The Last of Us Part 2 is a Masterpiece

It’s funny how some things play out. When 2020 began I had zero interest in The Last of Us as a franchise or its hotly-anticipated second installment. My money was headed straight for Doom Eternal and Ghost of Tsushima. But then I took a chance on The Last of Us Part 2 last minute, and I can say quite confidently that it’s my Game of the Year so far. We’ll have to see what the rest of the year brings us, but it’s definitely deserving of its critical status as a masterpiece- both in gameplay and storytelling. 

It’s not perfect however. And it’s certainly not for everyone. No video game is for everyone (except for Mario Party 5, obviously). There are some valid criticisms to be made, and if you look hard enough you might even find some of them on the internet. Both Jim Sterling and Writing on Games produced well-articulated video essays in which they criticized the pacing of the narrative. There’s also the issue of the crunch culture at Naughty Dog- which can’t be ignored or subtracted from the discourse around the product.

So I want to preface this post by stating, in no uncertain terms, that you’re not a bigot if you don’t like the game. No sane person is saying that. The divide is not between those who like the game and those who don’t like the game, although the people driving the hate towards The Last of Us Part 2 want you to think that. The Alt-Right want to blur the lines as much as possible between themselves and genuine critics, so as to create a false perception that anyone criticizing the game is being silenced. This is not about censorship or free speech, and it never is with the Alt-Right. There is a clear and distinct difference between simply not enjoying the product (for instance, because you don’t like the way the gameplay feels, because you’re not interested in the narrative, et cetera) and being bitterly, obsessively angry at the product (not for any of its components, but out of a baseless assumption that it is somehow insulting you). 

This isn’t a case of two partisan tribes that are just as bad as each other. This isn’t about fanboys versus trolls, or journalists versus players. There’s only one group unified by an agenda here, and that’s the people that started a crusade of hatred against the game as soon as the leaks came out; that made their minds up to be angry before the game ever released; that review-bombed it in their droves to the point that Metacritic changed their system; that actively enjoyed and celebrated the controversy as some kind of carnival sideshow; that posited the outrage of their favorite YouTubers as being “the voice of all gamers” despite the overwhelming majority of people that enjoyed the game (as based on both sales and social media statistics). The toxicity that permeates the discourse surrounding The Last of Us Part 2 is entirely the product of the Alt-Right, and no one else. The reason they avoid specific criticisms of the game in favor of labelling its creators and fans as “leftists”, “SJWs”, and “identity politics feminists” is because their hatred has less to do with the actual game itself and more to do with a broader culture war built on maintaining an unequal status quo and a paranoid fear of replacement by “the other”.

As I stated in my previous blog post, I found myself in a strangely paradoxical situation where I wished I had gone into The Last of Us Part 2 without knowing anything, even though it took knowledge of the game’s big twist to convince me that this was a story I would be interested in. Prior to the leaks, I thought that I would probably like the game if I gave it a chance, but there was no spark that made me think “I must play this game”. On the surface it looked like a pretty cut-and-dry post-apocalypse story. I figured I’d get it on sale a year later. The trailer that Naughty Dog released in 2019 seemed to imply that the game would begin with Ellie’s girlfriend Dina getting murdered in front of her, and Ellie pursuing a vendetta against her murderers. The trailer ends with what appears to be Joel catching up with her and saying “You think I’d let you do this on your own?” 

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fine trailer, but I got the impression that this sequel was going to be very straightforward and unadventurous. It seemed like something I’d seen before. Joel’s line at the end felt to me like cliched fan-service, a promise that the old team would be getting back together again. There would be some generic friction between them explaining why he wasn’t around when she left, the two of them would work their differences out as he helps her get revenge, and it would end with him sacrificing herself for her. We’d all cry for Papa Joel.

But of course, that’s not what happens at all. This game is an altogether different beast. And that’s what provided the spark I was missing. I knew enough from the leaks that the story for The Last of Us Part 2 was a rare kind of experiment. Far from being an unironic revenge narrative, we instead get a deconstruction of this very milieu. The game wears this genre like a carapace, and little by little sheds it over the course of its first act. The pretense makes the subversion more effective. 

The Last of Us Part 2 gave me something I’ve been desperately wanting more of in AAA games. And that is giving the gameplay sequences a sense of weight. I love the way it takes the hospital mission from the finale of the last game and gives it such devastating importance. Joel’s fateful decision to single-handedly exterminate the last remnants of the group trying to reverse the apocalypse is the catalyst for the entire second game. The generic sequel implied by last year’s trailer would have had us leave behind the events of the first game and see our favorite duo face off against a new threat. That’s why this game is called Part 2, and not simply The Last of Us 2, or more likely The Last of Us 2: Rise of the Seraphites.

Too often in video games, the enemies are never explored beyond their mechanical function. They’re the fodder that serves the core gameplay loop, and the hospital mission at the end of The Last of Us, like every other mission in that game, plays out like your typical action sequence. You can trace it all the way back to the first games ever released: here are some things to shoot, never mind what those things might want. The hospital mission, from a narrative point of view is a complete massacre. This is highlighted best by the moment you kill the doctors. Most games don’t look back. But The Last of Us Part 2 does. In this game, everything comes at a price. The gameplay sequences don’t exist in a vacuum. They have consequences for the people that inhabit this world. 

I’m in love with this idea. Right off the bat in The Last of Us Part 2 we revisit the scene in the hospital operating room, making the whole level feel less like a “mission” and more like a narrative event. The corridor leading to the operating room now feels like a real place. It feels significant in a way that it never did before. When I played the first game, I didn’t think twice about it- it was just a bland corridor funneling the player down to the next encounter. Now the walls, the doors, even the empty little room preceding the operating room itself, all have the echoes of Joel’s fateful decision. It reminded me of the way a particular physical space might be viewed uniquely by someone that’s experienced a significant event there.

This phenomenon is even more intense if the place carries the memory of a traumatic experience, in which case the space itself seems characteristic of the trauma. And indeed, that’s what this hospital represents for Abby, whose father is the surgeon Joel murders when he reaches the operating room. The decision to make a character out of one of these unnamed extras epitomizes my love for The Last of Us Part 2. I checked the end credits for the first game, and there are only thirteen named characters, after which there are a block of about fifty people listed simply as “Voice Over Cast” (one of which is Laura Bailey, the voice actor of Abby funnily enough). If the surgeon were listed here, he would probably have been called “Doctor #1” or something; someone not even worth considering as you charge ahead to rescue Ellie. And this mirrors Joel’s state of mind within the narrative- he doesn’t consider that this guy in front of him has a history of his own, that he might be a father to someone, a fully-formed person with thoughts and values. He’s simply in the way- he might as well be a locked door or a fallen tree. This is the case for most NPCs in gaming history. But in The Last of Us Part 2, that “Doctor #1” is reworked- quite masterfully- into a nuanced human being of tremendous significance. That’s what makes this game an example of metafiction- it’s a commentary on the nature of perspective within the medium of video games. It’s a test of player empathy and player motivation. That’s what cemented my respect for this game, the fact that it rejects the easy option of a traditional sequel and takes a step back to consider the basic workings of how stories are told in the industry. It has a clear artistic vision and it has confidence in that vision. It’s not trying to please anyone and it’s not insecure that people won’t understand what it’s trying to achieve. It’s simply itself, exactly as its creators wanted it to be.

The game succeeds as a metanarrative, because the subtext remains the subtext. On the surface, it can still be experienced simply as a “zombie survival game”. I’ve seen players who didn’t connect with the story and still enjoyed it as a game, finding great catharsis in its mechanics. That’s how you create a metanarrative that isn’t just pretentious symbolism- the surface has to be rock solid. Moby Dick has such enduring appeal because the novel can be read as a straightforward adventure with the philosophical subtext left unexamined, if you so choose.

Not only did I enjoy The Last of Us Part 2 way more than I did its predecessor, I found that its sheer depth made me appreciate the first game a lot more in retrospect. My immediate feeling upon finishing the first game was that the violence didn’t seem to have any meaning. The Hunters in Pittsburgh are your generic wasteland bandits that just attack on sight without a second thought. The bandits we fight at Tommy’s Dam are similarly dehumanized in that they seem to show up en masse just to give us something to shoot at. And the Cannibals come across as cliched, their man-eater status existing more for shock value than world-building, given how numerous, well-supplied, and more to the point healthy they are. The Fireflies at the Salt Lake City hospital are the first enemy encounter where you start to question whether you are killing the right people, but it’s still a fairly easy choice to do so, for two reasons. One: we love Ellie. Two: the Fireflies act like villains. At first glance it feels like the familiar twist of the quest-giver being the bad guy all along. The guard watching over Joel goes out of his way to be a jerk, and Marlene’s coldness is striking. It feels like a massive slap in the face after the monumental effort we went through to get across the country.

The sequel seemed to have read my mind because it tackles this criticism head-on. Firstly, in contrast to the Hunters and Cannibals, the enemies of The Last of Us Part 2 are fleshed out as much as possible. More than any game I have ever played, The Last of Us Part 2 makes the enemies of its combat encounters feel like real people. They each have names that they address each other by, and they react with anguish when they discover the bodies of their fallen comrades. You are meant to feel, as vividly as is possible, that each person you kill had a life of their own. Death feels like death, not as a point on a scoreboard. There is a sense of weight to each kill, which toys with your emotions by being both viscerally gruesome and mechanically very satisfying. If you stab an enemy, they make these horrifying gurgling sounds as they choke on their own blood. If you throw a bottle, the glass becomes embedded in their face. And if you use an explosive, you can dismember them a thousand different ways.

Your encounters with them also feel less contrived, each one making sense within the context of the narrative. Seattle is a city caught in a war between two factions, which has gotten so bloody that the WLF have a specific policy of shooting first and asking questions later. Not only that, but some of the WLF members question the morality of this policy, which only makes the NPCs seem more self-aware. When Ellie and Dina enter the chaos of Seattle armed to the teeth and hell-bent on revenge, the WLF have no idea what’s going on. That definitely added to the fun for me, the idea that we only add to the chaos by carving our way through both factions indiscriminately and not giving a shit about their climactic life-and-death struggle. I liked overhearing the WLF making frantic reports about these unknown trespassers that have come out of nowhere and somehow decimated their well-trained army. Little details like that lend significance to the player’s actions. When we first enter the city it’s almost abandoned, given that the WLF have consolidated their forces to better defend against the guerrilla tactics of the more mobile Seraphites. The open world section, aside from being a breathtaking recreation of downtown Seattle, feels like a true post-apocalyptic environment. The vast emptiness and long periods of quiet exploring really add to the game’s atmosphere, in contrast to the way the first game sometimes felt too linear. Everything is improved- from a world that feels realistically post-apocalyptic to enemies that act in a believable way.

The Last of Us Part 2 also improves its predecessor with its use of flashbacks, in which we see the hospital massacre from an alternate perspective. We see Marlene really struggling with the idea of sacrificing Ellie, in contrast to the coldness she exuded in the first game. Taken together, both games can be viewed as a treatise on the nature of perspective, with the first game giving us Joel’s narrow version of events, only for the second to show a broader picture. Joel doesn’t see the Fireflies wrestling with the guilt of what they’re about to do, and from his narrow perspective of them being ungrateful, callous, and aggressive, it’s easier for him to make the decision to murder the lot of them. The way the characters work off of incomplete, subjective truths is very much true to real life. I love the scene where Abby’s father discusses the morality of killing one person to save the rest of humanity. The Fireflies agonize over having to make this choice. They’re aware of the moral implications of what they’re doing. And the sheer desperation of their dwindling organization drives them to take the stance of the ends justifying the means. Abby tells her father that if it were her instead of Ellie, she would want him to go ahead with the surgery. And of course, the tragedy of the last game is that were she given the choice, Ellie would also have been okay with making that sacrifice.

That’s what makes the ending so beautiful- in saving her life, Joel ruins his relationship with Ellie forever. She knows he’s lying and she gives him one last chance to tell her the truth, before they reach Jackson. She tells him about the survivor guilt she’s carried with her since losing Riley, and how this underlines her need to make her inexplicable survival count for something. In her mind, she should have died that day in the shopping mall, which accounts for her impulsive nature and at times reckless attitude to her own safety. Despite learning why Ellie needed her immunity to mean something, Joel unconvincingly reaffirms his lie, and at that moment everything the two of them had built together over the past year is irretrievably lost. 

This scene in the epilogue of the first game might be the most important in the series as a whole. Their relationship isn’t broken immediately, but the breakup cannot be stopped either. They continue with this hollow space between them, this dark unspoken secret. Ellie knows that Joel lied, but can’t bring herself to confront the truth, and Joel knows that Ellie doesn’t believe him, but doggedly insists on delaying the inevitable as long as possible. What Joel wants for Ellie when he saves her from the Fireflies is the life that Sarah missed out on. And that’s exactly what Jackson provides her with. When we catch up with nineteen-year-old Ellie in the beginning of The Last of Us Part 2, she is living a life that is startlingly reminiscent of the world before the Cordyceps outbreak. She has safety, electricity, running water, central heating, and a stable agricultural system. She can watch movies, pursue creative passions such as music and art, she has social events such as barn dances, she makes amazing friends, and perhaps most significantly she experiences romance. It’s everything Joel could have wanted for her and more. Looking at just how cozy the setup is in Jackson, from its free-flowing alcohol to its apple-cheeked children having snowball fights, one could easily forget that there’s an apocalypse at all. What endeared us- and indeed Joel- to Ellie in the first place was the fact that, having been born into the apocalypse, she never got to experience a normal life.

The Ellie we meet here is therefore a little different. Now she has experienced something akin to normalcy, and the mundane routines of Jackson have allowed Ellie’s nascent personality to emerge. In contrast to the brash, hyperactive little kid whose reckless courage reflected a life of barbed wire, constant danger, and unrelenting hardship, the Ellie of Jackson is mellow, sarcastic, and introverted. If you read the passages in her journal, you see just how angsty she is, overthinking the slightest little things the way teenagers so often do. This detail isn’t there just to make the fans gush at how adorable and relatable she is- it all serves to reiterate the sense of pre-outbreak comfort that Jackson’s walls provide. 

But Joel and Ellie cannot escape the past, and the harshness of the world outside those walls manifests itself in Abby, a hardened soldier in a well-trained paramilitary outfit who descends upon Ellie’s cozy existence like a force of nature. As I said earlier, throughout the first act of the story, The Last of Us Part 2 very much keeps up the pretense of a typical revenge narrative, and Abby is meant to be viewed as a villain at this point. Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have stated on multiple occasions that the player is in no way being “forced” to like Abby. You are meant to be outraged at the beginning. There is a reason that Joel’s murder is so brutal. The writers assumed that players would be mature enough to contextualize their anger within the narrative and I think if the leaks hadn’t come out, then almost every player would have done so. The idea that Joel is killed out of some sociopolitical agenda as opposed to the obvious narrative reasons is so laughable that it isn’t worth discussing any further. A lot was made out of Abby’s muscular physique by the Alt-Right, much to the amusement of the rest of the world and indeed the developers themselves, but her appearance is important. The muscles aren’t shoehorned into the narrative out of some ludicrous “feminist agenda”. No, far from being at odds with the narrative, Abby’s muscles are demanded by it. The Abby we see in her first flashback, prior to her father’s death, has a slight physique and a soft-hearted persona. The life that Ellie enjoys in Jackson is the life that Abby had in Salt Lake City- the life Joel took from her.

Duality is one of the biggest themes in the game, and there are many instances of parallelism between its characters. Much like Jackson, the life the Fireflies live in Salt Lake City is one that refuses to be defined by the apocalypse. Abby not only loses her father; she loses the dream of the Fireflies, a dream based on a stubborn refusal to accept the Cordyceps outbreak as an apocalypse event. The Fireflies had a grand ambition to restore life the way it was, and from the moment she was born Abby was raised with this project in mind. She was told stories of the world she never knew and she believed wholeheartedly in the promise that such a world would return. Then, in the blink of an eye, that dream is snuffed out. Her entire life comes crashing down, and the magnitude of her loss is reflected in a song lyric that Joel- rather cheesily- sings to Ellie at the beginning of the game: “If I ever were to lose you, I would surely lose myself.”

When Abby loses her dad, she loses the person she was and the life she knew. To me, this is the true meaning of the franchise’s title. In his review for the first game, Yahtzee Croshaw quipped “Hey, here’s a fun game: who do you think the title ‘The Last of Us’ means by ‘us?’ Cuz I’ll tell you who it doesn’t mean: human beings; there’s shit-loads of those!”. He was making a point here about the way the gameplay demands didn’t coalesce with the world-building given the density of redshirt thugs you encounter, which is a criticism I shared, but which- as I stated earlier in this post- is something the sequel rectifies with its more open environments and stronger narrative context. But to answer the question of the title’s meaning- I’m of a belief that “The Last of Us” isn’t a reference to the remnants of the human race, but rather the remnants of humanity within those who survive. I imagine the title being in either Joel or Ellie’s- or indeed Abby’s- voice. It’s about what the cruelty of this world takes from them, which is a prominent theme in both games. When Sarah dies, Joel loses the person he was. The first game is about the way Ellie helps him regain the part of himself he lost that day. Abby’s father was prepared to sacrifice his humanity to try to reverse-engineer a vaccine. Had he succeeded, he likely would have struggled with this decision- one that the cruelty of the world forced him to make. And of course, in the second game, both Abby and Ellie lose almost everything in their pursuits for revenge.

But what does this have to do with Abby being ripped? It has everything to do with it. With her father and father’s dream taken from her, Abby dedicates her entire existence to getting revenge on Joel, transforming herself from a soft-hearted girl into a killing machine. The muscles are a reminder of her trauma; they show us that she hasn’t taken her mind off of her goal for a single day in the years since. The way Abby is presented reminds me of the way Joel is presented in the last game. After the prologue, the caring, somewhat goofy dad we saw 20 years earlier has been replaced by an antithetical figure- a hardened, self-interested killer. His loss transforms him. When he arrives at the hospital in Salt Lake City, the Fireflies practically turn their noses up at him. They represent the world of before, and to them Joel is just a common, gruff smuggler that represents the world of now, in all its harshness. That’s why the Fireflies treat him dismissively- they have no respect for the kinds of ruthless vagabonds this new world has created, who live only for themselves and not in dedication to a higher purpose.

To look at Joel from the first game and to look at Abby from the second is to look into the eyes of the apocalypse. There’s no softness, no sense of peace and comfort to be found in their appearances. Abby’s muscles reminded me of Robert de Niro’s character in the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, which is as definitive a revenge story as you will find in cinema. In the first movie (1962) the character of Max Cady is played by Robert Mitchum. And as sinister as Mitchum is in that movie, his effectiveness as a villain is undermined by the fact that his opposite number, Gregory Peck, looks like he could handily knock him out if he so wanted. But in the Scorsese remake (1991), Robert de Niro is absolutely ripped so as to seem more terrifying. To prepare for the role, de Niro took his body fat down to 4% and paid a doctor 5000 bucks to grind down his to teeth to make himself as threatening as possible. In the first scene we see him doing triceps dips in a prison cell in front of a wall covered in posters of authoritarian strongmen, historical war generals, and superheroes, all of which evoke the Nietzschean concept of Übermensch. He exits the prison and walks toward the camera as a thunderstorm brews in the background. You know here that he has spent every day of his sentence planning and preparing for his revenge. His character embodies his obsession with this singular goal. And that reminded me so much of Abby, who enters the game as a Max Cady style personification of the revenge motif. At first she isn’t a three-dimensional character; she’s a thunderstorm descending upon the tranquility of Jackson. Once Joel killed her father, it was only a matter of time before fate tracked him down in the form of Abby. Actions have consequences.

If you look at Abby’s muscles and see them as “immersion-breaking”, you can’t not be a misogynist. It’s such a small detail, and one that serves the narrative rather than disrupts it. And by the same token, only a homophobe would look at Ellie and only see her sexuality. A gay person simply existing can’t be distracting unless you have a problem with gay people existing. And unless you’re a part of the minority in question, you don’t get to determine what constitutes tokenism. The subject of immersion is something I’m particularly interested in, because it’s a quality I put a high value on. To me, something that would break my immersion would be a character or group of characters acting in an unbelievable way. Plot armor, exposition through dialogue, awkward tonal shifts, that sorta thing. And on the whole, I found The Last of Us Part 2 to be one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played- in both writing and display.

Which is a lovely segue into the technical side of things. The graphics in this game are spectacular. Much like 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2, this game breathes life into its world via its intricate details. A multitude of tiny features that, individually, you would miss unless you were going out of your way to find them, but which collectively you feel like a chorus of cicadas all around you. If water falls off of a roof, Ellie flinches, craning her neck to avoid it. If you hold down L2, Ellie squints. When playing the guitar, Ellie’s fingers will go to the appropriate chords. One detail I really liked was the way the tallgrass and shrubs you can go prone in weren’t at odds with the rest of the environment. Instead of the colored “stealth-grass” you get in Horizon Zero Dawn or Ghost of Tsushima, we get very realistic looking grass that contributes to the overgrown aesthetic whilst still effectively serving its gameplay function. One of the most compelling aspects of the world of The Last of Us, especially when compared to nuclear apocalypses, is the way nature has reclaimed human habitats. The cause of the apocalypse isn’t written in the scenery the way it is in the Fallout series, and as such has a unique tone that is equal parts disturbing and beautiful, as though the entire of humanity suddenly vanished without a trace.

The spectacular visuals of the game have seen universal praise, from its visceral weather effects to the way it’s able to animate a kissing scene- one of the most notoriously difficult tasks in game design- and not have it look like plastic dolls being mashed together by a child. You can feel the dappled haze of Santa Barbara, the glistening sweat on Dina’s forehead during the barn dance, the rain soaked into Abby’s clothes when she’s almost executed by the Scars, the glory of the sun splashed on the fields that overlook Jackson, the raging inferno of the Seraphite island under siege, the clumps of snow you can shake loose from the fir trees en route to the library, the waves crashing into you as the foreboding silhouette of the aquarium draws near. I could go on and on. But what is most impressive to me about this game- from a technical point of view- is the level design. This is where the improvement from the first game is the most striking. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the pièce de résistance. One of the most challenging jobs for level designers- especially when working on a game that is committed to both linearity and verisimilitude- is creating an environment that both funnels the player forward and feels like a real, living space. In this regard the game is emphatically triumphant. The evergreen forest outside the walls of Seattle feels like an evergreen forest. The game manages to convey a sense of scale while still having a clear sense of direction. The environments not only felt more realistic, they looked more interesting too.

In the first game there seemed to be a lot of traipsing around ruined buildings, taking a long time to move what felt like a short distance within the world. A wall or blockade would appear and we’d have to take the most convoluted, indirect way possible just to get on the other side. A string of arenas and corridors cut off from the wider world by strategically placed rubble, fences, locked gates, and boulders. In The Last of Us Part 2 however, you feel like you are traversing a great distance, which in my opinion serves the post-apocalyptic atmosphere well. There are quiet moments with vistas that look completely empty, the towering silence of pre-outbreak Seattle ruins all around you. There were no moments where I became fatigued with samey, drab interiors like I did in Boston or Pittsburgh in the first game. In Part Two the fantastic vistas always seemed to be on display. I was never restricted to interiors for very long, and the environment kept changing to keep things visually fresh at all times. At one point, Ellie falls into a sewer and at first I groaned at the prospect of being stuck down there for ages before restoring the status quo, trapped from the game’s beauty, but within minutes I was popped back out again and found myself in a creepy, overgrown city park in which prowled murderous cultists.

I liked that the level designers seemed to be thinking of ways to be as creative as possible with the idea of a Seattle reclaimed by nature, its roads collapsed into white-water cascades as we see in Abby’s Day 2. One of the standout moments to me was the sequence where Ellie pilots a skiff through the sunken city, here reimagined as a kind of near-future Atlantis. It’s not necessarily the most memorable scene from a gameplay or story perspective, but simply substituting what would have otherwise been a corridor for a series of volatile urban rapids makes for a more compelling experience. It’s a simple yet effective technique that ensures player engagement simply by changing the perspective, scale, and geometry. It’s something I’ve appreciated in other games- the platforming sections in Doom Eternal, the sky-rail in Bioshock Infinite, the vehicle missions in Quake 4. The Last of Us Part 2 also has levels designed around horseback riding, swimming, and one particularly memorable scene where you have to balance yourself across a makeshift “skybridge” connecting two skyscrapers. There is a verticality to the level design that its predecessor didn’t have, as you jump, climb, and rope-swing your way through tv stations, courthouses, elementary schools, and other lifelike environments.

The violence of the waves in the skiff sequence is also an important detail from a narrative standpoint. The weather and color palette changes in accordance with the darkening tone of the narrative. On Day 1, everything is bright and green, as the revenge at this stage seems justified, uncomplicated, and not at the expense of Ellie’s humanity. The rain starts when things stop going smoothly. Dina is sick, Shimmer is dead, and Abby is nowhere to be found. By Day 3 it’s a torrential downpour, and at this we point we get the sense that this whole mission is going to end in disaster. The weather is not the only thing that changes. Ellie, increasingly disgruntled at the “Your Abby is in another castle” pattern of events, becomes more desperate. You notice that her dialogue changes when you perform takedowns, reflecting her growing frustration and impatience. She rejects the idea of rescuing Tommy in favor of the far more dangerous option of charging ahead on her own. The freak waves that crash into her en route to the aquarium are an example of the literary device of “pathetic fallacy”, a dark omen that this decision will not end well for her.

Hand-in-hand with the excellent level design comes the sophisticated enemy AI. Together, they make the combat encounters endlessly replayable. Each encounter is a puzzle that no two players will solve the same way. The environments have simply too many strategic features to be utilized in any one session, and the enemies will take different routes each time. The pathfinding AI is highly randomized, which adds to both the challenge and the immersion. There are no enemies pacing back and forth across the same straight line, or standing completely stiff in convenient stabbing range. The enemies coordinate with one another to flank you, they flush you out of cover with attack dogs, and perhaps most impressive of all they actually call out the specific spot you’ve chosen to take cover. For example, if you retreat into a diner, they’ll say “She ran into that diner!”

I had a great time laying down trap-mines in narrow spaces like doorways and baiting the enemies toward me. The great thing about the larger environments is that if you’re overwhelmed, you can retreat quite easily and not have it feel like you’ve screwed the whole thing up. Too often in stealth games the moment an enemy spots you marks a descent into chaos that can’t be reversed, and you feel like you haven’t gone about the encounter “properly”. But in The Last of Us Part 2 the combat and stealth feel like an organic whole rather than two bitterly divorced gameplay modes fighting for custody of the player. I found that I only restarted encounters if I got spotted immediately. Anything after the first few takedowns felt like a natural progression, and I especially appreciated the rising sense of tension that comes with the enemies discovering the corpses of their fallen comrades or reacting to a nearby detonation. There’s a good variety of AI to deal with as well, each enemy serving a specific function, and assembled into a creative mix according to the environment. The dogs will track you down with their keen sense of smell, so if you’re trying to be as stealthy as possible, you’ll want to neutralize them first with a well-timed arrow or one of the lovely aforementioned trap-mines. As for the Infected, the game will throw tricky combinations at you in which you have to weigh up which variant to prioritize according to their abilities. The Clickers felt like less of a threat than they did in the last game for some reason- maybe because Ellie has an unbreakable switchblade, whereas Joel had to craft a finite amount of shivs. If you manage to take out the Runners first, you won’t have a problem.

The Clickers get overshadowed by a new Infected type known as Stalkers, whose segments were probably the most difficult and nerve-racking in the whole game in my opinion. Unlike Runners and Clickers they don’t make any sound. So you have to creep forward blindly and hope you’ve got enough shotgun ammo. The Stalkers don’t like to attack you directly either, so you can’t fortify yourself in a corner and lure them toward you. You just have to inch forward in the darkness, and they’ll wait until you’re most exposed before coming at you all at once. They reminded me of African Wild Dogs in the way they would take a nip at you before shuffling back and waiting for their mate to do the same from another angle. They can be tough to beat in close-quarters too, as they can take quite a few hits and deal some serious melee damage. There are several moments in the latter half of the game where the bastards will peel themselves out of walls covered in giant fungal growths and you find yourself trapped with them in a tight room. It’s not so bad if you have a melee weapon but fighting them with your bare hands is excruciating. The various pipe wrenches, hatchets, and baseball bats you find throughout the game are very satisfying to use but fighting hand-to-hand can be tortuous. This game definitely tests your reflexes more than the last, and there are several encounters built around timing your dodges well. 

My favorite enemies to fight were the Bloaters, which are much more menacing than the last game. This might be to better differentiate them from a new Infected type known as the Shamblers, which resemble slightly smaller and more numerous Bloaters that attack you with sprays of acid. They also make a more watery, guttural sound as well. The Shamblers serve as elite enemies whereas the Bloaters in The Last of Us Part 2 are more like boss encounters. I loved the way the Bloaters would destroy the environment around them, crashing through walls and bookshelves to get to you, making each encounter feel like a cinematic showdown. And this of course leads us to what is now undoubtedly the series’ most iconic boss fight- The Rat King.

I remember wondering during my playthrough of the first game what other Infected the game could produce once they’d introduced the Bloater. The Clicker is quite an iconic design- still recognizably human but unsettlingly soulless in that they have no face with which to convey emotion. The Runners still look and sound human, and the Bloaters have no human qualities left, seeming more like fully-fledged monsters. The Clicker is the most effectively creepy in my opinion, because you can see from the design how the fungus grew out of their brain. Each of the Infected enemies show different stages of infection which correspond to how difficult they are to fight and how rare their encounters are. In order, they go: Runners, Stalkers, Clickers, Shamblers, and Bloaters. But what next? It’s not like the Fallout or Metro games where you can have a whole host of aliens and mutants that you can keep creating without undermining the narrative. As I said, the Infected are all humans at various stages of development of the same virus, so there’s less options when it comes to creating new enemies. But Naughty Dog succeeded with The Rat King, which is essentially a bunch of Infected that have fused together after being trapped in a claustrophobic lair for over 20 years. The idea comes from a real-life phenomenon where a group of rats get their tails irreversibly entangled. I’ve seen pictures and it’s absolutely disgusting.

The Rat King is the only true boss-fight in the series that feels like a traditional video game boss-fight. I loved it because I wasn’t expecting it at all and it was nice for a game with such a nuanced story to have this pure horror vignette where, for a brief interlude, it’s just you and a monster and nothing else. The encounter feels very Resident Evil in nature, as you run from this big lumbering abomination that smashes through walls and takes all of your combined ammo and resources to take down. It’s just plain fun.

I’m not sure I have a favorite moment or passage of play however. Abby definitely has the best set pieces- in particular the sky-bridge, the Rat King, and the battle on the Seraphite Island- but I preferred Ellie’s sections in terms of standard gameplay. When I think about what I’d most like to replay, I think of the open-ended arenas of Hillcrest, the Hospital, and the Rattler compound in Santa Barbara. Although you still get plenty of variety with Abby, it feels like Ellie’s sections are more suited to stealth, and I most enjoy the gameplay when I’m presented with the opportunity to be creative. This might be intentional, as Ellie- aside from being much more slight in figure- is a pure survivor, whose strength lies in using her wits and ingenuity. She draws upon her vast experience of using whatever she can to her advantage. Whereas Abby is a trained soldier- and her arsenal reflects this background. The pipe bombs invite a much more aggressive approach than Ellie’s trap-mines, which encourage patience and cunning. Even Abby’s crossbow, which functionally is the same as Ellie’s bow, feels more clinical. Overall, I preferred playing as Ellie because she better suited my playstyle, but Abby is undoubtedly the superior choice if you like being as direct and brutal as possible. There are some especially skilled and fearless players on YouTube that play The Last of Us Part 2 the way you might play Doom, charging into the open on the highest difficulty, with no HUD whatsoever, and dispatching the enemies in the most savage way possible to give their videos a cinematic feel. I didn’t realize just how many combat options and finishing animations there were until I started watching YouTubers such as SmvR. You can even throw humans and Runners alike at the Clickers and the latter will devour them in front of you.

In general, the game feels a lot more polished than its predecessor. The cutscenes feel like they are woven into the gameplay more naturally, with little noticeable difference in quality. The best example of this is the cutscene where Abby teams up with Yara and Lev for the first time, which seamlessly transitions into gameplay with no cuts. You hear Infected in the woods, getting closer, and then just like that you’re in the game, with no time to catch your breath. It feels like a more immersive experience. 

The crafting animations are a tad overlong, and there were a couple times I would be peacefully adding a silencer to my pistol only for some thug to creep up behind me and slam my face into the workbench, which damn near gave me a heart attack. I only had one glitch: after vaulting a fence, the ground on the other side disappeared and Ellie fell into an endless abyss. I don’t understand glitches from a technical perspective, but I found it funny that Ellie screamed in horror as the ground disappeared before her, because it was like she was reacting to the glitch within the game. But these are the most minor imperfections. Some of the game’s haters have even acknowledged how good the combat is and how stunning the graphics are, but dismissed their importance to the assessment of the overall product because The Last of Us Part 2 is a “story-driven game”. This doesn’t really hold up however, because even though the story is a big focus of the game, it’s not the only draw for players. As I’ve outlined in previous paragraphs, there is simply too much work that’s gone into the improved combat, cutting-edge graphics, groundbreaking enemy AI, and superb level design, for those features to be written off as ancillary in nature. The argument would make sense for a visual novel or a branching-narrative point-and-click adventure, because there tends to be minimal gameplay involved in those genres. I’ve said before that games like Until Dawn and Detroit: Become Human pretty much live or die on the quality of their stories, because without them the player isn’t left with much to do except push forward. No one played those games because they couldn’t get enough of Quick-Time Events. Telltale’s The Walking Dead succeeded despite having very basic, 90’s style gameplay, all because of the quality of the writing. The Last of Us Part 2, on the other hand, is too much of a game to be judged on the narrative alone.

But what about the narrative? One of the central themes of The Last of Us Part 2 is the cycle of revenge; how indulging in violence, however just the cause may seem, will inevitably beget further violence. And while this theme isn’t all that original in and of itself, the way The Last of Us Part 2 explores this theme within the context of a video game is certainly original. The first game in the series was so creatively safe and the second, in contrast, is prepared to risk everything in pursuit of its vision. The game opens with the protagonist from the last game, Joel, getting tortured to death. The graphic nature of his killing makes it shocking enough- but the game then makes you play as his killer for the second half of the story, right when you think the story was building towards its natural conclusion. This is the last thing anyone would have expected from a AAA action-adventure title. The Last of Us Part 2 does not want to make you comfortable. Having you play as the murderer of the character you played in the last game, and then making you sympathize with the murderer, is about the most difficult proposition the writers could have come up with, and they couldn’t resist the challenge. It’s without a doubt the biggest ask a developer has made of a player. Naughty Dog took the hardest road they could, the biggest challenge, and knew that the only way it could possibly work would be if they absolutely nailed the execution. Without the vast amount of meticulous character-building details in this script, in conjunction with the knock-out performances of its cast, this experiment would have fallen flat on its face.

The flashbacks- particularly the PTSD ones- are so important to this game. Aside from providing much-needed downtime from the unrelenting unpleasantness of the present (without which, the structure might collapse due to player fatigue), the flashbacks show us just how much Abby has changed. The key word there is “show” because we wouldn’t be able to empathize with her if we weren’t literally in her shoes, experiencing what happened to her first-hand as opposed to being told it through a couple lines of dialogue. We know exactly what she feels and why she does what she does. This doesn’t mean that we forgive her, however. Forgiveness is a theme of the game, but it’s more relevant to Ellie’s storyline (in regards to forgiving Joel). Abby’s, I feel, is more about letting go, which isn’t quite the same thing, although you could argue there’s some overlap. Just as Abby learns to let go of her past, as well as her hatred of the Seraphites, we learn to let go of what she did to Joel. A lot of gamers mistakenly believe that you’re being forced to like Abby, but you’re only really meant to understand her. She’s no less controversial than Joel, or Ellie, as a character, and the game doesn’t shy away from pointing out her bad deeds. You’re not meant to forget what happened to Joel. The game wants you to be full of rage at the beginning, and then have the resulting narrative- a long journey of misery and suffering- help you let go of that hatred. You’re meant to think, as the game progresses, how pointless and pathetic this whole endeavor is. The journey the player goes on is reflective of the character arcs for both Ellie and Abby. The opening scenes demand your anger, and what follows weens you off of it. By the end, hopefully, the player will be begging both parties to let go. I know I was.

Naturally, it’s easier to care about Ellie because of how invested in her we are from the first game. Although important, Ellie was not the protagonist of The Last of Us. Her role in the plot was to elicit Joel’s buried humanity. You can’t help but love her. She’s charming and funny, and above all represents the world’s lost innocence- now a scarce and precious commodity. She doesn’t really have any flaws, certainly not compared with Joel. In the second game, Ellie is front and center as the protagonist. The secondary role, this time, is played by her girlfriend Dina. Much like Ellie in the first game, Dina doesn’t really have any flaws either. This is because her character is serving a role in relation to the protagonist’s character arc. Dina is everything long-time fans could want for Ellie. They’re not total opposites but they’re not exactly the same either. I’ve never bought into the “opposites attract” myth, because there needs to be a certain amount of overlap for a couple to make sense. Both Ellie and Dina are brave and capable survivors. We learn early on that Dina has as much experience of violence as Ellie does. I liked that she was onboard with avenging Joel right from the get-go. It was refreshing to see the partner appreciate the needs of the protagonist instead of giving us the clichéd “You don’t need to do this” speech. She knows what Joel meant to Ellie and she can’t let Ellie go out there alone. Even when we, the player, start to question Ellie’s revenge, Dina remains dutiful to her. Theirs is a bond that’s not broken easily, and she remains determined to help even when she falls sick. The two contrast in subtle ways. Ellie is more of an introvert that’s unsure of herself, that’s hesitant, that internalizes her anxious thoughts, that finds solace in being alone with her music and paintings. Dina, on the other hand, is open, playful, and passionate. She’s a comedian but she also wears her heart on her sleeve. Her openness contrasts nicely with Ellie, who prefers not to be the center of attention. Dina is very much comfortable in the limelight. It’s funny, because Dina’s personality is so much like that of her face model, YouTuber Cascina Caradonna, even though this is not intentional and she is in fact played by Shannon Woodward (of Westworld fame). Perhaps most importantly, Dina represents Ellie’s future, which underlines the point that you can’t truly care about Ellie and want her to keep chasing Abby.

My two favorite characters from the game were Lev and Dina, which I don’t think can be a coincidence. Both of these characters serve a narrative function in relation to our two protagonists, which is why they’re not given a darker side. They’re very much meant to likeable, and I’d wager a lot of players would have listed them as their favorite characters as well. Knowing Naught Dog, if either Lev or Dina were to take center stage- perhaps in a future DLC or sequel- then they would surely be fully explored so as to reveal some greater moral complexity. Fleshing them out wouldn’t have made sense for this particular narrative, because they are included as foils for Ellie and Abby to make us invested in them giving up their desires for revenge. If neither protagonist had anyone to lose, we wouldn’t feel so strongly about the value of letting go. Lev was referred to by Noah Caldwell-Gervais as “the moral center of the game”, which is an apt description because his name translates in Hebrew to “heart”. Yara, Lev’s older sister, means “small butterfly” in Arabic. Neil Druckmann himself is an Israeli Jew, and drew upon his background to combine words from two languages whose respective peoples are currently engaged in a real-world cycle of violence in his homeland to symbolize a transformation of the heart. It’s a masterful little detail, because that is exactly the function of Yara and Lev in the narrative. They believe in Abby’s potential to do something good with her life. She got her revenge, which had been her singular focus in the years since her father’s death, and it hadn’t brought an end to her suffering. On the contrary, it only made that suffering worse. It flummoxes me how people can think Abby is being “protected” by the plot, or that she doesn’t suffer for what she did to Joel. She loses almost everything. What she endures is in many ways worse than death: she sees all of her friends brutally murdered because of what she did.

I started to sympathize with Abby in her first flashback, the moment she walks into the operating room and sees her father lying in a pool of blood. It was Laura Bailey’s performance that did it for me; when Abby starts screaming hysterically, I felt a cold rush of goosepimples cross my skin. But even though I sympathized with her, I wouldn’t say I liked her at that point. I also didn’t stop loving Joel. The moment I became really invested in Abby as a character was the moment she met Yara and Lev. I liked touring the stadium where the WLF are based for its sheer world-building detail and stunning visuals. But once we got started on Abby’s journey I was somewhat disinterested. I was desperate to get back to the movie theater and hoped that Abby’s segment wouldn’t be more than an interlude. This was the part of the game where I found myself rushing forward. The Seraphite attack on our truck, though fun, felt a little crazy given our proximity to the stadium fortress. I didn’t like Manny as a character, but I guess it was easy not to like him the same way it was easy to love Dina and Lev. We get few details on Manny, and all I could think about when I saw him was the way he spat on Joel’s corpse and then lobbied for Ellie to be killed. He also seemed like the kind of swaggering, cocksure playboy that I would hate in real life. I suspected that, if the franchise had only ever been told from Abby’s perspective, I probably would have liked him in the same way I liked Tommy. He’s clearly loyal, and the kind of character whose morality you’d never care about so long as he was your friend. When Tommy goes full Jack Bauer at the marina and blows Manny’s face off, all I could think as his disembodied jaw flew past me was “That was for Joel, you bastard!” which is curious, because by this point I had already grown to like Abby.

As I said, by the time Abby encounters Yara and Lev, I started to become really invested in her as a person. The way they soften her icy exterior is reminiscent of the dynamic between Joel and Ellie in the first game- deliberately so. It’s one of the many instances of parallelism in the game, a technique that reinforces the theme of perspective. Lev, perhaps due to his being raised by a religious cult, isn’t really familiar with the concept of sarcasm. Aside from providing some endearing comic relief moments, this also forces Abby to be more open, which is an important part of her character development given how uptight and cold she is. Lev helps her reclaim the person she was before she lost her father, which is exactly what Ellie does for Joel in regards to Sarah. Out of the two storylines, Abby’s is obviously more satisfying because the two don’t run exactly parallel. They have instances of parallelism, but they are not symmetrical. Abby’s loss and subsequent redemption happen sooner. Abby’s arc reminds me a little of Arthur Morgan’s in Red Dead Redemption 2; she doesn’t particularly like the person she’s become, and doesn’t try to be a good person because she refuses to focus on anything outside of her revenge. Her friends in the WLF love her, but they see her as incapable of change. They pity her as someone permanently broken by their tragedy. Yara and Lev, however, only see her for who she is in that moment, which allows Abby to realize that she can redefine herself. It evokes the adage that a different version of you exists in the mind of everyone you meet, that there is no universal, definitive you at all. They don’t look at Abby and see what happened to her in Salt Lake City. They don’t want to know who she has been in the past; they care only about who she can be in the present, because in the brutal world of The Last of Us, the present is all that matters. 

Joel is transformed by losing Sarah, but Ellie takes him out of the past and into the present. Lev does the same thing for Abby, culminating in my favorite line in the whole game, when Abby declares “You are my people now.”

After this, we have the movie theater showdown. Abby’s and Ellie’s storylines intersect right at the moment Abby is breaking out of the cycle and Ellie is entering it. They swap places and it is here that we swap between protagonists. Abby has just secured her redemption (in saving Lev) and Ellie has conversely just made her greatest transgression (in murdering Owen and Mel). We reenter the movie theater with Ellie as the darker of the two figures and Abby the more heroic. It’s fitting that a theater represents the place where our perspective is inverted, charging out of the stage and into the audience as Ellie only to be charging out of the audience and into the stage as Abby. The boss fight against Ellie is one of the most surreal and disorientating experiences I’ve had playing a game. She seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It also makes sense that we don’t control Ellie for this sequence, as Ellie is not herself at this point in the narrative. She’s become less recognizable to both us and her friends. My heart stopped when it looked like Abby was about to kill Dina, but Lev stops her from undoing the progress she has made with him, and it’s because of how far she’s come that she listens to him.

Abby is able to break out of the cycle before Ellie does. When Abby reaches Santa Barbara, you can tell that she has left her past behind. Her responsibility for Lev grounds her in the present, and she seems like the person she was before her father died. She’s optimistic, laid-back, and joking around. You get the sense that she pities Ellie when the latter demands they fight on the beach, because like a recovered addict Abby can see that Ellie is still trapped in the cycle that she once was herself. She, better than anyone, can sympathize with the way Ellie is tormented by what happened to her, and how her need for revenge comes from a desperate hope that it will make the pain stop. Druckmann said in an interview that they wanted to portray Ellie’s need for revenge as being akin to a drug addiction. The theme of obsession is reflected by the tattoo of the moth on Ellie’s forearm and the image of the moth on her guitar. The moth, which is drawn to the light that kills it. And Ellie comes dangerously close to the light, but finishes the game intact. Her redemption comes at the last possible moment, when she is a few seconds away from drowning Abby and realizes that in trying to avenge Joel, she’s destroyed everything he worked for her to have. Both Joel and Jerry (Abby’s father) would have hated what became of their daughters in the wake of their deaths. Abby loses her father and in avenging him loses her soulmate. Ellie loses her surrogate father and in avenging him, loses her soulmate. In trying to stop the pain, they only compound it.

I’m conflicted about the fight at the beach. A big part of me feels like it would have been more powerful to have them simply exchange a look and part ways without saying anything. But on the other hand, I like how Ellie’s decision to abandon her revenge comes when she is seconds away from achieving it. Abby bites off two of Ellie’s fingers in the struggle, and therefore Ellie cannot play the guitar, which was her last connection to Joel. I think this is a neat detail, because it is bittersweet. She can no longer feel close to him by playing the songs he taught her, but that might be a good thing. It symbolizes that she has let go of the past. 

After Abby let Ellie and Dina live back at the movie theater, she allows that tiny fragment of her humanity to flourish once again. The same can be said for Ellie. We don’t see it, as their character arcs don’t begin and end at the same time, but it’s implied the moment Ellie mirrors Abby’s mercy from the movie theater. In simply letting go of Abby- both literally and figuratively- she preserves the last vestige of her humanity. That’s why both endings are satisfying, but also why Abby’s is more satisfying on the surface. Once you return to the title screen after the end credits, you see Abby’s skiff on the shore of Catalina Island with the real-life Catalina Casino in the background, confirming that she and Lev made it safely to the Fireflies. It’s a definitive happy ending, whereas Ellie’s is an implied happy ending, since she made the same choice to let go that Abby did.  

That little kernel of Ellie that’s left can be the seed for her regrowth, as we saw with Abby, which is what the series is all about. It’s about taking strength in whatever remains and using it as the starting point to rebuild. And personally, I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for the post-apocalypse. 

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