“I guess no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape your past.” — Joel
This week, I experienced a harrowing journey across a post-apocalyptic America: the shell of a former empire caught in the middle of a deadly pandemic, its cities burning and torn apart, fraught with conflict between warring groups of reactionaries and progressives.
I also played The Last of Us Part II.
One can be forgiven for assuming that the The Last of Us Part II, uncanny resemblances to our present moment aside, would be a timely and cutting-edge addition to the video game medium. It’s 2013 predecessor, after all, represented for many nothing short of a revolutionary moment in the history of gaming as an artform: a signal that the medium had reached a state of artistic maturity and sophistication.
This, unfortunately, as Part II proves, is far from the case. And despite the game’s progressive trappings, transgressive violence, and subversive story structure: the only descriptor ending in “sive” it merits being called is regressive. It is, on nearly all fronts, a step backwards for narrative driven video games, and perhaps the medium at large.
The most shocking thing about Part II is just how dated it feels. Aside from the notable improvement to the visuals, the game resembles, both narratively and gameplaywise, a relic from the quaint little world of 2013. Much like its fictional universe, Part II is frozen in time. And it seems adamant on ignoring how the industry has evolved since the release of its predecessor. Video games as an artform and the world at large have moved on. Since 2013, developers have done great innovative work in combining narrative with gameplay. What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch, Orwell, God of War, Superhot, and even Doom are in some sense reactions to The Last of Us and its focus on narrative driven gameplay.
Yet instead of breaking new ground, Part II seems doggedly obsessed with recreating the successes of The Last of Us, constructed as if from scratch to elicit the same critical reaction received by the original: universal acclaim for its dark and challenging depiction of the world, its fully-realized characters, its suspenseful and moving story. Part II fails at all of it. And its problems, emblemized best by its 20+ hour campaign, can be summarized in exactly one word: indulgence.
The seeds were there from the beginning. Part II is one of those rare sequels that manages to highlight the weaknesses of what came before, poking holes in its own acclaim. Anyone who played the original DLC for The Last of Us, Grounded, will recognize the echoes of familiar problems which haunt Part II.
Take for example, the laughably bloated cinematics and scripted sections which dominate Part II: expansive cutscenes featuring maudlin character interactions and interpersonal drama, drawn out exploration sections lacking anything resembling what could seriously be called gameplay. Released nearly a year after the original, Grounded foreshadows Part II’s overreliance on scripted moments. The DLC’s obsession with strictly story driven sections that feature little to no combat was already threatening to overwhelm what the franchise did well. For roughly half its runtime, Grounded features no gameplay of any kind.
The scripted moments in The Last of Us, while occasionally lengthy, were done tastefully and injected in the proper doses. The Last of Us understood, first and foremost, that it was a video game and, as such, owed the player an experience that was interactive. Part II, on the other hand, undoubtedly riding high on the acclaim received for its narrative chops in previous efforts, acts as if it has no such obligation. The game has no compunction about subjecting its audience to endless passivity.
This is certainly an odd oversight, as one could easily argue that it was the unique integration of story and gameplay that made The Last of Us so revolutionary, not — as its developers seemed to have assumed — the story on its own merits. The seamless, organic tapestry of narrative and action in the 2013 original did what so few games had managed to do up until that point: create relatable, human characters.
Yet the fact remains that The Last of Us, for all it did right, never ascended into the realm of high art. (If I want quality, in-depth storytelling, I’ll read Milton or watch the latest Robert Eggers film, thank you very much.) Part II seeks to remedy this in the blandest, most asinine way possible: by adding an HBO miniseries worth of watchable material. This is antithetical to the spirit of The Last of Us, which was predicated on the idea that a game could tell a powerful story not despite combat, action set-pieces, and the ridiculous trappings inherent to video games — but through them.
Indeed, one can’t help but feel that at points, Part II is embarrassed to be a video game instead of a film series. Combat encounters can feel joyless and uninspired, virtually unchanged from their 2013 counterparts. The presence of enemies is presented as an inconvenience to be passed over, or, if you’ve watched anyone on Twitch stream the game, avoided entirely. The gameplay is treated as a mechanism for linking cutscenes with other cutscenes.
It all falls flat.
The writing and pacing are, in some moments, nothing short of horrendous. Hours and hours are spent in game wandering around in what feel like complete aimlessness. The plight of a new character, whose story takes up the latter half of the game, is introduced at roughly the 10-hour mark (yes, you read that right). Entire sprawling arcs, seemingly aiming for the structural brilliance of a Tarantino film, take place in flashbacks. The result, however, ends up more closely resembling Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy: a bloated cast operating in a creatively exhausted setting, treading water based on the original’s genius. Instead of making the leap into the realm of high art, Part II plummets and barely avoids impaling itself on stray rebar on the way down.
A Multi-Faceted Mess
This, it seems could have been avoided with a few narrative corrections. The story of Part II is character driven, which in a video game setting can easily result in a sense of aimlessness and purposelessness for the player. A novel, for instance, can be character driven for the simple reason that a novel can constantly reveal the state of the character. But a video game offers us no such direct window inside a character’s mind. And what drives a player forward in a video game is not rectifying an internal condition, but achieving a necessary and tangible goal. Predictably, The Last of Us handled this well in a way that its sequel does not. The goal of The Last of Us was simple. Get Ellie to the Fireflies. And while Joel’s inner turmoil and blossoming connection with Ellie drives his actions, the immediacy of the plot is built around that simple goal. Outside of an amorphous revenge, The Last of Part II has no such tangible goal for either of the main characters, which means that, for the sake of narrative, when the physical consummation of the goal is never achieved, the player feels cheated, misled: their time wasted. In The Last of Us, the player does achieve their tangible goal. The subversion happens after the fact, after the goal of transporting Ellie is met.
With the invocation of The Last of Us’s ending, I turn to address the most flawed conceit of the last of us Part II, a mind-numbing obsession with the end of Part I.
There was of course much discussion that followed the controversial end to The Last of Us. Part II builds on this moment, almost exclusively, for its own premise. But it soon proves entirely too flimsy to uphold the edifice Part II seeks to build on it.
For starters, the ending of The Last of Us needed no further exploration. Just before the credits role, Ellie, albeit warily, trusts that Joel is telling her the truth, avoiding directly confronting that which she secretly suspects and probably knows: Joel saved her at the cost of a potential vaccine. This behavior makes perfect sense and resembles exactly how a person would respond in realization to knowing that someone had saved their life at the cost of further damning the rest of the human race. We, the audience, could stomach Joel’s decision, no matter how horrifying, because we understood what it was that motivated him. We’d seen his journey and, while not condoning his behavior, understood it. And that was that.
Like many less than stellar TLOU fan forums I’ve browsed over the years, Part II is obsessed with hashing out the most boring aspect of The Last of Us’s end: the ethics of Joel’s decision. And while the aftermath of that decision creates a few interesting moments and powerful scenes for the two characters it affected directly (Joel and Ellie. Sorry, Abby), the events of Part II are a non-sequitur in relation.
Abby’s story reads like complete fanfiction, retconning a weight and importance to the events of The Last of Us’s end that never actually existed: the surgeon was actually in charge of the complex; he had a daughter; he was adamant on killing a little girl; the surgeon’s daughter witnessed his dead body; etcetera. Even more absurd is the role her father’s murder plays in Abby’s life. For a story predicated on realism, the concept is nonsensical. Who, in the world of The Last of Us, a world where violent death is guaranteed, could even conceive of specific revenge? Especially when the wrong committed takes place in such a morally dubious context. Anyone, daughter or otherwise, with a functioning sense of morality could tell you that what Dr. Anderson intended to do was very wrong at best. He received a twisted, albeit predictable consequence of his actions.
To the Fireflies, Joel doesn’t even have a name. He’s known as the smuggler. Yet we’re expected to believe that Abby perceives her father’s murder as a uniquely awful tragedy related specifically to one evil man. And like something straight out of an old spaghetti western, Abby is obsessed with hunting down a notorious man by the name of Joel Miller. This defies all reason.
Likewise, Ellie’s understanding of Joel’s actions in The Last of Us seem equally incomprehensible in Part II. She is resentful, yes resentful, of having her life saved. And what’s more, we’re expected to believe that a character who’s upset she didn’t get to sacrifice herself for humanity is also a psychopathic, homicidal killer, willing to slaughter everyone to claim revenge for…the man she’s upset with for not letting her die?
Tommy’s behavior is also mischaracterized. He behaves no longer like the level-headed, morally developed character he was in The Last of Us. His behavior is now erratic and lacks any clear explanation. There exists no world where Tommy would endanger others in pursuit of revenge. He had it seems written off Joel’s existence when they met in The Last of Us. And perhaps no one understands better the natural consequences that would result from Joel’s life of violence. Tommy had come to the conclusion that what he and Joel did to survive wasn’t worth the moral cost. He had resigned them both to death. Yet in Part II, Tommy is convinced beyond all reason that Joel’s death must be avenged.
Ironically, there is only one character in the world of The Last of Us with enough ego and delusions I could possibly envision embarking on some fanciful revenge quest: Joel. And he, of course, is dead.
This of course leads into a broader discussion about the theme of revenge. An idea, which, Part II possesses an entirely fanciful understanding of.
Human beings act in a reliably self-interested way. And virtually everyone understands that revenge quests go horribly wrong and end up getting those who embark on them killed. Traditionally, revenge had its place in honor cultures. In other words, in places where the reward for pursuing revenge was worth the substantial risk.
There is no such honor culture in the world of The Last of Us, rather characters pursue vengeance for the same reason that Batman does: trauma. This undermines almost entirely the moral lesson we’re intended to take away from Part II. If Ellie’s need for revenge stems from a compulsion, then she really can’t be held entirely accountable for her actions. Part II wants to have it both ways and in so doing achieves neither realism nor fantasy.
What worked in The Last of Us
By the end of Part II’s lengthy campaign, you’ll know that there’s really only one element that truly worked in The Last of Us: the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
The growing bond and changing dynamic between the two characters was so effective in The Last of Us that it glossed over many of the same issues that, out from underneath the veneer of its central protagonists, glare in radiant detail in Part II.
A forty-minute flashback scene in Part II recounting a birthday surprise Joel gave Ellie possessed more weight and genuine emotion than the other nineteen hours of the game combined. And it occurred to me then that without Ellie’s humor and childlike innocence — the discussions between her and her adoptive father — the world of the The Last of Us is a dreary, hyper-violent, and boring place. Watching Ellie experience the world in wonder gave us, much like Joel, hope. I realize now that it wasn’t how dark The Last of Us was that attracted fans_._ But how brightly it shone in those quiet moments of innocence.
The Last of Us was lightning in a bottle. Perhaps not even that. Looking back now, it occurs to me that there were several weak places in the game, all punctuated by the same lack of Joel and Ellie.
The dynamic between the two characters was the beating heart of the story. And I imagine that in the course of development for Part II, Naughty Dog probably sensed this.
Druckmann once said that he would never follow up The Last of Us unless he had a story he thought was worthy. He believed, mistakenly, what I had until Part II, that it was the narrative of The Last of Us which made it so great.
The truth is now undeniable. It was the characters doing all the heavy lifting, and by that measure, just two: a traumatized, grizzled ex-father and his mischievous adopted daughter.
Regrettably, the debate around The Last of Us Part II will focus mainly on its inclusion of characters from marginalized groups. This is nonsense, as a great story can be told with any characters. There’s no reason great art can’t come from creators aiming to be representational. The simple truth is that the characters in Part II simply aren’t as likable or relatable as Joel and Ellie.
It happens. If art were predictable and easy, then it wouldn’t be art. Sequels are often disappointing, but rarely I think in such an illustrative way as The Last of Us Part II. One that so thoroughly demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of the franchise.
I will always hold The Last of Us in high regard. It was a story I latched onto during a pivotal time in my life. And it changed, in a very small way, how I saw the world. The characters were as real to me as those I’ve encountered in fiction and film, and that’s no small thing.
But in 2020, and with Part II in the books, I think it’s safe to say: the series best days will continue to be behind it.