The Last of Us first came out in 2013 for the PlayStation 3. To me at the time, it was one of those rare videogames with an actual story to tell. It transcended the pulpy irreverence that is typical with the platform and instead, gave its characters and their narrative some weight.
I was most impressed with the game’s ending. I am sure the way I remembered it is flawed, but I’d rather pull from my lingering impressions than to be correct in my recollection: Ellie stares back at Joel after she wakes from unconsciousness. She’s no longer in the hospital they spent the entire game getting to. In fact, she’s nowhere near any of the people who were meant to help her (the Fireflies). Ellie asks Joel what happened, asks if they’ve produced a cure from her immunity. He lies and tells her that it turns out it was impossible—that there are actually many people like her in the world to no avail. Ellie looks at Joel with (what I saw as) suspicion. The game ends with that lingering shot—Ellie judging Joel.
You, the player, finish the game realizing that the last hour or two of the game was more than ethically ambiguous. The game even forces you to murder a surgeon in cold blood. The game, in a sense, steps back and even asks you to step back. It’s clear that it’s telling Joel’s story and that he is going to do what he is going to do. I remember hesitating before killing the doctor before it became clear that it wasn’t my decision—this was Joel’s anger that I was meant to project.
Cut to 7 years later and the arrival of The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2). It’s a game I didn’t know was in the making—I thought I had heard years back that The Last of Us was a standalone story; no further exposition needed. Yet, here we are. I’m now a father and much of my life no longer resembles the life I lived when I first played The Last of Us. I wondered once I heard the news if I would still enjoy that universe in the same manner that I did almost a decade earlier.
I deliberately averted my eyes from any spoilers for the game. When it finally arrived, I played it with trepidation—how would I like it? My final and complete thoughts aren’t easy to summarize. I have mixed feelings.
First, I’d like to express surprise at the consensus I am seeing for the game online. The comments I am reading in my pursuit of legitimate discourse show me that I am justified in not considering myself a gamer. I dabble and that’s it. Much of the community is up in arms about TLOU2. Many of the comments are reminiscent of the vitriol spewed about the new Star Wars franchise. To put it simply; fans want fan service. They don’t want something that questions their own (often rudimentary) impressions of their favorite characters. I find myself constantly surprised by this sentiment—I never see a character on the screen or paper as mine. They are individuals. They will always think and act differently than me. I am not reading from my diary nor am I writing these characters.
Sadly, I think that most of the hate is coming from three key story points: the fact that Joel (TLOU’s main character) dies early on in the game and without fanfare, the fact that you then PLAY as the character that murders Joel halfway through the game (and at a point where you think the game is ending), and the inclusion of a trans character.
I’ve seen so many people online criticize the game by giving their impression of these characters and this world. “I would have…” or “they should have…” to me, are merely disrespecting the craft of storytelling. To put it simply; if you have something to say, then say it. Don’t impede on other people’s work.
Beyond that, anyone that has a problem with a character’s identity, no matter what it is, has an agenda to push. I can’t believe that young video gamers would interpret the inclusion of a trans character as anything other than an attempt to represent the actual cross-section of souls alive in this day and age. Transphobia among gamers is a real thing—I was shocked by how toxic that community is and want nothing part of it. Moreover, I want to ensure my son doesn’t enter that community in any significant way.
I feel that, with the controversy surrounding TLOU2, that I needed to address that controversy before giving my thoughts on the game itself. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to share my impressions of the actual story.
Neil Druckman is the Creative Director and driving force behind TLOU2. Lately, he’s become a divisive figure in the video gaming world. I can understand why. I know nothing about the man other than the two stories he’s written, both within TLOU and TLOU2. He strikes me as a man who admires the brutality of authors like Cormac McCarthy. He seems like the type of person to look between the lines of an ugly novel like Blood Meridian and find poetry in the abject brutality. Whatever the case, he writes like he’s trying desperately to capture that same feeling: desolation is, in its own way, something to admire when there is absolutely nothing else. Neil is no Cormac but I would argue that Cormac would struggle to make a game as playable as the TLOU franchise.
While TLOU has a constant feeling of dread even into its conclusion, there is hope in-between the lines even if it’s at the expense of the rest of the world. Joel is a man traumatized by the brutal death of his daughter. He’s immediately hardened to the sudden destruction of society. Because of this, he flourishes in the new world. He rides the line of morality at all times, threatening to tip one way or another yet not quite stumbling. However, right at the very end, he does stumble—he falls by helping the child he was tasked to protect. To him, Ellie is the daughter he lost. Neil is clever to make Joel’s compassion for this young woman be the catalyst for his irredeemable moral stumble. In the end, Joel dooms the entire human race to save one girl—to finally get to do something he couldn’t do for his own daughter. It’s superficially selfless while being criminally selfish.
On the contrary, TLOU2 is a game completely devoid of hope. It would be apt to compare TLOU to a Cormac story like The Road while comparing TLOU2 to Blood Meridian. One is violence as a means, the other is violence to the end.
Part 2 finds Ellie a little older. It’s clear to the player that she truly doubts Joel’s words from the previous game. She reluctantly stays around him. After all, she has no one else. Joel and Ellie settle down in Jackson, Colorado with Joel’s brother. The town they’ve made is actually quaint. Things are almost normal.
Before you can even appreciate the new, slow pace of these two characters, Joel has his head unceremoniously smashed in with a golf club. Ellie looks on helplessly—her face a combination of pain and anger.
I think it’s great to get rid of Joel. It keeps things moving. It doesn’t undermine the harsh world these characters inhabit. Joel’s death is also the catalyst for Neil Druckman’s obsession with the “cycle of violence.”
The concept of the “cycle of violence” is that violence begets violence. You can’t keep harming others just because they harmed you—it simply perpetuates more violence. As Gandhi allegedly said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
But you’re Ellie. You’ve been born into a world of violence. You’ve never had a leg up. More than that, you’re a rough and passionate person to a fault. You just witnessed your father figure die at the hands of a stranger. More or less, that’s where the game starts, and with that violent act comes a vicious cycle of sour-tasting vengeance by the characters inhabiting this story. Evocative of the film “I Saw the Devil” where, no matter how hard the “protagonist” tries or how low he goes, he simply can’t satisfy his thirst for revenge even as he destroys everything and everyone around him. The effects of Ellie’s infernal need for vengeance reap a similar cost: everyone she loves drowns in its wake.
What I found to be most clever about the game is what many gamers found to be most frustrating. As the end of the road nears for Ellie, just as you think that credits may begin to roll, you take on the role of Abbie, the antagonist for the first half of the game. Suddenly, you’re controlling the very person that drove a golf club through Joel’s beaten and bloodied head.
How could the developers commit such a sin? You ask. Now I have to run around as this demon woman? Then, if you give yourself the time to think it through, you realize that you’ve only seen Abbie through Ellie’s eyes. She’s an evil, one-dimensional figure that starts the dire events at the beginning of the game. She’s exactly what you’d expect in a videogame villain. At most, you figure, the game will tell you why to hate her.
Instead, Druckman tells you why Abbie is, at best, as bad as Ellie. Maybe slightly more redeemable. As Abbie confronts Ellie at the end of the first half, she talks to Ellie through clenched teeth. “You killed all my friends. I let you live. You wasted it.” Abbie’s right, you know, you systematically murdered her crew without thinking twice about it. Now, left alone, Abbie is a hysterical, bloodied, and furious character.
As you play the second half of the game, Neil Druckman forces you to interact with the very same people you’ve shot down in spades just hours earlier. One scene I thought was most poignant was a simple walk through a cafeteria filled with members of the Western Liberation Front (WLF, pronounced wolf). I for one realized that the people I overheard discussing their day-to-day problems, some of which are nursing their children, are all part of the otherwise “faceless” force you kill in the game.
I won’t go on to explain any more of the plot except to say that I think it’s very clear what Druckman and his team meant to accomplish. They wanted to portray videogame violence in the most realistic way possible—they knew you were going to partake in it but they wanted also to show you what it means to commit these acts. I believe that such a message, injected into a videogame whose gameplay is centered around gun-use, is doomed to fail and I do think it’s incredibly flawed. However, I think they succeeded in giving narrative weight to the massive amount of violence in the game.
What are my overall impressions? I am still thinking about that. TLOU2 is not a straightforward game in the least—it’s the only reason I’m reviewing it. It’s incredibly provocative. It’s entirely bleak. It sends mixed messages, which I think Neil Druckman is entirely to blame for. He comes off, ultimately, as striving to be too clever and subversive at times. The balance is skewed. For me, I look beyond that, for many, they can’t quite swallow the bad taste.
All in all, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that so deeply commits to the bleakness of the world that it’s created. Nor one that so resolutely puts its characters on a platter. I, for one, appreciate that the game makes you question whether after the world ends if any of the last of us that survive are even worth the trouble.