What’s really wrong the The Last of Us: Part II.
The Last of Us: Part II has generated a huge amount of controversy, heightened by the fact it is one of the most highly anticipated sequels in gaming history. This controversy was brought to bear by leaks that revealed elements of the game’s plot before its release.
A lot of the controversy was around two characters: Abby and Lev. Abby is a butch woman and Lev is a trans kid. The idea that the gender or sexuality of these characters is in any sense detrimental to the story is facetious to say the least. Neither of these elements are even particularly relevant to the plot. In fact, Naughty Dog already established their openness to using gender and sexual minority characters in the first game’s Bill and Ellie’s storyline in the DLC, Left Behind. Criticism based on these points seem to be the result of tantrums and at worse attempts to pursue a culture war over character identity. It’s easy to dismiss these arguments, and if you really want to play a game with a white, male protagonist the last few decades of game titles should give you some choice.
That isn’t to say there aren’t problems with the game’s writing. I am a huge fan of the original game and have been eagerly looking forward to the follow up over the last seven years. I did read some of the leaks regrettably and I hope the foreknowledge did no colour my appreciation of the game. In many respects, Part II is unparalleld. The level design, world building, atmosphere, attention to detail… It’s an astonishing game to play. Despite all this, I would struggle to say it is truly on par with the original.
There are a few important reasons for this. One issue is exactly what type of media The Last of Us series is. Ostensibly, it’s a third-person horror/adventure game, but it has aspirations to be something different. Commendably, it could be the first of its kind to so successfully cross interactive gaming with film and TV style storytelling. While this is part of what made the first game so popular, it also hamstrings the experience some times. The Last of Us can’t decide whether it’s the successor to pulpy games like House of the Dead and Resident Evil, or a prestige TV drama (an HBO adaptation is in the works).
Another of these could be called Red Dead Redemption 2 syndrome. I’m sure the amount of time and energy put into these games by legions of coders, designers and artists would be hard to conceive. Modern games pride themselves on attention to detail. In RDR2, animal corpses decompose over time, and there are millions of lines of potential dialogue with NPCs. Similarly, in Part II the minutia of the world is painstakingly realised: injuries to enemies are dynamic, blood drips down walls, dogs sound sad after you shoot their owner in the head. There are hundreds of handwritten notes, collectibles and easter eggs. All these things are impressive nuances which make each game more immersive. But none of these details are what makes a game truly enjoyable to play. I would argue that both of these games could be improved by spending less time on the details and more time on characterisation and plot.
One major problem with Part II is the cast of characters. I don’t have an issue with any character in particular, bur rather the sheer number. In the first game, there were really only two characters who mattered: Joel and Ellie. It was clear that everyone else was a secondary character and what their role was in relation to the protagonists. In the sequel, we need to follow and care about Joel, Ellie, Tommy, Dina, Jesse, Abby, Owen, Mel, Manny, Yara and Lev. All these characters were well realised, designed and acted. I just didn’t have enough time to care about them all.
The original Last of Us game was defined by its narrative simplicity. It was never a gamer’s game: there wasn’t a huge number of upgrades, moves lists or variations in gameplay. It was in some ways quite sparse and repetitive. What made the game so engrossing to play was the investment the player had in the characters they controlled. Facing off against a room full of infected or hostile survivors always mattered because the player cared about Joel protecting Ellie or Ellie protecting Joel.
The core of the first game was this relationship between Ellie and Joel. They were an odd couple: a grizzled, disillusioned survivor and a determined, loudmouth teenager. At first, Ellie is just another job to Joel, even a burden. As the game progresses their trust and relationship grows. Ellie helps Joel to rediscover his humanity and face the grief he feels over his daughter. Joel teaches Ellie how to fight and survive, and about the culture and hopes of the pre-infected world. This develops into a surrogate father-daughter bond, cemented by their mutual loss and fondness for corny jokes. The importance of this bond is proven when Joel decides protect Ellie’s life no matter the cost, even if it mean deceiving her, jeopardising a vaccine and killing innocent people.
The fact that I could even attempt to summarise the plot, characters and themes of the first game in seven sentences is testament to its simplicity. In contrast, a few candidates for the core relationship in the sequel include:
- Joel and Ellie reconciling
- Ellie, Dina and Jesse love triangle
- Ellie and Dina relationship and parenthood
- Ellie seeking revenge
- Abby seeking revenge
- Abby, Owen and Mel love triangle
- Abby and Manny friendship
- Abby, Lev and Yara collaborating
Maybe one or two of these things could serve as the central intrigue of a game. Expecting the player to feel invested in all these is overreaching. Attempting to reconcile all the above into a cohesive story amounts to an impossible task.
That isn’t even to mention the various factions. Again, in the first game, the universe was simple: a vestigial authoritarian government (FEDRA), a rebel group (the Fireflies), and everyone else struggling to survive. On top of these, the sequel introduces a well-organised militia (WLF), a fundamentalist cult (‘Scars’ or Seraphites), and latterly a biker gang (the Rattlers). In the first game, Joel and Ellie see the Fireflies as their salvation until that is upended in the game’s finale.
In the sequel, the interactions between the above groups are more complicated. The conflict between the WLF and Seraphites does serve as a backdrop to the game’s action, but the thematic link to the characters feels underdeveloped. Embelmatic of this is the leader of the WLF: Isaac Dixon, played by Jeffrey Wright. The Westworld and Batman actor was one of the more mysterious and intimidating antagonists in Part II, but was ultimately underused.
Games like the Last of Us are driven by the relationships between the characters and cornerstone events they experience. In the first game, the deaths of Joel’s daughter Sarah and later his smuggling partner Tess develop him as a character and push the story forwards. In the sequel, it is Joel’s death at the hands of Abby that serve as the catalyst for the story. Many fans wrankled at Joel’s brutal demise, especially after waiting seven years to play as him again. The more extreme interpretation would say this was a politically correct avatar — in the decidedly unfeminine form of Abby — unceremoniously killing Joel — a representation of the capable white, male protagonist. I’ve already made it clear I don’t agree with this view. That said, I still don’t think Joel’s death was handled well.
In truth, it was always likey that Joel would not survive any sequel. There was too much in his past waiting to catch up with him, and after saving Ellie and reconnecting with his humanity, there is little left for him to do. Sure, he and Ellie could have set out on another fan-pleasing adventure (which I would have quite happily played), but that wouldn’t have been pushing the envelope. Meeker fans could hope for an at peace Joel being put out to pastures with his acoustic guitar, but his sudden and brutal death instead feels like a game intent on subverting audience expectations.
Subverting audience expectations is fast becoming a cliche of current storytelling. The ur-example of our times is likely Game of Thrones in which plot twists and main character deaths caught audiences off guard. This worked so well because George RR Martin meticulously crafted the world and characters. Shocking events aligned with character motivations, had logical consequences and chimed with the themes of the story. Now, other writers try to imitate this approach, but often merely as a device to surprise the audience and garner attention.
Unfortunately, I would argue that the Last of Us 2 falls into more of the latter category. The handling of Joel’s death feels awkward for several reasons.
For one, Joel and Tommy seem to have been overcome with bonhomie when they first meet Abby. In the original game, Joel would shoot first and ask questions later, fitting in the dog-eat-dog world he lived in. Now, Joel and Tommy are easily captured by simple invitation and outfought in a situation that Joel on his own would easily overcome in the first game. Adding to the strangeness is how easily Ellie finds them. On her failed rescue mission, Ellie gains access to where they are held by a conveniently open window (during a snowstorm), and saunters through the unguarded house to find Joel. She opens a door and the player is greeted with the gruesome cutscene.
In the wake of his death, Ellie sets out seeking vengeance. Understandably, this is an extremely emotional moment for her. However, the levels following Joel’s death are light-hearted explorations of the open world with Dina. This jars with what would presumably be Ellie’s single-minded determination for revenge. It’s only much later on in the game that we see Ellie dealing with Joel’s death — scenes that are comendably handled in a very traumatic and authentic fashion.
After dispatching with Joel, the game hunts around for another relationship to serve as its core. This relationship needs to replace Ellie and Joel from the original: one of the most genuine and heart wrenching ever portrayed in gaming history. Not only does the game not achieve this, it never even seems to settle on who the game is really about.
In the first half, we spend a lot of time with Ellie and Dina. Their relationship is endearing (and it’s nice to see a down-to-earth gay couple), but hardly gripping. There’s little development as their feelings for each other are mutual; in fact, they’re quite similar characters — defiant, quirky, resourceful. Early on, the pair enconter a synagogue and Dina talks about her faith. Again, it’s a nice moment, but given how little time we’ve spent with the character, it doesn’t feel earnt. It’s certainly convenient that a new character happens to stumble upon a (relatively undamaged) building that allows the audience to get to know them better.
Maybe if Ellie and Dina’s moment in the synagogue came later in the game it would have felt more worthwhile. But, around haflway through the game, the perspective switches to Abby, the WLF member who killed Joel. This allows the player to empathise with what Abby has been through and understand what has driven her to take revenge on Joel.
This is where we get to the heart of the sequel. Overall, the theme of the game seems to be violence and revenge. Abby and Ellie are both motivated by revenge and ultimately pay a high price for it. It’s an interesting theme to explore, but very hard to pull off in a series in which the main mechanic is to fight and kill enemies. Abby’s attitude to violence is hard to discern and seems to be whatever serves the plot at the time. Spend precious resources and time seeking revenge and beating a man to death with a golf club: okay. Killing the only two witnesses who are clearly close to the victim: too far.
Whether playing as Joel, Ellie or Abby, players spend a large chunk of their time killing people. Along with traversal and puzzle-solving, it’s the core mechanic of the game. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested and militia-run world. All the main characters brutally kill hundreds of people. People who would have killed them, but not evil people. Just survivors like themselves who happened to get in each other’s way. Violence and revenge are interesting topics, but interrogating them in a game in which the player is supposed to enjoy and carry out the violence, and in which violence is often easy to justify, feels clunky. The number of vendettas that Joel, Ellie and Abby would be embroiled in would surely lead to queues forming outside their hideouts. Amongst so much death and destruction, what makes these characters so special?
Abby is an especially confusing case. In the first half of the game, she hunts down Ellie for killing her WLF comrades and friends. Later on, she encounters Yara and Lev and helps them to escape the Seraphite cult. In order to do this, she has to effectively abandon her loyalty to WLF and kills many of its members in the process. It’s not clear why for Abby, Yara and Lev deserve unwavering loyalty whereas she can stab, shoot and burn her former comrades without much angst.
For the most part, games tend ignore philosophical and ethical questions on violence. This is for a good reason: games based around combat have a vested interest in not making the player think about it too much. Writing a game that confronts this theme is laudable, but making it all hang together may be an insurmountable challenge. In Naughty Dog’s other landmark series Uncharted, the protagonist is Nathan Drake, an Indiana Jones style explorer. He’s a straightforwardly likeable hero, but for the games to be enjoyable and challenging, it necessary for him to gun-down hundreds and hundreds of henchmen each level. Nathan never feels troubled by this since for the logic of the game to work, those enemies aren’t real people — they’re red shirts from Star Trek or one of Dr. Evil’s goons.
Let it not be forgotten that the point of playing a game is to have fun. It can be scary, explore dark themes and push its characters, but ultimately it should still be fun. In the original game, there was always a thread of hope, a feeling that the violence was justified as long as Ellie and Joel made it through the other side. In the finale, Joel places his need to protect Ellie above all else, serving as an inflection point for the moral question of the game: What are we willing to do to protect the ones we love? The incongruence in the sequel is never more obvious than in the boss battles between Ellie and Abby. In each of these cases, I was reluctant to win since that would mean hurting a protagonist I’d grown to care about. Maybe that’s the point, but it certainly doesn’t make for an enjoyable game.
Further, making pivotal scenes one-on-one fights lacks a dramatic edge. The first fight between Ellie and Abby feels faintly ridiculous. Abby, a seasoned soldier who has spent her life hacking through living and undead adversaries, it almost outfought by a teenager and some vases. Abby eventually gets the upper-hand before allowing Ellie to live and seek revenge — again. The second time they meet is a climatic fist fight on the beach. The hand-to-hand fighting is certainly improved from the first game, but still one of the least engaging mechanics. Being forced to cut chunks out of a beloved character — in a scene that feels like it’s out of the Fast Show — is a quite dispiriting way to end a game.
Aside from these, memorable boss fights are few and far between. The best is the rat-king, a culmination of an eerie and atmospheric level in an abandoned hospital where the outbreak started. The importance of this ecounter is undercut when Abby emerges alive, shrugging her shoulders and says something along the lines of, “no-ones going to believe that!”. The impact on the characterisation and plot is minimal; it almost feels like it was taken from another game with a different story.
If the game really wanted to subvert expectations, there are other routes it could have taken. For me, I only felt really invested in the game again after Abby, Lev and Yara started working together. Abby and Lev share some of the chemistry that defined the first game: they are from rival sides and should by rights be enemies, but have knowledge and skillsets that compliment each other. Lev helps Abby overcome her vertigo; Abby helps Lev understand the world outside of the Seraphite cult.
Another odd-couple relationship like this could have explored some interesting themes. The Seraphites and WLF are enemies. Despite a truce, the WLF leader plans to wipe out his opponents by invading their island stronghold. The Seraphite group is based on the teachings of a now deceased prophet and their belief system is becoming more rigid as time passes. Both Abby and Lev had reasons to become disillusioned with their respective groups. Abby could have discovered that the plan to wipe out the Seraphites was based on manufactured infractions of the truce. Yara and Lev’s reasons for leaving the Seraphites are already well established in the game. This pairing could have demonstrated how shared humanity can overcome fixed dogma and the dangerous path of an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality.
The duality of the characters could have extended into the gameplay. As Joel and Ellie, the player is used to controlling scrappy all-rounders. Abby and Lev could have been the far ends of the extremes: Abby using a powerful but conspicuous arsenal contrasted with Lev relying upon stealth and premodern weapons, conforming to the beliefs of his cult.
Ellie and Joel could have not featured in this game at all, or perhaps their storylines could overlap. Ellie, Joel and their group could work with Abby and Lev in order to avoid the conflict that would subsume their hometown of Jackson — only for Abby to eventually discover how Joe and Ellie’s history previously intersected with her own. In an early plot-line that seems to have been dropped later in the game, Tommy and other characters in the camp are revealed to still be Firefly sympathisers. Perhaps Abby would need to balance her former allegiance to the rebel group and her desire for revenge against her newfound companions and disillusionment with cycle of violence between the human factions. Maybe it’s corny, but how great would it have been to see Ellie, Abby and Lev overcoming their narrow rivalries, realising their shared humanity and working together to stop Isaac and prevent needless bloodshed between the Fireflies, WLF and Seraphites.
Regardless, we have the Part II that we have. As I was playing, I was waiting for the stand-out, set piece moments that made the first game so memorable: shooting zombies hanging upside down from a booby trap, Joel being seriously injured and Ellie taking over, coming across giraffes serenely grazing across the ruined cityscape. Abby’s memories with her dad feature an injured Zebra which, rather than a harmonious callback, felt like an instruction to the player — look! here’s the characters you should care about! The best set piece Part II offers is when Abby is first forced to fight together with Yara and Lev in a heart-stopping scene at night. The most emotional scene are reserved for Ellie and Joel. These flashbacks showed the closeness and complexity of their relationship. This was satisfying for the fans, but only further highlighted the lack of development and connection with the new characters.
As I said, it’s a truly stunning game and I will definitely play it through again. It’s fun to be back in the universe with Ellie and co, even if the plot and the characters are not as engrossing. It reminds me of a sequel to another one of my favourite games: Max Payne. Max Payne 2 was an improvement in terms of gameplay mechanics and overall design, but lacking the emotional core and narrative simplicty that made the first game so riveting. Some times a straightforward story is the best as has been demonstrated with similar post-apocalyptic films like Children of Men or Mad Max: Fury Road. The Last of Us: Part II is nothing if not ambitious — but in reaching for those ambitions it has lost the emotional core and simplicity that enthralled many of us the first time round.