Before beginning The Last of Us Part II, I jotted down some of my quick thoughts on worries and hopes for what the game would present to me. The meta-narrative surrounding The Last of Us Part II has dominated the internet for months since the story leaked, and I must acknowledge that even though I avoided leaks, it’s possible my experience with Neil Druckmann’s seminal work was compromised by toxic online discourse. Nevertheless, this is just a journal of my thoughts on my time with Ellie and Abby. I have very mixed feelings about The Last of Us Part II, but ultimately it’s a game about how severing connections brings out the worst in people. You are your worst self when you are alone, and you are at your weakest when you refuse help from others.
Setting aside the story for a moment, The Last of Us Part II is a technical masterpiece. Naughty Dog has definitively pushed the industry forward with their latest game, and all action-adventure games will be held to this standard for years to come. I genuinely couldn’t believe it was running on my base PS4, and moreover that it never once dropped in frame rate. I could sit here listing everything spectacular about The Last of Us Part II… so I will.
The Last of Us Part II features the most intelligent AI I’ve ever seen in an action game, and the cinematic nature of my actions left me awestruck that it was all being generated on the fly. Every action you choose to make looks like a cutscene, regardless of how random you felt your decisions were. Every time I struck someone with a crowbar or threw a grenade at a horde of clickers looked like a movie. This video is a great example of what I mean. None of this was pre-programmed — you’re living inside a procedurally generated movie.
When I was playing as Ellie and accompanied by Jesse, I left a building, walked out in the rain, and pulled out my map. After about 30 seconds spent studying it, I folded up the map and turned to find that Jesse was standing about 30 feet away under a covered awning, waiting for me to finish. Just a few seconds after I started walking, he jogged out to join me in the downpour and asked where we were going next. It’s such a basic thing — humans don’t stand out in the rain while waiting for someone — but this set of data struck me as so human in that moment. There are hundreds of instances of such humanity in the AI in The Last of Us Part II, from characters choosing to passively stand in sun patches after getting wet to absentmindedly petting horses or dogs while in gameplay.
I haven’t even mentioned the lighting effects of running through the forest with a torch, again adapting to whatever way the player wishes to run. I’ve never seen lighting that real, maybe not even in real life.The way that Ellie and Abby actually take apart and modify guns at the workbenches is amazing, and that reminds me that the sound editing is also astoundingly well done. You can hear the individual clinks and clanks of bolts as they modify the guns. On a much more morbid level, you can hear bones and tendons snapping when you kill people. If your headphones are good enough, you can hear the gums separating from teeth as you bash someone’s head in with a pipe. You can hear the waning gurgling of a cultist as you slit their throat wide open and try to hold their organs inside so as not to leave a trail.
Which leads me to my next point. The Last of Us Part II is the most dementedly violent game I’ve ever played, and if there is a game anywhere in the world that revels more in its own violence I do not know of it. More than once I felt so physically ill while playing that I had to shut down my PlayStation for the night. In excruciatingly accurate audial and visual detail, both the player and the NPCs showcase the most sadistic, animalistic violence in our lizard brains when killing one another. If you bash someone’s head in with a bat, pieces of their brain and skull will come flying out. If you cut someones stomach open, their intestines will begin to spill out. Blood spatter patterns are rendered in unbelievable accuracy. At one point, cultists were torturing a woman by breaking her arm with a hammer until the bones visibly came out and then using her own bones to cut the rest of her flesh. I believe I’ve gotten the point across, so I’ll stop here, but The Last of Us Part II has slipped into the “uncanny valley” of video game violence, completely by intention. That is to say, we as humans can disconnect from video game violence because no matter how “realistic” games are, they don’t want to make you uncomfortable. The Last of Us Part II wants to make you sick, and will celebrate when it does.
Alas, we can avoid it no longer; after taking a few days to reflect on it, I still feel that the story of The Last of Us Part II is incredibly stupid. The thesis statement of The Last of Us Part II is that we are weaker when we split apart — we are all weaker when we fight. Yes, I believe that is true. It also tells a story of how revenge will consume you, it will destroy you, it will control you. Yes, that is also true. However, The Last of Us Part II is quite simply a story about a girl who refuses to learn or grow.
Ellie, our protagonist, sets out on a revenge mission, killing hundreds of people indiscriminately to get a chance at killing Abby. When she reaches Abby and attempts to kill her, Abby fights her off and shows mercy by sparing her. Abby, having killed Joel at the beginning of the game, has learned her lesson. She has grown. She is capable of the very basic human process of understanding how her actions were a mistake and that she needs to change. Abby ends this story as a compelling protagonist, and someone who’s story of finding justice in mercy needs to be heard.
Ellie, our beloved deuteroganist from the original The Last of Us, is the villain of the sequel. Over time she has grown hard and cold, and despite the number of people in her life who love her and want desperately to connect with her (Joel, Tommy, Jesse, Dina etc) she has become something else entirely. Spending the last few years in Jackson, surrounded by loving friends and family and a structured life, I have a very hard time believing this is the woman she became. Consumed by hatred, revenge, ready to lead anyone who loves her to slaughter. The Last of Us Part II treats Ellie’s singular act of mercy at the end as some sort of act of heroism — it is not. This is where the story’s fatal flaw comes in. Ellie is irredeemable. She is despicable by the game’s own design.
Ellie is unable, even after a year of time to learn, grow or change in any way, to let go of her need for revenge. And it isn’t reactionary. The woman she loves tearfully begs her not to abandon her and their son in the name of avenging an evil man she outwardly hated. But Ellie goes. Remember in Game of Thrones when Jaime runs back to Cersei at the end, even after supposedly learning and growing? Ellie’s story is that for video games. The Last of Us Part II wants the player to believe that Ellie has learned not to rely on hatred and anger to drive her when she and Dina retire to the farm. Then it “subverts expectations” by having her go out and fuck over the only person patient enough to still love her. It’s so wildly out of character I can barely put it into words. Ellie’s actions are for the sake of pushing the narrative that Druckmann wanted, not the other way around. At the end, I found myself asking how I could possibly care about Ellie at all anymore. She failed me, and through her Naughty Dog failed me. Yes, I am being dramatic, but I was very much looking forward to this game.
But, at the end of the day, this is just a video game, and a damn impressive one at that. Many reviewers felt it was something more, but I assure you it is not. While parts of the story were brilliant (such as the opening and Abby and Lev’s story), any positive commendations for the story as a whole unit are completely beyond my comprehension. Druckmann has presented himself to be sort of the anti-Hideo Kojima once again: Druckmann’s broad story beats are almost nonsensical, but his line-to-line writing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Contrast that to Kojima, whose line-to-line writing borders on gibberish, but has produced some insanely intelligent story maps. By the time the credits roll, Druckmann has nothing to say except “don’t kill hundreds of people in pursuit of killing one person. Killing is bad.” Thanks Neil, I missed that day of Kindergarten, I guess.
Final Verdict: 8/10 — Thematic Dissonance in a Technical Masterpiece
You may be surprised after my very cynical review of The Last of Us Part II, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the genre. I get it. It’s just a sad story about a miserable woman, but that doesn’t mean it’s badly written — it’s just not a story I want to hear or consume. I’ve realized that what I really don’t like about the story is all stuff that other people have imposed on it in discussions. Not anything that the actual game says. I think I’ve just been angry at people who are calling this the greatest thing of all time and don’t understand the story and I’ve been taking it out on the game itself.
As I stated before, it will most certainly push the entire gaming industry into the future. If I were to discount the story altogether, it might even be a perfect 10. But that’s not the world we live in, is it? Maybe The Last of Us Part II, a cynical look at how a pandemic will cause people to revert to their animalistic violent tendencies, could have come out at a better time. I’m trying not to blame Naughty Dog, as they obviously didn’t know, but this story must be analyzed as a product of this time. The Last of Us Part II delivers a message that we’ve all heard a thousand times before and then pats itself on the back for doing so. This should have been a story about Abby and Lev in the universe of The Last of Us; I strongly believe Ellie didn’t need to be a part of it. She’ll go down in gaming history as one of our most sadistic villains ever, and I hope Druckmann feels that using her as a vehicle for his weird art piece was worth it.