It Can’t Be For Nothing.

DISCLAIMER: The following editorial contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II. I will clearly mark the section where the spoiler talk begins, but if you’re avoiding spoilers for whatever reason: read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.

The Last of Us Part II is written and directed by Neil Druckmann and stars Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Shannon Woodward, Stephen A. Chang, and Jeffrey Pierce.

Before we get started, I’m going to automatically assume that you all have at least some understanding of what happens in the first game, specifically during the end. (If not, here is a condensed plot summary if you need a quick refresher.) For those not caught up on the basic premise of this game, let me bring you up to speed real quick.

Set five years after their journey across post-pandemic America, The Last of Us Part II finds Joel and Ellie having settled down among a community of survivors in Jackson, Wyoming. When a deeply traumatic and violent event strikes the community, Ellie finds herself hell-bent on a quest for revenge against those responsible. As she begins to hunt each individual down one by one, she is forced to face both the physical and psychological consequences of her actions as she embarks on her pursuit of vengeance.

After seven long years, The Last of Us Part II, arguably the most anticipated title on PS4 and one of the most anticipated video games of this generation, has finally arrived. Anyone who has ever talked video games with me knows that the original is my favorite game of all time, and, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of art to come out of the 21st century. Therefore, it’s safe to say that, after all this time, there’s a lot riding on this for me.

Now that it has finally arrived, I took the liberty of locking myself away from all social media and devoting 37+ (yes, you read that right) hours of my time to fully experiencing Joel and Ellie’s next chapter. While I’ve never used this platform to discuss or review things such as TV or video games (hell, I barely find the time to review movies these days), there are so many things I have to say about this game and its story that I simply felt compelled to talk about it here. A Twitter thread is just not gonna cut it this time.

That said, this is by no means a review of The Last of Us Part II. I won’t talk much about elements that don’t directly have to do with the story, such as the mechanics or the graphics, purely in the interest of maintaining as much of my own focus as possible. Furthermore, if you’ve been following this game’s journey to launch even a little bit, you probably know that it has been the epicenter of a lot of online controversy, given both the nature of Naughty Dog’s supposedly harsh work environment and the fact that the story’s big moments were leaked a handful of months before the game’s official release. Again, in the interest of maintaining focus on the questions at hand, I won’t be diving into these issues this time around, but I can offer a Kotaku article on how the leaks happened should you be interested.

All right, disclaimers have been disclaimed. No more dodging, we’re onto the big question.

Did I like The Last of Us Part II?

Well, the answer is unfortunately a little more complicated than just yes or no. In the four or so days since I’ve completed the game, I’ve done a lot of thinking on everything it has to offer, and I truthfully have never been more conflicted about any other piece of art in my lifetime. At many times, I loved it. I was blown away and felt as though I was truly playing a worthy sequel to the original game. At many other times, I hated it, but, in a way I can’t quite really embrace yet, I still respected it. Let me try to unpack that as best I can without spoilers.

I believe that one of the most important things to understand about Part II is that it is a completely different experience than not only its predecessor, but any game I’ve ever played. At its core, The Last of Us Part II is a relentless and gruesome exploration of violence, vengeance, and how the two are forever destined to be locked in a never-ending cycle. It is harrowing, heartbreaking, and largely devoid of joy on many fronts, and it will force you to reflect on the dualities of what makes a hero good, a villain evil, and what happens when both extremes are ultimately lost to desperation and obsession.

However, it’s the parts of the game that I hate that conflict me more than anything, and not just because this was a story that I wanted to love like I did the first game. It’s largely because of that fact that I know how much this story longs to be more than just a video game; it wants to take bold risks and transcend the current limits of what’s narratively possible within this medium. I truly admire and respect the lengths to which Naughty Dog has gone to fully drive home the story they want to tell, uncompromising in their vision. But at the end of the day, for better or worse, these lengths (including one major choice on the part of the storytellers) are ultimately ones that I don’t know if I myself can fully accept just yet.

It’s practically impossible to really break down what that means/what that major choice is without digging into heavy spoilers, so stick with me for a few more moments. In the meantime, to the best of my ability, here is my current overall verdict.

The Last of Us Part II is an incredibly ambitious and intricate examination of many elements of the human condition and seeks to defy the conventions of its genre in ways no game ever has before. But, with that, there are a number of points where the asking price of these narrative defiances was just too high for me to pay.

I respect the choices made by Naughty Dog in order to achieve their ambitions, and, as of now, I think I can say I at least “like” the game. I do not love it, and I unfortunately do not think it to be a masterpiece. This could change, either for better or for worse, on future replays or with more time and thought. But for now, that is where we stand.

There’s a decent chance I’ve left some of you slightly confused as to what I actually mean, and, thus, we have now come to the point in our discussion where I must issue a MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING. I’m about to discuss the plot(s) of The Last of Us and Part II in extreme detail and will be giving away some of the biggest moments in both games. If you have not finished either of these games and are still looking to do so, turn back right now. This is your final warning.

In the meantime, while we wait for people to clear out, here’s an incredible piece of concept art from the game

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Still here? Okay, let’s do this.

In some of the game’s opening moments, Joel visits Ellie, still settling into her new life. There’s clearly an uneasy tension in the air, given both Joel’s choice and Ellie’s skepticism of what really happened at the hospital in Utah. But, to break the ice, Joel keeps his promise and gives Ellie her first guitar. Before he does so, he sings her a section of Pearl Jam’s “Future Days,” which opens with these words:

If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.

Keep this in mind, it’ll be important later. Okay, moving on.

In the time leading up to the game’s release, many of us found ourselves wondering just what exactly it is that sets Ellie on her quest for revenge. In the early stages of the game’s development, many speculated that it was potentially Joel’s death, seeing as though his presence in the game’s marketing and gameplay was far less than Ellie’s. Perhaps it could’ve been Dina, Ellie’s girlfriend, whose potential death was alluded to very heavily in the September announce trailer. Maybe it was Tommy’s death or the destruction of her new home or anything! Who knows?

Well, it turns out we were right the first time. Let’s do a quick recap.

During the game’s introduction, as Ellie and Dina make their way through their patrol, the audience is simultaneously introduced to Abby, an unknown soldier for the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), camped outside of town with seven fellow soldiers. As we play as both Abby and Ellie, making our way through the respective sections of the Wyoming outskirts, we learn that Abby and co. are hunting someone. Someone they believe is among the community of survivors.

When Abby is separated from her group and attacked by a gigantic horde of infected, she is saved at the last minute by Tommy and Joel. In danger of being trapped and too far to turn back, Abby invites Joel and Tommy to stay with her group until they can ride out a blizzard and return to their community. The three return, and, after a handful of very tense silences, Abby suddenly blasts Joel in the legs with a shotgun, has her friends restrain Tommy, and begins to beat Joel with a golf club.

Having been made aware that Joel and Tommy are potentially missing, Ellie barrels into the wilderness in search of the two. When she finds the WLF hideout, she rushes into a rescue attempt, guns blazing, only to be beaten and restrained by the other WLF soldiers—just in time to see Abby deliver one final swing of the club, killing Joel right in front of her eyes.

I’m gonna level with you all: this was a tough one. Like many, I had spent an entire game (as well as many subsequent playthroughs over seven years) learning to care for and growing attached to Joel. Seeing him be served such a swift and cruel death in less than the first three hours of the game was an extremely difficult pill to swallow. I was hurt. I was shocked, but, above all else, the priorities for the rest of the game were seemingly clear: we’re going after the WLF, we want revenge for Joel, and, at the top of it all, we want to find and kill Abby, the game’s primary villain.

Or is she?

Halfway through the game, after Ellie has hunted the majority of Abby’s group, the two are locked in what seems to be a tense and climactic standoff. However, before so much as a shot is fired, the clock suddenly resets, and the player gets to now play through the previous three days again, only this time as Abby.

This section is meant to give the player a sense of perspective and show us what Abby’s life as a soldier is like back in Washington, as well as witness her eventual defection from the WLF in the midst of a war for control of Seattle. But, more importantly, we also get to see just why exactly she and her friends hunted down and killed Joel.

Abby’s vendetta against Joel essentially stems from the end of the first game, when Joel saved Ellie and stopped the production of the cure in the Firefly Hospital. Turns out, the main doctor that the player kills in the operating room (pictured below) is apparently the only person alive who could’ve reverse engineered a vaccine from Ellie’s mutation.

Oh yeah, and he’s also Abby’s father.

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Remember this guy?? Yeah, that’s him.

Using this motivation as a sort of fuel during the half of the game we spend playing as Abby, Naughty Dog is essentially trying to flip the script on us, and, in a way, “ultra-humanize” Abby, despite the fact that she is, in our perception up to that point, the game’s “villain.”

But, after I finished the game, I realized that Naughty Dog had unintentionally (or maybe intentionally, who knows) put their eggs all in one basket, hoping that it alone would succeed, whilst simultaneously having no more cards left to play afterwords. In order for the audience to understand the duality of Abby’s character alongside Ellie and all the thematic baggage that comes with it, people need to empathize with and/or like Abby at some point. If this character and her journey don’t resonate or stick the landing with the player, that’s it. From here on out, everything else the game does essentially crumbles under the weight of the now nonexistent foundation.

That’s essentially where my problem lies. Despite all of Naughty Dog’s best efforts and intentions, I just can’t see Abby in the way they want me to, and I cannot find any fulfillment in the rest of the story as a result.

Furthermore, this very phenomenon is why I can’t help but be disappointed and upset when Ellie, the only character left that I truly care about by the end of the game, is the only one who ends up with nothing. She’s lost Joel and she’s failed to kill Abby. Even in pursuing Abby one final time and subsequently letting her go (therein not letting the cycle of vengeance consume her), she loses Dina—her chance at a new life—and even two of her fingers on her left hand, meaning she can no longer play guitar (the only way she has left to remember Joel).

Even further than that, it’s at this point that we realize Joel and Ellie will never truly reconcile after Joel finally told Ellie the truth about what happened in the hospital. A glimpse of their possible reconciliation is alluded to in a flashback moments before the credits roll, but now there is truly no way for Ellie to reconcile with Joel, whether it be in person or even posthumously, through something like starting a new life and family with Dina.

That, for better or worse, is how the lyrics to “Future Days” tie together the thematics of the story’s major events. “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.” When Ellie loses Joel, the only person she ever cared for that, at that point, hadn’t either died or left her, she truly loses everything.

But, this very idea that “revenge is all-consuming” is also kind of contradicted in the end, as Abby, the one responsible for this, gets to walk away with her life, her freedom from the WLF, and some semblance of happiness. She got her revenge on Joel while Ellie chose not to get hers on Abby, instead letting her live. After all this, however, it was still Ellie who ended up with absolutely nothing in the end.

At a point, it really just seems like this ending is simply depressing and sad, entirely for the sake of being so. There’s no reason why Ellie, whose initial journey we were shown draws many parallels to Abby’s, should end up with nothing. At that point, not only do I have to watch a character that I truly care for lose everything, but I don’t even know why it’s happening in the first place. I can’t see the thematic purpose that an ending such as this would serve at all, other than just invoking unwanted feelings of sadness and melancholy.

I know that, like all the Sith Lords before me, I’m dealing in quite a lot of absolutes right now. There are other things within the story outside of just Abby and Ellie that I’m not even touching on. Also, truthfully? Abby’s motivation for killing Joel in the first place is incredibly reasonable. After all, Joel did a very bad thing (for the right reasons) in the first game and is no saint whatsoever.

But, these are my own personal thoughts, and it is from my own experience that I can say I am far too attached to Joel and Ellie from my experiences with and love of the first game to accept something this radically new just yet. Most of my issue ultimately stems down to me, but regardless, it’s still an issue.

I don’t hate The Last of Us Part II. In fact, I don’t even think that it’s a bad game. It’s very clearly a labor of love and hardwork on the part of Naughty Dog, and it is a painstakingly triumphant summation of the famed studio’s growth over their catalogue of games. The main problem I have with the game is that its story, no matter how intricate or thematically layered it may be (and, let’s face it, is), ultimately asks something of me that I just can’t bring myself to do. Consequently, it makes me personally feel like Joel and Ellie’s original journey, the emotional and tumultuous experience that helped me define who I am as a storyteller and a person, was for nothing. 

I hope with all my being that, maybe given more thought or more playthroughs or even just more time, I can see this in a different light. I truly and genuinely do. But, for now, like it or not, this is where I stand.

Endure and survive, everyone. I’ll see you back here soon.

 

This editorial and its content were edited by Kayla Randolph, Chief Editor at Reel Thoughts.

 

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