The Last of Us 2 Risked Losing Itself In Search of Greatness
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
The game succeeded in becoming a great piece of art and, in so doing, fell victim to its own artistry's potential to divide and offend its players. It is a feat which, in my opinion, makes it greater than we may ever dare to admit.
This editorial contains major spoilers for The Last of Us Part II. The game has been divisive, and we seek your understanding that this is my subjective opinion as a video-game enthusiast. We welcome any healthy discussions, but ask that you remain respectful when doing so.
Context: the (figurative) Death of the Author
To begin, I would like to address a few ellie-phants in the room:
There is a large amount of (mostly speculative) debate surrounding the game's plot and characterisation, such as accusations of Creative Director Neil Druckmann inserting his ego or desire to amplify specific social agendas into the game.
There are gamers who have taken offense to the games' depiction of gender and sexuality. Interestingly, it consists of both gamers for representation (i.e. the execution was not ideal), and gamers against representation (i.e. the representation was forced).
In reference to the above points, this article will discuss the plurality of responses to the game, why we can choose to accept or ignore the grief given to us, and why that is a great thing.
One of the key reasons why I think The Last of Us Part II is so divisive is because of our desire - no, NEED - to insert Neil Druckmann et. al. and what we THINK they are trying to tell us into the equation. It is a natural instinct to do so. After all, this is the way we've been taught to understand any kind of narrative medium.
When seen through such lenses, TLOU2 falls short of expectations because we (mis)understand the death of Joel as Druckmann taking a dump on the legacy of the first game, or perceive the inclusion of characters who don't identify heteronormatively as pandering. The reality is probably a little more complex: the game makes effort to remind us of Joel's bloody legacy, yet reminisces about his relationship with Ellie in equal measure. It walks the tight-rope of presenting Lev's struggle with identity, punctuating it with a plurality of experience with religion. Lev is empowered by the teachings of the Seraphites, rejected by the very same society, and struggles about the violence he has to inflict on his former community.
The intersections of these differing perspectives is where the game shines. If Naughty Dog truly wanted to impose a singular agenda or moralistic intention, it could have taken the easy way out and focused on any one of the elements. Instead, it risked its own legacy to ensure that the text had a literal and figurative variety of voices, each amplified by its own cultural ethos, pathos, and logos. The result is a series of constant acceptance or rejection of the game's implicit and explicit meanings from the player's perspective.
Druckmann, and the larger team at Naughty Dog, are not blind to this. Prior to the game's release, Druckmann expected the game to be divisive amongst its fans. Even if we choose to ignore the possibility that the team set us up for this very debate, we can instead focus on how the text drags us into a what Roland Barthes called a "dialogue of contestation". Intentionally or unintentionally, the plurality of the audience's visceral response is to the game's merit and not its demise.
I know this sounds like a massive cop-out, but I hope you stick around to understand a little more about what I think of TLOU2, as I use two of its central themes - Grief and Revenge - to shed light on why I firmly believe the game is a powerful and impactful one.
Grief & Revenge
The intense and rapid way in which Joel, a character we grew to love despite his flaws, gets his come-uppance left an insatiable void within the game which would never be filled. This was especially so for gamers who played through The Last of Us again in preparation for the game's launch.
"If I ever were to lose you, I'd surely lose myself. Everything I have found dear, I've not found by myself."
Try as Naughty Dog might (or perhaps, they tried exactly as hard as they wanted/needed?), none of the secondary characters in Dina, Jesse, Tommy, Owen, Lev or Manny could individually, or collectively, fill the gaping hole of Joel Miller. Some friends mentioned that the game had so many side-characters we had no time to build meaningful connections with any of them. Regardless of whether that was the authorial intent, I can safely say that it amplified Joel's absence in a profound and moving way.
Even though the supporting characters are arguably more flawed or more bad-ass (Tommy as a sniper struck genuine fear in me) than Joel, there was a connection between Ellie and Joel that is never replicated - and here is where my opinion may differ:
Thank goodness they didn't try (or didn't try harder) to.
We are introduced to Ellie's relationship to Jesse, Dina, and the others of Jackson in the early stages of the game, but the player is left wondering, "what about Joel?"
"Try and sometimes you'll succeed to make this man of me. All my stolen missing parts, I've no need for anymore."
We know he punched a man for being a bigot towards Ellie, and that the two have had a falling out in recent times. The feeling of emptiness draws us closer to Ellie because she, too, yearns for that reconnection with Joel. The game disallows us to play as the two together in the present time, further strengthening the feeling of that rift. The fact that Ellie may never connect with any of the other characters in the same way is accentuated by the contrast between the frictioned dialogue she has with the Jackson-ites, and the moments of ease she shares with Joel in the flashbacks.
This is most evident when Dina and Ellie try to banter on Seattle Day One. It is reminiscent of the painful, awkward banter we got at the beginning of The Last of Us. Back then, it was made palatable because of Ellie's innocence, which continually positioned itself as something which could thin the ice. It is also visible in Ellie's overcompensated endearment towards Dina in The Farm, and how quickly she lets her domestic life go when news of Abby resurfaces.
With Dina and Jesse, it never evolves beyond because Ellie, having watched the man she saw as a father-figure get his face smashed in with a golf club, is rendered incapable of such connections from grief and a desire for revenge. Our visceral reaction - having shared in Ellie's grief - to the deafening sound of silence, or failed attempts at connection with Dina, is dissonating. We hate it. Why is the game trying to make me like Ellie and Dina together? Where is Joel?
It is one of denial, and anger, the first two stages of grief.
"Back when I was feeling broken, I focused on a prayer. You came deep as any ocean, did something out there hear?"
It is precisely what Ellie is going through. That yearning for something we know to be gone to return, and the anger at it never returning. This is where most people are/were at when they first saw the leaked scenes of Joel's death, or encountered it first-hand in the game.
The game trudges along the other stages of grief, and we are forced to deal with it at our own time and in our own way. Some of us remain in anger at the game for making us feel this way because video-games are not supposed to do this to us. We may take months, even years, maybe never, to finally let that anger go to give the game another chance. I found myself reading and watching reviews to make sense of my feelings, bargaining with the plurality of voices online to come to terms with the loss.
Ultimately, the journey is as much Ellie's as it is our own. My personal struggle to keep the game going mirrors the depression that Ellie feels when she reluctantly says "it has to be [good enough]" that she only managed to take down Abby's associates without making any headway in her hunt for her.
Before the game allows you, or Ellie, to find acceptance, you are both thrust back into grief, with Jesse lying dead at Abby's feet and Tommy held at gunpoint. Ellie finally talks to Abby and acknowledges Joel's sins. It is at this moment where the game grabs you by the throat and forces you to sit through three Seattle Days again - this time, as Abby.
All the complexities and games, no one wins but somehow they're still played. All the missing crooked hearts, they may die but in us they live on
In one narrative stroke, the game drives home one of its most important thematic conflicts without offering us a definitive solution: grief, suffering, revenge, forgiveness (or the lack thereof) are headlocked. The game challenges you to walk literal miles in the shoes of the antagonist-made-protagonist and, depending on how much you hated Abby, you might have instead relished at the thought (for once) of dying to the Infected or letting a character fall off a skyscraper.
Here, the game holds you ransom because you can't arrive at the resolution without enduring the second half of the game. Trust me when I say I did not immediately enjoy being held ransom at all. But, ultimately, you realise the only meaningful way is forward, and so you push on as Abby attempts a redemption arc that keeps you contiually questioning "Why is the game trying to make me like Abby?". Again, hold off authorial intention and focus not on what the game is (supposedly) trying to tell you and instead focus on why you feel that way and the answer becomes clearer:
I am refusing to play as Abby because I still hate Abby's guts for killing Joel. The game is challenging me to find how much it would take for me to like Abby, and asking me to ask "why?"
And then we realise again that no amount of (virtual) bloodshed can purge something this deep within us. The real question then becomes: would anything EVER do it?
Abby's arc, when given a chance, comes into its own as a wonderful mirror and reflection to Ellie's. Girlfriend Reviews made a really good video exploring the mirroring of Ellie and Abby which we find to be balanced and insightful, and explored how the game questions the player's beliefs. But, beyond the mirroring of Abby and Ellie, I'd like to highlight at this point another form of mirroring happening in the game: the game's relationship with Pearl Jam's Future Days.
When hurricanes and cyclones raged, when winds turned dirt to dust, When floods they came or tides they raised, ever closer became us
You probably already noticed me scattering these lyrics across the article, but I think this is where the parallelism becomes the strongest: the dichotomous mirrors of Ellie and Abby are brought closer to each other through metaphorical and literal rage, dirt, dust, floods, and rain. More importantly, we the players are also privy to these journeys and our continued acceptance or rejection of these trials as meaningful bring us closer or further away from the characters we embody.
One of my key criticisms of this game is that certain gameplay portions could definitely have been made shorter with less busywork of stairs, cables, filling generators with gas, or groups of enemies. No one was really keeping count of which storey Abby was on in the skyscrapers during The Descent. This was most obvious in the final Act as you navigate the Rattlers' base. Though the sequence was relatively shorter than many of the rest, it felt like an age because you could smell the end coming.
Nevertheless, when we finally arrive at the denouement and examine the wreckage surrounding The Last of Us/Them, the truth of the matter is that grief and revenge - in all their ugly complexities - have been laid bare for us not just to see, but to feel. Every reluctant or enthusiastic dodge, punch, and slice we execute as Ellie in the final brawl between the two does as much damage to its recipient as it does to the sender.
Eventually, Ellie's psychological inability to keep Abby's head underwater and complete the "super-objective" of the game leaves us filled with emptiness or frustration - and whatever we feel, it is okay. The beauty in this moment's complexity is that the game asks of the player to choose which of Ellie's complex emotions to believe in: the frustration at having failed to do what she was supposed to accomplish, or the emptiness of having completely lost control.
Having craved a moralistic or satisfying ending, the game robs us of that closure by reminding us that - revenge taken or not - closure is something that we find within ourselves, for ourselves, and by ourselves.
All the promises at sundown, I've meant them like the rest. All the demons used to come round, I'm grateful now they've left. So persistent in my ways, hey Angel I am here to stay. No resistance, no alarms, please, this is just too good to be gone
The Last of Us Part II was not a conventionally enjoyable game to play - and, in that regard, one can say that it was not a good one. However, it was a deeply engaging one and, whether you like it or not, the fact that there has been almost a month's worth of debate, discussion, and negativity surrounding the game is proof of that. The only conceivable charge against The Last of Us Part II is that it asked a lot from its gamers.
It asked of us to live in a grey world where people and factions continually Other those who aren't like them.
It asked of us to grieve, and then asked of us to live in the shoes of the people who create this grief.
It asked of us to have our beliefs and convictions challenged and then asked us how far we would go to hang on to them.
The game ultimately succeeded in drawing out our own visceral reactions to grief, and activated our desire for revenge - which some have ridiculously redirected on Abby's voice actress. For some of us, we would have gone all the way - whatever it takes - and hated Ellie for not following through. For some of us, we would have been willing Ellie to stop after a mere two hours into the game.
For The Last of Us, the question was never so much of what we would do, but why we would do it. And having experienced the plurality of "why"s in my mind, and online, I have no doubts that the game has achieved the greatness it set out for.