Image: IGDB/Naughty Dog

‘The Last of Us Part II’: pulling at your heartstrings, kicking you in the teeth, and ripping out your soul

I want to preface this article by saying that I regard The Last of Us Part II as a masterpiece, in both gameplay and story. If that is enough to make you stop reading, then fair play – I just hope that it does not, and you will try to understand my arguments.

On top of this, I have met no-one who has completed the game who does not think the game has significant merit. So far, that is 11 people who had a variety of views on the first game – and if they were critical of this game at any point, they were not congruent in their grumbles.

I want to add that I’m also not some random gamer who played the first The Last of Us last year. I’ve waited for this game to come out for nearly seven years and played the first one probably about ten times (no platinum trophy though, I’m not on the trophy grind). The characters in the first game were flawed, but definitely relatable – this only made me love them more.

Joel’s death in The Last of Us Part II did not stun me. I guessed that he would die from the moment the first trailer was released at the 2016 PSX press conference. He looked pale and sallow – an indicator for me that he could be a ghost or acting as a conscience. I entered the game prepared for his death, though I was surprised at how early – barely two hours in – it occurred.

The fact his fate at the beginning of the Winter chapter was dubious highlighted to me that Naughty Dog (the developers of the game) were not afraid to kill him off. Even so, his death was upsetting. Not upsetting in that it ruined the story: it enhanced it, was pivotal to it, and was the clear driving force behind it. Rather, even though (as I will explain below) Joel as a character made some decisions that discarded the concept of the greater good, you become attached to video game characters – especially ones you play as in a game that left a pretty significant mark on you.

If you view Joel through this bizarre black and white lens, then I have no idea how you can seriously consider or analyse stories with moral complexity within them

What is difficult to stomach for the player is that the villain of this game is Joel. No, he is not an active villain – he does not have a Joffrey-esque sense of cruelty, nor a Machiavellian, self-rationalising evil inside him. Rather, he is the cause of this game’s subjective evils that the player and both playable characters must grapple with. Joel engages in what players must consider to be the closest thing to an objective evil committed by a major character that occurs during the span of both games:  that is, his decision to save Ellie at the end of the first game, by extension dooming a large portion of the human race.

Without this decision, Ellie would be dead, and Joel likely would not. It also sets a defining path for the events of The Last of Us Part II. I do not just mean that Joel’s actions are the cause of the events of this game: I have stressed that enough already. Rather, Joel engages in a removal of logic and displays an unshakeable agape that mirrors both Abby and Ellie’s motivations throughout this story. It’s an act that is both terrible and completely understandable at the same time. His most important development throughout TLOU is not just his love for Ellie; it’s his emotive disregard for the greater good. Anyone who removes themselves from Joel’s ego here must regard this as destructive. That this unconditional love is an inherently evil force in the world of The Last of Us is a hard pill to swallow; but swallow it we must.

Despite this, I love Joel. I feel attached to him. He has also done some terrible, logically-unjustifiable things, and can only be regarded as a beloved character if you regard his relationship with Ellie as independent of these actions. Unfortunately, Ellie is central to them. Thus, Joel is not and cannot be beloved simply because of the type of person he is. Did I cry when he died? Yes. Did he deserve it? For those who blindly worship his skewed morality, no. But for those who understand that there is an amoral, unpredictable, and unforgiving world surrounding this delightful father-daughter relationship that blossomed in the first game and that we all held so very dear, the question is much more complex.

Others may argue a different point surrounding Joel’s death, which attempts to rise above the world of TLOU: although the world is brutal, the decision to end Joel’s participation in TLOU2 is an unnecessary one. While true (Joel could have survived, and the game could have been about something different entirely) it is rather unfair. Joel participates significantly in this game from beyond the grave.

To explore the themes of revenge, redemption, and retribution that Naughty Dog wanted to explore, the death of Joel is a necessity. Why? Because Joel is the only character that both the player and Ellie are significantly attached to. 

Joel’s death in The Last of Us Part II did not stun me

Let us expand upon Joel’s involvement within The Last of Us Part II. Every flashback that features Joel elaborates upon the two narratives that plague the player after finishing the first game: his developing relationship with Ellie, and the moral complexity that the player is forced to grapple with because of Joel’s decision to save her.

First, the Firefly logo in the museum with the word “LIAR” thrashed angrily in black paint underneath it renews and revitalises a suspicion of Ellie’s that has gone begging until that point: that of Joel’s deception. Second, Ellie’s reticence in going with Joel to the music store, combined with the obvious instinctive care that the two show for each other when sneaking through that Infected-infested hotel highlights how, in times of emergency, Ellie and Joel still have an unshakeable bond. Third, the big reveal: Joel’s confession. Here, “flashback” Ellie is forced to choose between these two narratives – is her relationship with Joel more crucial to her than her desire for the greater good? Obviously, at the time, she chooses the latter, and she shuns Joel for two years. 

When it comes to the present events of the game, this choice of the greater good over her relationship with Joel is inverted. Ellie consistently chooses her relationship with Joel – this time, her regret over her inability to patch things up with him before his death – over what many would argue is the greater good.

I don’t think many characters will think that the decision to leave behind Dina at the farmhouse to finally kill Abby was one that we wanted Ellie to make. She is leaving behind a family, and a comparatively good life. The difference is that while Joel can detach his love of Ellie from the concept of the greater good, by the end of the game Ellie is unable to overcome this.

Unlike Joel’s decision, Ellie is burdened with the concept of a cycle of violence, with conscious knowledge of the direct consequences of her actions. Ultimately, Ellie’s decision to spare Abby at the end of the game represents not just a form of redemption, but a reorientation for Ellie. Although she is seemingly devoid of purpose once again, she chooses to leave her revenge – and her need to avenge Joel’s death – on a wet, dreary, crucifix-ridden beach in Santa Barbara.

What is difficult to stomach for the player is that the villain of this game is Joel

Expanding upon this sense of purpose, we must analyse the purpose Ellie seeks throughout the The Last of Us universe, one that often mirrors the other character we play as in the game: Abby (I don’t think, all things considered, we can call either Ellie or Abby protagonists in the traditional sense). In the first game, Joel robs Ellie of purpose; his death inspires a new sense of purpose – one of revenge. In fact, what causes Ellie to distance herself from her allies within the game is prioritising this purpose over others.

In the case of her friend Jesse, it’s prioritising killing Abby over finding Joel’s brother Tommy. More poignantly, Dina – who, if Joel is a symbol of her past, symbolises Ellie’s future – leaves Ellie after the latter decides to hunt Abby down one more time, rather than remain peacefully at the farmhouse that they have settled into comfortably alongside Dina’s baby boy, JJ. Rather than choosing a future of happiness, Ellie chooses to settle past scores. For Dina, who went through thick-and-thin with Ellie in their venture to Seattle, this is an unforgivable hierarchy of purpose that puts Ellie’s desire for revenge over her new family. It puts Joel (Ellie’s past) over Dina (Ellie’s future). 

Unlike the first game, this one is a series of long, moral questions. Should Ellie have gone after Abby the first time? Should Ellie leave for a second shot? Questioning like this is untouched for ninety percent of the first game – rather, there is only one significant moral question at the end. That’s why The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece. For every horrifying or sad event that affects the story, one must question if these events were good or right.

In the first game, there is very little of this. Sam’s death at the fungal-ridden hands of the Infected is horrific, but necessary. Henry’s suicide was horrific, unnecessary, but the question of was it right or wrong as regards the player’s actions is not relevant. In every cutscene, with every significant death, this is a moral dilemma that the player tackles. The only way to dodge this dilemma is if one unequivocally declares Joel’s actions in the first game as “good”, and by extension declares Abby as just “evil”, with no other facets. If you do this, viewing Joel through this bizarre black and white lens, then I have no idea how you can seriously consider or analyse stories with moral complexity within them.

I understand that some people have grievances with the game that are irrelevant to the story, focusing more on pacing and structure. I accept this to an extent, as there were certain times within Ellie’s section that I felt dragged on too long, most notably, the section just before Jesse’s reintroduction felt like wave after wave of dogs and wolves. I felt similarly as regards to Abby’s section the first time I played through the game.

If we cut out Abby’s section entirely, all we get is a game with a linear storyline that ends unremarkably and simply suggests that “revenge is bad”

However, having played through it twice now, I feel differently. One’s experience playing the game is fundamentally different the second time you play through it, and I would encourage everyone to do so even if you hated it. I also understand some players’ anger with regards to having one long Abby section rather than breaking each section up day by day (Ellie Day One, Abby Day One, and so forth). However, Naughty Dog is attempting to convey certain emotions and force certain emotions at certain times through dramatic irony and other devices: if they broke up the story this way, it would be more difficult to achieve this. At the same time, Abby and Ellie’s adventures in Seattle are distinct. Interweaving them would confuse the player more. 

Furthermore, if we cut out Abby’s section entirely, all we get is a game with a linear storyline that ends unremarkably and simply suggests that “revenge is bad”. You do not need a video game to tell you that: Hamlet taught us that centuries ago. This game, after the morals of the player were tested at the end of the first game, needed a deeper level of meaning that wouldn’t be reached without making the player walk a mile in Abby’s shoes.

Fundamentally, The Last of Us Part II is a game that not everyone will like:  people who want an “ordinary” game or a repeat of the first game may be met with a nasty surprise. In addition, you should not enjoy playing certain parts of it, in the same way you shouldn’t enjoy reading certain sections of certain books, or watching certain sections of certain films. However, if one approaches the game not just with an open mind, but with a belief that your personal bias can and should be tested by games that focus on challenging literary forms and moral ambiguities, then you will have an experience that will pull at your heartstrings, kick you in the teeth and rip out your soul.  

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