The Last of Us Part II released back on June 19, and was one of the biggest hot button issues on the internet even before that date. The highly anticipated sequel suffered backlash due to leaked narrative beats that, for many, ruined the game. The game was then subsequently review bombed on Metacritic just a few hours after it’s release. The review bombing was so egregious and knee-jerk that Metacritic made it so you couldn’t post a review for Ghost of Tsushima until around 36 hours after it’s release in July. These days, The Last of Us Part II discourse has seemed to die down a bit, so I wanted to revisit this game when emotions aren’t really running high. I don’t want to waste your time here, so let’s begin.
Was TLOU2 A Failure?
TLOU2 has been lauded as the game of a generation by some, and a complete and utter failure by others. It was either a groundbreaking masterpiece or another game muddied by politics. The obvious question here is, which is it? Well, financially speaking, it is 100% a success. TLOU2 sold four million copies at launch, and has become the third highest grossing Playstation game in the United States. Whether you hate this game or completely love it, Naughty Dog and Sony are rolling in the money as I type this.
The question now becomes whether or not that financial success means anything if the game received a ton of hate and backlash. I honestly think that, even if you remove the financial aspect, this game was a success. The game was review bombed on Metacritic, and that is evidence that this game isn’t universally loved. However, look at the review scores on sites like Amazon. If you go on Amazon, the game has a rating of 4.6/5 stars on 9,793 reviews, and 82% of reviewers gave it 5 stars out of 5. Now, I am not going to claim that this is indicative of a true masterpiece and disregard those who don’t like the game, but I also don’t think the Metacritic score is reflective of the true public reception of this game.
TLOU2 also has an incredibly impressive 60% completion percentage, which is the highest completion rate in PS4 history. That means, for all the criticism about pacing and the game’s length (I’ll get into these later), the majority of people who play this game are intrigued enough to finish it. Say what you will for how depressing this game is, or how it may rely too much on torture porn, the bottom line is TLOU2 is catching people’s attention and keeps it long enough for player’s to see the game through until the end. If that isn’t a sign of a success, I’m not entirely sure what is.
Revisiting The Narrative
I have already written about the game’s narrative, which is a piece you can read here, but I want to take sometime to touch on a few things I didn’t get to when writing that first piece. As I noted in that first piece, it’s fine to dislike the game if you legitimately just didn’t like it. However, I’ll be returning to that point later in this article.
The Last of Us Part II does have it’s flaws, but I do still feel that it is an incredibly amazing game. TLOU2 is one of the most emotionally taxing and thought provoking games I have ever played. I thought the character motivations and actions were grounded in the reality of their world. And while there were obvious pacing issues and that one fucking scene in Abby’s section of the game, I don’t feel like there’s anything here that kills the story for me. Now, there are a few arguments that have been made against this story that I’d like to address here because I didn’t in the piece I linked above.
First, I’ve seen a lot of people upset that Ellie is seemingly out of character in Part II, and that her motivations are inconsistent from Part I to Part II. I think this is a misunderstanding of certain beats in the first game. In the first game, Ellie has the chance to go back to Jackson with Joel and to forget all about the Fireflies. However, she can’t let their adventure mean nothing, because she has done horrible things along the way. She says it plain as day. “After all we’ve been through. Everything that I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.” She wants to continue on because she is questioning her actions and needs something to justify those as means to an end. Her immunity is a way for all of that to mean something, and in turn, she needed her immunity to mean something.
Furthermore, the violence she commits in Part II is actually foreshadowed in Part I. In Part I, Ellie is kidnapped and nearly eaten by a man named David. After going through an incredibly tense boss fight with this man, Ellie hacks his face to pieces with a machete. Clearly, she was traumatized, and committing this kind of violence in this way shows how Ellie reacts to traumatic situations. While Naughty Dog probably wasn’t signaling a sequel with this scene at the launch of Part I in 2013, it still serves as a bit of unintentional foreshadowing given its context.
Ellie’s motivations and actions fit quite well given that context from Part I. Ellie is struggled at the end of Part I with Joel’s lie, and in Part II she is angry with him after finding out the truth. She’s given him multiple chances to come clean about it all and he lied to her face. That, added in with the fact that Joel is the reason that her immunity meant nothing, her frustration makes sense given what we know from Part I. As it pertains to the violence, we saw in Part I how Ellie reacts to traumatic incidents. There is probably nothing more traumatic that Ellie has seen in her life than her father being brutally murdered with a golf club. So, I’d argue that the violence is also consistent given the context from Part I. As for why it affects her so much, I touched on that in the link above.
Next, I want to touch on this argument that Abby is irredeemable and that she’s a psychopath. I would argue that if you find Abby irredeemable, logically you have to find Joel irredeemable too. Both of those characters are more alike that most people want to admit. Their “redemption arcs” are basically the same thing. A person who isn’t naturally a piece of shit is hardened due to traumatic loss and the cutthroat world they live in. This person then is paired with a teenage child and has to embark on an emotionally grueling journey with them. As this journey progresses, this person forms a bond with the teenager and finds an opportunity to repent for their sins through that teenager. It’s the same thing, yet people seem to miss this.
I’m not even sure how this was missed. I criticized the pacing of Abby’s story in Part II in my first piece. After playing the game a few more times, however, I have to admit that they beat you over the head with the comparisons to Joel quite often. Personally, it didn’t change anything for me, but Naughty Dog really wanted you to notice the similarities and were shameless in that pursuit at times. Joel and Abby have both killed innocent people countless times, they both became disillusioned with a group they had collaborated with, and both people then killed members of that group to pursue their new life epiphany. So, given these extreme similarities, I beg the question: how is Abby irredeemable but Joel isn’t?
If your answer is “Abby is a psychopath while Joel isn’t,” have a seat, because I’ve got a counter-argument for that too. Abby isn’t really shown to enjoy killing people. Even the scene where she kills Joel, she has a look of displeasure and maybe even underlying regret because the weight of her father’s death wasn’t lifted from her brolic shoulders. The one scene people have quoted as proof that she enjoys killing people happens after the boss fight with Ellie. Abby is attacked by Dina at the end, and Abby has the chance to kill Dina. Ellie attempts to stop Abby by revealing that Dina is pregnant. Abby is undeterred, and even has a bit of a sick smile on her face before she’s stopped by Lev.
To say that this scene is proof that Abby is a psychopath, in my opinion, is to ignore nuance. Let’s get rid of Ellie’s perspective for a moment and look at the events of Day 3 from Abby’s perspective. She needs to get a boat from the marina but is attacked by Tommy, who also killed her roommate. After righting through a literal civil war, and escaping death countless times, she comes home to find her dog, her pregnant friend, and the man she loves murdered in cold blood. Now, bringing Ellie’s perspective back, we know that it was self defense. Mel attacked Ellie after Ellie was attacked by Owen. We understand this context, but Abby doesn’t know this. Had she known it was in self defense, I doubt Abby would have reacted that way. However, she doesn’t, which makes her actions in that scene are completely understandable.
If either of these two show psychopathic tendencies, it’s Joel. One of the first things we see after the prologue is Joel breaking a man’s arm without a hint of remorse. Later in the game we literally see him torture two people, and it even seems like he revels in that violence. Then, at the end, he slaughters the Fireflies and never regrets that action. Now, I can hear you screaming “but Joel was torturing/slaughtering them to get to Ellie! And Robert wronged Joel, of course he isn’t remorseful!” I know It’s almost like you can drum up any narrative you want if you disregard the context needed to counter your desired narrative and that context is extremely important.
The next thing I want to talk about is this narrative that Naughty Dog tries to punish the player for the violence committed in the game. I don’t really see how the player is punished for the violence committed in the game. My reasoning for this is simple: the player is not apart of this story. Obviously, Naughty Dog wanted to evoke certain emotions from the player, but you are not supposed to inject yourself into this story. When you do this, it is easy to see why people feel they’re being punished for the violence committed. However, if you just step back and see this game as Ellie’s story, I feel it becomes apparent that the game punishes Ellie for the things she’s done, and even punishes Abby for the things she’s done.
And make no mistake, Abby does get punished for her actions, albeit indirectly. I think her story ties into the main plot more than people think. Don’t get me wrong, it can feel a bit disjointed, but it definitely ties in. Abby killing Joel is the catalyst for Owen’s revelation that he doesn’t care for the WLF. His disappearance is the catalyst for Abby going after him and in doing so, coming to the same realization. It also put her in the position to meet Lev and have her own “Last of Us” story. Abby killing Joel indirectly gets her friends killed, and Abby’s love for Owen drives her to go to Santa Barbara to chase his lead. There, she’s kidnapped, tortured, and left for dead. Not to mention that she sliced to bits and nearly drowned by Ellie. Yeah, she suffered quite a lot.
If Abby doesn’t kill Joel, Owen and Abby don’t become disillusioned with the WLF, Abby doesn’t meet Lev, her friends don’t get killed, and she never goes to Santa Barbara because Owen never decides to chase that lead. Killing Joel is present in just about everything that happens to Abby during her section of the story. Sure, it isn’t up in your face with it, it’s still there. It like how Joel and his lie are present in Ellie’s sections. Joel killing Abby’s Dad lead to his death, his death drove Ellie down her path of destruction, his lie lead to the destruction of their relationship and Ellie’s guilt, etc. And while the game didn’t hit you with it’s own golf club and say “hey remember these other things that happened a little while ago? That’s kinda the reason you’re here!” those things are still there.
If there are arguments that I missed that you feel best show why this story isn’t as amazing as I think it is, I’d love to hear them. I might even compile some of the most popular ones and put them in an article. Who knows?
Other Thoughts I Can’t Quite Categorize
As I mentioned earlier, there are legitimate reasons to dislike the game. Even if the reason is simply, “this game isn’t for me,” that’s legitimate. However, we’ve seen a lot of illegitimate reasons to hate this game. Putting aside the issues that are perceived as political, because fuck opening that can of worms, I do want to touch on some talking points that I believe are illegitimate reasons to call this game objectively trash.
First off, there seems to be a lot of people who think the game is bad for no other reason than Joel being killed. This is an incredibly ridiculous position to hold in my opinion. You can certainly criticize Joel’s death scene itself, sure, but to disregard this entire game for one character death is absurd. I understand being upset about it. I was when I first played through it. Joel is my favorite character in any medium of entertainment. However, I’m not going to allow that fact cloud my judgement. I understand if Joel’s death was too much for you, but to use Joel’s death to gatekeep who is and isn’t a real Last of Us fan is a bunch of bullshit.
Secondly, the argument that playing as Abby makes this game bad. This is also an incredibly absurd position to hold in my opinion. The gaming community, for years, has been wishing for more nuanced and complex stories, yet when a story like this is presented a vocal part of the gaming community cries out that it’s bad because they have to play as a “villain.” This perspective switch is jarring, I get that, but it’s not unheard of. Again, there are legitimate criticisms to be had in regards to her story, I have my own, but the simple act of playing as Joel’s killer is not a reason that this game is bad and is not an example of bad or lazy writing.
I also want point out this weird argument I’ve seen from people recently as well. A criticism I’ve seen is that people “don’t need a video game” to know that revenge is bad. Disregarding the oversimplification of the narrative’s message, I find it weird that the same people who claim that they don’t need a video game to tell them that revenge is bad, yet in the same vain claim that Ellie not avenging Joel’s death by killing Abby is a bad thing. Put in a different way: people will claim that they don’t need a video game to tell them that revenge is bad, yet in the same breath feel that not getting revenge is what’s bad about the ending. I just don’t really understand that line of thinking personally.
Lastly, I want to address the idea that you don’t need to play this game to have a strong opinion on it. I completely disagree with this. I don’t think you need to play the game in order to say whether or not you like it, but you absolutely need to play the game to have a nuanced, informed opinion of the game. “But that doesn’t matter! The story sucks and it won’t change!” You’re absolutely right that the story won’t change, but your experience does. I don’t think I need to go into great detail as to just how different watching a YouTuber’s playthrough is different from actually playing a video game, so I hope this isn’t a hot take when I say that a video game is more impactful when you are the one in control.
You can watch someone playthrough the Hotel Basement in Part I and come out of it saying “holy shit, that looked pretty intense,” but when you actually play that section, you’re more likely to come out saying “holy shit, that was pretty intense.” When you are playing, you are more susceptible to the nuances and story beats in the game, and if it doesn’t work for you after playing it, at least you gave the story the chance. Think about it this why: why would I spend an exorbitant amount of money to go watch a movie in the theatres when I could either buy the DVD or wait to see it on a streaming service? Because the experience is different. There’s something about sitting in a movie theatre that adds to the experience of the movie, and if you still didn’t like the movie when it’s shown in all of it’s glory on those massive fucking screens, at least you gave it a chance.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the best games of the PS4 generation, and one of the most emotionally thought provoking stories ever told in the medium. While it is not perfect, the game is still incredibly written with amazing character development and realistic choices. The game is consistent with Part I, and like Part I, can stand on its own without resting on the loreals of being a Last of Us game. If this game wasn’t for you, I am sorry this game didn’t bring you as much joy as it brought me, but ultimately I respect your opinion so long as you respect mine.
I don’t make these counter-arguments to discredit your dislike for this game. I make these counter-arguments simply to add to the discourse and spark constructive and respectful dialogue about the game. If you disagree with anything I said, please, let me know. You can find me on Twitter here. Let’s talk about it.
Photo Credit: Naughty Dog