One of the promises I made two months ago was that I would release my thoughts on the The Last of Us Part II‘s after advocating against the deliberate spread of spoilers to unassuming players. Fortunately I managed to complete the game a few days after release, and I am slowly going through a second playthrough to reassess some of my thoughts.
However, my initial plans to do a narrative critique felt like beating a dead horse. If you were remotely involved in the discourse around the gaming industry, The Last of Us Part II certainly caught your attention if not for the sheer calamity that has transpired within relevant communities
Overall, there is a huge disconnect between critics and consumers regarding the game’s quality. At its worst, the Metacritic page indicated a score differential exceeding sixty points between critic and user scores. It has tamed with time, with critic and user scores equivalent to 94 and 53 respectively, although still a major gap.
The story is the most contentious aspect of The Last of Us Part II that is worth providing thoughts over. Aware of the saturation of content on this game, however, I want to approach things differently. First, a brief commentary on the discourse around this game will be provided. Afterwards, the controversial aspects of the narrative will be addressed head-on.
The Divisive Discourse
Considering The Last of Us Part II suffered a massive leak in April, tensions were already high prior to its release. No spoilers came across my eyes, but the degree of uproar over the game indicated that they rose a few eyebrows
What I find ironic in retrospect is how discussion around The Last of Us Part II represents its own “cycle of vengeance”, given it is one of the major themes in the game. Consider this chain of events: the game leaks to immense criticism, Naughty Dog and Sony issue copyright claims against videos pertaining to the leaks, ridicule towards Naughty Dog ensues, Sony sends out review copies that garner critical acclaim, fans get extremely angry at the reviewers, The Last of Us Part II finally releases to the public, more polarizing voices enter the fray that levy criticism, people involved in the creation of The Last of Us Part II come out to defend this game, and the back-and-forth persists.
Without a doubt, there is truly fault existing amongst the parties involved here. To not digress upon this point any further, I will just leave a few bullet points of note, some of which are a bit harsher than others:
- Reading leaks and watching cutscenes is NOT the same as playing the game for yourself. There are people rating this game without having experienced it as a video game, which is critically worthless. You can assess some parts (and determine whether the game is for you), but not the entire thing.
- Stop relying on game journalists or user scores to verify or contradict your opinions. Gaming is inherently subjective, not to mention there is legitimate concern about the conflicts of interests present within the industry. The reviews of these games also fall on two extremes.
- Check yourself before choosing to engage in divisive behavior online. In this case it applies to the fans, critics, and developers of The Last of Us Part II. The extremities of discussion are quite absurd, bordering on political divisions.
- For reasons I will dive into later, the marketing of The Last of Us Part II was deceptive.
What’s Up With The Story?
Based on the volume of discussion surrounding The Last of Us Part II, there seem to be two massive contention points
Just a couple hours into the game, its most disturbing hand for longtime fans of The Last of Us is unveiled: Joel’s brutal death by golf club at the hands of Abby and her Washington Liberation Front (WLF) friends.
Without the proper context, one might assume that Joel’s murder was “disrespectful” to the legacy of the franchise. As one part of the duo that made The Last of Us so iconic, his violent end shook many. To serve as a reminder of the events leading up to this moment, a link of his death scene is embedded for viewing (quick disclaimer that violence is intense).
On the principle of character deaths, it is essential they be handled in a manner that is both meaningful and synonymous with the overarching story. Admittedly the idea of Joel’s death did not fundamentally bother me. As a driving motivator for Ellie’s revenge quest, it is one of the strongest that Naughty Dog could incorporate. Not to mention that Abby is relatively justified; her father happened to be the surgeon Joel killed in the previous game. While I take issue with this specific plot point, I would sympathize with Abby as a young teenager deeply traumatized from the untimely loss of her father. It also reflects the brutally unpredictable nature of the post-apocalypse, where no one is safe from the wrath of people and Infected alike.
Under most circumstances, Joel’s death would be a shocking but compelling narrative twist that forges a strong sense of empathy between Ellie and the player as she hungers to pick off the WLF one by one. Unfortunately, its unproductive and convenient execution undermines its intrigue.
One of the major criticisms regarding Joel’s death boils down to the fact that Tommy revealed their names to Abby in the middle of a snowstorm, which were reaffirmed by him and Joel upon arriving at the lodge the WLF are residing at. Both of these characters were accustomed to the reality of a post-apocalyptic America for twenty-five years, and it was deemed unbelievable by people unhappy with Joel’s death.
And while Joel and Tommy are presumably softened from five years of peace and stability in the settlement of Jackson, other cutscenes and events erode this idea. Several flashback sequences show that Joel remains paranoid about Ellie’s immunity secret getting out, Jackson still requires routine patrols to maintain the settlement’s safety, and Maria warns that going after the WLF would strain their resources. Considering all of that, it is somewhat ridiculous that Joel and Tommy would let their guard down, let alone heed Abby’s advice to return to the WLF’s temporary hideout.
I also cannot be the only person that noticed how Joel’s and Tommy’s equipment miraculously disappeared after reaching the hideout, stripping them of the ammunition to protect themselves in case something came up.
But the greatest problem with Joel’s death concerns the means that Joel’s death is both carried out and accounted for. One of the strangest plot developments within the game is how all hopes of a vaccine are abandoned after Joel interfered to protect Ellie just because a surgeon happened to die. It is conspicuous that Abby’s father left no notes about the procedure for creating a vaccine, not to mention that Mel herself is a surgeon who trained under him. However, it is more strange that Joel was identified as a target by the former Fireflies that joined the WLF, but Ellie was not.
Regardless of the viability of a cure, Abby and the WLF made no attempt to extract more information from Joel after blowing his kneecap off, nor inquire about why he did what he did. Before the operation on Ellie ended tragically four years prior, Abby overheard that a girl had accompanied him there, so would it not stand to reason that she was still alive? Abby got lucky finding Tommy and Joel, so is it much of a stretch to suggest Ellie managed to find their hideout on pure coincidence?
Also consider that Tommy and Ellie are spared by the WLF after the group acknowledges Jackson poses a threat to their band of misfits. Yet at the end of the day, their small act of pacifism led to the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds of WLF members once Ellie and friends venture to Seattle
While he might not be alive, Joel’s death did not erase his presence from The Last of Us Part II. There are several flashbacks featuring Joel and Ellie, from a sweet trip to a local museum to a confrontation regarding the events of the previous game. Whether these moments were meant to make Joel’s death sting more or provide relief to the dreariness of the present, it proved more interesting than the narrative that preoccupies The Last of Us Part II.
I truly believe that Naughty Dog had no intention of “disrespecting” Joel, but there is a clear obsession with the subversion of expectations present across the game’s writing. This strangely reminds me of The Last Jedi, which played around with the expectations of the characters and lore to forge a film that diverged from the groundwork laid in The Force Awakens. Because I am not a fan of Star Wars, I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi for what it attempted to do despite some lingering issues. The release of The Last of Us Part II, however, helped me understand the frustrations most Star Wars fans levied at The Last Jedi. In both cases, there was a clash of expectations and execution that appealed to specific crowds and rejected the notions of others. Unfortunately Joel happened to be the greatest victim of this approach.
Both Ellie And Abby Are Playable
Chances are that Joel’s death was not surprising to most players, regardless of your exposure to the leaks. Joel has committed a lot of violent, horrifying acts since the outbreak that plant a target on his back from multiple parties. His actions at the hospital certainly irked a number of Fireflies, and by all accounts he had it coming to him.
Most fans of The Last of Us were endeared to Joel as a father figure to Ellie that learned to love and hope again. We were aware of his problematic behavior, but his journey with Ellie revealed a broken man hidden underneath his rough exterior who does not want to live a traumatic past. Even at the end of the game, he lies to Ellie about what happened with the Fireflies to protect their relationship. Individual reactions varied and perceptions of Joel diverged, but the moral ambiguity of the writing was universally acclaimed.
The point is that The Last of Us is written in a manner that connects us with the struggles of its characters, but rightfully exposes their highest and lowest points without preaching to the player.
On the other hand, one of the most unfortunate aspects of The Last of Us Part II is how it sacrifices a character-focused narrative in favor of an overarching story focused on the dangers of revenge and obsession. In order to accomplish this, it was determined that the player needed to experience the story from the perspective of Abby, better known as Joel’s killer.
Just like the death of Joel, placing the player in Abby’s shoes had the potential to flesh out the Washington Liberation Front, add complexity to the motivations of the team, and intertwine Abby’s story with Ellie’s in original ways. Yet its execution falls short because it contributes little and overstays its welcome.
Abby’s story extends the game about twelve to fifteen hours, which is roughly the equivalent of The Last of Us‘s playtime. This already poses a problem because the game feels much longer than it should.
I initially had a problem criticizing this game on the basis of length. I enjoyed massive games like Xenoblade Chronicles, Persona 5 Royal, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for dozens of hours without the glaring impression that these games needed to be shorter. What makes The Last of Us Part II, a comparatively shorter game, any worse?
Unlike the three games I listed above, The Last of Us Part II lacks a tangible sense of progression when playing through Abby’s story. Unless something eludes my understanding, you play as Abby to empathize with her struggles and witness her achieve some redemption.
Did it require twelve hours to do this? Absolutely not. Especially not after it leaves the player on a terrible cliffhanger at the movie theatre.
The fact that Joel killed Abby’s father was good enough reason to understand her motivation. Had her gameplay been reduced to the most important facets of her character development, the reception to Abby might have been warmer.
Instead, most of Abby’s story revolves around her strained relationship with Owen and an unrelated plot where she befriends two rogue siblings from a religious cult known as the Seraphites, both of whom ran away after one of them came out as transgender. There’s an inherent dilemma because the latter subplot is decent for what it attempts to do, but it feels misplaced in the grand scheme of things.
Even more jarring are the means Naughty Dog uses garner sympathize for Abby. Her father is painted as a flawless person on the cusp of saving humanity by performing surgery on Ellie, yet does not follow basic protocol of asking for consent from Joel or Ellie (which could have avoided a fatal outcome). Abby loves dogs and plays fetch with them while Ellie kills dogs on her quest for revenge.
There’s nothing wrong with showing the compassionate side of Abby during her narrative, but doing so at the expense of Ellie is destructive to both characters. Ellie’s character is diminished to a revenge-obsessed killer that cannot let go of Joel’s memory as she kills one person after another, even with the awareness that Abby had a reason for doing what she did.
Ellie’s character then comes to a crossroads. Most of the significant deaths occuring at her hands arise from self-defense, and despite that she is traumatized when she tortures Nora for information and unknowingly kills a pregnant Mel. Meanwhile she mows down dozens of WLF members during gameplay with silent pistols, explosive arrows, trap mines, etc. While this contradicts the theming of the game, this is a case of ludonarrative dissonance that I am willing to excuse because it is an inevitability in most games to achieve the fun factor.
Instead, the most jarring moments occur when player agency is stripped away to force them to commit certain acts. By far the worst instance arises when the game requires the player to deliberately push the square button three times to to get information out of Nora.
Why Naughty Dog chose to do this baffles me. These are the moments that create a disconnect between the player and the character when not implemented thoughtfully. In my personal case, I made a deliberate effort to not kill people during Ellie’s adventure in Seattle, so forcing me to make Ellie commit a tortious act (even if Nora was dumb for not giving her the information) was unsettling for the wrong reasons.
Before I proceed to the next point, I should note a gameplay oddity that piqued my curiosity. The enemies in this game are more realistic, coordinating with each other to catch their target.
Additionally, they also gargle and scream after getting pounded with shotguns or slit in the throat. At least during Ellie’s gameplay. Strangely enough…
Perhaps it happened to be pure coincidence, but the enemy reactions to death were more pronounced during Ellie’s gameplay than Abby’s gameplay for me. I even went back to verify this, and the difference was evident. Something indicates that my experience was an anomaly, but it almost felt as though Abby’s violence was desensitized in comparison. It might also have something to do with where on the enemy’s they are hurt.
Regardless, the fact that the game fails to paint a meaningful parallel between Ellie and Abby due to the game’s convoluted narrative structure make Abby’s story that much more grating to experience. I applaud the bold challenge that Naughty Dog’s writers undertook to show the “antagonist’s” perspective, but the foundation was not strong enough to carry its own weight.
One Other Thing
The contention points listed are so because there is ample reason for various players to react differently to the game’s events. Heck, my greatest issue with the game lies with how it contextualizes and adapts the final moments of The Last of Us for its own convenience, and explaining why warrants its own blog post.
Regardless of one’s feelings towards The Last of Us Part II, however, I am concerned that the chaotic discourse is making it difficult to truthfully acknowledge genuine issues that need to be addressed. More specifically, the marketing and promotion of The Last of Us Part II was extremely deceptive, as can be witnessed in the following trailers if you catch the differences with the final game.
Both of these trailers leave specific impressions about how the game will pan out that wholly contradict the events that actually occurred.
The most noteworthy instance is the scene with Joel at the end of the first trailer, and the multiple scenes showing Joel in the story trailer. It turns out that Joel was not the one that caught up to Ellie, but rather Jesse (Troy Baker recorded a “fake” scene for the trailer). In the story trailer, both Joel’s and Ellie’s in-game models were swapped to provide the illusion that Joel played a larger role in the present story. In reality those were just flashbacks.
Part of me sympathizes with the idea that the team at Naughty Dog were sensitive to certain surprises leaking out to the public. Art is something worth experiencing at least once without it getting sullied from the presence of spoilers. On the other hand, the lengths they went to alter the trailers are of genuine concern. It sets a dangerous precedent for what game publishers could do to instill false impressions of a game to attract a wider audience.
The most surprising omission, however, is that nowhere is there an indication that Abby is playable in any of the trailers. In fact, she only shows up once in a trailer that debuted at Paris Games Week in 2017.
Understandably, Abby’s existence as a playable character was the game’s biggest secret. Even during her appearance in the reveal trailer, Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross were coy about who she was. This actually led to rampant speculation that she was Ellie’s mother at one point, which is funny in retrospect because Abby is the same age as Ellie.
Either way, neither confirming nor disconfirming the role of Abby is not that big of a deal. It would be a much greater issue if there was information that led us to believe that Abby would not be playable in the game, let alone for as long as she was…
There are two outcomes that explain this statement, and neither bode well for the reputation of Naughty Dog:
- Neil Druckmann simply lied to avoid disclosing that Abby was playable. It is objectively a dishonest statement, even more so considering that someone from the company had provided a more candid answer prior to that.
- Abby was not intended to be a playable character until later in the development. It this were the case, that would leave Naughty Dog less than two years to develop another twelve hours of gameplay and story, which does not bode well for the crunch culture that’s been reported on at their studio.
Combine this with the other trailers, and there is probably a legitimate case of false advertising to be made here. The Federal Trade Commission deems dishonest or deceptive advertising illegal, and unfortunately The Last of Us Part II seems to check the boxes here.
This game has been compared to Metal Gear Solid II by Neil Druckmann because it pulls off a similar twist, but the major difference is that Metal Gear Solid II‘s promotional materials were not unrepresentative of the final product; nothing was substantially altered that would explicitly indicate that Raiden was not playable
The biggest shame is that multiple video games are guilty of something similar, from the false promises of No Man’s Sky to the blatant lie about a major character’s identity in Batman: Arkham Knight. No tangible repercussions were faced outside of consumer backlash, and The Last of Us Part II might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I would like to believe that I gave The Last of Us Part II the benefit of the doubt. When the leaks occurred in April, I maintained a hardened stance that not only should people avoid deliberately spreading them, but give the game a shot if it still piqued their curiosity. At the time there was so much anger and vitriol from the fan community that it was absurd to buy into the rage. When June 19th came, I gave The Last of Us Part II a fair shot. At the end of the day, it turned out to be a decent experience on its own merits.
But as a sequel to a game that shaped my understanding of a game’s artistic merit, as an eagerly anticipated game meant to showcase the fruits of Naughty Dog’s countless talents, the sheer amount of disappointment I felt in The Last of Us Part II was too profound to ignore.
Let this be a word of caution for the future of gaming, one that calls for more thoughtful discussion, honest conversation, and respectful opinion. I am glad that The Last of Us Part II exists, if not for its persistence in the conversation of gaming, but its impact also represents a concerning low point that can be learned from as we look onward.