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Looking for the Light in ‘The Last of Us Part II’

By: Tyler Taing | July 05, 2021
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Looking for the Light in ‘The Last of Us Part II’

The climax of 2013's The Last of Us does not contain an expensive set piece or a giga-sized final boss to destroy, but rather a moral dilemma. The player character, Joel (Troy Baker), slaughters his way through a hospital to rescue his comatose surrogate daughter, Ellie (Ashley Johnson), from a brain surgery that could reverse-engineer a cure for the cordyceps fungus, an infection that has destroyed civilization. In the aftermath of his slaughter, Joel takes Ellie to a commune started by his brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce), a new potential place to call home. He lies to Ellie that there are many other immune folks like her and that the humanitarian rebel group, the Fireflies, could not make a cure. Wise beyond her years, Ellie senses something is wrong with his demeanor at this moment and makes Joel swear that everything he has told her was true. The Last of Us ends its epic odyssey through post-apocalyptic America with an achingly human expression of the word, "okay."

Approximately one year ago, the long-awaited sequel, The Last of Us Part II, released in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic to months of built-up controversy. In April of that year, out-of-context "spoilers" leaked, painting a picture of the game that was far from the nuanced tale about the plight of love players were compelled by in 2013. Though the game would eventually become a well-praised, best-selling flagship title for PlayStation, there still exists a small but vocal hate campaign from right-wingers, degrading the game's female protagonists' appearances or vengefully lamenting the "emasculation" of Joel. Though their hatred is loud and bigoted, it is also ironically fitting to respond to the story writer and director Neil Druckmann and narrative lead and writer Halley Gross set out to tell. Druckmann has stated that if his goal for the original The Last of Us was to tell a story about how far we as humans would go in pursuit of protecting a loved one, then The Last of Us Part II is about the lengths we would go to in the performance of blind hatred.

Set five years after we've last seen Joel and Ellie, the sequel's inciting incident is similar to that of the first game, a horrific act of violence. Like his daughter Sarah's death before him, the plot is set in motion with the murder of Joel by the mysterious Abby (Laura Bailey) and her crew of Washington Liberation Front (W.L.F.) soldiers. With little context for who Abby is or why she killed Joel, Ellie and her girlfriend, Dina (Shannon Woodward), embark on a revenge quest from Jackson, Wyoming to Seattle, Washington, to avenge her father figure and bring Tommy back home to his wife. Meanwhile, Ellie reflects on Joel's choice in choosing her over the vaccine, raising existentialist thoughts that she represses in her rage. But Ellie's three days in Seattle make up just one-half of Part II's sprawling narrative. During Ellie's eventual confrontation with Abby, the story takes a halt and reverses back to the start of the game — this time, from the perspective of Abby.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Abby is the daughter of the surgeon that Joel kills at the end of the first game, and as the Fireflies were displaced after his massacre, Abby found herself joining the W.L.F. to train for her eventual revenge. After being familiarized with Abby, her brand new cast of characters, and the status quo of her world following her murder of Joel, we are shown that Abby has not found the satisfaction she thought her revenge would bring her. When Owen, her childhood love, defects from the W.L.F. and goes into hiding, Abby becomes disillusioned by the militarized system she found herself a part of and goes searching for him. Along the way, she finds penance from her old ways in parenting Lev and Yara, two runaway children from the evangelical Seraphites, a cult that the W.L.F. is fighting against over the territory of Seattle.

Part II's story is incredibly dense at nearly thirty hours of gameplay. For a while, it was also shrouded in secrecy. Since its initial announcement to its eventual release, the marketing for the game remained vague, even to the extent of creating fake scenes for the trailers and launching an ad campaign to keep the leaked "spoilers" a secret. The secrecy is partly why many of the nuances of Part II have still gone unpacked by many, one year later. When the game was released and Abby revealed herself to be the game's second protagonist, the choice was met with criticism. Of course, there was the expected venom flung by the misogynists against the game. Still, critics and audiences often felt it was unnecessary to devote the second half to Abby — or that the massive-scale narrative filled with brutality and grief failed at the end of the day, to say much more besides "revenge is bad." However, I argue that this take on the game is reductive of the more significant points Druckmann is making. By engaging with the darker, more cynical aspects of human nature, The Last of Us Part II can transcend into a story of humanity's constant struggle to find connection.

In 2007, Clint Hocking coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe the thematic conflict between a video game told through the story and the narrative created by its gameplay mechanics in response to the game Bioshock — arguing that the game's themes of power and freedom are often undermined by the game's binary design. The term made a resurgence in the discussion of Part II, with a broader discussion made around the relevancy of Naughty Dog's storytelling methods. If Druckmann conveys that violence is terrible, then why must the player engage and revel in so much of it?

As characters born after the apocalypse that have only ever seen society in disarray, violence is not just something Ellie and Abby perform, but it is also their first instinct. A bloody stab or a blast from a shotgun is the generation's language built on primal survival tactics; it is the primary way that these characters communicate with each other and navigate the world. As the player, you are asked to perform violence not because it is the ideal solution but because these are the modes of interaction equipped for Ellie and Abby. The N.P.C.s that populate Abby's W.L.F. communes are the enemies that you face against in Ellie's portion of the game, all with their own names and unique character models. Many interpret this as a cheap way of assigning the player guilt for their engagement with the game's mechanics, but on the contrary, the growing disconnect between the player and the characters is actually quite complementary to the themes of the game. As the player, set on a mostly linear path through the game's campaign, you are forced not only to see these characters through their journeys, but you are also challenged to walk in their shoes and see the world through their lens.

There's a quiet tragedy to Ellie and Abby's hatred, for if the circumstances were different, there's a strong possibility that they would be good friends. Right from the first few moments you play as Abby, parallels are drawn between these two young women. We were previously aware of the ghosts of Ellie's past that motivate her in the first game, but Abby's loss of her father is presented as equally formative for her outlook on life. The imagery of Ellie walking down the steps to find Joel's body perfectly echoes Abby's walk down the hospital hallway to find her father's body. Abby's interest in collectible coins also mirrors Ellie's interest in superhero trading cards collected throughout the game. For as much as Ellie stresses that the people of the W.L.F. are not as hospitable as Jackson when you observe the daily life of the football stadium commune as Abby, you are aware Ellie's demonization rings false.

Through unraveling the threads that motivate these parallels, it becomes clear that Part II is not telling two disconnected stories but rather the same exact arc with its two characters on different points. Ellie's path of destruction to avenge Joel preludes Abby's search for greater meaning in the wake of her own vengeance. Many critics have pointed out the empty repetition and lack of narrative satisfaction found in Ellie's half of the game, but there's a solid case to be made that the lack of gratification was intentional on Druckmann's part. Ellie convinces herself the rampage of violence she embarks on is heroism, but we know from Abby's emptiness that there is no catharsis to be found on her revenge quest, just unnecessary destruction. Observing how Ellie's three days in Seattle intertwine and affect Abby's: the people they love, lose, and forge connections with, the people they kill, and how it feeds back into cyclical violence — it's evident that Part II is not interested in making moral judgments on Ellie or Abby, but instead invested in creating a larger point about humanity and our interconnectedness through violence and love.

Joel was the man who chose his needs over humanity, but he did so to protect his surrogate child. Ellie is a selfless woman who would have put her life down the line to create a vaccine for humanity, but she's also the woman that murdered her way through Seattle for self-satisfaction. Abby murdered a defenseless man and alienated the people that loved her to do it, but she's also the guardian of a child that she worked through her own prejudices to care for. My friend and co-host made a poignant comment on our live streams of the games that we aired these past few months. It's not so much that these characters are characterized in shades of grey, but they are "black and white and spotted all over" — human beings contain multitudes that are often inconsistent. We are often nurturing creatures one moment and self-serving ones the next. But those character flaws and messy imperfections are part of what makes us so undeniably human. There's been a recent backlash towards stories that attempt to contextualize the origins of villains. The reasoning being that sometimes bad people are simply bad, and making sense of their motives is a slippery slope to justifying their actions. The Last of Us Part II exists as a perfect counterargument to that worldview. Every character in this game has a fully colored life that contextualizes the people they choose to become. None of their motivations can cleanly fit a "good" or "bad" binary, but that's an indispensable part of what makes them feel so authentic as people.

That equal acceptance of the worst sides of human nature doesn't necessarily mean that the game lacks a moral compass either. In Part II, Druckmann invites the player on a challenge of profound empathy. After what she has done to your beloved character Joel, are you still able to see Abby as the human she is? Do you have the capacity to accept the equally beautiful and vicious aspects of what makes her human, even when it is not in your direct interest to do so? Druckmann's desire to empathize exists as one of the game's most humanitarian qualities. Despite all the bloodshed and violence the player performs within the game, Part II never loses its capacity for humanization.

We often neglect to acknowledge in these moralistic discussions of fiction that there are no antagonists in real life. There's no one in this world that was simply born evil. It is entirely possible that the more we make an effort to try to understand each other as people, the more connected we can become as a society. In my darkest moments, I often fail to remember that. It's a natural human impulse to catastrophize or make villains out of the people around us to make sense of our own suffering. And in our own echo chambers, we create for ourselves on the internet that dehumanization is even more amplified. Though not as brutal as a revolver or a switchblade, we perpetuate the same cycles of blind hate in our mundane life on the Twitter timeline. We strip the context of other people's words and mock them through public quote tweets. It gives us a sense of power and control; my external world might be chaotic and upsetting, but I can rest easy that I'm not the "Twitter villain of the day."

I am also not exempt from these impulses. Part II profoundly impacted me because before playing it, I also made a snap judgment on it. I feared the destruction of the story I held so close to me that I read the leaked "spoilers" and scoffed at the direction being taken — writing it off as "misery porn" before giving it the chance to prove me otherwise. When I finally sat down that weekend of its release and played it in full, I realized my blind reaction had only proved the game's exploration of our worst human impulses to be true. Despite it being a zombie game released in the middle of a pandemic, it felt like everything I had needed to hear at that transitional moment in my life.

What definitively separates Part II from becoming the bleak and cynical portrait of human nature it is often perceived to be is Druckmann's powerful belief that people in their darkest moments can still choose to be better. In the final chapter of Part II, we regain control of Ellie months later after her confrontation with Abby. She lives in a serene farmhouse with Dina, raising their newborn child, JJ. It's a quiet paradise, a stark contrast from the abandoned cityscapes we're used to navigating. Though nothing could be more ideal, Ellie remains unfulfilled. Visions of the moment she watched Joel die flash in her mind — a cruel reminder of her failure in Seattle. Her grief manifests into a depressive spiral, unable to enjoy the tranquil life she had made for herself. After receiving word of Abby's whereabouts in Santa Barbara, she leaves Dina and J.J. behind to finally get her vengeance once and for all.

But when Ellie is face to face with Abby once again, the valor she imagined for herself is nowhere to be found. Ellie threatens Lev's life to instigate a battle against Abby, and although she almost wins, the moment is far from glamorous — it's just pathetic. In a last-minute moment of reflection, she spares Abby. Despite all that she has lost, and despite what Abby has done to her state of mind, killing Abby won't bring her the inner peace she seeks. If Ellie can travel to the deepest depths of self-destruction and still make a choice to preserve her humanity, there's a ray of hope that we can set ourselves on the path of redemption as well.

The Last of Us Part II is an enigma that I still find myself contemplating and unpacking, even one whole year after its release. Pages upon pages of notes later, I struggle to render down all of the complexities of this ambitious epic through post-apocalyptic America on paper. What I do know is that Part II is simply one of the most emotionally charged experiences I've had with a game to date. I found myself constantly surprised by the game's amount of warmth throughout its endless gameplay loops of gore and despair. It's in one of the rarest and authentic portrayals of gay love I've ever seen in the medium. It's in the tender, quiet moments of connection the game invites you to share with its characters. It's in the game's bold, uncompromisingly humanist themes. The most significant works of art hold power to challenge us and our perceptions of reality by allowing us to peer into another's point of view. Druckmann's game uses the medium to its full potential to give the player an active role in doing just that.

As I watched Ellie leave her old ways behind and walk towards a fresh start, I felt hope that one day I can also grow past those brash parts of myself that I recognized within her. When I saw Abby and Lev sail away to find the remaining Fireflies, I remembered that I can always look for the light when I find myself lost in the darkness.