The Last of Us Part II is a Loud Experience of Quiet Reflections
This article spoils The Last of Us Part II. Reading is advised only if you have completed the game or do not intend to play it.
When The Last of Us Part II was announced in December of 2016, I watched Ellie and Joel’s return with unmatched excitement. The original had been one of my favorite video game experiences for a while, becoming a game that transformed my interest in the interactive space from hobbyism to dedication; I knew I had to work in this industry. But as the initial buzz of that live showing at PSX passed and I watched it a second time, I realized something I wasn’t entirely aware of. Shedding uncontrollable tears watching Ellie play that guitar again, and hearing Joel’s voice, I realized that I cared about these characters. They were not just wonderfully written fictional people brought to life by performers Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, they were real people. People I hadn’t seen in years. It felt good being able to say hi again, even for those very brief four minutes. For some time to come, Naughty Dog would continue to grace us with the opportunity to catch up with these characters, and it became rather clear that I had never been so delighted to return to a fictional world. June 19th of 2020 was to be the day. But when I finally got my hands on my most anticipated game of all time, I had an unusual reaction throughout its roughly 25-hour runtime. I had nothing to say. I was thoughtless. Years of waiting had passed, the sequel’s credits now dominating the screen and indicating the end of it all. It had left me in utter, complete silence.
I flipped through Ellie’s journal as much as I could in The Last of Us Part II. Besides giving commentary on significant events, she also writes some of her own lyrics in them. It was on her first day in Seattle that I found the following lines: “All I have is our last conversation, / Looping like a chord progression, / Harmonies in blood”. That final exchange, where Ellie takes the first steps towards repairing a broken relationship, was all I could think about even long after completing the game. When I finally started making sense of that ending, of Ellie leaving behind all that connects her to the people she loves as she walks away, I felt that Ellie was leaving me behind too. In many ways, it felt like Ellie had arrived where we found Joel in Boston: broken, and actively running from all that made him human. Ellie’s response to losing everything felt similar to Joel losing Sarah. There is no other choice but to run from it. To never entertain the memory of Joel on his porch ever again.
Such an interpretation, however, fails to acknowledge that running has been Ellie’s go-to response for the entirety of the game. The idea that stuck in my mind after reflecting on the game is that revenge is an illusion of justice, and ultimately, a distraction. When Tommy asks Ellie whether Abby getting to live is okay, moments before Abby infiltrates the theater, Ellie’s answer is complicated. “It has to be”, she says. Not yes, not no. It has to be. In a similar vein, when musing about whether Ellie’s fate is a positive or even happy one, I’ve learned to lean towards that very same answer. A simple yes would erase the pain that Ellie carries. A strong no nullifies the significance of Ellie’s decision to let Abby go. This lies at the heart of The Last of Us as a franchise. It asks more than it answers. But that in itself is complicated, because Part II is an incredibly loud experience. It appears to be a game that doesn’t leave much room for consideration, yet I would argue that it is exactly that loudness that creates a space for quiet reflection. The silence that resulted from my time with it came, in part, from that noise. And it is in that space that The Last of Us Part II does something that many triple A games make a point to avoid: it makes everything overwhelming.
The ending to Ellie’s story is noisy and messy. It comes directly after a frustrating battle between two women who either are or have been consumed by revenge. Controlling the former means you, as a player who likely stopped caring about revenge long ago or never even cared in the first place, are actively overwhelmed by Ellie’s obsession. That pivotal moment carries through to her return to the empty farmhouse. That noise remains. A shot of Ellie’s left hand, now missing a couple fingers, is an immediate reminder of it. It follows her all the way into the house, until Ellie picks up the guitar. Literal noise fills the space as the notes she attempts to play fall flat. At the same time, this moment, and the flashback that follows, is the game at its quietest. It is a soft yet conflict-ridden scene that ultimately serves as the backbone of the entire narrative. It is one of the only scenes in the game that I had a visible response to in my first playthrough, and I think I finally know why: it is the single most true scene to Ellie and Joel’s relationship across the entire franchise. It reiterates what Ellie tells Tommy in the theater, now answering the question whether her love for Joel can ever win from the guilt, pain and suffering she endures as a survivor. It has to. Not yes, not no. It has to. Ellie is not quite what Joel was in Boston. Nor is she on her way to what she used to be in her early days of living in Jackson, but she has to be. The path ahead is complicated.
The Last of Us Part II is an overwhelming game. I don’t blame people who feel its loudness and its obsession with honestly portraying violence only further exemplifies how triple A gaming is riddled with verbs that favor noise over silence. But for me, someone who only realized how much they truly cared about this series after the sequel was announced, I came out of this title fulfilled. I emerged at the other end confident that what I had played was not only a faithful continuation of these characters’ story, but that The Last of Us as a franchise is and always has been about love over hate. About silence over noise. In many ways, this sequel takes both returning and new characters to honest places, Abby and Lev being the ones that perhaps most effectively represent the identity of this franchise. But what I respect this title for most is being a triple A game that wants so desperately to be more.
The Last of Us Part II relies, above else, on the experience of empathy. This doesn’t mean that one of the game’s prominent twists, that of putting you in the shoes of the person responsible for Joel’s death, is designed to make you feel empathy. To the contrary; the nature of such a risky narrative choice leaves many players incapable of true empathy, of true connection with Abby as a person that inhabits that world. It is the experience of empathy, of watching Owen exhausted from the relentless war between the WLF and the Seraphites and choosing to be happy, wanting nothing more but for his friends to allow themselves the same fate. It is the experience of seeing Abby choose to be a better person by giving Yara and Lev, sworn enemies by nature of their affiliations, a fighting chance. A chance to survive. A chance to be happy. You may not come out the other end sympathetic towards Abby with the gravity of her actions looming over your perception of the narrative, but at the very least, this game, this big budget triple A game of unprecedented scale in the studio’s history, was able to make you experience the complex human nature of the people in the world of The Last of Us. It is bigger than the characters we know, and the characters we meet in the sequel. But at the same time, it feels so incredibly small and quiet. Would that have been possible without the noise?
You could argue it would, as plenty people have, but I would be lying if I said that I think of the triple A gaming space the same way after The Last of Us Part II. Ellie’s story, as well as that of Joel, Abby, Lev and Owen, have been lingering in my mind, so loud that it continues to push even the very idea of other games out. But I can’t quite say the experience has been louder than the reflection has been quiet. Once again, The Last of Us has always asked more than it answered, but while Part II adds to that meaningfully, I do hope that Naughty Dog considers a Part III only if it answers the question “can triple A be more” with something stronger than “it has to be”. As with Ellie, the path ahead requires more than that.