“Can we tell people a story that’s really worth telling, and that’s not repeating itself? What is something that’s really going to challenge us, and push storytelling in this medium forward?”
~ Neil Druckmann
The year is 2013. The era of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is coming to an end, the next generation is just months away. Lightning strikes as Naughty Dog delivers The Last of Us, the reaction to which (justified or not) is that the industry might never be the same again.
The year is 2020. The era of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is coming to an end, the next generation is just months away…
Can Naughty Dog deliver a sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time with a story worth telling, that challenges us, and pushes storytelling in the medium of video games forward?
Can lightning strike twice with The Last of Us Part 2?Allow me to begin with a few disclaimers.
Firstly, this game represents the culmination of many years of hard work from developers who gave up their time and health (both physical and mental) to make The Last of Us Part 2 (hereafter referred to as Part 2) a reality.
While there is an obsession with the ‘auteur’ in this industry, it is prudent to acknowledge the countless hours of work that everybody put into this game over the course of many years. No single person can be privileged in the development of a Triple-A title such as this, which requires a team of hundreds.
Secondly, the loudest voices of negativity around Part 2 have been absolutely disgusting.
Racism, transphobia, misogyny – these evils (and that is what they are) have hijacked the discourse around this game, along with very personal abuse being hurled at developers.
This is not critcism. It is hate, and it is wrong. There is no room for it, not ever, regardless of how much you might hate this game. If that’s your angle, I have nothing to say except fuck you. I have no time or respect for it, it obstructs attempts at useful criticism, and only widens the gap between the fanbase and creators.
Thirdly, I feel it important to acknowledge how Part 2 raises the bar for the quality of accessibility in gaming. The wonderful folks at Can I Play That have a number of articles that talk about this, including its accessibility review for blind players (9.5) and deaf/HoH players (10).
Whatever issues I have with this game, listening to the voices of others is critical. Where there is less value for one person, there is a world of validation for another. I cannot ignore the broader context in which Part 2 contributes to the industry in how disabled gamers have been consciously included in Naughty Dog’s design.
Their feelings about that are valid and important to the betterment of this industry, and I am thrilled that this area has been such a huge success.
If you want to read something truly worthwhile, forget about what I have to say and check out the articles linked above from Courtney and Steve.
Last bit of housekeeping here: SPOILER WARNINGTo say that I went into Part 2 without any bias would be dishonest of me. I did not believe that there was any ‘need’ for a sequel. The end to the original is still one of the best endings of all time, what lay beyond the end of those credits was something that I was adamant should live only in our heads. But, of course, that’s not my call to make.
With that said, I went into Part 2 with an open mind. I strongly hoped that I would be proven wrong in thinking this, to engage this sequel in good faith would mean giving it a fair shake.
There is, after all, a lot of disingenuous nastiness and bad faith heat thrown at the developers at Naughty Dog. One notable example here is the ridiculous reaction to Druckmann saying that he wouldn’t use the word “fun” to describe The Last of Us, which is an entirely agreeable statement for anybody willing to rub two brain cells together for more than a second.
But, with that preamble out of the way, I have to confess my feelings for Part 2.
I did not like it.
I really, viscerally did not like it.
To discuss and break down why this is, there are three main areas of critique I want to focus on.
1) Violence and revenge
2) Queer stories and representation
3) Narrative structure
VIOLENCE AND REVENGE
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.”
~ Pearl Jam, ‘Future Days’
This is going to sound reductive, but I feel bold enough to defend it as true.
All of storytelling ever ultimately comes down to a triad of themes: Family, Duty, and Home.
‘Family’ operates broadly as a theme because it is dependent on how a character defines who their family is. It provides complexity on a personal level and is a vehicle for intimacy.
In The Last of Us, the most obvious example is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, which develops from the starting point of the literal family that was him and Sarah, as well as Tommy. As the setting fractures in the wake of the cordyceps outbreak, ‘family’ extends further to the tribal factions and groups that emerge (personified later in the first game through David and his cannibal cult).
‘Duty’ is the driving force. A character’s sense of duty is typically towards those they perceive as their family, and how that duty manifests as action depends on the circumstances that motivate them.
In Part 2, duty is quite singularly defined through its core theme: revenge.
‘Home’ is what ties these things together. The Normal World that is inevitably to be thrown out of balance or destroyed is the unity between these things. Home is what is left behind, what’s lost in the fire, and what characters are (sometimes unknowingly) in pursuit of – a family to belong with, which informs and cements their duty.
For Joel, he ultimately comes to find all of these things in Ellie, at the expense of all else (even humanity itself), which is the central driving tension of this overarching story.There are other peripheral themes and motifs, but – in my many years of examining and analysing the structure of stories – I always find that they come back to this triad as the most succinct summary of how storytelling ‘works.’
We’ve all seen how effectively this has been packaged into marketing over the years, to drive the appeal of ‘universal’ stories in our capitalist market.
All you have to do is watch literally any blockbuster trailer to realise that the Fast & Furious movies are, in fact, just the most openly honest about laying bare their core appeal.
I bring this up to help illustrate how Western narratives are structurally patterned, how we have developed ‘story types’ where we direct violence in a particular direction to form a certain kind of story.
Revenge is one of those go-to story types, one that is so saturated in our canon and culture that people are quite understandably sick of our endless parables of self-destruction.
But this is the story that Part 2 wants to tell.One of my favourite go-to examples for revenge in media is The Princess Bride, in which one of the main characters – the Spaniard, Inigo Montoya – has dedicated his life to the study of fencing in order to kill the six-fingered man who murdered his father.
Revenge has become the sole purpose of his life for over twenty years, his arc in the film is all leading up to the moment where he fulfils his quest and then realises that it’s a hollow victory and he has no idea what to do next.
In fulfilling his quest for vengeance, killing his father’s murderer, Inigo discovers that his life has no meaning (until Westley recruits him as the next Dread Pirate Roberts). It serves to highlight how, outside of the thrill of the hunt (and even that had been waning for Inigo after over two decades), there’s nothing else to be gained from vengeance.
The gentleman who played Inigo, Mandy Patinkin, has spoken a number of times about his character’s arc in the film and what he took from it:
“For me it’s the most potent line in the whole film. And that line is:
‘I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.’
And I love that line. I love it for all of us because the purpose of revenge is, in my personal opinion, completely worthless and pointless. And the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.” [Mandy Patinkin, CBS interview (24/10/2013)]
Revenge becomes a mimetic kind of violence. When Inigo finally confronts Count Rugen, despite the fact that we’re rooting for Inigo, there’s an underlying sense of discomfort at how Inigo’s attacks mirror those of Rugen’s.
Inigo stabs him in the shoulders, just as Rugen did to him moments ago, and then cuts him across both sides of his face, just as Rugen did when Inigo was eleven years old after the murder of his father.
When you strip away the layer of awe that is felt at seeing Inigo finally look his father’s murderer in the eye, what you’re left with is a very clear indication of the seductive danger of revenge when you let it control you.
Revenge is the kind of violence that perpetuates itself. There’s always going to be somebody who is pursuing ‘justice’ for somebody else. The cycle has to be broken, otherwise there’s just no end to it until nobody really ‘wins.’
And in order to break the cycle, one has to move on, or possibly even forgive their enemies – and either of those things are a much harder pursuit than revenge.
Perhaps the most significant difference between The Princess Bride and The Last of Us is that the former is a film, in which we (the viewer) are only a spectator of the violence within it, while the latter is a game, in which we (the player) are an active participant in it.
Violence is still the primary language of video games. It’s only become more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ as technology has evolved to enable greater fidelity in animations, sounds, reactions, and so on. (One fears for the mental health of the people who have to ‘research’ and recreate this stuff…)
With all of this in mind, one has to ask what the ultimate purpose of these brutal spectacles are – what is it in service of?
The extent to which Part 2 answers these questions unfortunately seems to begin and end with “Violence is bad.”
In considering whether this is a story worth telling, that isn’t “repeating itself,” that’s meant to challenge us and push storytelling in video games forward… I have to say, I don’t think a(nother) revenge parable that differs almost entirely in its investment in uniquely realistic murder is the most compelling answer to any of those questions.The central frustration I have with Part 2 is just how transparently paradoxical it is in how it employs violence.
As a game, a piece of interactive entertainment, one of the most appealing features this medium has to offer storytelling in articulating its themes is the agency it can give the player.
Pardon the most obvious example here, but Undertale provides the player with two options for how they can deal with the ‘monsters’ they come into conflict with – they can be fought, or they can be shown mercy.
In order to achieve the latter, the player must engage in a bullet hell-style mini-game and avoid enemy attacks, with success leading to more open dialogue with the enemy. It is, of course, ‘gamified’ as a means of reconciliation, but it’s a longer, more difficult way of playing the game that ultimately leads to one of the three possible endings (neutral, true pacifist, or genocide).
The player’s choices when confronted with these situations may be rewarded or condemned by other characters (and, indeed, by the game itself if the player tries to cheat the system), which makes it a versatile, poignant, and indeed memorable commentary on violence.
You had an alternative you could have chosen. You may have decided it was worth going down this tougher road to make peace with your foes, or you may have cut a bloody swath through every enemy – whatever the consequences, you know that you chose to shoulder them.Part 2 does not afford the player any alternatives to violence. The extent to which the player is given agency ultimately comes down to how you kill the next group of people, or infected, or dogs.
You are forced to enact that violence to progress, your only other alternative is to turn off the game.
This wouldn’t be a problem if Part 2 wasn’t so intent on rendering judgement on the player for the violence it gives them no choice but to participate in, going as hard as it possibly can to make you feel bad about the countless throats you’ve slit, heads you’ve bashed in, shots you’ve landed…
And it’s not subtle at all. It is the most basic didactic parable on revenge imaginable, stunningly brought to life through its visceral fidelity.
At no point do the characters ever seem to catch up with the player in ‘getting it.’ There is no contrivance too cheap to maintain this status quo for the entire length of the game.
Creating a disconnect between player and protagonist can be powerful. This is something The Last of Us has achieved before. The first game’s ending where Joel ‘rescues’ Ellie from the Fireflies and lies to her about it came as a completely earned moment that the entire story had been building up to.
Making that the final act of the story before the credits roll consolidated it as one of the most compelling moral dilemmas to discuss. There was a wealth of context to that act of violence, an endless back-and-forth to be had on the various perspectives on Joel’s actions.
But Part 2, conversely, seeks to exhaust the player by never ceasing to render judgement on them for doing what the game forces them to do.Let me draw a comparison here. I hate Game of Thrones.
(Pardon me as I lift much of what’s to follow here from a previous article of mine in-relation to Halo, but I promise it’s relevant!)
Whenever people as me to articulate at-length why I don’t like Game of Thrones, I tend to respond with two links. One of them is to this particular article from The Fandomentals, which further leads to a series of brilliantly in-depth essays about every aspect of the show’s writing – from its illogical plotlines, how it squanders narratives and themes from the source material, and its indulgence in Orientalism and sexism.
The other is to this particular video essay from MrBtongue, which I urge you to watch.
In this video, MrBtongue compares the ubiquitous popularity of Game of Thrones and its source material to that of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which shaped the genre over the course of decades in the form of both book and film. Martin’s book series has demonstrably had the same magic, and its television adaptation has long since consolidated its position as being one of the biggest – if not the biggest – televised events during the year (even with the much-reviled Season 8).
The centrepiece of MrBtongue’s argument comes from a line in Starship Troopers, which is a term he coins as ‘Heinlein’s Premise’:
“[Violence is] the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.”
MrBtongue argues this in-relation to the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien and Martin, that critiquing and dealing with the notion of violence as the supreme authority is the overarching thematic conceit of their epics.
In these worlds, violence and anger and revenge are present and they do drive the characters, story, and setting… but the presentation of anger and revenge, the point of their presence in the work, is that they are dangerous and damaging things that are to be avoided rather than to build wish fulfilment fantasies out of and pursue.
This ‘spirit’ is what Game of Thrones’ showrunners (colloquially referred to as D&D, inevitably spawning a bunch of not entirely inaccurate ‘Dumb & Dumber’ jokes) have failed to understand and is the heart of why I don’t like it: the show simply does not possess the beating heart of the source material.
The Lord of the Rings film adaptations were able to get away with a lot of the deviations made from the books because they stayed true to the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien’s work, and, in some cases, those changes even elevated the new material.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, wallows in its violence under the fallacious guise of ‘medieval realism,’ and falls prey to one of the most egregious, mind-numbing tropes in fiction: ‘The Cult of the Badass.’
“‘The Badass’ is a creature designed by and for Heinlein’s Premise. In the Heinleinian world, the only path to safety, security, and independence is to be comfortable with violence – or, better yet, stylish with it.
In The Cult of the Badass, the highest achievement to which a character can aspire is the ability to kill people with a completely blank look on their face.
[…] We’re in the world of Heinlein’s Premise now, where cynicism is nothing less than wisdom and pacifism is nothing more than naivety.”
I can’t even count the number of scenes in the show that have their big ‘pay-off’ moments simply be Deadpan Targaryen having various people killed in increasingly violent and creative ways while she stares into the middle-distance, expressionless…I illustrate these problems because they strongly parallel some of the issues that Part 2 has.
The player’s agency is ultimately grounded in how effective they are in enacting violence against the NPCs they are expected to feel bad about killing, while Ellie frustratingly never ‘gets’ the very obvious lesson the game is keen to unceremoniously numb the player with at every opportunity.
Part 2 is cut from the same cloth of gratuitous misery and torture porn as Game of Thrones. This is a world that goes so hard into bleak territory, devoid of light and warmth, of those much-needed moments of levity, that it becomes almost comical.
When you wallow for so long in these ever-increasingly dire circumstances, you begin to see the cogs and gears of this machine in-operation, the puppet strings are on full display, which robs any moment in which there is a temporary cessation of awfulness of its substance.
And there are moments of alleviation in later sections of the game. There are some genuinely heartwarming interactions in the Seattle aquarium, but they feel so artificial in-context. These are moments that exist to be undermined by the narrative as it presses forward to revel in the lengths it goes to sour any moment of joy or respite with another dose of overwhelming misery.
I could so clearly sense the storyteller’s hand manipulating events to such an extent that I couldn’t invest myself in the same way.
Towards the very end of the game, we catch up with Ellie and her girlfriend Dina living together happily on a farm with their baby, following a confrontation with Abby (which took over ten laborious hours to unfold).
Upon reaching this section, rather than feeling engaged in the story, it was abundantly obvious what this was – a quick breather before being thrown back into awful circumstances. The structure had unravelled to such an extent by that point, had so thoroughly ceased to feel like they could immerse me in being believable and poignant beats in the narrative experience.
This is not a game where two queer women can move on with their lives and live. Not ‘happily ever after,’ but for the sheer virtue of living. Of escaping that cycle of violence.
While keen to dodge the Bury Your Gays trope, what takes its place feels little different, and every bit as much of a betrayal.In the first few hours of Part 2, I thought I had it all wrong. The articles talking about how dour this was seemed so far off the mark.
Even after Joel is murdered, the flashback sequences to the preceding years were full of warmth and levity. They were a powerful reprieve that carried with them their own emotional complexity, as what goes unsaid between Joel and Ellie hangs over them even in their most loving moments.
But this careful balancing of tone does not last, as the fifteen (plus) hours that follow are a downhill grind into pure cynicism.
The Last of Us was undeniably a dark game. It began with the murder of a child, followed soon after by witnessing civilians getting executed in the streets by the military. This is a setting filled with humanity at its worst, but between all that there was a strong emphasis on providing a lot of breathing room for Joel and Ellie.
It was, in Druckmann’s own words, a game about love. It never lost sight of some sense of light and hope, with the most magical culmination of that being the unforgettable giraffe scene. Druckmann has cited No Country For Old Men as a strong inspiration for The Last of Us, which is evident not just in its violence but in that spark of hope as well.
As twisted as Joel’s actions are at the end, there is something he says which I feel strongly sums this up:
“I struggled for a long time with surviving. and you… no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”
For all that The Last of Us treads the very familiar ground of its genre, it does so with the sense that it knows exactly what moments and beats it has to earn.That same awareness, however, is not something I felt in Part 2. Where there are endless permutations to how one can craft a compelling story about love, Part 2 does not manage the same with its opposite.
It has nothing to say about violence and revenge that other games (and media in general) haven’t already said with greater brevity and finesse.
Where Part 2 spends over twenty hours hammering in its message of how “violence begets violence” and “revenge is bad,” you could spend a fraction of that time reading the 280 pages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or 98 minutes watching The Princess Bride.
Even The Last of Us covers this theme with aplomb in its devastatingly compelling Winter chapter with David.
Part 2’s conception of complexity, however, is to make you play fetch with a dog that you stabbed to death in a mandatory quick-time event earlier in the game.
“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”
This is the Firefly mantra from the first game, beyond the first few hours of the sequel there is none to be found.
QUEER STORIES AND REPRESENTATION
“Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”
~ Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’
In many ways, Part 2 is a huge step forward for a variety of intersectional representation in media.
Ellie is a lesbian, Dina is a Jewish bisexual woman, Lev is an Asian trans boy (played by a trans actor!), there are plenty of people of colour, Abby is a woman whose figure does not conform to typical portrayals of womens’ body types (especially in video games).
Lev and Abby in particular have led to a lot of horrific transphobic comments, so I would once again like to take the opportunity to say fuck transphobes.
There is no denying that this kind of visibility is an important step forward for the industry, long way as there is yet to go. I loved watching Ellie and Dina’s relationship grow, especially in those early hours, and Lev was an absolute delight during the times when the game wasn’t trying to punish him.
But there is more to representation than the simple matter of presence. A game is not feminist for the sheer virtue of having women in it. How this diversity is handled within the context of the game, and who is telling their stories from behind the camera, matters.
It is, for example, extremely distressing for cisgender writers to have a trans character where we have to go through multiple levels in a meandering subplot where that character is repeatedly deadnamed and it is revealed that he was meant to “become a wife to an elder.”
Due to the absolutely ludicrous spoiler restrictions imposed on reviews for Part 2, the deadnaming and abuse that Lev receives was not able to be mentioned. It seems that not even a basic content warning was permitted.
(I don’t know what is worse: those restrictions, or the possibility that this wasn’t under embargo and no reviewer thought to mention it. Regardless, this is a problem.)
Fellow cis writers: do not deadname your trans characters. Just don’t do it. We don’t need to.
Just don’t deadname your trans characters.Lev later abandons your group to go back to the island where the Seraphites (or ‘Scars’) live, to see his transphobic cultist mother who attacks him. Lev accidentally kills her in self-defense, and then, just minutes later, his sister Yara is violently shot to death in front of him.
Yara has already spent ninety percent of this part of the story out-of-action because of another gratuitous scene where she had the bones in one of her arms completely shattered (and the arm later cut off).
It is pure misery porn. And, once again, the storyteller’s manipulative hand pulling the strings is unambiguously on display. Yara has to die so Lev can solely depend on Abby’s protection for the rest of the story, and you better believe these young teenagers are going to suffer before that point. Ellie will later hold a knife to Lev’s throat.
There is something to be said about how Part 2 treats its characters of colour.
Both the notable black characters (Nora, one of Abby’s friends, and Isaac, leader of the Washington Liberation Front) are not only horribly murdered, but are also framed as the villains in their respective death scenes. In the former, Ellie brutally beats Nora with a pipe – another act that the game makes the player commit, with a comically small square button prompt required to initiate the action.
This comes after much criticism The Last of Us received for how it brutally killed all of its black characters as well – the brothers Sam and Henry, Ellie’s then-girlfriend Riley, and antagonist Marlene.
The racial angle of this violence committed by Ellie and Abby, the two white leads, is never engaged with.
Considering how much Part 2 wants to remind the player that homophobia and transphobia exists in this setting, failing to engage with the uncomfortable racial implications in this game feels like quite the oversight.In the E3 2018 showcase, we were shown the scene which introduced Dina and her relationship with Ellie where they share a dance and a kiss. Invariably, this caused much furore among homophobic assholes, and when we see this scene in the game proper it’s like those bigots were thrown a bone.
You see, there’s a whole character named Seth who exists for the sole purpose of calling Dina “another loud-mouthed d*ke,” along with Ellie, spitting and complaining that they’re kissing at “a family event.”
Naughty Dog may well have not intended it to come off as ‘throwing a bone’ to bigots, but this adds nothing to the scene beyond serving as a reminder that being queer still sucks in this fictional apocalypse. In case you weren’t already aware.
It can’t just be a tender moment of warmth and intimacy and safety. We need a tertiary character inserted into that scene as a reminder that we’re not welcome.
These are the limits that come with straight people telling queer stories. The exhausting perspective of what is perceived to be additional ‘complexity’ (just add homophobia! As if the online reaction wasn’t bad enough!) is always going to expose a worrying lack of imagination in this area.
Trusting the audience’s capacity for inference just isn’t enough in Part 2. The hammer is brought down on the player every time.This is similar in principle to how a lot of Feminist™ stories about women written by men are just masculine power fantasies with white women instead of white men.
A particular quote that I found influential in my own understanding of feminist storytelling came from Natalie Portman back in 2013:
“The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can emphasise with.” [Natalie Portman, Digital Spy – ‘Portman: “Hollywood feminism is macho”‘ (30/09/2013)]
(This is not to suggest that anybody in Part 2 just “kicks ass and wins,” this is simply some additional window dressing perspective.)
These ‘macho’ films can be fun, and many would quite reasonably argue that it’s better to have them than not. We do not need to hold stories about women to carry the unfair burden of perfection in order to exist, but we should also be keenly aware of how disingenuous it is to say that these have the kind of cultural and artistic value that Naughty Dog aspires to.
This is, of course, a really complex issue. We don’t want queer characters to just be flawless, squeaky-clean heroes who are never in peril – there is no ‘truth’ to their character in this.
But stories about queer people – particularly about queer anger – told by straight writers are too often just stories about regular anger with queer people superimposed over them.
When this can’t be achieved, the invariable default is to fall back on a story about queer suffering. In this, Part 2’s more diverse cast seems to be there to just be subjected to its gratuitously dire misery and torture porn.
A trans boy, queer women, people of colour, a pregnant woman (two, in fact) – they suffer (and murder) purely to serve the theme of “revenge and violence are bad.”
Diversity honestly doesn’t mean much when the span of those twenty hours is about putting a broader variety of marginalised people through the bloody meat grinder.It is, I think, extremely difficult to imagine what substantial representation for LGBTQ+ characters – with the direction of queer voices behind the camera – looks like in Triple-A games.
The politics of queerness are rooted in being radical, in major structural change – attacking the established power structures that exist to maintain the status quo of capitalism, which relies on queer suffering in order to financially profit from it.
The gaming industry itself is afflicted with a lack of unionisation for developers, who are exploited through crunch, which has only become more of an exposed mainstream topic of discussion in recent years.
Naughty Dog is one of the prime examples of this.
Representation is incomplete (not invalid, not worthless, but incomplete) without the voices – the lived experiences – of queer people. Otherwise, we are destined to hear the same endless recitations from straight cis writers about how “important” it is to have diverse characters, without any meaningful changes in hiring practices.
It is queerness-as-aesthetic.
Again, that question. Is this game’s depiction of queer violence “worth” telling? Is it something that aims to “challenge” us? Is it pushing storytelling in the medium forward?
For me, I’ve seen a great deal of this before.
“It’s not somebody who’s seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
~ Jeff Buckley, ‘Hallelujah’
By the half-way point of this game, I was done. Despite going into this in good faith, I had completely lost touch with any investment I had in the conflict, which was only further exacerbated by the bizarre structural choices that followed.
Having Abby and her crew kill Joel as the inciting incident of the story, then trying to make the player empathise with those characters you’ve just hunted down and killed (to illustrate that Revenge Is Bad™) is one of the biggest structural issues I feel this game has.
Here’s the thing: I think that making Joel’s murder the pivot point of the story is a brilliant choice, that absolutely works. Having the doctor’s death at the end of The Last of Us be the catalyst for the consequences of this story is a fantastic idea, I am wholly on-board with it.
But Joel’s death, I think, was structurally misplaced, and the entire rest of the game suffers for it.
“We should be able to dismantle all of it for the sake of the story … not to maximize sales or to give people a positive feeling,” Druckmann says. “Nobody is safe just because they’ve been the protagonist or what their identity is. Everything is in service of the higher themes of the story. Sometimes that leads to a dark place. Sometimes that leads to choices that we know are going to upset some fans. But you have to let that go.” [LA Times, ‘Inside 2020’s most anticipated — and targeted — game: violence, a virus, an LGBTQ love story’ (18/6/2020)]
Many have complained about the manner in which Joel is killed off, but I have yet to see that argument articulated from an angle beyond “He’s a character I like and deserves more respect because of that.”
In this, I find myself aligned with Druckmann in what he says about not holding these things to be sacred.
However, I must raise issue with the way this takes shape in the game. I feel that the writing tries so hard to avoid what could even be perceived as fan service that it develops tunnel vision in servicing its incredibly basic theme at the expense of all else.
The problem I find here is that the theme it’s servicing just isn’t particularly interesting.
“Nobody is safe just because they’ve been the protagonist or what their identity is.”
If we are to interpret Druckmann’s use of the word “identity” to refer to the game’s queer characters and characters of colour, then this is a worrisome jettisoning of context and sensitivity.
As I covered in the previous section, this is an extensively problematic area of the game’s storytelling that is in desperate need of revaluation.Back on structure, there is a ‘cliffhanger moment’ around the mid-point of the game. Jesse has been killed, Tommy has been shot, and Ellie is held at gunpoint by Abby…
And then you cut away from that moment for ten whole hours, to spend time with Abby and her crew over the time that has passed since Joel’s hospital murder spree at the end of The Last of Us.
In this, the game profoundly struggles to deal with how the murder of Joel essentially colours everything in its attempts to retroactively make the player care about these new characters – to make us feel the Revenge Is Bad™ guilt for having killed them as Ellie (despite having no choice but to do so).
I’m sure that there were countless back-and-forth discussions about this, but what they landed on… for me, none of it worked.
The disjointed structure that followed did more to obstruct the game’s objective rather than service it.
This ‘cliffhanger moment’ has all the subtlety of a record scratch, freeze frame, and accompaniment of Abby saying “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…”Part of this comes down to how Part 2 was marketed as Ellie’s story. Abby was one of the big secrets that Naughty Dog wanted to preserve, but in doing so it only further distances the player from her.
Indeed, Part 2 frequently distances the player and protagonist in how it doles out information. It often feels like The Player is a third, separate perspective – one that is not organically learning information alongside Ellie and Abby in the moment, robbing the player of feeling things with the characters.
To simplify the core of this problem, as I see it: the player is ‘challenged’ to relate to and empathise with Abby, but Ellie never is.
In another world, which exists purely in my head, The Last of Us Part 2 was sold to us as a game about this new character called Abby who is on a quest for revenge, to find the person who murdered her father. A new protagonist, a new story, and this would culminate in discovering that the man she’s hunting is Joel – and then we switch to playing as Ellie.
There is a degree to which I understand that Part 2 wants you to work through complex feelings with Abby after knowing what she’s done, but I do not think it works because so little is done to effectively endear Abby to the player.
A lot of heavy lifting has to be done here as a counterbalance to the game-and-a-half we spend in total with Joel and Ellie, but this is another instance in which the illusion is ruined because the strings are so plainly visible.
The impact of the giraffe scene, which The Last of Us spent hours building up to as one of the most poignant and beautiful moments of relief in video game storytelling (I still tear up just thinking about it), is something that Part 2 seeks to recreate in ten minutes.
You know that the game is trying to make you feel for Abby, you see the artificiality of how that manifests, and the effect of that for me only created greater distance.
And, in the end, they spend so much time on this futile endeavour that the conflict between Ellie and Abby – the central conflict of the game – feels extraneous, with the player’s investment in it totally taken for granted.While Ellie doesn’t kill Abby in the end, it feels dishonest to say that the cycle of revenge is broken?
Ellie leaves Dina and their baby to hunt down Abby, finding her heavily malnourished and tied to a wooden pillar for weeks (even months). After cutting her and Lev down, they head to a pair of boats, where Ellie then says she can’t let Abby leave, threatens to kill an unconscious Lev. And then one of the most bizarre ‘boss fights’ ensues.
Ellie slices and stabs Abby more than a dozen times. Her shiv cuts her, very painfully penetrates Abby’s chest, and then she is almost drowned – all this after having already been near-death.
And then Ellie just tells her to go, as if none of the violence just enacted in this fight has had any impact on either of them. Abby sails off with Lev into the fog, and Ellie shows up back at Dina’s (now vacated) farm in the next scene with two fingers missing.
The emptiness of that setting reflected the emptiness I felt by the end of this journey, but perhaps not in the way Naughty Dog had intended.
In an interview with co-writer Halley Gross, it is stated:
For Gross, “The Last of Us Part II” is deeply personal. She notes that she is a survivor of PTSD (though declines to discuss specifics on the record). The game serves as a look into how living through hell can lead to a life of survivor’s guilt, wrecking havoc not just on one’s mind but on the relationships that matter most to us.
This is the creative world in which Gross is most comfortable. [LA Times, ‘Inside 2020’s most anticipated — and targeted — game: violence, a virus, an LGBTQ love story’ (18/6/2020)]
This is where I must take a step back and do some revaluation of the larger context from the perspective of the creator.
I don’t need to know the specifics of Gross’s experiences as a survivor of PTSD. To simply know that she is significantly alters how I seek to understand the game when it has that very personal truth as part of it. I have been a victim of abuse, but not a survivor of PTSD – in this, I must acknowledge that I am lacking key personal context.The confluence of all my issues with Part 2 comes with the ending.
I ‘get’ the point that Ellie’s trauma and desire for revenge is what drives her sense of duty to sacrifice her peaceful life with Dina because she can’t let this go. Even though it won’t ‘solve’ anything, it won’t rid her of grief, nor bring Joel back, she is compelled to see this through to whatever self-destructive conclusion.
It feels rather meta that, in the end, both Ellie and Abby let go of their conflict out of sheer exhaustion. This has been a futile journey. It has been, as Mandy Patinkin said of revenge, completely worthless and pointless.
And we just experienced over twenty hours of that.
“What is the downside to eating a clock?” Joel asks Ellie at the start of the game.
“It’s time consuming.”
But I’ll be stumbling away, Ellie sings, covering a-ha’s Take On Me. Slowly learning that life is okay…
Perhaps this is what Gross and Druckmann intended, that purposeful absence of catharsis, but what I found came with that was also an absence of pathos.
That memory of Joel which results in Ellie sparing Abby, articulating in the final moment that she can honour the memory of her ‘father’ by being better than him, that she was on the path of attempting to forgive him for what he did at the end of The Last of Us. I see it, part of me even likes it…
But the road to get there meant experiencing over twenty hours of austere, obvious, unrelenting misery in service of a basic, didactic revenge parable.The subtitle of this blog speaks to what I feel is the purpose I have in writing about stories – ‘narrative truth and reconciliation.’ And while I have given my truth, I find that I am unable at this time to offer the latter.
Perhaps I will find some manner of reconciliation with this game in time. Perhaps, when I can experience this story anew – far away from my present feelings, the online vitriol around it, and everything else – I may be able to appreciate this more. I don’t know, and I certainly won’t rule it out.
But for now, in confronting the question of whether Naughty Dog delivered a story worth telling, that challenges us, and pushes storytelling in the medium of video games forward?
I feel closest to Ellie in those final moments, where she leaves this all behind.
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever had
Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Redemption Song’
I would like to thank my dear friend Ruth, with whom I went on this journey.
She and I threw ideas back-and-forth, discussed and analysed this story, and she kindly read and commented on this piece in its draft stages.
Ruth is the co-project lead on a Doctor Who fan project we (and many other talented writers, editors, artists, etc) are working on – Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures.
Lastly, with everything that’s going on in the world right now, I find it imperative that I do what I can to help provide what support I can.
For all manner of resources, donation links, and petitions pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement, find links below.
On Itch.io, you can find almost 250 games from indie creators which contain transgender characters and themes.
If you want to support trans game creators, here is a link to that page.