On June 14, 2013, The Last of Us Part I released worldwide for the PlayStation 3. While not apart of a massive hyped up launched, the title went on to sell 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million copies by April 2018. The main appeal to Part I was easily the narrative. Players took control of Joel Miller, a Texan father turned smuggler in a post-apocalypse United States as he was tasked with smuggling 14-year-old Ellie across the country. Players experienced Naughty Dog masterfully use a cliche “cure humanity and save the world” plot as a vehicle to drive the overall story of Joel rediscovering his humanity in Ellie after his daughter was killed back on Outbreak Day.
The Last of Us Part I was a masterpiece in every extent of the word. Part I had one of the greatest video game narratives of all time. For the time, Part I also had impressive graphics, incredible gameplay, and impeccable sound design. It was a game that Naughty Dog themselves thought that would be the end of the development studio. However, they struck gold by crafting a bold story that, while not anything new, was meticulously crafted in a way that changed the way narrative based games were made.
It makes complete sense then that when The Last of Us Part II was announced back in 2016, it became one of the most anticipated games of the PlayStation 4 generation. Part II seemed to focus on an older Ellie and her quest to “kill every last one of them.” Anticipation stayed sky high until late April 2020, when major plot details were leaked online. Since these leaks, a wave of hate and criticism descended upon Part II, as a section fans believed the game would be completely trash. This was the prevailing view up until the launch of Part II on June 19th, 2020 when the game was review-bombed just hours after release.
The Last of Us Part I is an absolute masterpiece. I don’t think that is a hot take. However, I will die on the hill saying that The Last of Us Part II, while not a masterpiece especially to the extent that Part I is, still presents a great narrative. And I am going to go through some of the main things that have caused the most discussion and what it is I like/dislike about those things.
First off, I want to be perfectly clear that it is okay to not like or even hate this game. It is fine to simply say that the game isn’t for you or that you didn’t like the direction that creative director Neil Druckmann took this game. The thing that I hate seeing are people saying that the game is objectively bad because those people simply didn’t like a few things that happened in the narrative. Before I dive deep in defending the narrative, however, I want to address my biggest criticism in regards to the story within with The Last of Us Part II: Abby’s story.
Abby is introduced to players as we watch her torture and murder Joel as payback for Joel killing her father at the end of the first game. When players take her over 12 hours later, you see Abby’s life in Seattle after the act. Naughty Dog is the best game studio when it comes to the little details, but when it came to Abby’s section in Part II, there were a lot of things that could have been portrayed better. We see that killing Joel didn’t give Abby the closure she sought out, and we see that she was feeling guilt, but it 100% could have been portrayed a lot better.
Abby’s story coming right after we as Ellie kill all of Abby’s friends also diminishes a lot of the impact her story could have had. I really liked Owen as a character, but it was hard to really give a shit about his relationship with Abby because I just saw him bleed out on the aquarium floor not even six hours ago. How am I supposed to feel for their relationship if I know he’s dead and nothing will come of it for them? All that said, the biggest problem with Abby’s story is that it is too similar to Joel’s redemption from Part I.
I know a lot of people will hate me for saying this but it’s honestly true. A hardened killer commits egregious acts fitting their demeanor. They realize that the acts they committed in the name of survival made them a shitty person regardless. They meet a teenager without anyone in their life, they bond, and the hardened killer finds the opportunity to redeem themselves through that teenager. That’s an oversimplified version of both arcs. And Abby’s version just didn’t hit as much because I had seen it before.
Even though there were a lot of things Naughty Dog mishandled when it came to Abby’s story, there were things they did incredibly well that do save it from being completely terrible. Her dream progression was absolutely perfectly done in my opinion. When we first switch to Abby, we relive Abby running down the hall in the Firefly hospital, opening the operating room door, and see her father there dead. We can see through this that killing Joel didn’t bring her any closure whatsoever.
That nightmare is jarring enough to wake Abby up, and we don’t see another dream sequence with her until after she is saved by Yara and Lev. The dream starts with her running down the corridor of the Firefly Hospital, as with the first dream. However, instead of seeing her father this time, she sees Yara and Lev, beaten and hung with their stomachs sliced open. This dream does a few things. It creates a parallel between her situation with those kids and the situation surrounding her Dad’s death. Abby was unable to save her Dad from Joel, but she had the chance to save these kids from certain death. I also think it plays into the guilt she feels over Joel’s killing.
Think about it from this angle: the last person we saw save Abby’s life was Joel. And under normal circumstances, Abby probably wouldn’t have hauled off and killed him. However, she was so consumed with anger, rage, and this lust for revenge that she did it regardless. She realized it was a mistake, and she sees this as an opportunity to at least attempt to rectify the situation. While she knows it won’t completely absolve her of that sin, it’s a start and a sign of growth.
And after she saves the two kids from certain death, and gathers the materials needed to amputate Yara’s arm, she has the dream again. This time, she doesn’t spring to the end of the hall. Instead, she jogs as a bright light pours into the corridor like a proverbial light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel. When she opens the door, she sees not her Dad’s corpse or any image involving a mangled body. Instead, her Dad is there, happy and healthy. She wakes up peacefully for the first time, and in that moment, she lets go of the anger and the hatred. She comes to peace with everything and wants to move on and grow as a person.
Her dream progression added a lot to her character for me and honestly was one of the main reasons I don’t outright hate her or her story. And as a side note, I don’t think Abby should be included in The Last of Us Part III, unless you plan on doing a prequel. Abby’s story is pretty much complete.
Allow me to start off with the only criticism with Ellie’s section: her dynamic with Dina. I feel like the relationship with Dina was almost rushed in the beginning, and there were parts of the Seattle section where it didn’t really seem like their love story lacked a spark. I didn’t get the feeling that they were soulmates like the game presented them as. The scenes on the farm fixed this to an extent, and Ellie’s journal entries between her departure from the farm and her arrival at Abby’s sailboat in Santa Barbara were a nice touch.
Overall, I thought Ellie’s story was the best part of this game, and she was handled really well. I don’t see where everyone keeps getting this feeling that the game painted Ellie as a villain. Defending this point with “oh well Ellie does bad things but Abby does good things” is a not a good point to make. Abby and Ellie’s story’s are mirrors of each other. Abby already got the revenge that Ellie seeks. When we play as Abby, she is coming to grips with the fact that it didn’t bring her peace.
We see the atrocities Ellie commits because she is still at this point of being consumed by anger and hatred. She is at the beginning of Abby’s story whereas Abby is at the falling action of Ellie’s. If we been introduced to Abby’s story at the very beginning of her hatred, we would have seen her do some incredibly atrocious things as a means to an end in her overall goal of becoming a hardened killer to kill Joel.
Furthermore, Ellie quite clearly doesn’t enjoy killing these people. Killing Nora fucked her all the way up because up until that point, she killed in the name of survival. With Nora, it was so much more personal than any other life she had taken. The comments about Joel were like a hot knife that poked and prodded at the still raw feelings that consumed Ellie after his death. It was way too close to home for her, much like killing Mel was. The revelation that she was pregnant made Ellie immediately think of Dina, who was also pregnant. And she realized that, while she didn’t want to let it go, she had to let it go.
And while I do agree that the entire Santa Barbara section could have been cut from this game, I honestly don’t hate the ending. Yes, you are right in saying that this is a revenge plot, the overall story is so much more. Naughty Dog used the revenge plot as a vehicle to tell the overall story of Ellie coming to grips with the greatest loss she had ever experienced. The first game did something similar. Part I used a “save mankind” plot as a vehicle to tell the overall story of Joel redeeming himself through Ellie and regaining his humanity. It would be weird of you to be angry at Naughty Dog for not curing humanity in Part I, and I think it’s weird to be mad at them for not “exacting revenge” in Part II.
Ellie doesn’t leave The Farm to kill Abby. She leaves in search of control. Think about it. Ever since the night before Part II begins, Ellie has had control over herself. She was in control when it came to distancing herself from Joel, she was in control when it came to her social group, etc. However, when Abby and the WLF enter the picture, she no longer has control. She wasn’t in control when it came to Joel’s death. She wasn’t in control when it came to Dina being pregnant and thus changing the entire nature of the trip to Seattle. She wasn’t in control during the confrontation in the theatre where she was beaten senseless and had to watch as Dina suffered a similar fate. And she wasn’t really in control of her life on The Farm due to her crippling PTSD episodes that quite literally limited her ability to function as an adult.
In leaving the farm, she starts to slowly regain this control. And she probably had it in her head that she needed to kill Abby in order to completely regain that control. Yet, as the fight with Abby unfolded, she realized she didn’t have to kill her, and I don’t think Ellie expressly wanted to kill Abby deep down. When Ellie had her in the water, gasping for any semblance of air to prolong her life just a bit further, Ellie realized that she was in control once again. And that, along with the interest of ending the cycle of violence, she let Abby go.
One thing I really liked was the parallel between Abby’s dreams and Ellie’s PTSD flashbacks. Abby’s dreams go from tortured and disturbing, to a peaceful depiction of her father, happy and healthy. Ellie’s flashbacks are the same way. We see a jarring, disturbing flashback of Ellie being unable to enter the basement Joel is being tortured in as he is crying out for her help. The image of Joel dead is the image that prompts Ellie to instigate the fight with Abby on the beach, and when she finally regains that control over herself, we see Joel happy and healthy playing the guitar.
These two characters found closure in their own way, and the dreams/visions were a nice visualization of that internal journey.
For full disclosure, Joel is my favorite fictional character of all time. He didn’t have otherworldly superpowers, he wasn’t this all good hero, and he didn’t fill some hyper romanticized role like being a super secret spy or anything. He was a relatable character, flaws and all. He was a father, broken by the sudden and brutal loss of not only his daughter, but his way of life as he knew it. It was easy to relate to him.
So believe me when I say that it did hurt to see Joel killed in such a disrespectful manner in Part II, especially at the beginning of the game. It’s a scene that still causes me anxiety when I playthrough the game, and I have a hard time seeing those images of a beaten Joel throughout the game. With all of that said, I don’t think Joel as a character was disrespected in this game. Far from it, if I am being completely honest.
His death scene was disrespectful, but that’s the point. It needs to be disrespectful in order for the story to work. If Joel is just shot in between the eyes, it doesn’t really make sense for Ellie to be so consumed with rage. Joel would have been given a quick death. One of Ellie’s main motivations for going to Seattle was the fact they tortured him. If you read her journal at the beginning of Day 3, you can see it clear as day. She lists our things that she does and doesn’t know regarding Abby’s group. One of the things she’s knows is that Abby’s group “came to Jackson specifically to
kill torture Joel. Killing him wasn’t enough.” Even though we know the goal was to kill Joel, Ellie saw it as their goal was to torture him. And this is why the disrespectful nature of his death is needed.
Now we get to the question of whether or not Joel’s actions leading up to that scene make sense. I believe that he acted reasonably and he wasn’t made to look dumb. Joel had been living in society for four years at this point. He didn’t need to be this distrustful surivior that everyone claims he should be in this situation for whatever reason. He was not only living in a society, but he was living in a society that actively accepted travelers and newcomers alike. They trusted people as a whole, and it is established that Joel was trading with people who were passing through. So spare me the “Joel would have let Abby die” schpel, because that’s just not true.
Hell, even if we go back to the first game, that’s just not established. Joel didn’t leave Henry or Sam to die during Part I. As a matter of fact, he only knew those two for two days and was offering to let them accompany him and Ellie to Wyoming. Why is this? Because he realized that they weren’t a threat. Everyone he was hostile with (Pittsburgh’s hunters, David’s men, etc) attacked him first. They presented themselves as a threat and he reacted in kind. Abby never presents herself as a threat until that moment in the lodge, which is why he doesn’t leave her to die. Even when he’s in the middle of that room, you can tell he doesn’t really trust anyone in the room. He looking around, sizing everyone up, and devising a plan mentally for when things go wrong. Joel doesn’t size Abby up because, as we’ve established, she hasn’t presented herself as a threat yet. When she finally does, it’s too late for Joel to change course.
Joel is still apart of the best moments in this game, too. The Birthday Gift flashback is, in my opinion, the best sequence in the entire series. That was so well done and it showed Joel and Ellie at their highest point. Joel killing the bloater with a machete to save Ellie was one of the most badass things ever done in a video game, you cannot convince me otherwise. It wasn’t the cliche Hollywood sequel that everyone wanted, but I think Joel was handled fine in this game.
One more thing, I don’t think this criticism of “Naughty Dog manipulated you with their trailers” is fair. Yes, they definitely misled you in thinking that it would be another Joel and Ellie adventure, but it wasn’t manipulation. They simply wanted to show you Joel’s importance to the story while not spoiling the reason why Joel is so vital to the narrative. Naughty Dog is not the first creator to implement these types of tactics, and they certainly won’t be the last.
Ultimately, if you don’t like this story, that’s fine, but to use things that you personally don’t like as a vehicle to say this game is objectively terrible is not something I’ll ever agree with. And please, for the love of God, don’t use Ghost of Tsushima as a vehicle to trash the game either. At that point, you’re just admitting your “criticisms” are really found in pure hatred for The Last of Us Part II. Ghost of Tsushima is Game of the Year (another hill I will absolutely die on, sorry TLOU2 fans), but it can be GOTY without you spamming how much Neil Druckmann is a cuck on Reddit or Twitter or something. This goes for TLOU2 fans as well. Don’t use TLOU2 has a vehicle to hate any other game that’s out right now. Basically, just stick to your own if you hate a game so much.
I’ll say it again: The Last of Us Part II has a great narrative, and I will absolutely die on this hill.
Photo Credit: Naughty Dog