It’s Time to Re-evaluate The Last of Us Part II

It’s Time to Re-evaluate The Last of Us Part II

In June 2020, gaming changed: in the midst of our own pandemic, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) was released. It was supposed to be the sequel we deserved after seven long years. Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann and team finally took the crucial next step in franchise-building by expanding on The Last of Us—a timeless story showing its technical age. 25 years post-zompocalypse, grizzled everyman Joel and optimistic teen Ellie fought a war for survival on three fronts: against the inhuman “infected,” against other people and, often, against their own natures. It ended with Joel preventing Ellie’s death at the potential cost of humanity’s survival and we needed to know what could happen next. And yet the sequel brought anger, as stratospheric expectations plummeted.

No amount of developer warning could prepare us for the grim reality of TLOU2. Patience was rewarded with beautiful leaps in the gameplay… that helped bring monstrous revenge into painful focus. Nobody was prepared for a game that forced players to examine character motivation from both sides. As we slowly emerge from our own dystopian nightmare, and the mud-slinging has abated, I took another trip to this world to ask: does TLOU2 deserve its criticism? The short answer is yes—but here’s the longer answer.

TLOU2 wouldn’t exist without 2013’s The Last of Us, so to understand the critique, I revisited that game. Neither open-world nor a sandbox, The Last of Us felt like both, with clever pacing establishing our noble heroes as forced into brutality because they had no other choice. Yet, actually, from its earliest moments, The Last of Us tries to show the blurring of moral lines. Fixer Tess tells Joel, “We are shitty people,” and he immediately fires back with, “No, we’re survivors,” when of course, both of these narratives are true. The Last of Us featured female characters just as prone to violence as their male counterparts. Tess is the first character to kill a human by shooting one henchmen; a little later, young Ellie aggressively stabs an army officer to prevent him discovering that she’s been bitten. Replaying made me realise that Ellie isn’t quite the nice little girl of my memory. I had forgotten how casually she whacks Bill with lead pipe as he checks for bite marks before fat-shaming him. Yet, she draws you in. Ellie’s desire to do good and her gradual loss of innocence is so compelling.

I’d also forgotten the large amount of straight murder in The Last of Us. Playing on Survivor mode gave me a little more control over who I, as Joel, could avoid killing while delivering Ellie to the Fireflies, but although I brought the death toll down, some paths just wouldn’t open until multiple human bodies had fallen. And yet, I loved killing the infected. Bottling a Bloater in a dark sewer never gets old! More on that later. 

It’s Time to Re-evaluate The Last of Us Part II.

So with that replay fresh in my mind, I returned to TLOU2. The first mistake Naughty Dog made was to release a trailer misleading gamers into thinking that Joel was a central part of TLOU2. Having already played the game on release, I thought knowing about Joel’s sticky end might make it easier. The game starts gently, with Ellie and Joel living quasi-happily in the oddly anachronistic Jackson, Wyoming. There’s bubbling tension and breath-taking scenery. Then, so early on, comes Abby. Introducing a new character into this tight dynamic was never going to be easy, so Naughty Dog doubled down.

Abby looks great. Not hyper-feminised in a revealing outfit, nor scrawny and boyish, Abby was strong and reserved, not unlike Joel. I could have really liked her. Then she commits that cardinal sin. Joel’s seemingly needless death still hurt so much, partly because of the sheer brutality involved. Whereas The Last of Us allows players to luxuriate in Ellie and Joel’s burgeoning relationship, TLOU2 reverses this approach—showing us Abby’s horrific actions before explaining her motivation. It’s a fascinating study in female rage, Abby’s persona deconstructed as you play her chapters.

I hated seeing her torture Joel—I don’t want to see torture full stop (something’s not right when you’re eager to “Skip this Cinematic”). If the object is to suggest that Joel and Abby are the same, I direct Naughty Dog to their own previous game. The inciting event of TLOU2—Joel killing Abby’s dad—is forced upon the player at the conclusion of The Last of Us. Believe me, I tried everything not to kill that damn doctor, eventually going with a quick bullet to the head, because the game won’t let you move on unless he’s dead. This is not the same thing as watching a brand new character playing human golf with your fave for kicks. But let’s not shirk responsibility; I didn’t think about doctor Jerry for a second when I first played The Last of Us. TLOU2 succeeded in one of its aims—to make me rethink all of my choices. 

A year after release, it’s clear that Abby’s introduction as destroyer of worlds brought out the worst in humanity. Some took out their frustration by criticising her looks instead of her behaviour. This is truly unacceptable, but not unexpected, given we are forced to spend half of the game with a character who barely shows remorse. Gamers can go really low. Is it sexism? Probably. Nobody should dislike a character because of what they look like, but for me, it’s perfectly acceptable to dislike a character because they’re mean. I don’t believe that Naughty Dog is sexist, but they are mean.

TLOU2 is the studio’s second game in a row led by female protagonists (after Uncharted: The Lost Legacy), but what did they do to Ellie in this process? I found the choices she makes much more difficult to comprehend than Abby’s, who at least wrestles with her conscience while helping Lev and Yara later. I thought I knew Ellie. I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully rendered she is in this game. The graphics and world-building in TLOU2 are a sight to behold, but why would I want to turn the camera to watch Ellie’s psychotic smile as she bludgeons someone?

To compare, in The Last of Us Joel reluctantly gives Ellie a handgun to use in emergencies only, emphasizing that human murder is bad. Towards the end of that game, Ellie is forced to machete a man (okay, a cannibal man) in the face who has been torturing her. The camera lingers… on the machete. Cut back to TLOU2, the new hardened Ellie is drenched in blood, forced to do things like whack Nora three times with an iron bar. I dreaded human encounters not just because of the gore, but because characters seemed to delight in it. 

However, between combat were flashes of pure joy. Ellie’s love affair with Dina, especially as the two explore Seattle, brings back the wise-cracking camaraderie so loved in The Last of Us… until the jokes become more acidic. I sniggered at the title “Smash Brandie’s Cooch” and when Ellie and Jesse discover the abandoned Comic Book Expo Jesse’s all, “I’m not into your type? What, Asian?” The wonderful voice actor Ashley Johnson even speaks differently this time around, spitting Ellie’s words in short bursts, with a terse “Let’s see” or “Working on it”. TLOU2 also over-uses dialogue; I didn’t need a spat between Owen and Abby to keep me going, the beautiful snowy mountainside is enough. That said, the game falls apart when Ellie or Abby are alone. Isolated gameplay removes everything that made The Last of Us so playable. 

But my worst criticism and harshest realization is that, yes, at times, TLOU2 is just not any fun. Druckmann has said that the game is based on The Godfather Part 2. Applying film criticism, there’s a difference between the worthy and the enjoyable. But film is a passive experience. TLOU2 opens the world, and then removes gamer agency. If its message is to tell me to kill fewer people, why does it force me to kill everyone in sight? I still can’t work out whether it’s a studio’s business to be teaching moral lessons. But if it is, this is not the way to do it, because there’s only one point of view being pressed: hypocrisy and hate. Few characters escape this. Dina reveals she first killed a living person when she was 10, gleefully admitting she’d love to torture those who hurt her family, then moments later she calls the WLF and the Seraphites psychos.

Both Owen and Abby care more about military training than healing sick animals. Mel was totally up for clubbing Joel. Our lovely Joel callously pushes Ellie into a lake when she’s only just learned how to swim. Abby digs at a woman who has spent the night with Manny, suggesting that it’s repugnant for female scientists to have casual sex. Even Doctor Jerry didn’t blink when faced with child murder, while saying that he couldn’t do it to Abby. My forehead started to hurt from all the slapping. This tit-for-tat, my-victimisation-is-worse-than-yours revenge story suggests that when the apocalypse comes we will all regress to the same, base needs, no matter who we were before. Naughty Dog is judge, jury and executioner, actively profiting from a game that judges players for gameplay they can’t change.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I hate the game. But I don’t, not at all. The replay taught me three important lessons. The first is that TLOU2 was a necessary cultural leap forward. Few AAA games examine identity in this way, challenging gamers’ mindsets through this reactionary period in our history. Lev’s story is a sensitive portrayal of gender identity nicely balanced against Abby’s presentation of alternative, yet equally attractive femininity, both busting outdated norms. Has there ever been a game with pregnant characters in this much action before? Mel shoots, climbs, and runs, and why shouldn’t she? Building on Left Behind (The Last of Us‘ DLC), Ellie’s sexuality is also front and centre but never exploited. The game features two small sex scenes, one more successful than the other, showing this agenda didn’t always hit the mark, but when applied subtly, it shines. Ellie helps Jesse over a wall. Jesse asks Dina if she has decided whether to keep the baby. Joel and Tommy immediately save Abby, without judgement, from the infected. Humanity is still there, it’s just hard to make out through all the bloodshed. 

Ah yes, and the gorgeously terrible infected. The second lesson is a reminder that Naughty Dog makes some of the most terrifying zombie games out there—when they remember to focus on the zombies. Shamblers are forbidding, Clickers are loud (and now have breasts). Runners are at full speed, and oh my good god, I’ll never forget the Rat King. But my favourites were the Stalkers, peeling themselves from the walls in a way that would make Capcom jealous. No matter what moral human quandaries were thrown my way, I never once felt guilty about blowing up disgusting creatures—what does that say about my humanity? It was fun!

The third lesson is that TLOU2 really changed the face of adaptive gameplay. The triumphant accessibility options allow all sorts of players to better enjoy the game. The mechanics, which desperately needed improvement, are now so responsive that my hating on the characters didn’t detract from how good it feels to make Ellie play guitar, or Abby throw a rope, or use the slithering crawl, each time appreciating those delicious crafting sounds. 

So after all that moralising, did TLOU2 improve me as a person? Not really. After a while, I just gave in and murdered every man, woman, and dog that came my way, slogging through it. If there had been the option, I would gladly have stunned or avoided people instead. TLOU2 is a game of superior quality marred by the studio’s decision to put moral education above entertainment. Something has been lost and something else found. A year has helped me come to terms with the story, to appreciate the message, and to really enjoy the gameplay. Everyone should play this game and judge for themselves. This game never deserved review-bombing and bigotry, but it is undoubtedly flawed. If TLOU2 is our medicine, listening to our valid critique might just be the cure. Roll on TLOU3.

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