the player for not taking a moment to think about why Abby did what she did. And all of this is done knowing that there’s a solid chance that Ellie wouldn’t have given a damn anyway.
If The Last of Us taught us anything about the world that Naughty Dog built, it’s that death is unprejudiced. In fact, more often than not, it is the norm as the survivors of the cordyceps virus must contend with the depravities of the living and the infected. Missions are upended in seconds. Faulty infrastructure can leave someone vulnerable to attack even faster. You can be shot dead in the street because someone else wants supplies that they’re not even sure you have. And if nothing else, the survivors of this outbreak have time. Time to even odds and seek vengeance for those who’ve wronged them in the past. Really, it’s a blessing that it took as long as it did for Joel to run out of luck. Because as many feathers as he ruffled in the year that it took him to get Ellie from Seattle to Utah, there were surely plenty more that he wronged in the twenty-year-gap between the prologue and the main events of the first game.
[The game] did well to reflect the nature of their world by showing that it isn’t a place that indulges happy endings. Instead, the characters do what they need to do to sleep at night and figure out how to live with the consequences if they wake up the next day.
The fact is that though the player might be inclined to like Joel, he is not a good person. His smuggling partner Tess, from the first game, confirms as much just moments before her death. But if it wasn’t clear then, it was obvious when he chose to attack the Fireflies to “save” Ellie’s life. Considering his decision to forsake the potential cure for mankind because it’d mean sacrificing his surrogate daughter is not a conventionally “good” decision. But we also know that in a world like theirs, there is no such room for good and bad binaries. One could just as easily argue that it was foolish for the Fireflies to move Ellie straight to surgery without giving Joel a real chance to say goodbye or waiting for Ellie to voice her consent to develop the vaccine at the cost of her life. But after living through twenty years of hell, the player could understand why the Fireflies wouldn’t hesitate to act when the opportunity for salvation presented itself. Both of these perspectives are lent their credence because of the time the player has spent in the world, but that depth is denied to the characters of The Last of Us Part II because of how and when the narrative chooses to let the player know about the lives of the characters throughout the game.
Part of the beauty of The Last of Us’ ending was that the player was likely torn between their understanding of why Joel does what he does and the knowledge that what he did was unspeakably selfish. The world that Naughty Dog made and the story that they articulated throughout it did well to establish both sides of the conflict. They didn’t dictate to the player whether they should agree with his actions but instead rationalized why what happened happened. It did well to reflect the nature of their world by showing that it isn’t a place that indulges happy endings. Instead, the characters do what they need to do to sleep at night and figure out how to live with the consequences if they wake up the next day. I won’t act like the empathy play didn’t have potential. In fact, had we known what happened to Abby from the start, it would’ve been much more interesting to deal with the ethical implications of Ellie’s mission. That way, the narrative could play out in a more natural way that would stress the shortcomings of pursuing revenge.
The theme of this game, however, is so insistent upon itself that it leaves the player with little room to form their own opinions about the characters’ decisions; and certainly not enough room to feel like their opinions actually matter by its conclusion. It weakens the game’s ambiguous ending because it’s one of the few major moments where it doesn’t feel like the writers are being backseat drivers. Even if the player happens to notice Dina’s bracelet on Ellie’s wrist in the epilogue, it’s likely they won’t find a concrete ending. Instead, they’ll return to Ellie and Dina’s farm to find it as hollow as the aftermath that they suggest would’ve come had Ellie actually taken Abby’s life. It simply feels ironic that, after establishing a world whose characters were morally gray in the first entry, they would push the player to assign moral values to the characters in the sequel. And all of this only to turn back around and explain why we shouldn’t have bought into them. It’s a pretentious point and a redundant one; one that obstructs the player from forming their own opinions on the story.
“Don’t you want to be better than this,” the game asks the player as Ellie chokes out Abby, seemingly forgetting that at every point where the player might attempt to ease up on the violence the game prompts them to dish out…they aren’t given any substantial alternatives. There were often times where I walked away from enemies who begged me to spare their lives, only for them to shoot me while my back was turned. By structuring the game this way, the writers failed to account for the players who wished that they could actually spare their enemies just as it fails to account for the player who spends the game wondering what Joel did to warrant being killed by Abby. But the game’s most egregious sin is its failure to account for the world they built, which was one that went out of its way to stress that its characters were not so easily constrained to our conventional perspectives of good and evil. In biasing players against Abby from the start, the player isn’t really invited to engage in any thoughtful consideration on whether they agreed with the characters’ decisions as much as they are told to sit down and listen to why revenge is bad.
Honestly, the questions that the game raises are better left to a decision-based game like The Walking Dead, or perhaps something along the lines of Quantum Dream’s Heavy Rain. That kind of approach certainly would’ve provided the player with more authority to dictate how their feelings about Joel’s death would carry them through the game. But currently, it feels as though Joel’s death was wasted for the sake of Naughty Dog lecturing their fanbase about how they should manage their feelings in the wake of valid criticisms about the game’s rollout and execution. Abby was perfectly justified to seek vengeance against Joel for killing her father. But learning her backstory didn’t mean that I had to ease up when I got the chance to return the favor. In fact, it feels absurd that they would even suggest that after having Abby kill Jesse, maim Tommy, and nearly slit Dina’s throat. At the end of the day, morality be damned. The writers shouldn’t have tried to make the player feel guilty for their actions. Especially not when the player isn’t given a path to walk save for the one that’s carved out for them. But their commitment to doing so will ensure that The Last of Us Part II will live in the shadow of its predecessor, even when all the pieces were on the board to make it superior.