The Last of Us Part II

Warning: Major Spoilers for both games.

The Last of Us was a cultural phenomenon in the realm of gaming. It wasn’t just entertainment—it was artistic and emotional storytelling wrapped up in a post-apocalyptic zombie* story with a gut-punch of an ending. Joel (Troy Baker), a broken man over the loss of his daughter 20 years prior, has become a smuggler in a post-apocalyptic Boston. But when a rebel group known as the Fireflies ask him to transport a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson) to other Fireflies outside the safety of the quarantine zone, Joel begins to grapple with his old emotions as he grows attached to this girl over the course of the following year. This culminates in an ethical quandary: The Trolley Problem.

(*Infected, not actual zombies)

The Trolley Problem is an ethical thought dilemma. There is a runaway trolley heading toward a group of 5 people tied to the tracks. You’re too far to save them, but you are near the track switch. However, on the track other track is one person tied down. So do you have the trolley kill the five or make the switch and kill the one?

The ending of The Last of Us takes this idea and expands on it.  The five people the trolley is heading for are the Fireflies and the world at large. The one person on the other track is Ellie. The person at the switch is Joel, who happens to be a man who lost his teenage daughter and is now about to lose another teenage girl he sees as his daughter all over again. Except this time, his daughter holds the cure to the Infection, and her death could save all of mankind. And his daughter is laying on the track willingly. So does Joel kill the Fireflies and, in extension, the world? Or does his ‘daughter’ die—again—and save the world? Joel, selfishly, saves Ellie and kills a bunch of people and then lies to Ellie about what happened.

What is interesting about The Last of Us Part II is that it looks at the consequences of the Trolley decision by telling us about the 5 people on the track Joel decided to kill instead. One of them was the doctor and only man who could turn Ellie’s immunity into a cure. He, too, had a daughter roughly Ellie’s age—Abby (Laura Bailey). And all Abby knows is Joel came in, slaughtered her dad and a bunch of others, and thwarted the cure for all humanity. Abby spends the next five years plotting revenge, which she gets, torturing and killing Joel near the start of the game (though you don’t know why at that point).

Ellie, bent on revenge, goes after Abby and her group in Seattle. What follows over the next 3 days is Ellie’s descent into madness and destruction, culminating in a lot of death and a standoff between Abby and Ellie. And then the game makes its most controversial move: it flashes back, and now you play the last 3 days all over again… as Abby. This woman who you hate, who you want to see destroyed, is now your primary character, who you then get to learn about (along with her friends, whom you have also killed along the way as Ellie), building back up to the standoff where you left the story. And you would think that’s where the game ends, but it doesn’t. Oh, it doesn’t.

Due to some unfortunate out-of-context leaks a couple months early, The Last of Us Part II received an insane amount of hate and vitriol—some even that went beyond the plot points and into homophobia, transphobia, and antisemitism. The hate was everywhere, and once the game was released, it was hit with review bombs from many people who hadn’t even bothered to play the game before hitting the outlets with low scores. This is highly unfortunate, because The Last of Us Part II is an outstanding game.

The reaction to the game is solidly grounded in the state of society in 2020: angry, frustrated, reactionary, opinionated, and steadfast in personal beliefs and biases, no matter what facts are put before you. This game takes all of those things and tests the boundaries of them by giving you characters who are exactly the same and asks that you not be. It’s a game that asks you to look at both sides and think “what if I and the people I put my faith in are not the good guys? What if both sides are wrong? And right? But what if I actually have to accept that fact?” In order to fully appreciate this game, the first thing you have to do is admit that you could be wrong, and in today’s world, that is not a step many people are willing to take, especially the first.

The next thing the game does is tackle gamer culture, a largely negative subgroup, and subverts their expectations. As a gamer, you almost always play as the good guy, and you almost always get a satisfying ending. This game questions those concepts by saying everyone is a good guy in their own story, but a villain in someone else’s. And not every story has a happy or otherwise satisfying ending. This goes against everything gamers expect. Change doesn’t sit well with people most of the time, and major change is even harder. But just because it doesn’t follow your idea of how characters should behave or how stories should play out does not make it poor characterization or storytelling.

Joel (and by association, the player) is being accused of atrocities that you, yourself committed. But it was under the guise of doing what was right via a personality you put faith in to not lead you astray. A suffering soul seeking redemption. A character that makes an Earth-shatteringly selfish move that actually has consequences. I have seen too many comments from people who apparently did not fully grasp the ending of the first game. Joel did the wrong thing. He knows he did the wrong thing, and he knows Ellie would be upset about it, which is why he lied and stuck to that lie. This is why the giraffe scene is so powerful: after a string of nightmares, a moment of peace and beauty before she walks into what she knows is the end. And it’s why the ending is so powerful: the man she had learned to put her trust in over the last year clearly took purpose away from her and lied to her face about it multiple times.

By the second game, Joel, a man who never let his guard down, has lived in the peace of Jackson, Wyoming and become accustomed to an easier life for the last five years. People coming in and out, no daily threats to his life, and no reason to think otherwise. By the time Abby comes along and is caught in a rough spot with a horde of infected, Joel has no reason to think anything is wrong and is caught off guard and outnumbered. Ellie soon thereafter becomes blinded by rage and sadness—emotions feuled by love and hate. Ellie loved Joel, but she also hated him for so long for what he did and never had a chance to forgive him properly. Abby took all of that from her, so now Ellie hates her, too. And nobody is rational when fueled by blinding rage—and that goes from both sides with Ellie and Abby.

Abby let vengeance control her life. She lost out on her relationship with Owen, a man stuck in a life he didn’t want, which wasn’t helped by Abby’s obsession with finding Joel. She trained her body to be the ultimate weapon, to have no physical weakness against Joel when the time came. Unfortunately, Abby and Ellie are merely two sides of the same coin, their stories and tragedies parallel to each other.

Abby’s journey is grounded in her journey with Lev, a trans boy who abdicates from a religious cult fighting for the Seattle territory. How Ellie views the WLF (or wolves), of which Abby is a member, is how Abby views the Seraphites (or Scars, nicknamed such due to the ritualistic scars on their faces). Lev becomes the soul of the game, and for both women, all culminating in a moment at the end where Ellie savagely threatens to murder a defenseless Lev to get Abby to fight her.

All of this is portrayed in a thematically narrative style that drives the game. Riddled with flashbacks and multiple perspectives. Ellie’s flashbacks are primarily Joel-centric, building their relationship (including a fantastic call back to the Left Behind DLC, where Joel helps Ellie imagine being in a space shuttle) and build up her discovery of the truth and beginnings of forgiveness just before his death. Abby’s flashbacks begin with her father soon before he dies but are primarily Owen-centric, showing the evolution of their relationship. If Lev is the soul of the game, Owen (and by thematic extension, Dina) is quite possibly the heart. Abby eventually decides to follow the heart, while Ellie (ultimately) does not.

By the time both women are fighting each other, you are left wanting neither to kill the other. Both are horribly flawed and blinded by vengeance, but both are understandably right and wrong. You just want everything to end and have them go their separate ways before even more tragedy strikes and the endless cycle continues. They do, and the game moves on into what appears to be an epilogue. But it isn’t. It’s a short reprieve that is then taken away from you like everything else in the story, and Ellie blindly goes after Abby yet again in a new, gut-wrenching, unexpected act of the game. It’s here that you are so emotionally drained that by the time the final confrontation happens, you feel as withered and exhausted as both women, just wanting it to be over.

And that is exactly the intention of the developers. This is not meant to be a fun or easy game. It is meant to be hard and emotionally draining and exhausting. I have seen complaints that the game is too long (it is almost 2-3 times as long as the first), but again, that appears to be the point. The game wants you to feel like it’s too long, to feel like it just needs to hurry and be over already. It wants you to be tired and uncomfortable. It wants you to want some kind of relief or satisfaction but never give it to you, because that is thematically exactly what our main characters are feeling. The theme isn’t “violence is bad!” It’s more about the consequences of our actions and the things love and hate drive us to do. It’s about acceptance and forgiveness and how nearly impossible those things can be for some people. And how if you cannot find these things and let hate consume you, you might lose everything you cared about—perfectly summed up in the outstanding ending where Ellie returns to the empty farm and cannot even play guitar anymore due to her missing fingers, strumming imperfectly to “If I ever were to lose you / I’d surely lose myself.”

So these vitriolic reactions are not proof that this game is bad. Just the opposite. They are proof the game is successful in accomplishing exactly what the story and gameplay were designed to accomplish, and that is forcing people to come face to face with their own emotions and beliefs. The game forces you to understand what happened on both sides and then forces you to hit square, or to attack someone when you really don’t want to. And there is no satisfaction because there shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t feel satisfied in the potential deaths of Ellie or Abby, at least not by the end of the game. It isn’t about getting revenge but understanding perspective. It isn’t black and white, good and evil. Everybody has a story, and you aren’t the hero in all of them.

P.S. I didn’t even talk about my favorite aspect of the game: the exploring! There is so much you can do outside your more linear story path if you choose (which you should, to scavenge for supplies at the very least). For example, earlier in the game, there’s a moment in a music store where Ellie plays guitar and sings for Dina that is one of the game’s best and most memorable moments… which you can entirely miss if you choose to not go into the music store.

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