I don’t know if I can remember a bleaker piece of art being inflicted upon the masses than The Last of Us Part II, which (after some notable delays) was dropped a few weeks ago. The games industry is weird as hell: if someone made an album or film that was as confrontational, violent, and disturbing as this, only a very niche audience of weirdos would be into it. But this is like a blockbuster video game that was instantly one of the best-sellers in history. While I avoided reactions and spoilers as much as I could, I heard the rumblings that many people hated it or were offended by it, and I’m not surprised. TLOU2 is a huge-budget spectacle, but it also at times feels like a provocation on its own medium and the people who indulge in it. It asked so many fascinating questions (and is such a technical marvel) that I was in awe of it, even as I was occasionally frustrated by some of its choices.
(There are a million spoiler-free reviews of TLOU2 already, so I’m more interested in fully jumping into the story choices and themes of the game. This means there will be spoilers, so if you’re interested in playing this and haven’t yet, now is your chance to close the tab.)
The first Last of Us had one of the best endings to any recent media: after escorting immune teen Ellie across the country in hopes of providing a cure to a virus that has ravaged humanity and turned people into zombies, cynical smuggler Joel learns that creating a vaccine will kill the girl he’s grown to see as his daughter after his first one died during the initial outbreak. Left with the choice of Ellie or the possible future of humanity, Joel makes an understandable but morally reprehensible decision, gunning down all of the doctors in a hospital run by the Fireflies and driving her back to a settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. When Ellie comes to, he lies to her about what he did, telling her the Fireflies had no need for her immunity. Questions abound: was what Joel did right? Did humanity even deserve to be saved? Does Ellie suspect anything? If not, is she ever going to find out, and how will she react? All of the moral ambiguities at play made it stick with me for a long time, and Part II goes even deeper into gray areas and questions about whether violent acts can ever be justified.
Joel’s decision triggers the whole long story of TLOU2, which takes place four years later. In the opening, the player takes control of a young woman named Abby, part of the Washington Liberation Front, who is saved from a group of infected by Joel. When they return to her hideout, the twist comes: Abby has come to Jackson to find Joel and kill him, and after letting him suffer for a bit, she does so as Ellie (who has come to try to rescue him) watches. Ellie vows revenge, so she and her maybe-girlfriend Dinah take off to Seattle to find Abby and Joel’s brother Tommy, who has also gone on the hunt. This would seem to set up a fairly simple narrative: as the player, you’re going to this location to find the people who did your character wrong and bring them to justice, with Abby serving as the “final boss.”
Of course, Ellie’s whole quest sits on shaky moral grounds, because Joel kind of deserved to die for his actions. But still, I figure she’s the hero of this story, and I spend the next several hours committing various heinous acts to members of the WLF, a cult called the Seraphim, and more zombie creatures. During this stretch, the game attempts to subvert some of the medium’s familiar tropes. One cruel touch is that the wave of random people you kill as part of the gameplay are given names, so you kill some guy and hear someone shout “Jose! Oh my god, no!” etc. The intent is to make you feel not that you defeated some faceless enemy, but that you just killed a human being who had friends and a family. Unfortunately, TLOU2 recycles a small number of character models which undoes a lot of this well-intentioned attempt to make the player feel the impact of their violent actions.
That’s just a sliver of the massive tension running through the entire game: TLOU2 wants to critique violence and its impact, but it can’t fully escape the broader context of how video games are designed and the way they are played. As much as it wants you to feel bad for these violent acts, they are still tied into a narrative that essentially rewards you for killing. Often, if you don’t defeat all the enemies in an area, you can’t proceed with the story. And for many players, shooting some guy in the face likely feels good, because it shows their mastery of the game’s controls.
The designers were clearly aware of that, and so TLOU2 tries to solve this underlying issue by making the violence as unpleasant as possible. The fight-for-your-life scenarios are crafted in a way that is almost unbearably intense, and the state-of-the-art graphics and models make it feel real. Since the player controls Ellie, they inevitably put themselves in her shoes, and they feel disgust at her actions, which by extent are the player’s actions. Ellie often says “you can’t stop this” at people during her revenge tour, which feels like a meta-critique of gaming in general: players are stuck in this linear story, playing out actions they probably wish weren’t happening, and wondering if all of this violence is really necessary.
It’s a noble attempt at questioning the state of gaming from within, and it’s a hell of a lot better than titles like Grand Theft Auto where you are gleefully killing people with no emotional consequences. I’m glad a video game is thinking about these questions, which is why TLOU2 should be separated from hand-wringing concern about its violent content. But it also opens up a separate can of worms: is it “fun” to play a game that is basically making you feel like an asshole for doing what it is telling you to do, and is so thoroughly miserable and uncomfortable? And that made think of broader existential questions like “what does ‘fun’ even mean anyway in the context of enjoying art?” In the end, I concluded this is a game I probably never want to revisit, but the fact that it made me think about all of these things is valuable, and a huge step up from how so much of this medium rewards mindless shooting. If video games are to be considered art (as their enthusiasts loudly proclaim they should be), then there needs to be games like this that are willing to ask the hard questions and provoke thought.
It turns out, confronting your audience with ideas they might not want to think about does not necessarily engender a positive response, and on websites like Metacritic and Reddit, TLOU2 has been bombed with negative reviews from fans who think it “ruined” the characters. But this is an intentional reaction the game is looking for: the whole point of Ellie’s rampage is for you to feel horrible that this beloved character from the first story has become almost a monster who is so consumed by violence. After killing Mel and Owen, two of Abby’s friends from earlier, she resigns herself to not being able to find her target and plans a return to Wyoming because Dina is pregnant (oh yeah, that happened). Right then, someone breaks into the theater they’re staying at and shoots Jesse, one of Ellie’s friends and the father of Dina’s baby. It’s Abby. She points a gun at Ellie, says “you killed my friends,” and then the screen goes black.
When the game returns, the player is back in Abby’s perspective, and it rewinds all the way back to day one in Seattle. At first, I assumed this was a brief little flashback, but nope: this goes on for an equally long time, and it’s one of the more audacious decisions I’ve seen in gaming. Through the next several hours, the player learns about Abby. Her father was the doctor who was going to prepare the vaccine and was killed by Joel, which explains her motive for killing him. Her friends that Ellie killed are shown to not be bad people; Owen and Mel are a compassionate couple who are expecting a baby and are leaving the WLF to find more Fireflies in Santa Barbara. Abby gets taken by the Seraphs and is freed by two kids, Lev and Yara, who are runaways from the cult. Abby initially leaves them, but possibly feeling regret over her murder of Joel, she decides to do the right thing and goes back to protect the kids, even though the Seraphs and WLF are about to engage in a full civil war, which eventually breaks out in a sequence on an island that is possibly the most stunningly directed and rendered war scene in the history of video games.
Most of this section is about Abby’s efforts to protect the kids, a parallel to Joel’s anti-hero actions in the first game that felt justifiable because he was looking out for Ellie. Yara has a broken arm and the player learns that Lev is a trans boy who shaved his head, which is why they’re on the run from the religious fanatics. There’s a lot of LGBT analysis to be done on TLOU2 that I’ll leave to other voices, but I do think it’s clear that the purpose of these characters (and Lev in particular) is to humanize Abby, to show her as worthy of compassion. The goal is to make the player question who the hero and villain of this story really is, and in that sense Lev’s character feels like a bit of a prop. The creators of the game knew that asking players to empathize with Abby was a tough task, given her murder of Joel and what that did to Ellie, and sometimes their machinations are quite heavy-handed and transparent. In general, none of the relationships in this game match the depth and humanity of Joel and Ellie’s partnership in the original, and the side characters feel underdeveloped as the story spreads itself too thin and tries to be about too many people. It’s difficult to excuse that when it takes so many hours to play, and that again goes back to some of the inherent tensions in this medium: this game wants to have a deep story with characters that have movie or novel depth, but it also feels required to dedicate most of its run time to the shooting and killing because that’s what gamers expect and crave.
Still, I found this segment insightful in how it used the conventions of gaming to question the players. The most powerful part of video game storytelling is your control of the main character, which has potential to create deep empathy and emotion when you can suspend disbelief. The natural inclination of players is to like the person they control, because it feels like an extension of them and they want to feel like a hero. TLOU2 shakes that idea to its core. I started as a character I loved and by the end of her section felt ambivalent towards her at best. Then I took control of a character I thought I hated and by the end I kind of liked her. And when the game circles back to the showdown in the theater, the player controls Abby trying to kill Ellie in a boss-like battle, and the mixed emotions I had in that scene were a very different experience from anything else I’ve played, watched, or listened to.
I mostly hoped neither one would kill the other, because I still believed both characters were capable of redemption. And I think the game does an effective job of portraying how two otherwise good people could be driven to horrifying acts in the brutal, unforgiving world that it creates. One even gets the sense that the two could have been friends in a parallel universe where they hadn’t killed a bunch of each other’s companions. Even with all that had happened, as someone who thinks a lot about storytelling conventions, I expected the characters to reluctantly team up against some greater threat, which is almost what happened.
Lev ends up talking Abby out of killing Dinah and Ellie, and the pairs part ways. The game flash-forwards a few months to Ellie living on a farm with Dinah, and there are some sweet moments where you herd sheep, hold her baby, and life seems to be good. But Ellie experiences a PTSD flashback and it becomes clear that she is still tormented by what happened in Seattle. When Tommy shows up with a lead on Abby potentially being in Santa Barbara, Ellie decides to depart despite Dinah’s protests in possibly the saddest part of the story. Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, Abby and Lev are shown being captured by a different cult after she thinks she has made contact with the Fireflies.
Ellie runs into that cult as she hunts for Abby and ends up killing a ton of them and freeing their prisoners. She finds Abby strung up on a pillar after being caught trying to escape and cuts her loose, which allows her to also free Lev. Abby says there are a couple boats and they prepare to go their separate ways, but Ellie still can’t let her go and demands to fight Abby. The final fight scene is a subversion of the usual climactic boss battle, as both characters are so weak physically and emotionally that it’s more of a depressing struggle than an epic conclusion. Ellie gets Abby underwater and is on the verge of drowning her, but remembers her final conversation with Joel and lets her back up. Abby and Lev take off in a boat and Ellie is left on the beach in tears. There is ambiguity in this decision, but I saw it as Ellie finally breaking the cycle of violence that had taken over both of their lives. When she let Abby live after rescuing her, she rediscovered her humanity and finally reached some semblance of closure for Joel’s death by breaking the chain.
But it comes at a steep personal cost: when Ellie arrives back on her farm, Dinah is gone and the house has been cleaned out. In the final shot of the game, Ellie gets on her horse and rides out alone, having no friends left and with it unclear where she plans to go next. While not as haunting as the first game’s finale, it’s still a gut-punch moment for anyone who had an attachment to her character, who has become a broken woman mostly through her own actions and decisions.
I’m still coming to terms with how I feel about the game as a whole. A lot of thought went into it, and in talking exclusively about the story and plot, I haven’t given enough credit to the designers, artists, actors, etc. who put their heart into this and made a game that looks and sounds incredible and life-like. Those who are reacting extremely negatively to TLOU2 make me embarrassed to be alive, and it’s an obvious case of people only wanting stories that make them feel good and fit their own head-canons instead of narratives that are actually challenging. It’s a difficult landscape right now for art that provokes and might upset people, and I commend TLOU2 for daring to be a lightning rod when they could have given in to obvious fan service.
TLOU2 ends up feeling like a victim of its own medium and the close-minded, bloodthirsty fanbase it questions. Similar to Game of Thrones, the message it provides has gone over the head of much of its massive audience, who feel it should have been about “badass” protagonists killing people because that’s cool. Much like its main characters, this game is caught in a cycle of violence, which it tries to break by making players think about the type of neck-snapping, face-melting death that has become commonplace in the industry. It doesn’t go about this perfectly, and I’m not sure whether it can truly transcend the gamification of violence it’s criticizing, but the subjects raised here feel important and I hope the polarized response doesn’t scare off future developers from taking risks. Ideally, the legacy of TLOU2 will be that it pushed game narratives forward and made players think about some of the conventions they take for granted.