Why ‘The Last of Us: Part II’ Deserves to Be in the ‘Game of the Year’ Conversation

     July 3, 2020

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[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II. For more of our coverage, be sure to check out our spoiler-free review, our beginner’s tips & tricks here, the list of trophies, and a full-on spoiler rundown here, including our ending explainer.]

Here are just some of the 1-star reviews for The Last of Us: Part II that arrived on IMDb the very day the Naughty Dog sequel became available:

This game destroyed everything what the first game made so great. The developers obviously didn’t realize how important the relationship between Ellie and Joel was. They literally spit on Joel for some stupid revenge story. It’s all about hate and killing.

Bad game to support the agenda Eli’s character is the worst female character in the world of games

This game is a SJW fantasy. You get to see and play all the things they pander for. Also there is a nauseous romance scene of Neil’s beloved tranny. There is nothing new this game offers. And guess what the character you loved in the last game, Ellie you fight her as Abby. I cant fathom any reason for this game to be rated so high by the gaming journalists. They probably got paid for that. But this game is absolute garbage. It manages to ruin everything you loved in the previous one.

Imagine you building the best game of its generation but then you destroy it just to push a political agenda and you fail in doing so and make everyone hate your agenda because you destroyed their beloved game and that is TLOU2 in a nutshell

 

If you kill one of the most beloved characters early in the game (Joel) and want to bring in new main playable characters like Abby(trans), you HAVE to bring WAY more backstory in order to make the player feel with her. furthermore they changed Ellie CHARACTER TO the worse this is the only game where Naughty dog failed and they did so just to be politically correct damn disappointing

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

If ever there was a right time to launch a major video game title with a story that focused on empathy, understanding, and forgiveness, that time is now. The comments above, just a sample of the invective that’s out there, are a prime example of why the story of The Last of Us: Part II is so important. And, ironically, so many of its critics seem to be missing that point.

Those critics seem to fall largely into three categories: Those who haven’t even played the game but were predetermined to hate it based on rumors, leaks, and early spoilers. Those who played the game but stopped as soon as something caused them to put the controller down and walk away for one reason or another. And those who finished the game, but somehow missed out on the bigger picture the story was trying to convey.

The sad and unfortunate irony is this: The people who are so mad about the events that take place in this game could actually find a way to move past that anger if they’d allow themselves to internalize what The Last of Us: Part II is really trying to say. The folks who couldn’t grasp that message despite finishing their playthrough are equally in need of hearing it, even if it means having someone else explain it to them. There’s an incredibly powerful catharsis at work here, and it leads more to healing than hating. And it’s this important, necessary aspect of the story that should have The Last of Us: Part II leading the pack (and the discussion) for Game of the Year.

I understand being angry at the events that take place in The Last of Us: Part II. I also understand those folks who shied away from the game itself after seeing how violent its story was shaping up to be. I found myself in both camps: After playing the original game way back in 2013, of course I wanted to know and see what happened next, and of course I wanted to play as Joel again as soon as possible. Then 2017 hit and we got the first hints of what the gritty, violent, dirty, blood-soaked revenge thriller sequel would be. As the last few years IRL became increasingly gritty, violent, dirty, and blood-soaked, I found myself less and less interested in playing The Last of Us: Part II, even as Neil Druckmann and the Naughty Dog team doubled down on the revenge premise played up in marketing. Then, the ongoing pandemic of 2020 hit, the final straw that had me dreading diving into what I knew would be a difficult, too-real, and emotionally harrowing game. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many people still feel that way even after the game’s release. If the real world is this messed up, why would I want to play a 30-hour game — a hobby which many use as a form of escape — just to experience more of the same?

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Image via Naughty Dog

The Last of Us: Part II hews eerily close to the real world at times — the way a pandemic can change the world, the ease with which people fragment and form factions, and the resilience with which they set to building communities once again — and that’s by design. Sure, there are plenty of sci-fi / horror moments to enjoy; the Infected are still a big problem, just not the major focus of the sequel. But the experiences that hit the hardest — be they heartbreaking losses or uplifting moments of joy — are believable, realistic, and relatable. In a word, those moments are Human. And it’s the nature of being human that The Last of Us: Part II explores, not just when we’re at our worst, but when we’re at our best. So while focusing on the former is an understandable reason for folks to avoid picking up this game, discounting or flat out ignoring the latter is a grave disservice.

And yet, somehow, that’s the part of the story that a lot of people seem to be missing. They may be a very vocal minority, but among them are some pretty influential names. CohhCarnage‘s “Thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2” spoiler video said:

I think, in a perfect world, this game would have not been what it was about. I think The Last of Us 1 was really special because of the relationships between Ellie and Joel. I think that a lot of people, especially after everything that transpired in the first one, really wanted to see a game that developed that relationship, got deeper with that relationship, explored that relationship. I think, instead, what we got was a commentary on civilization in a completely different way and I think that that dichotomy threw a lot of people for a loop.

After calling the story “relatively okay” and “relatively tropey, it was a revenge story,” he gave it a 5 or 6 out of 10. He also calls Joel’s death a “trope to move the story along.” Only a spare comment was made regarding Abby, not even by name, which is a curious omission for a character you literally spend half the game with.

Lirik also took to Twitter after a playthrough to share his thoughts:

Did these guys play the same game I did?

Look, I don’t envy having to play a 30-hour game and then package up your thoughts from that entire experience into a concise Tweet or a short video immediately after the credits roll. (There’s also the whole “memes and metrics” side to the streaming profession, which is just as subject to bias as the game reviewer / critic industry is.) But how do you miss the fact that the entire game’s subtext is about the relationship between Ellie and Joel, flashbacks and otherwise? And if you play that entire game, half of it as a character who you were conditioned to hate, and think that all The Last of Us: Part II has to offer is some mealy-mouthed commentary on violence and revenge, or worse, nothing worth saying at all … I genuinely don’t know how to respond to that.

I’ll even give streamers another benefit of the doubt because this game is not designed to be streamed. It’s less of a meme machine and more of a deep, narrative-driven, immersive experience that asks you to live in the skin of two characters who are diametrically opposed to each other and ultimately find some common ground. It’s not designed for you to play while reading chat, being distracted by alerts, and multi-tasking on any number of other things. It’s like texting, talking, and tweeting during Schindler’s List; you’re probably going to miss a few nuances along the way and think it was an okay, relatively tropey movie.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Missing the heart of The Last of Us: Part II is missing the point of the game completely, so I understand the low scores and frustrations if that particular narrative arc sailed over people’s heads. So let me break it down as simply as I can:

You are conditioned to hate Abby nearly from the beginning. You’ve presumably spent the entire first game and its DLC playing as Joel and Ellie. When Joel is brutally and violently taken from you / Ellie, you’re clearly geared up for revenge against Abby. This makes sense intuitively, especially in the entertainment world where revenge is an all-too-easy setup for the plot that plays out; there’s no shortage of these stories in TV, movies, video games, etc., and we’ve been conditioned to know what to expect and what to do next. You then spend the first half of the game tracking down Abby and killing her cohorts, all in the name of revenge. Even when Abby finds you out, she presumably kills two more of your / Ellie’s closest companions, ratcheting up that revenge meter another notch.

And that’s when the rug is pulled out from under you as a player. Now, you’re in Abby’s shoes, playing her story.

The brilliance of that switch is in its subtleties: This could be the moment that players put the game down for good. Even if they wanted to do so after Joel’s death, the thirst for revenge drove them onward. Now, you’re forced to step into the skin of a person you know nothing about except for the fact that they killed the beloved mentor, father-figure, survival expert Joel. And how do they do this? By letting you begin your playthrough of Abby as a teenage girl, lost in the woods, looking for her father. There’s a vulnerability to Abby here that should soften some of the animosity you have towards her, even as your curiosity as to her story is slowly satiated. But if you can’t shake your rage over Joel’s death, can’t quench your thirst for vengeance, and can’t loosen up that armor over your heart a little bit, you’re going to miss out on one of the most powerful arcs in video game history.

Since I know it’s hard for some folks to find empathy for Abby, even if they’re capable of feeling it towards Joel and Ellie, let me try this another way. Deep breaths, now …

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

Imagine for a second that we had met Abby first.

Imagine that you never played The Last of Us or its DLC, and that we dropped you into The Last of Us: Part II at the beginning of Abby’s story during her teenage years (shout-out to the incredible work of Laura Bailey throughout). With no prior knowledge of the world around you, you meet a young woman who’s in love with a childhood sweetheart and also looks up to her father, a doctor who, when he’s not tending to pregnant zebras roaming the Seattle wilds, might just save the entire remaining human race from the deadly cordyceps fungus. That’s a pretty good father-daughter pairing to take you through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, right?

Well, it’s good until you, as Abby, find your father (and untold numbers of fellow Fireflies) brutally murdered. So when she finds out that the killer is none other than the notorious smuggler who delivered humanity’s only hope for a future before snatching her away in the dead of night, it’s once again understandable that Abby — and you, as the player — would want to seek revenge. Imagine, then, spending the next four years hunting that man down, learning his name, his accomplices, his whereabouts, all with the intent of seeking vengeance for your father, for those slain, and for those surviving humans robbed of a cure to the nightmare that their lives have become. The only difference between Ellie and Abby is that we met Ellie first.

The Last of Us: Part II hits you over the head with these similarities throughout the telling of the story. Some folks criticize the game for being too “manipulative” or “forcing” certain emotions into scenes; first of all, that’s how a narrative works, but more importantly, these are the same people who missed out on the notion of forgiveness being essential to breaking a cycle of violence, so calling it heavy-handed would be ironic once again. I’d imagine that those who doth protest too much are feeling things they’d rather not feel and don’t know how to deal with them.

But back to the Ellie / Abby parallel: We meet Abby at an age not all that dissimilar from Ellie in the first game. We learn that they have teenage romances that are awkward and confusing, befitting adolescence in a post-apocalyptic world or otherwise. We meet their father figures, men who are capable of taking care of themselves and their friends and family in their own unique ways. We learn that Ellie has a fond memory of spending time with Joel at the museum of natural history and spaceflight, while Abby has good memories of time spent with her friends and lovers in the Seattle aquarium. While Abby has a crippling fear of heights (which comes into play in the plot), Ellie is happy to dive off of a T. rex statue into the unknown depths of a fountain.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

There is so much effort put into telling the stories of both Ellie and Abby that the intent is obviously to make the player conflicted when it ultimately pits them against each other, on multiple occasions. There are moments when I was frantically mashing a button prompt on a QTE without truly knowing which character I was fighting for or which one I wanted to survive. And in the end, because of the narrative choices — not a player decision — forgiveness ultimately wins out. Abby, who has let Ellie go multiple times, finds herself at Ellie’s mercy after what can only be described as an existentially harrowing ordeal. Ellie forgives her; she let’s Abby go, foregoing her own vengeance and breaking the cycle of violence.

And gamers were not happy about it. For many, that idea of Revenge was so ingrained in their gaming experience that they couldn’t step back for a moment and see the story of The Last of Us: Part II as a real-world parallel, a cautionary tale, sure, but a deeply character-focused one.

Revenge should not be easy. I’ll say that again for the people in the back: Revenge. Should not. Be easy. Proponents of revenge like to quote Hammurabi’s code of “An eye for an eye…” without completing the proverb “… leaves the whole world blind.” Sun Tzu‘s “Art of War” is another favorite among the militarily minded, but that tome also includes pearls of wisdom like, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” and “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” I prefer Abraham Lincoln‘s quote: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Abby and Ellie are a long way from being friends, but sharing similar experiences certainly helps with mutual understanding, and a brush with forgiveness is a start down that path. Forgiveness isn’t easy either, but the weight it lifts from the soul through ending the cycle of violence is worth swallowing the bitter pill in the first place.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony

There are some who will hold onto the fact that “Joel dying the way he did was stupid and out of character.” These are the same folks who don’t acknowledge the four years between the events of both games: Joel’s softening around the edges in the relative comforts of Jackson, his hobby as a talented wood-worker, and his distracted distance from Ellie at the time of his death. They’re the same folks who wouldn’t allow the slightest possibility that Joel might make a mistake that costs him his life. So you can call it a trope, you can call it “out of character”, or you can call it a convenient manipulation to move the story along. Naughty Dog did an admirable job of showing how Joel has changed over the years, just as they put on grisly display the fact that you can’t always outrun your sins; sometimes they revisit you in force. And the cycle of violence continues …

Imagine for a moment that Ellie had killed Abby then and there on that morbid beachfront. And while we’re at it, imagine she had killed Lev, too, just for a double dose of revenge. Would that really have made you feel better? To see Ellie completely broken as a human being, taking countless lives in her quest to avenge the life of one, albeit an important one, and finding no relief from her PTSD in the process? Make no mistake, killing Abby and Lev in the condition they were in — having survived their imprisonment (which Ellie could glean; she had more than enough evidence laid out in front of her) — would have only further stained her soul. Vengeance was the cross she bore as she soldiered ever onward, past her limits, at the expense of throwing away everything she’d built with Dina; it was forgiveness that ultimately set her free.

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Image via Sony, Naughty Dog

But it can be intuited that it wasn’t necessarily vengeance for Joel’s death that drove Ellie forward throughout the course of the game but rather the guilt she felt at the inability to do anything to save him. The same could be said for Abby and her own father. Neither woman was able to save their father figures, so they lashed out and tore a bloody path across an already bloody landscape to try to fill that void with vengeance. But you can never replace a life taken by taking yet more lives. That’s not a lesson you see often in video games, which glorify violence and morally elevate the white hat murderer over the black hat murderers; I’ve played them and enjoyed just the same as you have.

The Last of Us: Part II offers something different. It offers a path to empathy, understanding, and forgiveness, if only people will take the opportunity to walk that path. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. And it’s why The Last of Us: Part II deserves serious consideration for Game of the Year.

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