Perspective is everything.
We see the world from the first-person narration we tell ourselves, and almost every action we take is one we believe is right. Justified, even. We are often shocked when we realize we said or did something hurtful, offensive, or wrong. We live in our heads, so we know better than anyone else that we’re one of the good ones, and we would never do such a thing intentionally.
But perhaps our actions are sometimes so wicked that we didn’t just make a mistake, we become someone’s enemy. In their story, the one that exists in their head, the only one they know, we have become the villain.
Naughty Dog has shown us just how thin that delineation can be in The Last of Us Part 2 and how little it takes to snap it and trade places with the enemy. It all depends on the story being told, and which characters we get to witness, and spend time with, between battles.
This piece, then, is not exactly our definitive review — that ground has already been covered — but is a second critical pass at the game, now that the story can be discussed without having to avoid spoilers.
Let this also serve as your warning to stop reading now if you don’t want the game spoiled for you.
It’s hard to scare players in 2020
Players have become numb to zombies and horror; we are literally living through a pandemic that’s raging across a world that feels broken. We speak of the infected, and those we’ve lost in our own lives, every day. (If you’re not already wearing a mask every time you leave the house, you should be.)
But that doesn’t dull the horror of The Last of Us Part 2, as Naughty Dog backgrounds the details of a fallen world while focusing on the deadly results of dehumanizing our enemies. Games teach us that people who stand in our way can easily be dismissed as simple obstacles, not real people with their own internal lives. Other art forms do this to different degrees, of course, but video games make you pull the trigger yourself.
The Last of Us Part 2 interrogates those assumptions after you’ve made them, and the sequel itself is very much a criticism of how characters acted in the first game, including decisions that never involved the player at all.
This is an important distinction: Both The Last of Us games leave crucial decisions out of the player’s hands, so they can’t be blamed for them. But the characters can. And, in so doing, the audience gains insight into the characters themselves, for good or ill. That’s maybe part of the reason that The Last of Us Part 2 is so rarely fun; it’s meant to be a didactic experience, not a purely enjoyable one.
Everything is personal
The events of The Last of Us Part 2 are a ripple caused by Joel’s murder of a relatively minor character in the first game: the doctor who was attempting to find a cure for the fungus that turns people into the zombies that now dominate vast swaths of the land. Finding that cure, or even attempting to, would have meant that Ellie would be killed.
Joel wasn’t willing to trade Ellie’s life for the survival of humanity, so he grabbed Ellie and killed everyone who tried to stop them from leaving, including the doctor that may or may not have even had a name in the first game. There was nothing to indicate that doctor would ever be an important character, and maybe he wasn’t meant to be at the time. The Last of Us Part 2 weaponizes his death.
It’s impossible to complete the first game without killing the doctor, which is part of what made that scene so memorable. The doctor wasn’t cruel or selfish; his greatest sin was his willingness to sacrifice one person’s life in the hope of saving the world. He even pleaded with Joel to let him finish the job, not to spare his life. We have no reason to believe he wasn’t an honorable, selfless character whose medical skills were all the more necessary in a world where such experts have to be rare.
The Last of Us Part 2 takes place a few years later, with Ellie and Joel living in a seemingly safe community. Everything is going more or less OK, save for some homophobia in the camp. Survivors take turns venturing into the world for supplies and to make sure everything is going as smoothly as possible out there, with Ellie being part of the patrols.
But then Ellie watches Joel die by the hands of another young woman, Abby, during what should have been a routine mission. Suddenly her goal is no longer about finding a home or keeping the community safe; now it’s about revenge.
Ellie spends the first half of the game hunting down those involved with Joel’s death and killing them in retaliation, while also slowly learning why Abby’s group would want to see Joel dead. I first presumed that the death was revenge for Joel’s choice to save Ellie rather than see her die for a cure. And, to some extent, it is — but it’s revenge for Abby’s loss, not the world’s.
The lack of a cure is a huge consequence of Joel’s actions, shared by all the survivors, but Abby can’t even see that far. The doctor who was killed was her father.
It’s a basic, less cosmic motivation for her actions, and it again speaks to the game’s prioritization of human relationships over epic stories involving miracle cures that can save the world. This is a tale that doesn’t require an elaborate setup: Joel took someone from Abby, so Abby is going to kill Joel. That means Abby took someone from Ellie, so Ellie is going to kill Abby. Round and round we go!
The doctor chose the world over Ellie. Joel chose Ellie over the world. Both of these men’s children choose something much less honorable: personal revenge. It’s not an outcome either would likely have seen coming. But violence, like everything, is a wheel. You can’t start something turning and assume you know when it will stop. You can’t even assume it will stop.
Ellie is creating a world without heroes
The game’s biggest twist continues the cyclical nature of the game’s story: There is another version of the same game you’ve been playing, buried in the middle of this story and not discussed by reviews under strict orders from Sony and Naughty Dog. Except this time you play as the “villain,” Abby, and see the world from her point of view.
Abby makes a lot of sense as a character: She lost her father to violence, done by someone who believed they were justified in their actions, and now wants revenge for that wrong. She trains to become a talented and tenacious warrior, assisted by a likable group of friends from her community.
Abby then spends a good portion of The Last of Us Part 2 watching those friends be killed by the other group of survivors, as well as Ellie, the young girl who Abby believes is at least partially responsible for her father’s death. Of course she wants to go on the offensive and take out Joel, and later Ellie herself. These are the people who have taken everything from her; they must be dealt with.
The story has all the makings of, well, a AAA video game. Our villain, in another version of the game, could have been our hero.
Which is why Abby and Ellie are two sides of the same coin, doomed to be flipped forever. One will always have to be the head to the other’s tail, balanced perfectly, as they consume the world to get back at the other — an ouroboros of self-righteousness and pain.
And this is the scary lesson that Naughty Dog is trying to teach us, I think: Either Abby or Ellie could have been the series’ protagonist or antagonist; it’s just a matter of where the story begins and whose point of view we’re introduced to first.
If a player approached this game fresh, starting from Abby’s portion of the game, I imagine they’d be surprised to know the vicious murderers who are killing her friends — one of whom is pregnant — who killed a companion dog, and, mostly importantly in her own mind, killed her father due to his efforts to literally save the world are considered the “heroes” of these events. By any definition they should be the bad guys.
Part of what makes the game so exhausting is that Naughty Dog forces us into the role of semi-omniscient presence. The player experiences the trauma, horror, and exhaustion of Ellie, then goes through similar experiences, but through Abby’s eyes, before being forced to fight Ellie, the person we had considered to be the hero up until this point, but who now we may want dead. I’m worn out just from typing that.
This is the possible cruelty of video games, used to beat players over with the head with the game’s message. You may want to lose the fight to Ellie because you care about her so much after spending so much time with her across two games, but you can’t complete the level, which means you won’t see the rest of the game, until you punish the franchise’s “hero.”
This is the same mechanic from the first game: You can’t complete or continue until you kill the doctor. It’s not about what you want at all; you have no say in any of this. You’re, at best, a witness who has to do everything these characters ask of you.
The opening of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus does something similar when the hero’s father forces that hero, and you as the player, to shoot a beloved dog. You can close your eyes and a movie will still play, and you can skip a few pages during difficult scenes to see how books end, but video games can come to a dead stop until you’re willing to pull the trigger. You don’t have to witness the moment if you don’t want to; you can close your eyes and turn the volume down.
But you know what it means to pull that trigger, and you can’t see anything else the game has to offer until you do. You pull the trigger.
We all do.
None of this is meant to be easy
The enemies have names.
The people you kill have natural conversations with each other, and they express concern about their friends. They react to violence in the way we’d expect the “good guys” to, by crying out and expressing pain when people are killed. Different factions have their own belief systems and interior lives: Pointing a gun at someone from one may lead to them begging for their life, while someone from another may react to their imminent death with prayer. But not for their salvation, for yours.
The camera zooms in on Ellie’s face as she kills people while in stealth mode. She grits her teeth, while the human enemy gasps and struggles for breath, or perhaps they’re finishing their last gurgle of pain as their blood stains Ellie’s face and clothes. Enemies may beg for mercy, but the game doesn’t offer you the option to offer it. Of course, playing this game feels like swimming with lead weights tied to your ankles: You know what the right thing to do is, but are powerless to actually do it. To play is to accept that you’ll have to give up control to characters who sometimes have remarkably poor decision-making abilities.
I used to think that Ellie’s brutality was due to necessity, but now that I’ve seen her own faction operate from the outside looking in, I find her brutality to just be … brutal. This isn’t the world as it has to be; this is the world as the characters within are making it.
Ellie’s surrogate father, Joel, admits to murdering innocent people to survive. Anti-heroes are nothing new, but there’s an element of sympathy and humanity in well-designed anti-heroes that makes you root for them. Joel doomed the world out of love for Ellie, in order to spend more time with her, to keep her safe. Ellie doesn’t have the option to do the same thing; she’s burning the world down to spread the pain she’s feeling from her loss.
Ellie is a machine of violence when seen through Abby’s eyes. The final straw comes when the game puts you back in control of Ellie, only for her to make the decision to leave her family and go after Abby one last time, risking everything good in her life to try to exact payment for something that can never be returned.
Ellie, to me, is a bad person. The world would have been a better place, with less pain, if Joel had died before the end of the first game and Ellie herself then died in the hospital in the attempt to find a cure. Ellie might have even accepted her own death under those circumstances, in fact, in an act that could have let her at least die as a force of good in the world. But she’s never given the choice. In fact she conveys genuine hate toward Joel precisely for taking away this choice. She herself realizes the impact of Joel’s selfishness, and that’s not enough to slow her down. And that means she ends up doing to us what Joel did to her: We’re forced to be complicit in some very, very bad shit.
I left The Last of Us Part 2 with a profound animosity toward both Ellie and Joel, whether or not that was Naughty Dog’s intention.
Abby, on the other hand, conveyed some moments of redemption: She attempted to help Lev and Lev’s sister, and went after Lev into the heart of darkness — despite only knowing both for a short time and them being, also, from a group that should be her enemy. Abby herself sees through the eyes of these two and recognizes their pain, rather than just seeing more enemies. That is commendable, and shows actual growth.
The same cannot be said for Ellie.
Stagnation and banality
This is one of the few games I’ve turned off not because I was tired, but because the emotional shock of it all became too much to bear, or perhaps too numbing. The game’s violence deserves its own discussion, which Chris Plante has already provided.
Cycles carry the illusion of progress, but the reality of stagnation. These characters may journey forward, day may turn to night, new relationships may form — but this is set dressing for the moral stagnation at the heart of this story, as Ellie and Abby circle each other like poisonous planets caught in each other’s gravity. However, Abby ultimately tries to walk away, to put a figurative tourniquet on it.
Abby is willing to let it go. So Ellie and her girlfriend leave this scene, broken, bruised, to start over and create an idyllic family life on a stunning plot of land, with their son. I could breathe again, it seemed. The cycle was broken.
Then, at some point in the future, Ellie gets a lead on where Abby might be, and there’s every reason in the world for her to ignore it. But instead she throws it all away, again, for one more run at revenge. A few more murders to make herself complete. Except this time she’s leaving a very real, and very literal, family behind.
It is now Ellie who gets the choice to leave Abby alive, even if the player gets no say in that decision, after a sad, useless fight, where Ellie loses two of her fingers. The battle is ugly, slow, laborious, pointless — which is how many folks feel about the game as a whole. I was left sighing, and just wanting the whole thing to be over. But that exhaustion, that recognition of this selfish, boring, pointless revenge, might be the point.
But it is an obvious and boring point to note that Ellie is an addict for revenge. No one benefits from her actions, and she loses everything: She returns after her useless quest to find her home and farm empty, her girlfriend and stepson gone. There is nothing.
Naughty Dog did not give me a sequel to the first game; it gave me two, if not several. I saw Ellie grow up, I saw her take revenge, I saw her live out a good life, then leave it behind to return to her worst impulses. I watched her come out of that last attempt, emptied out of everything that made me like her to begin with. We’re so used to characters progressing in their stories, we forget it’s also possible for people to regress.
Seeing the brutality from one character obsessed with revenge was draining enough, but now I’m forced to take a second bite from the same rotten apple so I can see if it tastes just as bad as I expect. It does, because of course it does. No one is playing this game to have a good time. There is no good or bad version of either Ellie or Abby; they both appear damned by their inability to leave it alone. But, as I said, Abby comes the closest to growing out of the loop, whereas Ellie refuses to let her.
Ellie’s two missing fingers and her inability to play the instrument Joel taught her finally plugs the sinking ship of her relentless, pointless pursuit. The house she could’ve lived in, peacefully and happily, stands empty, with nothing but music she will never listen to and a guitar she abandons.
I am torn over whether this relentless brutality is something we need right now, but that’s an unfair question; everyone processes hardship differently and what’s damaging to me might be cathartic for someone else. Artists don’t control the times in which they release art, and The Last of Us Part 2 was in development for years. No one knew it would be released when our own world was this dark.
It is exhausting, and brutal, and pointless, just as its critics have said. There are no lessons to be learned by playing the game if you already understand that revenge is always an act that also traumatizes whoever carries it out.
This may be something that people need to think about and learn, but Ellie herself is incapable of learning, of moving on. She’s trapped, but in the snare of her own mind, and I’m not sure where the story will go from here. But leaving a character in that condition is fine; it’s not how the game leaves the player.
We’ve now been cursed with empathy for every human character we’ve killed. We’ve been shown the world through the eyes of victims and perpetrators, during times when they both felt as if what they were doing was righteous. It’s a way that sometimes both sides really might be right, or at least understandable, without dumbing down the narrative to make the point.
So what comes next?
I am done with Ellie, and I can only hope Naughty Dog is too.
I understood Ellie, to some extent. I very recently lost one of the people I loved most in the world, and the rage, confusion, and hatred was a nearly unstoppable enemy. You become something that only resembles what you once were, but most of us put our heads down, weep, and learn to live with the hole in our life.
I wish I had an Abby to target, a face to match my feelings of being both exhausted and energized, a place I could travel to and tear down to get something back. But I didn’t have an Abby. There was no one to blame. Just the ache of absence. I can’t tell if this game found me at the right or wrong time, in fact. I understand the useless nature of Ellie’s violence while also personally longing for a response that could feel as simple, and even temporarily satisfying, as Ellie’s solution.
Instead I’m just left hollow, and I try to find ways to fill myself back up, but any attempted succor merely falls through the emptiness to land on the other side. I may as well try to close the Grand Canyon with a piece of tape.
Learning to live with that hole rather than focusing energy trying to fill it (in Ellie’s case, with blood and violence), is always the healthier option. Acceptance that it will never be filled is key. You will never “move on,” because there is no moving on — there just ... is.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a remarkable work, by talented people, telling a simple story that relies on what we think we know about how games, and their heroes, work, before removing that sense of safety and familiarity.
This is not an experience that is enjoyable, but it is unique, and well made. There is almost no levity, and it is emotionally exhausting to slowly understand the magnitude of what you’ve done in the previous game, and in the first half of this release.
Should you play it? I wouldn’t even want to offer a suggested answer. Media doesn’t, and has never, had to be “enjoyable” to be important, respected, or worth experiencing. I only warn you to take heed before you do so.
Seeing yourself from the other side of your actions isn’t a comfortable experience; you might not like the look in your eyes. None of us are the heroes we think we are.