🚨 It’s hard to talk about this game without getting into spoilers, so check out this tweet for my spoiler-free, tweet-length review. This won’t even make sense if you haven’t played the game, so really, bookmark this for later and come back when you’ve finished the game. 🚨
I finished The Last of Us Part 2 yesterday, and I’ve been letting it rattle around in my head for a bit before saying too much about it. You likely already know the deal with this game’s reception: basically the critics largely loved it, and it’s getting review-bombed on places like Metacritic. The actress who played Abby is also getting flooded with death threats for things her character did in the game.
As an…ahem…older gamer, this reminds me quite a bit of the Metal Gear Solid 2 drama that happened way back in 2001. That was another case of gamers getting attached to a grizzled middle-aged main character in an instant classic game, only to have the rug pulled out from under them in the sequel as they unexpectedly had to play as someone else. Kojima pulled off this trick really well in 2001, and I recall no one seeing it coming at the time. As you can guess, fans were outside themselves with rage over this bait-and-switch. In a wave of gamers-being-gamers wave of immaturity, fans were upset you didn’t play that game as Solid Snake, but instead you played as this “effeminate” bleached blonde haired character called Raiden. “I didn’t pay $50 to play as this guy!” was a common outcry then. The narrative structure and complexity was derided at the time as well.
As time has passed, Metal Gear Solid 2 has warmed on the fan base, and it’s generally considered a classic to this day. The character of Raiden is much more loved today and the story about online communication/life is more relevant today than it was 19 years ago when it was created.
Similarly, The Last of Us Part 2 pulls a similar trick, although it goes even further than MGS2. The marketing material made it pretty clear that this was Ellie’s game and that you would be playing from her perspective, so that wasn’t a surprise.
What was a surprise was the fact that not only was Joel not in the story for long, but that he was brutally murdered in the first hour of the game. So no, there’s no going back for a Part 3 game where we go back to Joel, there was no chance of Ellie getting in trouble and you shifting over to Joel to go save here, there was nothing, he was gone.
This is a bold move by Naughty Dog, and a credit to Sony for allowing one of the most iconic main characters from their line of exclusive games to be murdered. Joel is gone, and as a player, it was brutally difficult to watch that scene unfold.
But that’s not where the rug-pulling ends.
Much like MGS2 where you get a perspective shift to a player you didn’t know about before this game, halfway through this game, you switch perspectives to play as Abby, the woman who you watched murder Joel just hours before.
This is where the controversy with this game really gets some gas.
Some complain about having to play as the person who killed Joel. Other complain that you play as her for too long. Yet others will complain that they should have intercut between Abby and Ellie’s timelines throughout the game. If you felt that way, then okay, I can’t force the narrative structure to work for you, but I can tell you how it worked for me.
If I could sum it up concisely, I’d say the first half of this game, where youi play as Ellie, is what I was expecting this game to be. The stakes are higher (I didn’t expect Joel to die), but I got to be an older, more capable Ellie from the first game and I thoroughly enjoyed both the story (a woman’s quest for revenge turning her into a shell of a person) and the gameplay, which was everything the early gameplay reveals promised and more. The second half of the game shocked me in it’s audacity in attempting to reshape my perspective on not only the events in this game, but the events of the last title as well.
Snarky tweets will talk about how when you kill someone in combat someone will yell “they got Tommy!” when they find the body, as a cheap way to get you to realize that the people you’re killing in the game are real people. I think this added some realism to the game and I appreciated it, but this is not the part of the game that I thought made me change my views on the whole series.
The fact that you spend 8+ hours playing as the “enemy” is a shocking, brilliant move, and it’s the only way I think this narrative trick could have worked. By spending hours and hours as Abby, you have time to go from, “this is the bad guy, fuck her” to, “I kind of want to kill Ellie.” I don’t think you get that by intercutting 1 hour gameplay segments between the characters, nor do you get that by just seeing Ellie embrace the darkness from her own perspective.
The Abby segment leads up to a showdown with Ellie in the theater that she’s been using as a base all this time. The game keeps you in Abby’s shoes for the fight with Ellie, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything short of one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game. I assumed I would confront Abby and get my revenge, but the game turned this around on me. I didn’t necessarily want to kill Ellie, but I definitely thought she needed to be stopped.
After this showdown, which results in both women leaving, with Abby warning, “don’t let me see you again,” we flash forward to a farm where Ellie and Dina have adopted a domestic life that appears peaceful and everything we hoped for these characters in the end. They have a baby, you herd some sheep, and when Tommy comes over with a new revenge proposition, Ellie and Dina send him packing. The screen fades to black here and I thought the game was over. It was a satisfying, happy ending and I was ready to watch the credits roll and feel pretty good about life.
Then the game keeps going.
Ellie is not past this, and she can’t resist getting the revenge she failed to get a few years ago. She throws her entire life away to get the justice she has been obsessing about ever since Joel’s untimely demise. Of all the horrible moments in the game, and there are no shortage of these, the one that hit me hardest was when Ellie told Dina “that’s your choice,” whether she waits for Ellie or leaves her forever as Ellie goes on this revenge journey again. I’m sure people think this decision is unrealistic, and clearly Ellie should stay where she is, but people are not purely logical beings and they make self-destructive decisions every single day.
The final hour or two of the game has you play as Abby and then Ellie again. The tone is different now, and this whole final segment is seeped in a melancholy not present in the rest of the game. The rest of the game shows the horrors of this world and makes you wince at the terrible things people do to survive, but the final hours have a sadness of inevitability to them that I find hard to explain. I would say I had fun during much of this game, even if it was a different sort of fun that I’d get from something like a Doom or Halo game, but this final segment wasn’t fun by any means.
The long story short is that Ellie and Abby fight one more time, and this time you’re doing it from Ellie’s perspective. At this point, I think the game misses an opportunity to embrace the interactive medium that it is. Abby doesn’t want to fight, but Ellie forces her to do so. But I, the player, also didn’t want to fight, and yet the game makes me have a fist fight with Abby. I wish that I had the option to not fight Abby if I didn’t want to. I wish that if we were going to fight, the game played from Abby’s perspective so I was also controlling the player who was in a more relatable mental state for me. There was even a moment in the fight were Abby is on her knees in the water and wants me to stop…I wanted to stop too, but I had to hit the square button to hit her again. This was uncomfortable, and while I get what the story was going for here, but considering that I don’t kill Abby anyway, I wish I had more autonomy over how that scene played out.
But then that fight ends and Abby and Ellie once again go off in their own directions, and the lonely walk back through Ellie and Dina’s previously shared home is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a gamer. The loss I felt was immense and even through I knew they were gone, a part of me hoped that Ellie would turn a corner and Dina would be there.
Ellie ends this story alone and unfulfilled. She didn’t get the revenge she wanted so badly. She lost the people she loved along the way, and now she has nothing.
This was a hard ending.
I’m often a fan of stories not taking the easy way out, not giving you the ending you want and instead giving you an ending that makes you uncomfortable, so maybe I was predisposed to like this, but I think that this game will stay with me forever because of how hard it hit me.
I know The Last of Us Part 2 won’t please everyone: people don’t like Abby, they don’t like Joel dying, they don’t like the gay relationship at the center of this story, they don’t like the trans character, they don’t like the violence… For me, this game was hard to play at times, but also had some of the most satisfying combat encounters I’ve played recently and was built on a story and storytelling structure that made to change how I felt about everything in this series. I feel like I’ve been able to say this about so many Sony exclusives in the past couple years, but this game is an absolute achievement.