I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.Albert Camus
Anyone that knows me, knows I love nothing more than losing myself in a strong, narrative driven video game during my time off. I can’t get enough of playing through the experiences of others, and trying to place myself into their skins.
For me, gaming has always been an empathetic experience. When I am posed with the choices the characters must make in game, I find myself considering their thoughts, feelings and experiences up until that point. If I were Mario… What would I do?
It is no surprise then I have been looking forward to the release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2. The original Last of Us is widely considered one of the greatest games ever made, often lauded over for its sophisticated portrayal of its lead characters: Joel and Ellie.
What is surprising, or perhaps not in retrospect, is just how divisive the game’s sequel has become. With recent outcries surrounding other sequels and conclusions such as The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones Season 8, maybe I am foolish for not expecting this to take place. After all, it does seem that nothing can happen anymore without some degree of controversy.
And The Last of Us Part 2 definitely has its fair share of controversy. After just a short internet search, here are some of the views expressed regarding the game:
Please, let’s return games to what they were and stop with the forcing of political and social beliefs. Those are some of the topics we are trying to escape when we play games.
In trying to subvert expectations, The Last of Us Part II discards the best aspects of its predecessor to provide a rote revenge tale that is ill-considered, ending on a note that makes everything — all the violence, all the loss, all the struggle — feel utterly, hopelessly pointless.
The Last of Us Part II tries too hard to differentiate itself from its predecessor. While astonishing cityscapes and more varied combat options are great evolutions, Part II lacks the poetic serenity that made the original road-movie-like epic such a masterpiece. On top of that, uninteresting new characters burden the story, making Ellie’s journey feel conventional and not nearly as captivating as the original.
And they go on…
At first it seemed like people’s hatred of the game may be political. The game’s protagonist is openly gay, and many have seen this as an attempt by the developers in “going woke”. Lots of the game’s supporters argued the attacks were coming from more extreme right wingers who had a problem with its contents.
This view is grossly reductive however. There does seem to be something far deeper going on. Something deeply unsettling that is causing people to rebel against the game and its narrative. Having said this, I personally believe the game is not only fantastic… But important. Whilst yes it is upsetting, and often difficult to digest, like vegetables or those disgusting flavoured antibiotics, it is a story we all desperately need to hear.
I warn you now, this one may become quite rambling as I attempt to make sense of my feelings towards the game…
Why so unsettling?
If I am to begin arguing why I believe the game’s narrative is so important, I need to begin by looking at why people take such umbrage towards it. Well, there are multiple reasons, but the simplest is the narrative, and more precisely, the decisions it makes.
It is within the first couple hours that the game kills of Joel, the protagonist from the first game. Many argue this is done poorly, and is only there to set up a cliched revenge narrative. Like the quotation above says, it “provide[s] a rote revenge tale that is ill-considered”. They argue that the death feels rushed, or unearned. Some will even argue that Joel doesn’t deserve to die. Simply put, a lot of people were really fucking upset.
A second point people take issue with is the characters. You see, throughout the second half the player takes control of Abby, the character that killed Joel at the start of the game. Many argue that she is hard to empathise with and that playing as her feels forced. This is something I personally don’t see, especially as Abby’s narrative is one of the most interesting parts of the game.
Finally, lots take issue with the games conclusion, or you may say lack of conclusion. As the above quote puts it, come the end, “all the violence, all the loss, all the struggle — feel[s] utterly, hopelessly pointless.” You see, come the end Ellie gives up on her revenge. She is about to drown Abby and get what she has chased throughout the game, but instead lets her go. You see, the game doesn’t give you the revenge its narrative promised. This would perhaps be fine if Ellie had died. You could see Ellie as a tragic hero with her death offering some sense of catharsis.
She doesn’t die though. Instead, the game ends with her alone, walking off into the woods as the camera fades to black. There is no great conclusion. Like the Camus quotation I began this blog with, the game finishes by opening us up “to the gentle indifference of the world”.
This is where I believe people’s issues come from. Not that it’s a cliched revenge story. But because it refuses to be one. It refuses to give the narrative conclusions we expect, instead leaving the player lingering, holding onto the feelings built across its 20 hour runtime without any form of release.
So why does it matter?
So I can see you wondering, what makes it good then? It withholds a satisfying conclusion from its players, if anything, that sounds kinda shitty. It’s far from necessary.
Well, I believe the game is important, because of its themes and conclusions. Whilst yes I believe it fails as a revenge narrative, I feel that’s because it was never supposed to be one. Not in the traditional sense anyway.
No. I don’t feel it is a game about revenge. No. It is a game about meaning. About finding meaning in an indifferent, uncaring world.
I believe this is highlighted in the game’s ending shown above. Ellie says to Joel, “I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered.” This is a reference to the first game, where Joel massacred a hospital to save Ellie when the doctors were going to kill her in order to find a cure. This is the point that begins the whole game’s narrative. It is at this point Joel kills Abby’s dad and starts her journey towards revenge. It triggers all the events of part 2.
More importantly however, it is the point where hope dies.
In the first game, the Fireflies are a group looking for a cure. By killing them and stealing Ellie back, Joel ruins any chances for a cure. He destroys hope. All the characters in part 2 are shown looking for meaning in this world now devoid of hope.
At the start of the game Abby finds meaning in hunting Joel. Ellie seems to find meaning in her growing relationship with Dina, and in trying to come to terms with her relationship with Joel.
After his murder however, we see her find a new meaning. That is in trying to seek revenge.
This revenge tale then goes on for the first half of the game where Ellie tries to track down Abby. At the half way point however, she succeeds in her murderous quest and their paths cross. At this stage the narrative flashes back. We then spend the events of the game up until this point from Abby’s perspective.
A story about empathy
This is where things become interesting. In learning more about Abby, we also learn more about the other groups and characters we have met up until this point. We learn that Abby is struggling with life after killing Joel, and trying to rebuild her relationships. We learn about her lover Owen. He is an ex firefly and is obsessed with the idea of finding what is left of them out in the world. He has not yet given up hope. We then find characters who have found meaning in their communities. We have the members of the Washington Liberation Front, or wolves. Whilst they are shown as villains throughout the first half, we get to know them more throughout the second. For the most part, they appear xenophobic and cruel, even shown torturing other survivors. In conversations with them however, we learn they possess a degree of humanity, greatly caring for one another.
Then there are the Seraphites, or scars. These are a murderous cult that throughout the first half, stalk Ellie, only appearing to communicate through inhuman whistles. They are a voiceless, terrifying villain. In the second half however we meet the characters Yara, and her brother Lev. These are ex Seraphites who are now being chased down. The others wanting them dead. Lots of the second half follows Abby attempting to keep the younger of them, Lev, alive. Through Lev, we learn their beliefs were initially non violent, until their prophet died and the other scars twisted her teachings. We then learn that they want him dead because, whilst born physically female, Lev identifies as male and chose to shave his hair.
This second half seems so relevant to the world today. A world where individuals chase their own meanings at the expense of others. None are outright evil, but merely have meanings that differ from those around them. In Abby’s journey, we learn the power of empathy and how we can foster a new purpose through our growing relationships. This is encapsulated when Lev shouts angrily at Abby that the wolves were her people. Abby instantly retorts, “You’re my people!” From this point on her relationship with Lev becomes her raison d’etre. She lives to keep him safe. Something shown by her giving up on finally killing Ellie and avenging her friends’ deaths because Lev calls out to her.
The power of relationships
Abby and Lev’s relationship beautifully mirrors Joel and Ellie’s throughout the first game. Throughout both games, Naughty Dog shows us how we can create meaning in our relationships. In part 2 however, we learn how delicate this can be. How easily this meaning can be broken. The final act shows Ellie given a choice. One between her new family with Dina and… I can’t remember the baby’s name, so we will go with little potato. A choice between them and an opportunity at revenge. The issue here is, it is not as simple as revenge. Ellie is unable to make sense of her purpose. She should have died for a cure, but she didn’t for Joel. Without Joel around then, why was she here?
This is something we are able to follow throughout the game by reading her journal. We learn about her conflicting feelings throughout the game. A constant back forth between her love for DIna and lingering feelings surrounding Joel. Her notebook doesn’t linger on hatred and revenge, but instead questions her growing love and feelings of grief.
In the end, she needs to try and deal with her unfinished feelings towards Joel if she’s to find purpose. The thing that has held her back from creating new meanings and relationships.
It is because of this, she doesn’t kill Abby at the end of the game. She instead sees Joel and finally lets go of what has been holding her back. She realises this physical act isn’t what she has been chasing. Instead… She cries for what she has lost.
It interests me that one of the reviewers I’ve quoted believes the game to lack, “poetic serenity”. I feel, with its ending, this is what the game has had its characters chasing the entire time. When at the end, Ellie leaves Joel’s guitar behind and walks into the distance, she is finally able to let go. Throughout the narrative she repeatedly leaves Dina to play guitars. She keeps turning her back on the present for Joel.
The ending shows the opposite. She puts the guitar, and the past down. She has finally opened herself to the gentle indifference of the world.
I find it interesting the game is getting so much hate, especially as its themes are so relevant today. We live in a time that’s so divided, where people find meaning in their own groups. We also live in a time of great indifference, a literal pandemic where people are dying all around us.
Perhaps, it’s the lack of easy answers that has people so angry. When it is so close to our own reality, there aren’t any quick fixes shown here.
The Last of Us Part 2 is far from conventional. It’s violent, unforgiving and unashamedly bleak. It shows people scrambling for some kind of meaning in a world gone mad.
Whether you like it or not…
It shows reality.
All the best,