Thoughts on The Last Of Us Part 2
The long-awaited sequel to my favourite ever game is here and I have many thoughts about it.
Warning: spoilers for both Part 1 and Part 2 follow. What follows are my thoughts on the game so I want to be able to share every part of the story freely
Every now and again, I consume a story on a particular type of media, and for some reason it really hits me hard. One previous example was The Matrix. I still remember back in 1999, sitting in a movie theatre and watching this incredible story unfold before me. It affected how I perceived the world fundamentally so, that it split my life into time before The Matrix and time after The Matrix
The Last Of Us Part 1 affected me, but in a different way. In fact, I don’t think there’s any story that has touched me so deeply and so quickly. For those who don’t know and want to get up to speed, TLOU Part 1 opens with a prologue where the player controls Sarah, the daughter of our main protagonist, Joel, amidst an outbreak of a Cordyceps infection that turns human hosts into aggressive creatures who hunt the living.
Within the 10 minute prologue of a 20+ hour game, Neil Druckmann managed to take us on a journey where he started with the loving yet flawed relationship between Joel and Sarah, and ends with a panicked escape from the outbreak resulting Sarah dying in his arms - only made more gut wrenching by the amazing voice acting of Troy Baker and Hana Hayes. This was an incredible feat in a short space of time and hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting it, especially from a video game.
Through the rest of the journey of TLOU Part 1 Joel is much older, the world has gone to shit, and he’s trying to survive by working as a smuggler with his partner Tess. After a series of events, the pair find themselves being asked by a resistance militia group called the Fireflies, to smuggle an immune a girl named Ellie out of town in an attempt to find a cure for humanity. What transpires over the course of the game is the development of a loving father-daughter relationship by two individuals who have lost everything, but ends in a tragic choice for Joel. As the development of a cure is sure to lead to the death of Ellie, does he chose to save Ellie or the human race.
The genius of the storytelling is that the player doesn’t have a choice. The writers leads you along the story to its final conclusion where Joel, desperate not to relive the horror of losing a child again, massacres the Fireflies and escapes with Ellie, all while she’s unconscious and unaware of the events unfolding around her. TLOU 1 ends with a troubled and confused Ellie reluctantly believing Joel’s story about the Fireflies not needing her because there were already many immune candidates and the quest for a cure was unsuccessful.
The year was 2013, I had already been playing video games for over 20 years, and I had never experienced one like this before. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who had been taken by the story, because in December 2016, Sony revealed that Naughty Dog were working on Part 2 of Ellie and Joel’s story. You can hear how pumped the crowd were in this reveal video from the PSX event.
So here we, after three years of story speculation, numerous release date changes, and leaks from disgruntled employees. We finally have TLOU Part 2 in our hands. So what did I think?
This is your final warning for spoilers for The Last Of Us Part 2
Part 2 does a great job of getting the player up to speed with the events of Part 1. The game opens with Joel confessing to Tommy everything that happened at the Fireflies hospital. It shows the torment on Joel’s face, the severity of the actions through Tommy’s reaction, and it’s carried out in private to suggest that the secret is still in tact. After Tommy agrees to take it to his grave, the pair head on their way.
We then cut to the first piece of gameplay as Ellie walking through the town of Jackson, recounting a narrative of events from the night before where Ellie and Dina, a new character to the franchise, got abused by a drunk bar owner after the pair shared a kiss on a dance floor at a public gathering. It seems the actions had caused a stir to which and overprotective Joel had been involved too.
It’s obvious from the opening scenes that Ellie is not happy with Joel and as the story progresses, a series of flashbacks add more colour to the backstory, but we’ll come to that.
Not long into the story we get introduced to another group and actually switch characters to playing as a woman named Abby. It appears the group, driven by Abby, are looking for a man who they’ve heard to be residing in Jackson. It’s unclear of reason or motivation, but it definitely doesn’t sound good.
As the first hour or so play out we follow the two points of view in parallel. We play as Ellie on patrol with Dina, and Abby as she goes off on her own in search of the man from Jackson. This felt strange as to me, the Last Of Us was about playing as Ellie and Joel. Ok, I’d played as Joel for 5 minutes at the very beginning, but who was this new person? Is it a variation of playing as Ellie for one chapter in TLOU 1? Already, there was something about TLOU2 that felt different.
It’s here where things start to get serious. As time passes the weather gets worse. Ellie and Dina have to find shelter in a library, whereas Abby gets in trouble and has to escape the infected in a snow storm - this is the first stressful encounter of many in the game to come. As Abby gets in more and more trouble, fate appears in the form of Joel and Tommy as they rescue her and work together to make an escape from the horde. As the trio escape the compound, Abby suggests that they make their way to a manor not far away where her group is holed up with some protection from the weather and the infected.
After a tense battle the group arrive but tensions still seem to be high. Abby recognised the name Joel from the encounter and signalled a visible change in mood, and when the brothers reveal themselves to the group, the scene takes a turn for the worst. It turns out, Joel is the man they were after. Abby shoots him in the leg and another member knocks Tommy out.
Switching back to Ellie, and a character named Jessie follows up after the couple to inform them of Joel and Tommy’s disappearance. The team separate and make their way to the only possible place they could be; the manor house.
Back as Ellie, we’re guiding her through the woodland, into the manor house, led by screams from a basement. As she creeps down the stairs and through the door, she is grabbed by the group, beaten to the floor, and held in place as Abby takes the final blow that removes Joel from the timeline, and the gameplay. It’s a shocking moment, and one that cut deep within the TLOU fanbase.
So here we are, 7 years has passed since the TLOU1 and many of us have patiently waited to be reunited with the central pair that drove the original story, and yet the main protagonist was executed within the prologue. What the fuck just happened?
It turns out, this was the brave move that opened up the rest of the game and caused a domino effect that meant no one was safe. You see, TLOU2 is a game about revenge. Blinding revenge that causes characters to act without judgement and puts every character at risk at every turn. It could have been much easier to set up the second game where Ellie and Joel head off on a storyline together with Ellie as the main character and Joel as the companion - flipping the roles from the previous game. Instead, Druckmann opted to remove one entirely and introduce Abby as a playable character in the second half of the game.
It’s safe to say this wasn’t without its controversies. Even I found myself wrestling with the choice to kill off one of the main characters within the first hour, and I consider myself one of the fans where Naughty Dog can do no wrong. But you see, having played through and finished the game, I am now convinced that this was the right move.
When the scene was playing out, it was doing a number of things. It was letting you know anything can happen. It was also giving you hope that maybe there would be a chance of saviour. The scene took a while to progress and even after it looked like Joel’s leg was shot to pieces, there was still a part of me that thought Jesse would turn up at the last minute to save them and Joel would sprint to his freedom, ready to take his place in the rest of the game. Sadly, this was not the case. However, it did give Ellie the motivation and drive to track down and kill the crew responsible for her surrogate father’s death.
What was particularly interesting to me about this setup, was how it took the newly introduced character and pushed the perception of her to the absolute boundary of acceptance for an invested player. Who the fuck was this woman to come along without invitation and dash all the dreams I had for The Last Of Us 2? Seven years I’ve been waiting for this and she removed 50% of what I was here for in the first hour.
So, at 10-15 hours through the game, when Abby and Ellie meet again at the theatre in what feels like it could be the moment of justice for team Joellie, the Seattle timeline resets and the player restarts the 3-day journey through the eyes of Abby.
This was a brave move, but one I believe was worth exploring. What started out as a conflict of emotions which forced me to progress as someone I loathed, ended with me questioning everything I had known before. A move like this painted a picture of a post-apocalyptic world with more nuance than I had ever seen before, in any medium. The biggest shock to me though, was how this move made me reevaluate my relationship with Joel and Ellie. Not only did this give the opportunity to mentally understand the consequences of Joel’s actions outside of saving Ellie’s life in TLOU1, but it also physically put me in the shoes of the victim of Joel’s actions. It made me ask questions about the main characters and completely blurred the lines between good and evil.
You see, as Abby’s journey progressed and more was revealed in flashbacks about the player, it was revealed that one of the doctors Joel executed at the end of the TLOU1 was in fact Abby’s father. Suddenly the actions at the beginning of Part 2 weren’t altogether easy to dismiss as the act of a villain. We could now see the fallout of Joel’s search to replace his daughter at the expense of all else. This all started because of Sarah.
The team pulled a clever trick here. By starting with Ellie and living out the game in a way that reflected Part 1, i.e. playing as the familiar protagonist, the game felt somewhat business as usual. But by switching perspective and playing the same 3 days, this time from Abby’s point of view, we actually got to see the real impact of some of Ellie’s (our) actions. A revenge-fuelled killing spree through the eyes of Ellie could now be seen from the the point of view of Abby and her gang. All of a sudden their response started to hit me repeatedly in the gut in a way that made me question, when is this going to stop?
…and this is the point. The Last Of Us Part 2’s real success is in the demonstration that an eye for an eye isn’t as straightforward as the saying suggests. Playing games or watching movies where the overpowered protagonist ventures through round after round of bad guys, seeing them off with more flamboyance and style, ramping up complexity as the medium reaches its climax, is something we’re used to and love as consumers. The story of TLOU2 upends this idea in the unlikeliest of settings. We get an understanding of real loss, of cause and effect, within the open theatre of a post-apocalyptic world.
At this point, let’s take a moment to talk about the infected. We can talk about what the infected represent. Are they a commentary on modern society where we’re all infected in some way. Infected by social media, quick to be taken over and consumed by hyperbole, taking more of an effect and destroying us over time? Maybe. I actually think it’s simpler than that. I think the Cordyceps is a parallel to the main story. It’s a manifestation of revenge seen in the main thread of the game, showing that revenge is something that can infect you, driving you on a mindless, relentless chase. As time goes on, that infection changes you more and more, warping you mentally and physically to a point where your former self is no longer there and the only thing that will stop them is a bullet to the head.
They don’t stop there. Ellie and Abby share a number of parallels, for example the player guides them both through flashback sections where the father-daughter relationship is explored further - obviously we know more about Joel and Ellie, but there is still a lot to reveal about what happened between the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2. The most obvious parallel is the main story beat where they are both driven by revenge for the death of their father figure. Some of the parallels are more nuanced though, such as the corridor concept where flashbacks for both characters feature a cautious walk down a long corridor before the fate of their loved-one is revealed in some augmented way that triggers a PTSD episode. I’m sure there are many more of these which I’m looking forward to unearthing on further playthroughs.
The Last Of Us Part 2 is relentless. It’s violent, full of jump scares, and dark in both aesthetic and content. My first playthrough took me four days to complete, partly because I was so engrossed in the story, and partly because I wanted to get though it to avoid any spoilers. Either way, by the end of it I was a mess. There were times when I had to walk away from the game to give me a breather for a while - if you’ve made it to the hospital basement then I’m sure you know what I mean. There were other times where I would just spend what seemed like hours, looking around and taking in the scenery. There are some truly amazing moments that I never expected to see such as the creation of an army barracks inside a sports stadium or the beautifully sadistic view of Haven on fire. There is an overwhelming beauty in the world that’s been created here. A beauty that’s derived from the land claiming back the landscape. Humans have finally proven they cannot be trusted so nature stepped in and reclaimed what was rightfully hers.
By day 4 I was ready for it to be over. The story was driving on with a purpose only equalled by Ellie’s. There were multiple times when the game felt like it could finish, but drove on like with an intent to wring your psyche out like a wet sponge. The moment where I started to feel real emotional fatigue was the first “potential end” of the game where the introduction of playing as Abby really made sense - after the two story streams converge back at the theatre. This moment is the logical time where I was ready to jump back into Ellie’s perspective and fight Abby in the boss battle to end the game. While it was time for the boss battle, the move wasn’t as expected and I remained in Abby’s POV only to fight against Ellie. I really believe this was a stroke of genius. As a massive fan of TLOU with a real love for the original characters, fighting Ellie put me in a real conflicted position.
Naughty Dog doesn’t tend have decision trees where the player picks the story progression, they prefer to tell the story as they see it and use the medium to make it more effective. In this fight I was completely torn, had Naughty Dog now put me in a position where I choose to win or lose to Ellie, and I wasn’t ready to be responsible for killing one of my favourite characters and yet it seemed I wasn’t getting the option to surrender. The decision to force the player through this experience was equal parts evil and equal parts ingenious. Little did I know there were another few hours to go after this point where the roles would switch again and I would find myself in the other situation where Ellie had the upper hand.
In The Official Last of Us Podcast Neil Druckmann stated that with TLOU2 he wanted to take the player as far as they could go with directing hate towards Abby, and the see if they could bring them back from the brink. Well, in the moment at the end when Ellie is holding Abby below the water and all I can see is a square icon begging me to assist, something hit me. I physically wanted to stop myself from pressing the button and it was at that point I knew Druckmann had succeeded. We’d all been through enough and it was time to for this to end. I had seen both sides of the story and been party to dealing the damage. It was time for us to move on and salvage something from our brutalised, tragic time spent in Seattle.
There’s a tonne more I could say about this game. I haven’t even touched on the other characters introduced into the game such as Lev and Yara, who incidentally I thought were fantastic. Nor have I touched on the controversy around the game, which I think is utterly despicable and I completely condemn all of the hate that’s been associated with and directed at the people involved in the game.
In my view, Neil Druckmann and the team at Naughty Dog have created something truly amazing. They have subverted everything I traditionally thought about storytelling, especially in a format where it’s all too easy to play through as an overpowered superhero that saves everyone in the end. Instead, the world in TLOU is complicated, it’s nuanced, and it’s brutal, and by the end of it you have no idea whether you’ve actually won or lost. That has to be respected whether you like the story or not.