An Honest Discussion About The Last of Us: Part II

This is not a review. Although it started as one, this article is a more focused discussion about The Last of Us: Part II. A way to share my personal experience with the game and hopefully address some points of contention that I've seen floating around on the internet. I will talk more about the frustration that caused me to write this article towards the end. But for now, I want to preface this by saying that not everyone will like this game. And as I make for my case for why I enjoyed the game it's important to keep that in mind. As with any art or media, it's hard to be entirely objective, and personal reasons can impact the audience's enjoyment or lack thereof. I originally wrote this article two years ago on our old site. We never migrated it over to this one and I thought the two-year anniversary of the game was a good moment to finally do so.

Since this isn't a typical review, I won't be talking much about the game on a technical front. But to cover it quickly, The Last of Us: Part II is a masterclass in visual fidelity and game design. I've seen a few people say the gameplay in the game is boring. To which I say go look at @SunhiLegend on Twitter for some of the most original and brutal combat scenarios in the medium. Or look at the montages of people utilizing the DualShock 4's trackpad to perform songs with Ellie's guitar. The small details that are packed into the game may be unnecessary when looking at the game as a whole, but they do a lot to bring the world and its characters to life. From the hidden away interaction Ellie has with Dina in the music store, to the first time I couldn't find the code for a safe and cracked it using only sound, these small things, when experienced, make the journey as much yours as it is Ellie's.

Before we continue any further I have two disclaimers. The first is that this is going to be a long read. This is undoubtedly the longest article I have ever written. So I would recommend some background music, perhaps The Last of Us: Part II soundtrack, just to set the mood. I've also bolded key points in the article to make it easier to follow. Secondly, everything past this point is spoiler territory. So do not continue on if you have not played the game or at the very least watched it. But as I will explain later on in the article, for the full impact of this game, you really need to hold the controller and be in charge of every action.

Let's start at the top. The big decision that made so many people mad: the death of Joel. This scene really got to me. Seeing Joel, a character I have grown to love despite his flaws, being tortured and on the verge of death was tough to stomach. It was so brutal to watch that for the next few days the image of Joel, bloodied and dying, would occasionally flash before my eyes when I closed them. So far in my life, I've been fortunate enough to not lose anyone, and perhaps that's why dealing with Joel's death was harder than it should have been. Over the following days, I had to slowly come to grips with the fact that Joel was gone. I still had some hopeless part of me that expected him to show up around the corner and hug Ellie and say "I'm here baby girl," but as the hours passed in the game I knew that wouldn't happen. My heart did beat just a tiny bit faster though when someone grabbed Ellie from behind as she was escaping the WLF and I perked up in anticipation of seeing Joel. But at the end of the day, I had to accept the truth, and despite how much he meant to me, I had to let go.

The first big question I want to discuss is also about Joel. Specifically, why he was so trusting upon meeting Abby at the start of the game. The answer to this, I think, is pretty simple. Along with many other things, The Last of Us: Part I is about Joel learning to trust again. At the start of the game, he loses the one person who mattered the most to him and we see that 20 years later he's a weathered and worn out person, who learned the hard way that you have to keep finding something to fight for. When Joel wakes up after the opening credits, the only person that's grounding him is Tess.

It is because of how much Tess mattered to him that he decided to finish the mission that he was so reluctant to start in the first place. When Joel meets Ellie for the first time there isn't immediate father-daughter chemistry, there's friction. They can't stand each other. But over the course of the 15-hour game, Joel learns to trust and rely on Ellie. To the point where he makes the decision to throw any chance of a cure out the window to spend a few more years with her. Watch her grow. Learn. Make mistakes. Live her life. While the morality of Joel's actions at the end of the first game remains debatable, it's safe to say that the reason for his actions is a byproduct of him learning to trust and love Ellie.

Fast forward to 4 years later where The Last of Us: Part II picks up. Despite the less-than-smooth relationship he has with Ellie, Joel has been living at Jackson in relative safety. He doesn't have to constantly watch his back, scavenge for food, or go to sleep wondering if he'll wake up again. This sense of security can bring down anyone's walls, especially after a few years. So when he meets Abby and her group, Joel isn't anticipating an attack. He isn't running escape routes in his head or sizing up everyone in the room as they introduce themselves, much like he would have 5 years ago. He had become closer to the man he used to be, closer than he ever thought possible after the moment he shot his infected neighbor in front of his daughter.

The next person to talk about is Ellie. A lot of has happened to Ellie in the time between Part I and Part II. She learned how to swim. How to play the guitar. And she found out the truth of what happened in the hospital that day. Ellie had an innocence and childlike wonder to her in the first game. But that's no longer the case. As is the way of this post-pandemic world, it's hard for someone to stay pure. And as Ellie gets to Seattle her moral compass moves farther and farther away from the girl who told Joel that "it doesn't matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery."

I find Ellie's role in this game fascinating because as she says in the last flashback of the game, she thinks that dying in that hospital would have given her life meaning. And that meaning is something Joel stripped from her by shooting the doctor and saving her. Furthermore, upon witnessing the brutal death of Joel, a death that needed to be presented in a graphic manner because it's a surefire way to make it a potent image, she starts her self on a path of revenge. A path that she thinks will make her life, and death, matter. She believed in this so strongly that despite having a seemingly ideal life, considering the setting, with Dina and JJ, she gives it all away to have another shot at killing Abby. That image of Joel, the same one I saw the next day in the shower, is one that pushes her to get revenge. And it isn't until that last moment, when the image of Joel on the porch flashes before her, that she realizes that she has to accept the truth, and despite how much he means to her, she has to let go.

A complaint I often see about the ending is Ellie's decision to spare Abby is and that it renders the entire game as pointless. Ellie made it all the way to the end, all the way to Santa Barbara, to find and kill her but in the last second decided against it. And what I think a lot of people fail to see is that this is exactly what happens in the first game. Joel goes on a year-long journey across the United States to get Ellie to the Fireflies only to then decide at the last minute that he couldn't let go of Ellie. He kills any Fireflies that get in his way, including Abby's dad, and he gets out of there. To Jackson, a place that he knows will keep them safe for at least a little while.

The cycle of violence is a term that gets thrown out a lot when talking about the themes in The Last of Us: Part II. And while I do think that is what the game is about at its core, it would be reductive to simply say that the game's message is "violence, bad." A big reason why Abby is in the game as a playable character is to show the cyclical nature of revenge. To explain further, imagine that the journey of revenge is a circle. Someone loses something. They go on a quest to find the person responsible for their loss. They make them pay, often losing something in the process. And then they try to recover. But recovery is not as easy as it sounds because revenge was all that was driving them. Now they wander, empty, and aimless, trying to find a new purpose until they meet their end, either naturally, or more likely, at the hand of another person who lost something due to their actions, allowing for the cycle to continue long after their final breath. What I listed is extremely surface level, but if you've played the game you should be able to color in the shapes.

The first half of Part II is Ellie going through the first half of that revenge circle. She lost someone close to her and she wants to find those responsible. Then the game switches to Abby, who is in the second phase. She already got her revenge on the man who killed her father. Now that she's passed it, and having spent so much time with Joel as her sole focus, she has nowhere to go. She's finished the one thing that gave her life a path since her father's murder. It's as she comes to understand this emptiness within herself that she crosses paths with Yara and Lev. To her, they're not just people to save, they're a new reason to keep fighting. To stay alive. Now, if the game followed this revenge circle, then Ellie would have killed Abby, which would then start Lev on his journey to return the favor. But what the game's ending builds to is Ellie deciding to break that chain. Realizing that Abby's death won't bring back Joel. As hard as it is to accept, they will never have that movie night that Ellie was planning. There will be no more guitar lessons. No more trips to museums. Joel was gone. And although he can still be remembered in memories, Ellie, much like the player, has to let go in order to move on.

The next point is Abby. Specifically, feeling sympathy towards Abby, something I have seen a lot of people struggle with. This is no doubt a reason why so many people went out of their way to say mean-spirited comments to actress Laura Bailey. I'll touch on those comments later in the discussion but for now, I want to make my stance clear that this sort of barbaric behavior is unhealthy, especially when trying to create a discourse around a game. And also I would like to mention briefly that while Abby does seem like she's the antagonist due to her torturing of Joel. Players didn't seem to mind or complain when Joel tortured a man during the winter segment in Part I. And knowing Joel, that was the first time Joel had to put the pressure on a person to coerce information out of them. A simple change of perspective can easily paint Joel as the bad guy. The person who brutally tortured and killed someone just trying to live their day to day life. Perspective matters. And learning how to sympathize, no matter how challenging it may be, is crucial to developing as a person.

Speaking for myself, I will be the first to admit that I was very resistant to the idea of playing as Abby. In fact, at the thirteenth-hour mark, by which I had played around an hour as Abby, I stopped playing the game and didn't pick it up for two full days. During this time I tried to breakdown my thoughts on Part II for what, at the time, was going to be my full review. But the thing that I realized as I was writing my thoughts was that I was so in line with Ellie and her blind rage for Abby, that I couldn't stomach the thought of playing as her. I wanted to get revenge as soon as possible and, to me, this was only prolonging the inevitable. The night I stopped playing, I texted Alexa, website co-founder, about how gutted I was that I would have to play a majority of the rest of the game as Abby.

But after my two-day break was up, I dove back in. I had come this far and I wanted to see it through till the end. So, albeit reluctantly, I continued playing as Abby. The next few hours were sort of a blur. As the stakes ramped up and the game threw Abby, and consequently me, into more and more intense situations I was on edge again. My shoulders started to tense and my heart started to race. It wasn't until a point towards the end of Abby's side of the story that I realized that I didn't hate her anymore. The blind rage I had that wanted so badly for Ellie to kill her was gone.

I connected this change of heart to three key moments. The first is at the Seraphite's sky bridge when I got the chance to see Abby as more than just a tough killing machine. This was the first time that I really processed that she had fears, just like the rest of us, and this was more important than I gave it credit for at the time. The second is the sniper sequence at the Marina. This whole section felt fast because the goal is to stop the relentless sniper in the building and by the time I reached him, having seen Manny get shot in the head, I was so ready to kill him that when I realized it was Tommy I had to put my controller down. The starting section of playing as Abby I felt was so on the nose in its goal of trying to get me to sympathize with Abby's friends, some of whom Ellie has already killed, that I felt like I was being forced to feel emotions. But this... this I was not expecting. The fact that without knowing it I had to adamantly wanted to kill Tommy was alarming to me. I read a comment online that The Last of Us: Part II makes the controller heavy to hold, and I don't think there's a better example of that weight than the Marina sequence.

The third crucial point was on the Serphaite island, right after Yara dies, and Lev, with his hands bloody, tells Abby that it was her people that did this. Her people that killed his sister. In response to which Abby grabs him by the shoulders and says "you are my people!" A simple line, sure, but one that I found extremely genuine thanks in large part to Laura Bailey's amazing performance.

It's at this point that I'd like to move from talking about the game itself to the conversations surrounding it. In the two weeks that it's been since I finished The Last of Us: Part II, the dialogue I've seen regarding the game has been disappointing and concerning. I talked about this toxicity in an article two months ago and was hoping that it would change upon the game's release. However, I see now that the well has been poisoned, and to untaint the water is a near-impossible task. But I'd like to try.

For a long time, there has been a resounding voice in the gaming community asking for innovation among AAA games. Indie games have always been more experimental in nature, but the big studio games, which often have millions of dollars in the budget, started to get stale. People grew tired of the iterative yearly releases that offered little extra content and took zero risks.

It is into this market that Naughty Dog released their riskiest game yet, knowing full well that the game will be polarizing. The Last of Us: Part II isn't a fun game to play. It's not one you pick to unwind after a long day of work. In many ways, it tests the players and their beliefs. It presents a morally ambiguous scenario after a morally ambiguous scenario to make the player question the game's characters and themselves. It isn't often that a game decides to test more than a player's patience. While I am in no way saying that this is or should be the future of all games, I do believe that having these sorts of probative conversations is essential to the progression and evolution of video games as a whole.

It's hard to deny that fans taking ownership of a fictional character is one of the most flattering things a creator can experience. As a writer myself, I find it extremely gratifying when someone deeply connects with my story or it's characters. But at the end of the day, it's important to recognize that no matter how attached you may get, these characters are beyond your control. Especially in a linear narrative like The Last of Us, as opposed to a more branching storyline found in Telltale games. At no point in The Last of Us, Part I or Part II, does the player get the choice to answer a question with dialogue options or choose to kill or spare a character. Plus, as the first game hints at and the second reinforces, in a world as relenting as the one in The Last of Us, there are no happy endings. So to rant about unbelievable characters and create petitions for an alternative ending is not only pointless but an antithesis to the storytelling Naughty Dog has mastered over the last few decades.

Then there are those in denial. People who believe that the game didn't really sell 4 million copies in its opening weekend. And that the reviews were in fact paid for. And that the games cast of diverse characters are a byproduct of Naughty Dog's political agenda. This is definitely one way to look at it. A narrowminded and nonsensical way, but a way none the less. It's at this time that I want to reiterate something that I've said before on this website. As an Indian man who loves film enough to major in it, and loves video games enough to spend long hours writing about them, I cannot stress the importance of self-representation. Whether it be in movies or games, I don't often see a non-contrived character that looks like me on the screen. It's because of this that whenever possible I try to write and cast people that are like me.

I suppose you can make an argument that that is an agenda. And sure I can give you that. But why is that bad? How is wanting to feel like you belong a negative thing? How is wanting to see myself on the screen disrespectful towards anyone else? And how is what I'm doing any different than what Naughty Dog has done with Part II? There are members in the cast and crew whose identities and experiences are represented through The Last of Us: Part II's characters. On a basic, human level, how is it right to rob them of that feeling?

Which brings us to the DMs. For those who don't know, actress Laura Bailey and game director Neil Druckmann, along with anyone who seemingly has anything positive to say about The Last of Us: Part II, have received scores of death threats and vile messages. As I said already, connecting deeply with a fictional character is perfectly normal. In fact, one of the best things about reexperiencing a story, be it in a book, TV show, or game, is the chance to revisit beloved characters. But there has to be a barrier that separates reality from fiction. And the severity of these messages shows how hard it is for some people to accept that. Threatening someone's two-year-old child or making blanketed anti-semitic statements is not only inexcusable, but also represents the lowest point the gaming community has fallen to in a long time.

This is not to say the game is devoid of criticisms. While I feel that each decision in the game was a deliberate one, I won't argue with anyone who feels the game's pacing was rough. The ramping up of Ellie's storyline only to hard cut away at the peak of it to Abby's point of view can be jarring. And while the game is technically a gold standard, on my launch PlayStation 4 there was some foliage pop-in during the early hours of the game. Although these pop-ins were so infrequent I can count them on one hand and they never really bothered me. There will also be a group of people that will make it to the end and due to some series of reasons that will vary person to person, they just won't connect with the game. My remarks about toxic fandom do not apply to those people. Instead, I refer to those who make it their mission to find every single tweet and thread about The Last of Us they can with the sole purpose of belittling or berating someone. Or those that create bigotted and transphobic memes and videos to rip the game apart. I look directly at r/TheLastofUs2, I hide no contempt when I say that this sort of despicable and idiotic discourse hurts the gaming community as a whole a lot more than any morning show segment on the "harmful effects of video games" possibly can.

When I voiced my thoughts on the game in the days following my completion, I received a comment that read: "I don't need to finish the game to know that I don't like it just like I don't need to finish a meal to know it tastes bad." I do agree with the sentiment, I've played several games that I stopped playing because I didn't connect with it after the first few hours. But there is a very big difference between not finishing a meal because you didn't enjoy it and going from table to table in a restaurant ridiculing the customers for their consumption or enjoyment of their food.

With all that said, its time for my conclusion. After the credits rolled, I spent over an hour laying where I was, listening to the menu score, and just staring at some crevice of my room trying to describe the emotions that I felt. Some way to wrap up the review that I was writing in my head. But the truth is that I had nothing. Instead, I reflected on the last 20+ hours of gameplay. The heartbreak and tension and horror and love and hate and levity that I was so wrapped up in. It wasn't a smooth ride the entire time but its impact was a lasting one.

Whether you see it yet or not, The Last of Us: Part II is an important video game. It tells a story that is hard to execute with a similar effect in any other form of media and it does so by utilizing all the benefits afforded to it by its medium. To follow the saying apples to apples, in my reviews I measure the success of a movie with other movies and a game with other games. But I am not limiting my scope to a specific genre or format when I say that The Last of Us: Part II is art. It's painted with meticulous detail by a team of dedicated artists from around the world. Every story beat is purposeful and executed on an industry-leading standard. The game may not be for everyone, and undoubtedly as more people play the game over the coming years, once the cacophony of toxic outrage dies down, they will be able to make up their own mind about it. But for myself (and millions of other players) the intense range of emotions experienced while playing The Last of Us: Part II is so powerful that the game is elevated on a pedestal that all games aspire for but few will ever reach: a masterpiece.

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