We need to talk about The Last of Us Part 2
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Written by Larry
The Last of Us Part 2 is a video game developed by Naughty Dog, who is known for their cinematic storytelling in video games. The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic world where mutations infect humans and transform them into feral mushroom-like creatures. It follows the story of Joel and Ellie who traverse their way across the country to develop a potential vaccine for this disease.
What made the first game popular was the relationship between Joel and Ellie. This father-daughter relationship and character development paved the way for strong storytelling in video games. No game was quite like it at the time when it was released. Everyone was definitely looking forward to the second iteration of this franchise and wanted to see where it could go.
Enter The Last of Us Part 2.
And critics praised it.
But users criticized it.
I couldn’t believe it myself. I thoroughly enjoyed the first game and wondered how Naughty Dog could divide a well-established story. So I bought the game like any other fan and found out just why everyone else, including myself, disliked it.
Before we begin, here is a list of important characters.
Joel (Ellie’s father figure)
Tommy (Joel’s brother)
Dina (Ellie’s girlfriend, Jesse’s ex-gf)
Jesse (A friend of Ellie’s, Dina’s ex-bf)
Abby (protagonist / antagonist)
Owen (Abby’s ex-bf)
Lev (Abby’s friend and companion)
Essentially, the game boils down to this.
Ellie and Dina go on patrol.
We are introduced to Abby and play as her.
This indicates we will likely be switching characters frequently.
Ellie is notified Joel hasn’t returned from his patrol.
Abby encounters a blizzard and a horde and gets saved by Joel and Tommy.
They get overwhelmed and can’t retreat back to their settlement. Abby suggests they go to her shelter.
Back at the shelter, Abby and friends shoot Joel and restrain Tommy.
Ellie explores and finds the shelter.
Gets captured by Abby’s friends.
Joel is killed by his captives in front of Ellie.
Ellie and Tommy are spared.
So far, the prologue sets up the events for the rest of the story. It’s not a bad setup for the kind of story Naughty Dog wants to tell. People criticize how Joel isn’t the type of person to trust easily, etc., but this post will not talk about Joel’s character, but how the rest of the game fudges the storytelling.
Here’s the rest of the game.
Ellie and Dina (girlfriend) discover Abby is from a group called the WLF, who is from Seattle.
Tommy goes to Seattle. Ellie and Dina follow after him.
They explore Seattle and encounter WLF.
Ellie and Dina rest. Dina reveals she is pregnant. Jesse is the father.
Ellie is outnumbered and is saved by Jesse, who followed the pair shortly after they left.
Ellie finds Abby’s hiding place and goes after her. Jesse, however, prioritizes finding Tommy. They split off.
Ellie does not find Abby, but another set of Abby’s friends at the hiding place and kills them both. Jessie and Tommy rally with Ellie.
The three return to their hideout. Abby shows up and kills Jesse.
The players play as Abby.
The players play as Abby.
There’s something utterly wrong with this method of storytelling. At this point in the story, we start to develop a bond with Dina and Jesse, two characters who are new to the series, and now we have to play as the person who killed Jesse.
This is one of the worst things you can ever make a player do. I gave up the game after it switched me to Abby. It felt wrong to play as the antagonist in this situation because every setup and every encounter made you despise her.
The rest of the game has you play Abby until you reach the epilogue. We get to see a few things from Abby’s perspective. In a flashback, we find out Abby was a victim because in the first game, Joel killed Abby’s father. As the story resets back to the present, we discover every enemy we killed as Ellie had a name and meant something to someone. The WLF weren’t bad guys because they educate children and have their own society. They also took care of dogs and have a life just like everyone else. Taking vengeance on the WLF by killing all their friends and soldiers was bad because it was out of madness for Joel. In contrast, Abby wasn’t a bad person because she didn’t kill every single person she encountered like Ellie, and because she let go of Ellie and Tommy.
The problem with this setup is the buildup. The entire time we are set with one perspective for around ten hours of gameplay and story. As such, we adapt Ellie’s mindset and take it in as our priorities and goals for the rest of the game. Kill Abby. Do whatever it takes to get to her. This is especially true because we aren’t just playing Ellie in Seattle, but reliving her flashbacks and memories with Joel. These moments build resentment towards Abby because she took this away from us. The character switch to Abby destroys that immersion as we have to rewire ourselves to Abby’s perspective.
Alternatively, the game should have constantly switched between Ellie and Abby so we could see the conflict from both sides. Maybe, just maybe, we would’ve had a bit of sympathy for Abby.
But because there was no foundation or buildup for Abby, NO ONE sympathized with her. No one cared about her. Having your audience not care about a core character in your story is bad storytelling. It’s also telling the players, “You sided with Ellie and you should feel bad you did because Abby is human just like everyone else.” This statement is odd because as the audience, we never had a choice to begin with.
Abby lets Ellie go.
Time passes by. Dina has her child, JJ, named after Joel and Jesse. Tommy finds Abby’s whereabouts and tells Ellie. Dina threatens to leave Ellie if she goes off. Ellie goes off and hunts down Abby.
Ellie and Abby fight. Ellie loses her fingers.
Ellie remembers Joel and then lets her go.
It’s almost as if Ellie forgot that Abby killed the most important person in her life (and her wife’s baby daddy).
Ellie leaves and goes back home, returning to an empty house. Dina has left. Ellie can no longer play guitar (a gift that Joel left Ellie).
Cut to black.
This game is about revenge. How killing doesn’t solve everything nor does it ease the guilt, suffering, and pain of grieving.
That’s actually an okay theme. However, the problem is that this game does a terrible job telling you that it’s about this. Everyone misses this point because we are distracted by the bait-and-switch and the force feeding of sympathy and empathy of a character we’ve already been established to despise.
The thing about themes is that every aspect and mechanic of a story should reinforce it. Owen mentions leaving WLF because he’s tired of the lifestyle. His character moments with Abby were a missed opportunity to say something about revenge. Lev, for some reason, pleads Abby not to kill Ellie at the end, and was also a missed opportunity to say something about it. Abby and Lev never have a conversation why she stopped her. At the end, we see a conversation between Joel and Ellie, but never about why Ellie made her decision to not kill Abby in the end.
Like me, if that story left a bad taste for you, here are three stories about revenge and its consequences that do a better job than The Last of Us Part 2.
Heavy Rain (video game)
You play as the main protagonist, Ethan, whose son is kidnapped and becomes a victim of a serial killer. Ethan seeks revenge and justice for his son.
The Terror: Infamy (tv show)
A Japanese community is haunted by a spirit who seeks revenge upon those who have forsaken and forgotten her.
A technophobe becomes quadriplegic after hitmen assassinate his wife. In order to find his wife’s killers, he installs an operating system into his brain to control his body and take vengeance.
The Last of Us Part 2 had potential to be a decent story, but completely misses the mark on what they were trying to say about revenge and grief because of unconventional storytelling methods that did more harm than good.