Breaking the cycle of violence.
Naughty Dog has finally launched perhaps its most highly-anticipated game in history with The Last Of Us Part 2, the sequel to the legendary 2013’s The Last Of Us. It released exclusively for the PS4 on 19 June 2020 worldwide… to mixed reactions.
I actually predicted this would happen in my 4000-word review for The Last Of Us Part 2; that this game would be extremely divisive among gamers.
Unfortunately, I was restricted from discussing some of the best (or worst, depending on your opinion) parts of the game in that initial review (in-depth though it may be). Most of this is regarding the game’s plot, but there were also important gameplay shakeups that I couldn’t write about, as they were intrinsically tied to the story that to do so would potentially spoil the game.
At the time of writing, The Last Of Us Part 2 is currently boasting an impressive total score of 95 on the Metacritic critics side, but the user score (at an atrocious 3.7 out of 10 from more than a whopping 40 thousand users) tells a decidedly different story. Other mediums of entertainment like recent movies have also experienced such a disconnect between critics and users, such as 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In this article, I will discuss these more spoilerific parts of The Last Of Us Part 2, so beware for full-on and no-holds-barred spoilers from the game. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why are gamers in general so mad about the game, so much so that they would review-bomb The Last Of Us Part 2 on Metacritic in a futile effort to discredit the game, when it’s so clear that most of these gamers couldn’t possibly have defeated the game in time to post valid reviews for the game just one or two days after launch?
I’m serious; the game took me around 25+ hours to complete. How could all these gamers have finished the game so fast? The answer; they didn’t.
They’re judging the game based on whatever spoilers and videos they’ve read and seen online, instead of experiencing the game for themselves. It’s a toxic trait, but that’s always been a widespread problem in the gaming community.
Perhaps the single most offensive thing in The Last Of Us Part 2 for gamers is the death of Joel; one of two returning main protagonists (alongside Ellie) from 2013’s The Last Of Us. The Last Of Us Part 2 lets players control him at the very beginning of the game on horseback, before quickly switching to Ellie. Within the first two hours of the game, he dies in a horrific incident; murdered violently and unceremoniously by a bunch of nobodies in front of Ellie.
Gamers are upset that game director Neil Druckmann (who co-wrote the game’s story) and Naughty Dog have seemingly done their beloved character a disservice, treating Joel like he means nothing as well as giving him an undeserving and arbitrary death just for the sake of spurring Ellie on a revenge quest.
Well, to this I say; that is bullshit. If you had bothered to play the game until the end, rest assured that the narrative explains why Joel died. It’s not senseless at all, or just violence for the sake of violence.
Of course, it’s undeniable that Joel died a very unsavoury death; by getting shot in the leg and pummeled to death with a golf club. However, that’s part of the game’s themes of hate and the cycle of violence.
Every action has consequences; for every action, there is a reaction; cause and effect. If they’re bad, then the result will (usually) also be bad. This then leads to a domino effect; where one event leads to another, eventually building a chain of events. Why am I rambling about all this? The characters in both The Last Of Us games are complex characters, who gamers forget, are meant to be flawed human beings living in a less than ideal situation (read: a very, very bad post-apocalyptic world where it’s kill or be killed).
It’s important to understand the above, and the idea that a protagonist doesn’t have to be “good” or “righteous”; the very definition of the word only means “the leading character or one of the major characters in a play, film, novel, etc”. The Last Of Us Part 2 seeks to show this; how pain and trauma breaks people. People often say; “the things we do for love”, but there’s another saying that goes hand-in-hand; “love and hate are two sides of the same coin”.
Ellie And Abby Are Mirrors Of Each Other
Bear with me. The Last Of Us Part 2 begins with a girl named Abby and a group of former Fireflies (and current members of the militia group Washington Liberation Front, or the WLF) killing Joel, for reasons that aren’t made immediately clear to the player. It’s crucial that you understand that, especially as this happens in the first two hours of a 26-hour game.
This tragic incident prompts Ellie to go on a quest to avenge Joel’s death. Ellie goes to Seattle with her lover Dina, finding and killing members of the group that killed Joel one-by-one. Throughout the game, you learn more and more about the WLF, and what exactly transpired over the five years gap from 2013’s The Last Of Us and 2020’s The Last Of Us Part 2 though multiple flashbacks.
We learn that three years before the events of The Last Of Us Part 2, Joel brought Ellie to an old museum for her birthday. It’s a beautiful flashback where the two characters spend time together, but inside one of the exhibits, Ellie stumbles upon some creepy evidence left behind by former Fireflies that made her question what exactly happened to the organization.
One year later (and two years before the events of The Last Of Us Part 2), Ellie finally confronts Joel, asking him what exactly happened with the Fireflies. Joel stood by his initial story; that Ellie is one of many people immune to the Cordyceps virus, and that the Fireflies couldn’t find a cure.
Ellie’s doubt grew, and she went to the abandoned Fireflies hospital/HQ herself, which led to her finally learning the truth. Understandably, she was upset and angry with Joel, causing them to have a strained relationship that continued until the events in the beginning of The Last Of Us Part 2.
However, the final moments of the game’s ending revealed that only one night before Joel died at the hands of Abby, Ellie finally made up with Joel, as she promised that she will start trying to forgive Joel for what he did. It made for a bittersweet ending, making Joel’s death even more tragic and heartbreaking than it already is.
Again, I reinstate how important it is to know all this context before judging the story, which some gamers don’t have because they didn’t play the game. Since they didn’t, it goes without saying that they wouldn’t know that halfway through The Last Of Us Part 2, the game is hit by a paradigm shift as players switch to playing as Abby for the second half of the game.
This was a risky and shocking move on Naughty Dog’s part, as it could have backfired and ruined the game. Fortunately, it turned out to be a stroke of genius. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that I was sort of upset and even a bit angry that the game suddenly forced me to play as the game’s supposed “antagonist”; the very person who killed Joel with a freaking golf club of all things.
A New Perspective
To make things worse, this abrupt shift happens during the climax of the game, as Ellie finally encountered and confronted Abby (or rather, it was actually Abby who found Ellie). She was holding Tommy (Joel’s brother) hostage, having just killed Jesse, thus putting Ellie in a very precarious situation. While all this was happening, the game yanks me to a flashback featuring a younger Abby.
I was livid at first when I discovered that I had to play as Abby not just for a brief flashback, but to replay all three days in Seattle (which I had already experienced as Ellie over the past 12 or so hours), but this time through the perspective of Abby instead. I felt disgusted, cheated even, but I would now slap my past self for feeling that way if I could, considering it turned out to be for the better in the long run.
We start the second half of The Last Of Us Part 2 from Abby’s perspective by learning that the head scientist of the Fireflies (who was the only one capable of finding a cure to the Cordyceps virus) was the same one killed by Joel during his attempt to “save” Ellie from being operated on at the end of 2013’s The Last Of Us.
Not only did Joel’s actions of killing the head scientist rob Abby of her father, it had the decidedly bigger impact/consequence of resulting in the eventual disbanding of the Fireflies. That domino effect led to Abby and several of her former Firefly colleagues to later join the WLF, but even then, she never gave up on wanting to avenge her father’s death.
Just like we gradually learn about Ellie’s growing relationships with Dina and Jesse, we also learn about Abby’s past and present companions, including her now ex-boyfriend Owen. As we experience the three days in Seattle from Abby’s side of the story, it’s clear how much she mirrors Ellie in a lot of ways.
As a result of playing as Abby, we now learn that she has as much of a justified reason to seek revenge as Ellie did for Joel’s death. In her case, it was her father’s death at the hands of Joel. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Abby’s whole story arc with several former members of the Seraphites or Scars; basically a cult who is at odds with the WLF for control of Seattle.
Playing as Abby, I learn that she and her father are both normal human beings with hopes and dreams. Her dad didn’t want to operate on Ellie and kill her; it just had to be done to find a cure. We can see that he felt hesitant and guilty before the procedure, just like any normal sane person would. None of these people are psychopaths or evil. None of them are cannibals or bandits.
I can go on and on, but let me just say that Abby’s redemption arc with her helping Yara and Lev -those two aforementioned former Seraphites- was what finally convinced me that Abby is no diabolical villain. She’s the protagonist of her own story, while Joel and Ellie are the antagonists in hers. Now that I understand her motivations and character more than I did when I only knew her as Joel’s killer, I actually started to enjoy my time playing as her.
This might sound controversial, but I ended up enjoying playing as Abby more than I did with Ellie. Hear me out; Abby plays very differently from Ellie, and she even gets different unique weapons, craftable items and skills/abilities. Her playstyle is more suited to melee and close-quarters combat, while Ellie’s tends to favour stealth and long-range combat.
I mean, Abby literally has the strength to snap the necks of humans and Infected alike during stealth kills, as well as punching and kicking them to death during melee (instead of using a switchblade or knife like Ellie). Melee-ing enemies as Abby feels more satisfying, which is probably why she gets the only unique infected boss fight in the entire game (the Rat King) and several exclusively melee fights against large sub-boss human enemies.
On that note, I would like to clarify that the rumours and claims that Abby is trans are not true. There was nothing in the game that confirmed or even hinted at this. As far as I know (after almost three playthroughs of The Last Of Us Part 2), Abby is female, despite her slightly-masculine face and almost cartoonishly-muscular arms.
Another plus point for Abby is that she gains access to (arguably) better and superior weapons than Ellie. She has a crossbow (to Ellie’s bow and arrow), a semi-auto rifle that’s essentially an assault rifle (to Ellie’s bolt-action rifle), and a freaking flamethrower for good measure. Of course, she ultimately fights stronger enemies (like the Rat King and at one point, even two Bloaters at once), but that’s besides the point.
By the time Ellie does receive a silenced SMG near the end of the game, it’s too late to use it to its full potential, though it’s worth pointing out that you gain access to every weapon (including the aforementioned silenced SMG) from the very beginning in New Game Plus.
My point is that (while it may be a gaming sin for me to say this, and I might get chewed out) Abby is better gameplay-wise than Ellie. GASP, I know right. I was surprised by this as well, though I do admit it’s just my personal preference. Some gamers might still like to play as Ellie more.
It may sound like Abby is an overpowered super-soldier by the way I’m describing her, but she does have (at least) one major weakness compared to Ellie; Abby needs to craft shivs to kill Clickers, just like Joel and Ellie did in 2013’s The Last Of Us. Ellie no longer needs shivs to kill Clickers through stealth in the sequel.
Naughty Dog realizes this in some way, as it probably partly contributed to their decision to have players assume the role of Abby in the climactic fight against Ellie. While gamers and fans of Ellie may cry foul over that decision, there’s just no realistic way that Ellie would win against Abby in a fair fight.
There’s also the fact that at that point in the game, Ellie has lived long enough to see herself becoming the villain; to quote a certain iconic line from a famous movie. She killed every single friend of Abby’s just to get a stab at revenge against her, when all Abby did was kill Joel.
Remember, Abby and her friends did ultimately spare both Tommy and Ellie when they could just as easily tied up loose ends by killing them as well.
Sure, you could argue that Abby’s friend were just as guilty as her and were complicit in killing Joel. However, let’s not forget that they were directly affected by Joel’s actions as well (the downfall of the Fireflies), not to mention the possibility that their friends could have been ‘collateral damage’.
As a result, we return to the idea of hate and the cycle of violence tying everything together. Pain and hate was what drove Abby to kill Joel, and later for Ellie to kill Abby and her friends. When pain and hate is all that drives one’s motivations and actions, nothing awaits but more pain and hate.
Back to the idea of Abby and Ellie being mirrors of each other, both of their revenge quests started from the death of their loved ones. The toxicity of pain and hate affected their lives, causing them to push away their living loved ones and lose them in the process.
For instance, Ellie had an almost-perfect life with Dina and her baby, but she chose to leave all that behind to go after Abby again. Meanwhile, Abby did the same thing with Owen years ago, as she neglected their relationship (which led to their breakup) by remaining fixated on getting revenge on Joel.
Joel trained Ellie in her hunting and survival skills, so did Abby’s father. Both Ellie and Abby are avid collectors of novelty items (Ellie with her comics and Abby with vintage coins). They’re a lot more alike in other ways as well, which is likely intentional on the writers’ part.
Don’t Forget The Happy Moments
As grim and bleak as The Last Of Us Part 2 is, it’s not all gloom and doom all the way through. The developers have included many light and happy moments in the game, fleeting as they often just are (just like in real life). To prove this, here are some of my favourite parts of the game that don’t involve any violence or bloodshed whatsoever.
Earlier in the game (before Joel’s death), Ellie and Dina find a deceased friend’s secret hideout while on patrol. Initially thinking it was a “sex den”, it turns out to be a homegrown marijuana farm of some sort. Ellie and Dina find some joints (perhaps the last ever weed in the history of mankind), so they take a break to get high and even participate in a makeout session.
Another highlight of The Last Of Us Part 2 comes quite early in the game as well, when players first reach the massive semi-open Seattle hub. This beautiful sequence is surprisingly missable, which I think is a wasted opportunity for those who don’t take the time to explore the game and find hidden gems like this.
The moment I’m talking about is when Ellie and Dina finds an abandoned music shop. Ellie finds a guitar in mint condition, and proceeds to serenade Dina with a heartwarming and sweet rendition of A-Ha’s iconic Take On Me. Unexpected moments like these are the reasons why I love singleplayer games with strong narratives.
However, there’s one long playable flashback sequence; an entire chapter at that, in the game where there is no combat and no violence at all. This is perhaps my favourite in the game; it’s clearly meant to be a treat for fans of 2013’s The Last Of Us. I kid you not, this chapter actually made me cry.
Taking place three years before The Last Of Us Part 2 (and before Ellie discovered the truth about the Fireflies), Joel surprises Ellie with a visit to a museum for her birthday. It’s incredible how much detail to attention and painstaking hard work must have gone into recreating this museum flashback.
As Ellie, you can interact with almost every exhibit, which will result in fun banter and dialogue between Ellie and Joel. It’s a great gift for fans of the original game, as you learn that Ellie really loves dinosaurs and dreams of becoming an astronaut. Oh, and she also loves comics; so that means she’s a geek like the rest of us.
In this chapter, you can see how hard Joel is trying to be a father to Ellie. It’s tearjerkingly sad but you can’t help but be happy to learn that before all eventual darkness, Ellie and Joel did have happy moments together after the events of 2013’s The Last Of Us.
After seeing all this, can you still say that Druckmann and Naughty Dog don’t have hearts, or don’t care about Joel?I don’t think so.
Look at how Joel looks at Ellie in the picture below. It speaks volumes more about the relationship between Joel and Ellie without a single spoken word. Joel loves Ellie, so much so that he would kill and let humanity die without a cure.
Does that make Joel a villain or evil? No, he did for love. It doesn’t make it okay, but like I previously mentioned; “love and hate are two sides of the same coin.” Think of that what you will.
Breaking The Cycle Of Violence
Ultimately though, the most important theme in The Last Of Us Part 2 isn’t just the exploration of hate and the cycle of violence. If gamers had bothered to experience the game in its entirety and complete the story to the end, they would know that The Last Of Part 2 is about BREAKING the cycle of violence and overcoming hate.
This is encapsulated by the fact that Ellie ultimately spares Abby in their second “final” confrontation (where players play as Ellie and not Abby). It’s interesting to note that their final fight is depicted as pathetic and messy, instead of the usually glorious light or epic final confrontations usually are in other games.
It’s similar to the personal final fight in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End between Nathan Drake and the antagonist, which had them brawling and swordfighting in close combat. Imagine the same thing but without much fanfare, and just the feeling of pity permeating the atmosphere. There’s nothing to be celebrated here. You can’t even cheer for Ellie at this point.
Instead of two characters at their prime, these are two characters at their worst form. Both Ellie and Abby look malnourished and somewhat deformed; nothing like they were throughout most of the game. Their pain and hate have transformed their physical forms as well, turning them into ugly monsters who would rather give in to hate and pain, instead of overcoming them.
Abby actually realizes this earlier than Ellie, as she refuses to fight Ellie again but only does so when Ellie threatens to kill a barely-conscious Lev. Ellie starts the fight with several advantages; she has a knife (Abby doesn’t) while Abby just got out of being crucified for days on end. Like I said before, even Naughty Dog must have realized that Ellie would never have won in a fair fight.
Ellie almost delivers the killing blow, but she relents after remembering her final night with Joel; when she promised to try and forgive Joel for his actions. She finally realizes that forgiveness is required to not only overcome pain and hate, but to break the long-drawn cycle of violence.
Of course, you could argue that Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog were somewhat needlessly cruel in the climax and final act of The Last Of Us Part 2. Abby and Lev almost find the surviving Fireflies before getting kidnapped by a group called the Rattlers and being crucified (which is a not-so-subtle way to show that Abby is being punished for her sins of killing Joel, though I don’t see why Lev had to suffer the same fate), while Ellie loses her newfound family life on the farm with Dina and the baby.
They learn the lesson too late; that it’s better to let go of the pain and hate, and embrace forgiveness, or at least, try to. That’s what I find is the most poignant point of the game; forgiveness isn’t for the person you’re forgiving, but it’s actually a necessary step for the one who is forgiving in letting go of the pain and hate (and finally getting peace).
However, learning the lesson too late is better than not learning it at all. While they might have lost everything else (loved ones, etc.) in the process, they were still alive at the end of The Last Of Us Part 2. Broken, battered, and bruised, but finally healing, and sometimes that’s the best we can do in life.
The Last Of Us Part 2 will make you sad, angry, frustrated, and upset, but does that really make it a bad game? Nope. It’s a game that must be played, experienced and completed to be understood.
I’ve probably only scratched the surface of discussing the various meanings and themes contained in this game, but I hope that more gamers opt for a broader and more open perspective when it comes to The Last Of Us Part 2. It deserves that much, at least. Wouldn’t you agree?