Like anything that is released in the age of the internet, people’s opinions on a piece of media can mostly be boiled down to one issue. It won’t come as a surprise that one of the issues that some have taken against is the death of Joel. In many ways, Joel was the protagonist of the first Last of Us game. We saw the world through his eyes. But it was not his story, it was Ellie’s. Her immunity to ‘the virus’ started them on the journey across the country, and concluded the game after Joel decides to save Ellie’s life over letting her die to find a potential vaccine that is locked in her body. The first game had an ambiguous ending and one that a lot of fans took to mean that a sequel was not a sure thing. This allowed the audience to live with these characters as we knew them, frozen in time.
Yet, it came as no surprise, due to the success of the first game, that Naughty Dog, the developer of the game, were going to make a sequel.
Joel, a character we have grown to know and love, is killed within the first two hours of the game. This sent shockwaves through the fandom, to the point where, Neil Druckman, the director of The Last of Us Part 2, received death threats (too far internet). It is surprising that people have reacted so strongly to this choice. The world of the game is unrelenting and unfair, loved ones will die in this world; that is inevitability. The creative team explicitly signalled to the audience that this isn’t the same game as the Last of Us by killing Joel. Ellie, who we now follow and play as, is no longer the same women she was in the first game. She has been shaped by trauma, and now her father figure is dead.
We’re introduced to, and play as, Abby, Joels killer, early in the game. (In hindsight, this should have given the audience a glimpse of what is to come.) Joel is murdered in front of Ellie, which sets her on a revenge path. She’s joined by her Girlfriend, Dina, as they set across the country to hunt Abby down.
The next 10 hours of the game largely follows a traditional adventure game. This isn’t to be reductive; the game has fantastic third-person stealth and combat sections. Combat has been elevated from the introduction of shambles and runners that can work in packs and are smarter than your average clicker, to smarter humans that hunt you down more realistically than the first game. The world is more realised than ever, with terrifying pitch-perfect horror. We follow Ellie and Dina over three days, on their adventure across Seattle, as they face off against the Wolfs, the resistance group that Abby is a part of. These sections are often brutal with NPCs screaming in pain, begging for their life, mourning the loss of their comrades, and gargling blood as they are ripped apart by the assortment of weapons Ellie has access to. During combat, it’s advantageous to stay hidden and pick off enemies one by one, but ultimately there will come a time when Ellie gets caught forcing the conflict into a head-on battle. The environments that you fight are well designed and give a sense of freedom, allowing Ellie to find new places to hide.
Throughout the first 10 hours, Ellie is hunting down Abby’s friends one by one, to find Abby and reap revenge. The lengths Ellie will go to get this revenge are brutal from beating characters that are already infected, to strangling them. This all comes to a head when Ellie murders a late-stage pregnant woman. Ellie has gone too far on her quest, and now she knows it.
We’re then confronted by Abby. She kills Jesse, the father of Maria’s unborn child (which revealed to us while all the carnage of Ellie’s rampage is happening). She also almost kills Tommy, Joel’s brother. But before we can see the climactic fight between Ellie and Abby, we’re taken three days into the past. We now play the events of the last three days in Seattle from the perspective of Abby.
To be playing as the antagonist of the story is a bold choice, but one that largely pays off. It’s revealed to the player that Abby is the daughter of the doctor Joel killed to save Ellie. From then on, we as an audience, are challenged about our perception and assumptions of both Ellie and Abby. Both protagonists have similar backstories aided by the flashbacks that are scattered throughout the game. We explore Abby’s issues as she navigates a world without her father and her inability to emotionally connect with the people around her. Ellie pushes Joel away because of the actions he took at the end of the first game. We, as an audience, are asked to consider who our alliances are with, and gives compelling arguments for both characters. Over Abby’s arc she befriends Lev and his sister–young people who are part of the religious cult the Seraphites and enemies of the Wolfs. She starts to open up and is sympathetic towards them and see the people behind the fight she’s been in, making her question her allegiances.
What makes The Last of Us 2 so powerful is it allows you to see both characters viewpoints from their perspectives. The player is controlling both Abby and Ellie and making decisions that are in the best interest of the character whose point of view the player is currently inhabiting. Throughout Abby’s campaign, which lasts a further 10 hours, we see her conquer fears, lose friends at the hands of Ellie, and disown the wolves as her empathy starts to grow towards Lev.
When we finally catch up to where we left Ellie’s story, there is now an irreconcilable conflict inside the player; who is the real villain and who is the hero? Can we, as an audience, make that decision? Of course, the game has to continue, and we fight Ellie as Abby. It’s only when Lev stops Abby from killing Dina, who has come to Ellie’s rescue, that she realises how much she’s lost. She leaves Ellie alive. Their journeys reflect each other.
The game flash-forwards to Ellie, Dina, and her baby living–what looks like– an idylic life on a farm. Yet, when Tommy stops by to say that Abby has been found, Ellie decides to go in pursuit of Abby again. Maria makes it known that she is not going to follow her on this destructive path. Unbeknownst to Ellie, Abby and Lev were captured by an abusive cult, and when they finally reunite, Abby and Lev are shadows of their former selves. The final fight between Abby and Ellie is not a fair one. It echos the fight between them earlier. Before Ellie takes Abby’s life, she decides to let them leave, they have, after all, been through enough. When Ellie makes it back to the barn, with two fingers missing from where Abby bit them off, she’s alone. Maria and the baby have gone, and she can no longer play the guitar, something that was taught to her by Joel.
Both character’s pursuit for revenge ultimately leads them to a path of greater hurt. Yet Abby grows as a character and Ellie regresses. What happens to Abby and Lev in the third act is not a direct result of their actions, whereas Ellie’s endpoint is. Both situations are equally as emotionally traumatic.
It’s slowly revealed throughout the game that Ellie was mad at Joel, her life emotionally ended when he decided to pull her out of the hospital, and now she feels worthless. She risked both her and her friends lives, and justified killing the many people who got in her way, through her guilt. She never got to forgive Joel, and now, through her crusade, she has lost her chance at a happy ending despite the lack of resolution with her father.
Throughout the game, the writers pose the question, who are the bigger monsters; the infected or the humans? The infected work on instinct, the human characters do not and are cruel, calculating, and incomprehensible. The human race has lost so much to the virus, that much is apparent, and the world of the Last of Us 2 pushes the population to do bad stuff, but that does not excuse their actions. Most of the time, it’s just bad people doing bad things.
The game pushes the audience’s emotions and throws the payer into emotional turmoil. This is a controversial decision, but what shouldn’t be controversial is the depiction of LGBTQ+ and sexuality. Throughout the game, we are shown depictions of a same-sex couple. The relationship between Ellie and Dina is portrayed as normal. Maria is bisexual and has relationships with both men and women. Lev is also a trans boy. This type of representation is refreshing to see in a medium which is mostly heteronormative. And when there is a relationship between man and woman, it’s on equal billing (side note: Abby’s sex scene is the most accurate and tasteful depiction of a sexual act in a game I’ve ever seen). How Naughty Dog and Playstation has represented the spectrum of humanity in this game is commendable, and is great to see from the company who, in the past, have had pitfalls.
The Last of Us: Part II pushes narrative games forward. In my title, I alluded to this game being the best walking simulator ever made, and I stand by it. Walking simulators often do character development well, and The Last of Us 2 delivers that in spades. Not only did it make me feel sympathy for a character that, at the start of the game, I saw kill a character I liked, but it made me question the actions of Ellie and her crusade for revenge. It’s a plot structure that could only work successfully in a game, one where you are the player, guiding these characters. There were many points within the The Last of Us 2 that I simply didn’t want to do what I was doing, but I did them anyway. A good example of this is both fights between Ellie and Abby, both times felt uncomfortable. This is not a flattering game, no character comes out of this looking better than the other. As a game, there are the staples of 3rd person adventure games with amazing set pieces, great combat, and moments that left me thrilled and horrified, which are all executed well. But it’s the acting and performances that bring the game to life, especially from Ashley Johnson, Shanon Woodward and Laura Bailey who played Ellie, Dina and Abby respectively. Their performances are truly worthy of an Oscar (if that was possible). The script is tight and well written and should be the envy of Films and TV alike. The Last of Us Part II wouldn’t have worked without empathy, and empathy is not something that can be conjured from nowhere, it comes from the unique relationship that Script, Performance, and gameplay that Naughty Dog have honed over the lifetime of the game studios history.
After Ellie and Abby’s final fight, Abby and Lev sail away from their horrific time in captivity, their fate is left ambiguous, like Ellie and Joel fate at the end of the first game. Ellie, makes her way back to the farm and finds the house empty, Dina has left. Ellie, picks up a guitar–her last connection with Joel–but can’t play as her fingers were bitten off by Abby in their final confrontation. She puts down the guitar and sets off, alone, on a new journey. Throughout the credits and for some time after, I cried. I could chalk it up to the game being so emotionally brutal, but mostly, I was crying at the loss of humanity in the main characters. How Abby and Lev have to live with the cruelty they had faced. How Ellie was left with no way to make amends with Joel after his death, yet her crusade made things worse, and she is now alone. The Last of Us: Part II does not only scar the characters in-game, but it scars the player. There are no happy endings. I mourn for Abby, Lev, and Ellie because, for them, living is painful now.