Someone asked me recently, “What game have you played in the last few years that has really stuck with you?” And my answer almost immediately is The Last of Us Part II, without a doubt in my mind. Ever since my incredibly thorough playthrough starting from midnight on June 19th, 2020, I have struggled to get this game out of my mind.
The Cycle Begins
With The Last Of Us Part II, the developers at Naughty Dog wanted to delve deeper into what implications hatred would have on the cycle of violence, and, on a revenge path, when is enough, enough?
The Last Of Us had its fair share of charm and moments of levity via button prompts signaling you to engage in seemingly mundane conversations, about prospects of the learning guitar, or telling dreadful puns … which were actually pretty good now I think of it. Yet, with The Last Of Us II, these moments were overshadowed by dread. The innocence of Ellie’s teenage spirit has now taken the backseat in this world she lives in. Following the fate of her surrogate father, Ellie’s path ahead is now fuelled by hatred and revenge. Leading to what can only be described as visceral and unforgiving … in a manner I have never experienced as a gamer. Hold on to your seats, it gets bloody.
“The Cycle Of Violence And Empathy”
“Even in gameplay, we want you to feel the micro-hard choices that these characters have to go through. So, are you going to confront the woman with the dog, or are you going to stealth around and take that risk? We want you to feel them in every decision you make. So, guilt is very much a consequence, a repercussion of a choice — and not always, but often, it can be also a sign of learning and growing.”
– Haley Gross, co-writer.
When it comes to tough decisions in video games, have you ever thought twice about popping a headshot on an NPC? Have you been concerned about the welfare of their pals? Because I know I haven’t. This time round, my thought process could not be any more different. The many “Micro-hard choices” I made during my playthrough involved firing arrows at NPC’s fluffy companions, slicing the throats of unsuspecting foes, firing shots at the limbs of their buddies with explosive, glorifying effect whilst they scream in agony.
A particularly hard choice involved a stealth section where I was pinned down by a dog and its handler. I had one arrow left and I had to use it carefully. Either I take out the dog and risk getting picked off by its owner, or I take out the owner and make a run for it – both choices not particularly great, but I had to try something. Also, did I mention that the dogs can track your scent? Well, they can. With all of that in mind, I was not brave enough to shoot the pup, so I took my best shot against the human, resulting in the dog nestling its nose into the body of its owner … whimpering. That is worse than killing the dog if you ask me.
Moments like these continue from one encounter to another, progressing in severity with each gunshot and bludgeon attack.
If I thought I had experienced all the gore I possibly could after hearing the guttural pleas for help after plunging a knife into someone’s neck, I was naive to think so.
The details of which Naughty Dog go to in order to achieve the level of polish they are known for is staggering. By simply adding names to each of the NPCs, fills me with dread when I manage to grapple one at gunpoint when I am out of ammo. The desperation I feel at that moment is in lockstep with Ellie’s mental state. For the first time in a video game, I felt the emotion that is being portrayed by the protagonist. The introduction of adding names to the NPCs helps to add a sense of humanity to them. Making each brutal decision you make as impactful as it has ever been in video games … and to horrifying effect.
“What we’re trying to do is that, as you’re with Ellie in these moment-to-moment decisions, watching these cinematics and discovering all the weight on her, that even if you don’t empathize with her decisions, even if you don’t agree with them, you understand why she feels she has to do it or feels like she can’t stop herself from doing something”.
Haley Gross – Co-writer.
With each and every encounter, I was fuelled with the same fire that Ellie possessed. One gunshot after another, it never got easier. It was not particularly fun either, it left me pondering on one question: Is Ellie the bad guy? Taking a breath after a tense showdown between a group of men and women I helped Ellie slaughter, I contemplated as to whether the line between good and bad was clear, but it was often the case the line became muddied by the actions of violence we implemented. I felt completely in tune with Ellie, despite not empathizing with her decisions, I understood that being on this path of vengeance was because of the love she has for Joel, and the extreme lengths one person would go to justify their actions.
Who Is The Bad Guy?
Let’s talk about Abby. We get it, we all hate her because of what she did to sweet Joel (unforgiven by the way). However, in her eyes, the action of murdering Joel is justified. The swings of the golf club hit its target with devastating effects, putting an end to violence with violence itself. With everything Joel did in the first game to preserve his love for Ellie, at the cost of a hospital full of fireflies and the fate of humanity, Joel’s very own cycle of violence was never put to an end.
Unknown to Joel, Abby’s actions were a direct result of Joel’s selfishness – coming full circle with Abby putting a stop to the irreversible harm he bestowed upon her and the future of human civilization. Does this make Joel the bad guy in this story? Is Abby wrong to want justice for her father? Is Ellie wrong to pursue Abby for killing her ‘Father’? these were just a few of the questions I had when the credits rolled.
10 hours or so in you gain control of the one Ellie has sought after. Abby now becomes playable … the thought was hell on earth for most, including me. How could Naughty Dog expect players to switch gears and take the side of the ‘enemy’? I understood what Naughty Dog was doing, the sneaky devils. Sure, they want you to see her side and want you to empathize with her story and the justification of her actions – I get that. But what I wasn’t sure they’d be able to do is make me empathize with her, make me understand that killing Joel was something that was justified in her eyes. Remember, Joel was responsible for the death of her father – an act that he deemed justifiable because Ellie was all he had. The only chance of being a father again.
The difference between both of their motivations is night and day, Ellie is propelled forward through hate, Abby is propelled forward through love. Abby was able to end the cycle of violence with Joel, allowing her to move on with her life. She puts her hatred to bed and closes the door on her past. However, Ellie’s vengeful path was just starting.
During my time playing as Abby, I started to like her character more than our beloved Ellie. Something I did not think Naughty Dog was going to be able to achieve, yet they managed to do so in such a profound way. To say that I preferred Abby to Ellie by the end of the game was something I never, ever thought I would admit to saying, but here we are. At this point, Ellie seemed like a different character to me, her hatred altered her ability to be herself, which ultimately led to her not being able to make rational decisions and therefore closing her heart to anybody who crossed her path. Abby on the other hand found herself in partnership with the exact people she was instructed to hate. Her ability to hate was diminished when she opened her heart to Lev – a runaway Seraphite (Scar).
The relationship that was forged between these within this unlikely partnership mirrors the partnership between Ellie and Joel in the first game. Joel, a hardened survivor with very few moral lines left to cross, is partnered with Ellie, a young fiery teenage girl who just so happened to be the cure for mankind. Yet with their differences aside, relationships are made.
This isn’t so different between the relationship of Abby and Lev. Abby is a survivor and soldier of the WLF (Washington Liberation Front) a militia group that has been formed by a group of disbanded ex-Fireflies. Lev is a runaway that has fled from a cultist group named the Seraphites (Scars) Both are forced to partner up on a journey to retrieve supplies for his wounded sister, Yara. When on this journey together, a friendship is born. There is a genuine connection between the two of them that surfaces as they get to know each other. They tell each other stories and confront fears with one another – learning lessons along the way.
As with Ellie and Joel, I found myself invested in their relationship and their journey. This is ultimately why it becomes too unbearable when Ellie and Abby collide – because I care deeply about both of their paths, regardless of whether their choices are justified or not.
The Cycle Of Violence Comes To An End
Ellie signifies what we all lost, not just her. We lost Joel. We lost Ellie’s innocence as a result. Ellie evolved into a character that was motivated by the hate she had for Abby. Leading her to rain down hell on all of Abby’s friends – human and dog form. She becomes something truly unrecognisable. She was given two chances by Abby to stop – both at the start of the game and that dreaded theatre encounter. But she still insisted that Abby’s death would justify all the people she killed.
Abby represents what could be achieved if you close your mind to hatred. She started as the ‘villain’ of the story and ended as an image of hope for humanity. Abby received her closure after she ended the cycle with Joel, she was able to move forward with her life. Despite Ellie killing her ex-boyfriend and his baby mama, she insisted that killing more people would not help her heal.
Ellie and Abby collide one final time. The desolate beach acts as a dreary backdrop for this fateful encounter. Ellie is ready to take the life of the one person who took everything from her. With her pocket knife in hand, she forces Abby to fight against her own will. As with the encounter at the theatre, it was unbearable to participate in. Controlling Ellie as she mercilessly attacks Abby with her knife, cutting her down one slice at a time, I could not help but want to turn the game off. Ellie at this point was no longer Ellie, she was the embodiment of hatred itself. Her vengeful path of violence was to end here, Abby’s death was in her hands.
Then, it happens. Just as Ellie was about to take her life, a flash of a healthy, undead Joel floods the screen. At that moment, she realized what Abby already understood – a path full of hate will not lead to forgiveness and closure. It only leads to more anguish, and that love will always persevere.
Naughty Dog’s over-arching theme of hatred and the cycle of violence have reached its goal. Ellie and her story of vengeance was destined to end in only one way. She was never going to receive the closure she wanted if she was to go ahead and kill Abby. In the moment before Ellie is about to take Abby’s life, she is confronted with Joel in his truest form. The love she has for Joel was overshadowed by nightmares of his death, the lasting memory that inspired her journey. This image of Joel only comes up when she was just about to end the cycle of violence in the way she thought was right – through harted. If she continued her path of vengeance, she may never have received the closure she needed. She needed to have Abby’s life in her hands before she could finally understand.
With Ellie’s cycle not at an end, she is forced to move forward and leaves Joel’s memory behind. With the guitar acting as a gateway to positive memories of Joel, she is no longer able to access those memories after losing her finger and the ability to play. This signifies that she has found her closure, putting the guitar down and closing the door on hatred, she was finally able to move forward – with her cycle of violence seemingly coming to its end.
That’s Me Done
What did you think of the violence and the many themes in The Last of Us Part II? Let us know in the comments.