The following article features story spoilers for the entirety of both The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part II. Do not read the article before you finish both games.
In 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us — my favorite video game ever made — was released exclusively on PlayStation 3 (it was later remastered on PlayStation 4) to near-universal praise and numerous accolades. On the surface-level, this was a survival horror game in the zombie sub-genre. But it was also so much more than that. It was a story about love and rediscovering something to fight for. Gamers primarily played as Joel Miller (Troy Baker), a smuggler without scruples, who was tasked with transporting a young girl, Ellie (Ashley Johnson), across the United States for the purpose of crafting a vaccine to the fungal virus that had turned infected humans into ruthless barely-human creatures without rational thought.
But, as you would know if you finished that video game masterpiece, Joel, whose daughter was killed by the military during the outbreak, eventually became so attached to Ellie — his surrogate daughter — that he went on a killing-spree inside of a hospital, which he had escorted Ellie to, for the purpose of saving her. Because, as Joel learned, a vaccine could not be made without it causing the death of his surrogate daughter. In one of The Last of Us’ many masterful moments, the first game ends as Joel lies to Ellie about what happened at the hospital. It was left up to our own imagination whether or not Ellie believed Joel’s explanation, at least, until the 2020 sequel was released last week, on June 19th, 2020.
The Last of Us: Part II has been met with critical acclaim from professional culture critics, but some ‘fans’ have already attempted to mar its legacy by review-bombing the game (i.e. spamming review aggregators with negative user reviews for the purpose of influencing the legacy and estimation of a piece of content) on Metacritic. The upset vocal minority appear to be especially angry with the first act twist that was leaked onto the internet back in April, as well as the inclusion of several LGBTQ+ characters. Since then, internet trolls have attempted to spoil the story for true fans of the game.
Naughty Dog was, naturally, upset about the leaks and the controversy, but they insisted that the story decisions would make sense with the proper context. The vocal minority that has chosen to review-bomb the game has also, clearly, not finished the game — or maybe even played it at all — since the negative user reviews were piled onto Metacritic upon the game’s release, even though the game takes approximately twenty-to-twenty-five hours to complete.
With all of this having been said, with the controversy out of the way, I can say that I believe The Last of Us: Part II is not just a worthy successor to The Last of Us, which, again, is my favorite game of all-time, but also possibly the most impressive and bold story-driven video game sequel ever made. The story is rich, the characters are complex, the gameplay is improved, and the acting is first-rate. I have grown up with Naughty Dog games, and, as a gamer, I have witnessed their growth. The Last of Us: Part II is their most ambitious and most mature game ever, and it challenges both the gamer and the industry as a whole. Naughty Dog, once again, has proven that they master storytelling in a way almost no other video game developers do. In this spoiler-filled article, I want to present you with my experience with and interpretation, or reading, of the story of The Last of Us: Part II. Hopefully, these thoughts can help others gain a deeper appreciation for the game, but, even if they cannot, I want to dedicate an article to the bold, sad, and risky, but, ultimately, rich story that writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have told with The Last of Us: Part II.
A Cycle of Violence — If I Ever Were to Lose You, I’d Surely Lose Myself
Last warning, from here on out the story of The Last of Us: Part II will be discussed in-depth.
The original The Last of Us-game is arguably the greatest story-driven and cinematic video game ever made. It delivered a gut-punch in the game’s first hour, with the death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. Joel, the protagonist of the game, was a wronged man angry with the world and everyone in it. Over the course of the game, however, Joel bonded with Ellie and discovered a reason to fight for a better life. The game made you genuinely care about both Joel and Ellie, and the game’s ending, though ambiguous, was a note-perfect conclusion to Naughty Dog’s first post-apocalyptic masterpiece. The Last of Us: Left Behind, a story-driven downloadable expansion pack released in 2014, gave us a deeper understanding of Ellie’s childhood, and it also gave you the opportunity to play a ‘new’ chapter detailing how Ellie helped Joel to survive from the nasty, life-threatening injury that he suffered in the original game’s chapter about the events at the University of Eastern Colorado.
The Last of Us was a masterpiece, and Left Behind was a great way to give fans a little bit more story-content with the Ellie-character. Though I, eventually, was very excited to learn that they were making a sequel to The Last of Us, I have to say that the original game didn’t need a sequel. The ambiguous ending was perfect, and it was a risky decision to mess with that ending in any way, shape, or form. But I trusted that Naughty Dog had a story that they really wanted to tell. In short, here is my understanding of the game: if The Last of Us was about rediscovering love, then The Last of Us: Part II is about being consumed by hate and struggling to break a cycle of violence.
The Last of Us: Part II takes place four-to-five years after the events of the first game. In the opening chapter of the game, Joel informs Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce), his brother, about what he did to the Fireflies at the end of the first game, which is a piece of information that Tommy promises to keep to himself forever. It is not made immediately apparent whether or not Ellie knows that Joel made the decision for her, at the end of the first game, and, for most of the game, we are kept in the dark. However, it is made clear that their relationship is rocky and that Joel’s attempt to defend his surrogate daughter was met with anger by Ellie publicly in Jackson, the town that Tommy runs and has invited Joel and Ellie to be a part of. This is a thriving community, and, although there is a notable bigot, most of the individuals that we are introduced to seem kind. This is where we first meet Jesse (Stephen Chang), a welcoming patrolman and good friend to Ellie, and Dina (Shannon Woodward), Jesse’s ex-girlfriend who, it appears, has recently kissed Ellie publicly. Her friends advise Ellie to reconcile with Joel, and Dina clearly has feelings for her. Dina and Ellie soon act on their feelings while sheltered on patrol.
Elsewhere, Joel and Tommy save Abby (Laura Bailey), a stranger in need of serious assistance, from a horde of infected and hide in a nearby outpost, which is populated by Abby’s friends. Though the game has, at this point, previously hinted at the fact that Abby is there to find Joel, it is made painfully clear when her group all take notice when Joel tells them his name. Abby is there to kill Joel slowly. Ellie, who goes to look for Tommy and Joel when they don’t return from their patrol, tries to prevent Abby and her group from completing their cruel mission, but she is unsuccessful, and, instead, she is forced to witness Joel Miller’s painful death, and, as the gamer, so are you. In the game’s inciting incident, the developers force you to witness this traumatic event that makes Ellie promise to kill every member of Abby’s group. When Ellie cries, you cry. When she is angry, you are angry. When she insists on going to get revenge, you are right there with her. This inciting incident isn’t ‘a call to adventure’ but instead a call for retaliation.
“Everyone I have cared for has either died, or left me. Everyone—fucking except for you! So don’t tell me I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is, I would just be more scared.” — Ellie to Joel in 2013’s ‘The Last of Us.’
Like Ellie, you feel that you have been cheated out of time with a man you have grown attached to. Like, Ellie, you wish they had had more time to become as close as they once were. As a huge fan of the first game, this is a moment that shocked me, made me tremble, cry, and wrathful, but the overwhelming feeling in the next scenes was sadness. No game has ever made me feel as much as The Last of Us: Part II. In one of the game’s most touching scenes, you see Ellie by Joel’s gravestone, and, a couple of minutes later, in perhaps the most relatable scene in the game, you see her pull his old jacket to her face to be closer to him, to find a smell or a feeling that could make her feel whole again, or, perhaps, to find comfort in knowing that some last part of him still exists. Ellie’s journey for retaliation is combined with the need to bring Tommy, who has gone out to have revenge on his own, back home safely, and soon you learn that Dina, the woman who has promised to be by your side on this search for vengeance, is not just sick but pregnant.
Ellie sees red, and her call for retaliation leads to a lot of character-shaking moments, including the scene in which Ellie ‘makes someone talk.’ Ellie is becoming less like herself, and more like the ruthless man, Joel was in the dark days before he met Ellie. As the old adage goes, when you embark on a journey of revenge, you should dig two graves. By turning to hatred, darkness, and retaliation, she is eventually not concerned for her own safety. Ellie’s blind fury, if you will, shakes her to her core, so much so that even when she and her group have taken out everyone except for Abby, who was the only one who killed Joel, she agrees to stop devouring herself in her search for vengeance. Tommy and Dina need to get home, and Ellie doesn’t want to be the person that she is becoming. But it isn’t up to her. Before embarking on the journey home, her group is ambushed by Abby, who swiftly kills Jesse and threatens to take out everyone in the group. And that is the moment when the developers make the bold choice to make you empathize.
As Abby is pointing the gun at first Tommy and then Ellie, the game cuts to black. Prior to the inciting incident, the game forced you to play as Abby, and now, maybe eight-to-ten hours into the game, the developers insist that you now must understand why Abby killed Joel, they insist that you must play as her again, and they also insist that you get to know all of the relevant but minor characters that you killed on your way to this confrontation. I have to admit that there were several times in the game where I put the controller down, refused to fight as Abby, or even let myself fail to complete an action. I did all of this because Joel and Ellie are my favorite characters in video game history, and I didn’t want to know or guide the character that had made me furious and broken-hearted. But, in true Naughty Dog fashion, there was a method to this madness that ultimately made me really appreciate what the developers were trying to say.
The Last of Us: Part II is a story about a seemingly unending cycle of violence. The game essentially preaches a message that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once delivered thusly: “Violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Now, what does that have to do with The Last of Us: Part II? Well, it has everything to do with that game.
When the game forces you to play as Abby at, roughly, the halfway point of the game, it does so for the purpose of making you understand her journey, understand the game’s message, and to strengthen the first game. In a flashback scene, we find out that Abby’s father was the doctor who was supposed to conduct Ellie’s operation. Abby’s father was the doctor who tried to prevent Joel from ‘saving’ Ellie. He is the doctor that the first game forced you to kill. One of the interesting things about The Last of Us: Part II is that it is a game with a lot of violence that also forces you to understand the lives of the people you come across. In a way, the game attempts to humanize NPCs. When NPC’s find the body of someone Ellie killed, then they say the NPC’s name. Some NPCs even beg Ellie not to kill them. The game wants you to feel conflicted, or, possibly, even guilty, when you learn who Abby’s friends really were. The game wants you to understand that, to some people, Joel was a villain and that even though we love Joel and Ellie, they are not characters that you want to come across. Joel was essentially a monster at the end of the first game, even though gamers may feel like he had to do what he did. Ellie is becoming that same monster, and it is absolutely not a coincidence that the game, eventually, makes you fight Ellie in the movie theater. In this sequence, Ellie acts like David, the cannibal from the first game, did when he chased Ellie. She is running around to look for Abby, and she is ready and willing to take her out. You, as Abby, are put in the position that Ellie was in during the final chapters of the original The Last of Us, i.e. you have to get behind the ‘bad guy’ and strike her down. You get this odd but possibly intentional feeling akin to a déjà vu.
The game is telling you that Ellie has become the bad guy, and, while you, understandably, may still hate Abby for killing Joel, you do grow to understand her reasoning for seeking vengeance. The cycle of violence was set in motion during the outbreak. Joel’s daughter was killed in cold blood by the military and so he became ruthless, hateful, and, to an extent, villainous. Bonding with Ellie is what made him see the light, and, to find peace, he had to save her from the Fireflies. But his attachment to Ellie inadvertently made him initiate another family’s history of violence. By killing Abby’s father, Joel made Abby ruthless, hateful, and villainous. To find peace, she believed that she had to kill Joel, but even then the nightmares persisted. In the game, we see how Abby still has nightmares about her father’s death and somehow that sadness merges with the guilt of leaving Yara (Victoria Grace) and Lev (Ian Alexander), two young Seraphites, behind to fend for themselves. Just like how Joel couldn’t leave Ellie after Tess died in the original game, Abby cannot live with herself if Yara and Lev die because she didn’t help them survive. Abby eventually realizes that she can only find peace through her attachment to Lev — the Ellie to her Joel. But by killing Joel, she initiated Ellie’s call for retaliation thus keeping a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence alive.
In the aforementioned movie theater fight sequence, Jesse is killed, while Tommy, Ellie, and Dina are all badly injured. Abby leaves them lying in their own blood, and she insists that if their paths ever cross again, then she will kill them all. The game then flashes forward to show that Ellie and Dina partnered up together at a remote farm where they take care of both animals and Dina’s son, J.J.,. But Ellie suffers from PTSD, and she is still haunted by the image of Joel’s face as he died. Dina and J.J. are what she needs, but she believes that she cannot find true peace without killing Abby, and Tommy also strongly urges Ellie to go to Santa Barbara to confront the woman that ruined their lives. To see Ellie reject Dina’s pleas for her to stay is genuinely heart-breaking. Earlier, like Ellie, I was determined to complete her story of revenge. I was angry and sad, but the story had, at this point, clicked with me. Like Dina, I wanted Ellie to reject this second call for retaliation. Where I previously wanted to run head first into battle, I now felt that it would be futile to chase after Abby. I think that this change of heart is essential to the game, as this attitude change is what makes you accept the truth of the final fight’s outcome.
Ellie’s journey takes her to a vicious gang of bandits, who have tortured Abby and Lev and left them for dead on a beach. When Ellie finds them and frees Abby for the purpose of fighting her, it almost seems like Ellie, who is suffering from a nasty open-wound to her stomach, needs for one of them to die to find peace. Abby has no interest in fighting, but Ellie leaves her no choice. As they fight on a beach in Santa Barbara, images run through Ellie’s head. She constantly thinks of Joel’s battered and bloody face, but something changes when she forces Abby’s head underwater. In the original game, Ellie saved Joel from drowning, and the act of now forcing Abby underwater must’ve triggered something inside of Ellie. Because, in an instant, she is reminded of Joel sitting on a porch with a guitar. She is reminded of their last conversation together, in which she promised to try to forgive Joel for having lied to her and making a decision for her. She is reminded of her and Joel’s reconciliation, of hope, and of forgiveness. This moment lets her find some kind of peace, and so she breaks the cycle of violence. Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. She doesn’t change her mind because she doesn’t hate Abby anymore, but she changes her mind because she is reminded of light. She has found some light in the vast darkness of the post-apocalyptic world she roams. And she returns home to search for Dina, the remaining light of her life. She may not be able to play Joel’s guitar anymore, she may not be able to live on the farm with Dina right now, but she can now try to leave behind the darkness and, as the Firefly saying goes, look for the light.
In general, I think that The Last of Us: Part II improves on the gameplay of the first game in a number of ways, including, but not limited to, the addition of search-dogs and the ability to dodge attacks. The facial animations are extraordinary, and it is definitely the best looking PlayStation game yet. I call the acting first-rate because Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and, newcomers to the franchise, Laura Bailey and Shannon Woodward deliver outstanding performances that help you to relate to these characters’ stories. The music is still powerful but, this time, in more ways than one. The new guitar mini-game feels odd, at first, but it eventually leads to some of the most memorable, beautiful, and shattering moments of the entire game. The way they have incorporated Pearl Jam’s ‘Future Days’ into the themes of the game is pretty remarkable, and I still can’t get that song out of my head (though I am not sure that I want to). I think that the dual narrative is both a risky narrative decision and, ultimately, a success. The game toys with point-of-view and control, and I think Naughty Dog made it work. Does the game have some pacing issues during Abby’s Seattle: Day One-chapter? Yeah, I think that it does, but it is my only minor problem with the game. Again, I think this is a huge achievement for not just Naughty Dog and PlayStation, but also the industry as a whole. I think that this, like the original game, is the kind of game that can make the public realize that video games are a rich art form capable of a wide variety of storytelling. The Last of Us: Part II is an incredible achievement and an equally good sequel. It is beautiful but violent, shattering but thought-provoking, and challenging in more ways than one.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.