July 15, 2020
The Last of Us Part II is a game about consequences. Consequences spilling over from the original survival horror classic; consequences from the relationships you value; consequences for the routes you take, the items you search for, the time you spend preparing for fights against the living and the undead.
Do any of these consequences actually matter? That’s the question I keep returning to after finishing The Last of Us Part II.
MAJOR STORY SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH, DO NOT READ IF YOU CARE ABOUT EITHER GAME IN THE SERIES BEING SPOILED.
The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog’s attempt to rekindle the magic of the most well-regarded game in their catalog of classics, picks up years after the dramatic conclusion of the first game. The main character of that game, Joel, is living in Jackson, Wyoming, safe from the ills of the world but troubled by guilt after dooming humanity to save a girl, Ellie, he has come to love as his own.
TLOU2’s beauty is overwhelming. All the power of a console at the end of its rope is harnessed. Individual blades of grass bend and sway, snow blinds you at inopportune moments, and dank basements pop against the flicker of a flashlight. Focus throughout the game is always on some distant objective — a large tower, an abandoned beach, a decaying hospital — but the space between never suffers as a result.
The player doesn’t have to live with Joel’s guilt for long. Hours into the game, Joel is brutally murdered by a group of ex-Fireflies out for revenge, setting the game on its course toward Seattle, where Ellie seeks revenge on the party that took away a father figure. Now your time with TLOU2 begins in earnest.
Mechanically, TLOU2 manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that trivialize third-person shooters on consoles. The game’s auto-aim is not strong enough to turn it into a pop-a-shot game from cover, nor is it floaty enough to make it feel unnecessarily difficult to play.
This is especially important in a survival horror game built around resource management. Fear of wasting resources is the only thing stopping scavenging from feeling like a waste of time. Unfortunately, the game’s AI and the increased openness of each area trivializes it anyway.
Each zone is self-contained in a way that leaves it and all its enemies behind if you find the one and only path out of the area. If you find the right door, you can force yourself through and leave a gaggle of enraged enemies in your wake, uninterested in your escape (or at least incapable of responding to it) no matter how brazen it was.
They don’t deal with you well even when you are in their sight. The gallery of guns trained on you only seem to find flesh if you charge directly at them. Challenge and fear are scarce in TLOU2, even playing on harder difficulties from the start.
With few additions to the enemy roster and the fungal zombies no longer a surprise, the sense of dread inspired by a playthrough of the first game was always going to be difficult to match. But the sequel goes out of its way to stifle the possibility. Each big battle in the game is followed by an immediate, sometimes comical restock of your consumables. Unless you are the worst shot left standing in the new, undead America, you will never struggle for resources.
This is not to say it feels bad to play, but strictly as a video game, it doesn’t feel far removed from the PS3 game it is following up. Story, though, was the driving force of the original game. Clean, familiar gameplay with ever-so-slight improvements would probably have been enough to facilitate a worthwhile tale.
About that — halfway through the game, many of Joel’s murderers in her wake, Ellie finds herself on wrong end of a gun, staring down the barrel at the woman she’s been after for the game’s opening half. And rather than serving as a climax, the game rewinds three days into the past, played this time through the eyes of the enemy holding the gun, Abby.
It is jarring on multiple levels. From a gameplay perspective, you’re given new guns, new skill trees to manage, and even a set of collectibles exclusive to Abby. More importantly, over the course of 8-10 hours, we learn more about Abby’s motivations.
It was her father (among others) Joel killed at the end of the first game, sending her down a vengeful path that consumes more of what she loves: her ex-lover, her friends, her roommate, even furry companions. Her perception of the Seraphites, the group she and her comrades have been at odds with for some time, is changed after an intervention from strangers saves her life.
Armed with this perspective, Ellie is no longer the justified protagonist, just another tribalistic person in a broken-down society lashing out at an “other.” Naughty Dog director Neil Druckman has explicitly said forcing the player into this moment of realization was a goal of the story.
“I was like, ‘Oh, we can make the player feel that,’” he says. “We can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realize ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”
The central conceit of The Last of Us II’s plot is that you must be as viscerally mad about Joel’s death as Ellie is. This is hard to square with the moral ambiguity of the world the game exists in and the knowledge we carry from the first game about who these characters are.
In the opening moments of the outbreak, Joel chose to abandon another family crying for help on the side of the road, despite protests from his brother and daughter, his own family still unaffected by the unrest. Within 10 minutes of meeting him, he shows you who he is. Joel does not turn to cruelty and selfishness because of trauma brought on by living in post-outbreak America. On some level, this is the man he has been all along, and he admits as much to Ellie on their journey to Salt Lake City.
Saving Ellie is not just about doing what’s right, or doing something out of love, it is about a man searching for his own redemptive arc by any means necessary. He isn’t interested in what the person he thinks he’s protecting feels about it, a point Ellie raises herself during a confrontation in the sequel, only in how protecting her makes him feel. Joel learns to love again, but only possessively.
Was he a hero or just selfish? Should we value personal relationships over all else when the very fabric of society has fallen apart? Those shades of gray are what made The Last of Us so memorable. But The Last of Us II only works if players universally accept Joel as a martyr. It is the shaky ground upon which the cathedral is built.
The second half of The Last of Us Part II is spent humanizing people Ellie believes to be vicious, irredeemable murderers. But the paths of the two playable characters never intersect in a way that allows Ellie to see for herself who Abby really is: another broken, beaten-down woman who had their father taken away.
The lesson of Abby’s arc, then, is only meant to benefit the player. But The Last of Us II never allows you to apply this knowledge of tribalism’s fruitlessness to the way you play the game. By the team you reach the game’s final act, you are in control of a character whose actions you’re meant to regret, but the shame you are intended to feel cannot be acted upon.
After 10 hours of reflection on the shortcomings of vengeance and the limit of an individual worldview, you are nonetheless asked to participate in Ellie’s guerrilla war until she has had enough. Ankle deep in water and blood, beaten over the head with the horror of your actions, the game only concludes if you authorize Ellie to commit one last act of violence.
A game structured around forcing players to think about what they’ve done only works if the player is given real choices to make. Metal Gear Solid 3, released in 2004, features a boss battle forcing you to crawl through a river of every soldier you’ve killed prior to the fight, the rub being that the entire game can be completed non-lethally. In 2012’s Dishonored, the use of violence determines whether the player dooms the city of Dunwall to being overrun by the plague or achieves utopia.
No such tools exist in The Last of Us Part II. Ironically, Naughty Dog robs players of their agency as they are in the midst of telling a story where Ellie temporarily disavows Joel for denying her the right to decide her fate.
Living behind masks and detached from what used to be our day-to-day lives, the themes of revenge and our assessment of strangers are pertinent in these times. Rarely have we been so disconnected and incapable of seeing one another for who we really are.
The Last of Us II gives us the tools to find the messy, bloody truth over the span of 20-25 hours. But the truth is no good if it can’t be acted upon, or worse yet, if we become so blinded by old allegiances that we lose sight of what the truth is in the first place.
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