“The Last of Us Part II” is a Stealth Attack on Gamers

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.

My Favorite Video Games of the Last Decade

Since it looks like all of us are about to have a lot more free time, I thought I’d share my list of favorite video games of the last decade (which I meant to finish earlier). In what I’m sure is a shock, I have somewhat odd taste in games: I care almost purely about story and have minimum interest in games that are only about competing with other people or trying to defeat ultra-difficult bosses and master the controls. Gameplay still matters, obviously, but only in terms of how it serves the story, and so there are a few games on this list that maybe are more like interactive movies than what a lot of people think of as games. I recommend all of these stories highly and think a few would appeal even to people who don’t think of themselves as liking video games.

These aren’t in any particular order — even though I love obsessively ranking things, for some reason with video games it feels pointless since a lot of them have very different goals and aspirations.

Also, I own a PlayStation 3 and 4 and do not bother with other inferior consoles. I’m extremely loyal to the Sony brand and consider X-Box and Nintendo fans to be worse human beings than me.

Gone Home

The original “walking simulator,” Gone Home was polarizing — some consider it among the best games of all time while a very loud segment of players don’t even think it’s a game (this will be a recurring theme of this list). I don’t really care what it is, personally, because this was one of the best stories told in the last decade in any medium. Gone Home put you in the shoes of a teen girl who returns home from studying abroad and finds that her parents and sister are missing. You wander around the home, finding clues and hints about their whereabouts while never directly interacting with anyone. The tapes your sister leaves behind tell a powerful enough straight-forward story, but the real genius of Gone Home was how the game played out in your head, allowing players to form their own conclusions about the characters by extrapolating and connecting dots. While only 2-3 hours in length, I got a lot more out of this game than the vast majority of bloated big budget titles.

Life is Strange

An angsty little episodic teen drama with medium graphics, questionable voice acting, and some utterly cringeworthy older-men-writing-for-teenagers dialogue, Life is Strange was certainly a game that had some very obvious flaws. But few games have gotten me as emotionally hooked into the characters and the story, and I think it created its own little universe that allowed me to look past some of its shortcomings and appreciate a game attempting to tell a story in a different way. You play as Max Caulfield, a girl who gains the ability to rewind time, which influences the main narrative involving her reuniting with her troubled friend Chloe and solving the disappearance of one of the popular girls from school while a possible apocalypse looms over their town. The game gives you some very difficult choices along the way in its Twin Peaks meets Freaks and Geeks story, which is full of genuinely shocking twists and turns.

Mass Effect 2 and 3

The final two games in this fantastic trilogy were a perfect mix of story and gameplay, with a mix of compelling characters and a plotline with real stakes. Playing as a customizable main character named Shepard (a heroic woman if you have any taste, but I am aware that some cretins play renegade and/or as the dull male counterpart), your mission is to save the galaxy which involves assembling a collection of colorful cohorts from different alien races who all have their own intertwined conflicts in the game’s lore, which is sort of like Star Wars but better. ME2 is correctly recognized as one of the best games of its era, and ME3 delivers what I felt was a satisying conclusion to the series, though be aware that many players (read: whiny nerds) threw a shitfit over it in a similar scenario to Game of Thrones.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

One of the great issues in video games now for me is bloat: gamers want to “get their money’s worth,” which means stories often stretch to absurd padded lengths and make you completely sick of the game by the time you finish (if you even do). The Witcher 3 is maybe the only game I played with one of these epic length stories where the duration felt earned due to the emotional core of the story, which is mostly the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia trying to find his ward and daughter figure, Ciri, who is being hunted by the Wild Hunt who want to use her ultra-powerful elder blood. Geralt is a somewhat bland protagonist, but he’s surrounded by one of the better groups of complex and well-drawn women characters in games, and the gameplay was an intriguing challenge as each monster you slay required a different strategy.

The Last of Us

Let’s hope coronavirus doesn’t go like the pandemic at the start of The Last of Us, which sweeps through humanity in its opening and 20 years later leaves the uninfected living in military quarantine zones or cults while the infected have turned into ravenous fungus zombies. In this post-apocalyptic environment, a smuggler named Joel reluctantly escorts a sarcastic young teenager named Ellie across the country in hopes that she can provide a cure for the disease. Developer Naughty Dog’s previous series, Uncharted, ran into an issue where the gameplay was non-stop shooting and violence, but the cut scenes were jovial with characters who seemed unaffected by their rampant killing spree (something I later learned is called “ludonarrative dissonance”). The Last of Us is rare among modern violent games in that the bloodshed feels gross and wrong, though necessary, and as the player you’re thrust into brutal situations that aren’t these fun shoot-em-up scenarios. This means the game is heavy and bleak, maybe to a fault, but the story is so gripping, the relationship between Joel and Ellie gives it heart, and its ending is one of the best in any media of the decade, with a resolution that is true to the characters and has about 50 different shades of ambiguity.


The least gamey of any game I played, Virginia is more like a 2-hour movie where you are in the body of the main character. Inspired heavily by Twin Peaks and The X-Files,  you play as an FBI detective named Anne Tarver, who along with her partner investigates the case of a missing young boy, which quickly gets unbelievably surreal and weird. Featuring no dialogue, the game relies on its score by Lyndon Holland and its unique art direction and character designs to tell the story, which is trippy and challenging in a way that games rarely are. Even if this isn’t the most interactive game, it’s worth experiencing once — maybe twice if you miss details the first time.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Another rare open-world success story, Horizon Zero: Dawn scores high for its unique setting, taking place in the distant future where humanity has been reduced to primitive tribes while surrounded by mysterious dinosaur-like machines that are starting to become violent. The main character, young tribal outcast Aloy, offered a different kind of protagonist than the typical gruff sarcastic dude, though her supporting cast in the tribal storyline was less developed and was the one area where the game suffered. The stand-out part of this game was the story of humanity and the world itself, which was gradually unraveled Gone Home style through audio logs in different locations. Through those, you learn of how the world became like it is in the current setting and how humanity responded to an unimaginable crisis.


In the heartbreaking opening to Firewatch, you learn the story of your character meeting his wife, and how she began to suffer from early dementia that caused you to take a menial job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest to escape. You have no contact with other characters except for your supervisor, Delilah, and the relationship that unfolds is one of the best-written and emotionally involving in any game. The story itself also increases in tension as you find increasingly strange activity in the forest, which is even scarier because of the sense of aloneness conveyed by the game. This is another walking simulator type game without a ton of action, but is one of the stronger narratives you’ll find in games.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Another walking simulator, this one takes place in a British village in 1984 where everyone has mysteriously vanished. You simply walk around and explore the village, going from house to house and uncovering audio that depicts the final days of the humans there. This is another game with low interactivity, but it’s a hell of a story with some of the best music and voice acting of any game, and its story has some satisfyingly weird twists and turns.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Yet another walking simulator type game, this one tells the story of a seemingly cursed family through a series of poignant vignettes that show different characters reaching their end, sometimes in bizarre and surreal ways. As the protagonist, you arrive at the family’s mansion and uncover the history by walking from room to room, which is about the extent of the gameplay other than some minor controls that add to the immersion of each story. This was another rare game that felt risky and weird, and sometimes it seemed more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than a video game.

Sometimes I Play Video Games: “Gone Home”

A common debate lately surrounds whether video games can be considered art. As far as I know, the initial argument was launched by a post from the late Roger Ebert, who argued that they “could never be art” which met him with the wrath of angry gamers (who, I’ve since learned, are a crowd that doesn’t care much for criticism of their games). For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent on the subject, feeling that games often had artistic properties but lacked a certain individual purpose or statement that I tend to associate with art, or at least my definition of it.

A good example is a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which I played when it was released a couple years ago. Its graphics were absolutely stunning, featuring gorgeous scenery, realistic city streets, and characters that really moved and felt like humans. But all of this technical mastery was done in service of a go-nowhere story that just involved running around and shooting people, randomly running over pedestrians, etc. Part of why I’ve never been big on video games is I feel an enormous percentage of them resemble GTA: they’re the equivalent of blockbuster Hollywood movies that dazzle with special effects but ultimately have no real purpose or insight. When held to an art-level standard where I was looking into what it was trying to say or what its themes were beyond “wouldn’t it be cool to kill a ton of people,” most games fell woefully short.

Part of this is that, for a long time, games have been mostly marketed toward a specific demographic of over-caffeinated young boys/men, which has been associated with a lot of blood, mayhem, and explosions. In the last year, I’ve been sort of passively following the industry as critics like Anita Sarkeesian have focused on many of the long-time issues in games and have argued for increased diversity in the business. Sarkeesian has been basically under siege from the gaming community since starting her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, but I see her as a true critic: someone who loves what they are criticizing, and does it because she wants everything to be better. Her goal of increasing the range of stories games can tell and improving the way characters are depicted mostly aligns with where I wish video games would go — more towards telling stories and away from senselessly blowing stuff up.

One game Sarkeesian recommended was Gone Home, the first release by The Fullbright Company, a small indie game studio in Portland, Oregon. When I played it, it was really easy to see why she recommended it: it is a game grounded in characters and story, and it proves the artistic potential video games can have when they’re not being aimed at such a narrow audience.

In Gone Home, you play from the perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns from a year of studying abroad to find her family missing from the old mansion they moved into the year before. The gameplay is exceedingly simple: you move around the house from room to room, and find little clues sprinkled around the house that allow you to piece together what happened to your family. (I should add that this all takes place in 1995 — the story kind of doesn’t work in a world of smartphones.) Most of the plot comes from journal entries you find from your younger sister Samantha, who directly tells you her story through the duration of the game.

The advantage video games have over any other medium is that they allow you to play an active part in the story — in a sense, to live it out yourself. Many games waste this potential, but Gone Home really pushes it into an interesting place. As Kaitlin, you never speak with anyone in the game, but you really inhabit the character and feel like you’re in her head as you try to piece together the game’s central mystery.

This is part of why I’m sharing as little of the plot as I possibly can: a ton of what made Gone Home a really memorable experience for me was the feeling of piecing together all of the threads myself. The game gives you a certain amount of info on a platter (some disbelief needs to be suspended at how many useful plot tidbits are just left laying around), but tons of the story takes place “off the page,” so to speak, relying on your ability to draw certain conclusions about the characters based on what they left in the house. This is an ambiguity in storytelling that I really love and had never really gotten out of a video game before.

Where Gone Home really succeeds beyond other games is in its characters — which sounds crazy, since none of them are actually on screen, and only Samantha speaks. But through the objects and artifacts in the house, I developed a real understanding of who each character was and what their motivations were. And regardless of what they did, the game portrays each of them with a tremendous amount of empathy. While many games are about good characters and bad characters, the people in Gone Home all behave like real, flawed human beings.

Gone Home is the game that really convinced me that Ebert was wrong in his initial assessment of video games, largely because it feels like a real statement. It has a lot to say about identity, family, tolerance, and the secrets people keep from others. The video game medium was also necessary for the way the creators wanted to tell this story, and part of what ultimately makes it so poignant. Despite a relatively brief amount of gameplay (I brisked through it in about three hours), Gone Home is a game that has really stuck with me in a way I didn’t think video games could.

If you want to play it and then talk with me about it, buy it at www.gonehomegame.com.