***WARNING – This article contains major spoilers for the story of The Last of Us Series***
The First part of The Last of Us played a faithful tune on the standard good guy/bad guy guitar. The runners and clickers were obviously bad, as they wanted to kill you on sight. David the cannibal was also a “very bad man” who wanted to chomp down on you. Even by the end of the game, when you realised the possible fate of Ellie, the Fireflies became the bad guys, heavily armoured characters with big guns and masks who were shameless cannon fodder as you charged through as Joel, trying to save your surrogate daughter. What could justify a bloodbath more than saving a helpless individual you cared about. Even at the cost of the survival of humanity itself.
Some of us didn’t want a sequel, as for many, where exactly could you go with the story that ends on a betrayal of trust for selfish reasons? It can only really go south from here. Or northwest in the case of Ellie and Joel. I knew there were going to be repercussions, and I really kind of hoped Naughty Dog would just leave the new makeshift family alone, and make the story about something else. Naughty Dog set us up for something even more brutal, and when the teaser trailer launched there were unfavourable reactions to how violent it was. This was going to be a tale of revenge, of an unhinged Ellie and I would be fair in saying that most of us didn’t want it to be revenge for the death of Joel.
So we get the huge gut punching set up piece, and we introduce Abby, a women who could put us on a high shelf that we couldn’t get down from, who we are instantly made to hate. She isn’t willowy and needing looked after. She isn’t in need of someone to grab her, hold her and tell her everything is going to be alright. She is calculating and smart and capable and doesn’t come into our game screens with jiggle physics and makeup. Her and her rag tag band of evil doers are visibly relieved when Joel lies there in pain, waiting for that final blow, and we are pushed to label them as they stand there. The cocky one, the capable one, the one that eggs everyone else on, and the one bad one with a slight conscience. We take a note of their names and their faces for later, when we know the satisfaction of ending their evil ways will be ours, and the world will return to the proper balance, with sadness, and melancholy. But the bad guys will lose and that is what counts.
So as Ellie, you rampage and murder and solve puzzles. You’ll execute countless members of the WLF, and later on the Scars, leaving their battered and sometimes scattered limbs in your wake. The warnings about brutality are well founded, this isn’t sneaking and avoiding combat. This is Oldboy in a corridor with a hammer, and the killing will sometimes feel unnecessary and forced, but you aren’t playing this as you, you’re playing as Ellie. You’ll spend hours cowered behind waist high fences and barriers and wonder why people would leave piles of ammunition and alcohol just waiting to be picked up. You’ll have a pang of guilt when you are forced to execute your first dog, but you’ll set traps for the later ones that come along. You’ll hear names called out as your enemies are taken out through your skill as the lust for revenge continues to rage through you. You’ll worry about Dina and how she is going to keep on going because you care about her and you’ll worry about Tommy and whether or not him trying to avenge his brother is going to find him joining the ranks of the dead.
You’ll do this all running, walking and crawling through a city that modern life is a distant memory and newer, vicious life has taken it’s place. Stalkers chase you through poorly lit buildings, shamblers look to kill you with their acid bombs and postule covered bodies. The infected scream when they see you and the clickers still have the power to end your life in a heartbeat and the ripping out of your throat. The city takes deep breaths and watches you travel, while also encouraging you sometimes just to stop and stare at how absolutely wonderful it looks, how much the detail has increased, and how the environmental story telling is at a pinnacle here. You’ll occasionally stop just to look at the bodies that you find that tell their tales of woe and final minutes. You’ll learn about the struggle between the Infected, the WLF and the Seraphites. You’ll also learn through flashbacks as time goes on that this perfect family we yearned for at the end of the first game, this perfect porcelain moment between a father and daughter, is now cracked and barely holding itself together. Possibly well beyond a chance of repair.
You’ll deal a killer blow to Abby and her band of evil bad people when you hit the aquarium, struggle to kill a dog and take out two of her main allies. You’ll happily mash at that square button on the controller as you struggle with Mel, because if you don’t you lose and you have to start again. That’s how it goes. Righteous anger and righteous actions going hand in hand to bring peace to the world. After all, you’re the good one here, right? Right? You end up back in the theatre you’ve chosen as a base to contemplate your next move, because the vengeance beast is hungry again. You’re too busy planning with Jesse and Tommy to notice Naughty Dog pulling the rug out from under your feet.
You see, this is a tale about revenge, but the revenge isn’t for Ellie, it’s about Abby killing the man who killed her father at the hospital all those years ago. You’ve all of a sudden turned that chess board around, and now you’re seeing things from the other side, and I’ll admit, in the beginning, I really couldn’t care less for the situation or the characters. These were the bad guys, swanning around with their equipment and city farms and organisation. The Fireflies were long gone, but in their place the WLF were more dangerous as they patrolled the city, clearing out the nests of the infected and collecting the last of the supplies from the carcass of the city. They were more dangerous as they tried to push civilisation back to the days of old, unlike the Seraphites who were trying to embrace nature, who were killing the WLF with their bows and love of hanging and knives (and ultimately needed to be wiped out in response.)
As Abby you find yourself caught in middle the entire circus, and your world view is slowly moulded as the game progresses in so many subtle brilliant ways you’ll not even know it’s happening. You end up playing with the dogs you dreaded and killed as Ellie, you walk into WLF territory with your head held high and greeting friends by name that you had dispatched with stealth and a knife as Ellie only hours earlier. You learn that your band of evil doers have names, have their own struggles and in one case is pregnant. You make an unexpected alliance with someone you never expected to and then become one of the clowns, caught in the middle of a pie fight where people are dying and no one is laughing. There’s a whole level where you are trying to track down a sniper who you’ll treat like every enemy you’ve faced in every gaming situation before, only to find out in the moment where you want to take out your aggression and finish them, that this is a face of someone you know and in another life and time, this is someone who taught you how to shoot as well as they do.
You’ll let out a sigh as Abby, as you find the Alice the obedient dog dead in the aquarium. The very same dog that as Ellie, you had panicked and mashed buttons to hack and stab and fight off. You wonder if things will stop. You wonder if you’ll be able to make either of them see sense as a player, and only because you know that one of them winning means one of them losing. The jabs and side swipes keep on coming, a shambling monster in the hospital, the result of the the infection cumulating over twenty years causes panic and over zealous trigger fingers. It turns out to be a mid level boss, when later in the theatre as Abby, you’re forced to face the real monster that Ellie has become, unwilling to back down, consumed with rage and hatred.
The real enemy of The Last of Us part 2 is the inability to let things go, for those wishing for things to be how they were. For Abby, it’s the yearning to be back in the arms of the Fireflies and by association to connect back to her father, who she constantly has a recurring dream about. For Ellie, it’s about the obsession that she has of getting revenge for a man who she saw as a father figure. She’s also burdened with the guilt of living with the fact that she could have saved humanity if Joel has done the right thing instead of the self serving choice. Even when she’s offered the perfect life with Dina and JJ, and a chance at inner peace, she’s willing to throw it away in an instance for the slightest chance of this revenge and possibly redemption for her sins.
It breaks Ellie both emotionally and physically, and in the closing scene, we see someone who has lost not only their chance at a bright and loving future, but with some of their fingers gone, the ability to connect to Joel through their guitar music that they bonded over. Abby fairs somewhat better, but is a shadow of her former self, almost accepting of what has happened and what may come to pass, her dreams of her father change from one of horror to one of peace and calm. The fact that I ended up caring about the fate of both, is a huge testament to the powerful story telling that Naughty Dog has crafted with The Last of Us part II. In all honesty, while I know there will be other chapters in the story, there is part of me that secretly hopes they leave things here. Though I hope that the multi-story arc is something that other games embrace, as it has moved the tale of Ellie from something I expected I knew how to play to something that made me hope other companies do the same.
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