Gaming

The Last of Us Part II: A Thesis

 

WARNING: THIS REVIEW DEALS WITH LATE GAME SPOILERS. PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND DO NOT GET ANGRY WHEN LATE GAME PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED

The Last of Us Part II is exhausting. As the credits rolled, I sat in my chair and pondered at the expansive, emotional experience that I just completed. Instead of screaming into a pillow like I did at the end of Part I, this time I stared blankly at the screen long past the end of the credits and the game’s return to the title screen. Unlike the first one, which made me cry with frustration, anger, and sadness, Part II resulted in a sigh of relief, of exhaustion that could only come at the end of a long, arduous, and ultimately draining quest for revenge, and for redemption. I was satisfied, happy even, that the violence had finally ended. I experienced, through the dual narratives of Ellie and Abby, the costs of the main theme of the game, vengeance.

As a player, I grew with these characters. I joined my anger with Ellie’s, my fury directing hers to kill everyone, and honestly enjoying it just a little. As I continued, the anger faded, eventually leading to the desire to let it go and go home. Until Abby returned, unceremoniously killing Jesse and maiming Tommy. My anger renewed. Then I played as Abby. I became one with her, as we remembered her father, who was going to find a cure and save humanity, who was then torn away from us by Joel, who we were in the last game. I killed Abby’s father as Joel, and so I played as Abby to make it right. As Abby, I helped Lev, a child from a rival faction, who was ostracized because of who they were, and that is when I saw a little bit of Joel in Abby. They are both deeply damaged people who are motivated by the selfish need of easing their guilt by doing what they feel is right by someone else.

To make the past right by doing better in the future is an ongoing theme throughout this franchise, exemplified in one instance – my interactions with Bear. Bear is a dog I killed as Ellie, mercilessly because he was in my way. I did find it odd that he was the only dog given a name in Ellie’s campaign, but that discarded confusion grew to understanding when I, as Abby, interacted not with just Bear, but with another dog I killed as Ellie – Alice – who’s Abby’s dog. I, as Abby played fetch with Bear for much longer than I should have, but felt I needed to make it up to him. He would only die later in the story because of Ellie’s anger. My anger. This example of playing fetch shows how deep this theme of needing to make things right goes. Another Example is with Lev, a child who is an ostracized member of a rival faction to Abby’s. Abby adopts and protects Lev, not out of selflessness, but because of guilt. What guilt? Guilt over killing Joel. She has to prove to herself she’s a good person.

The Last of Us Part II asks us several questions: “what is the cost of vengeance?”, “is vengeance justice in a world without it?”, and finally, “are vengeance and justice worth the violence needed to enact it?” Most importantly, it never bludgeons the player over the head with the answers,  opting instead to explain them subtly through storytelling. This is important because, at the end of the day, it leaves the players themselves to ultimately be the ones to decide the answers for themselves. Critics often lament that its morals and theming are muddy, just conveying a simple “violence bad” message. However, it goes much deeper than that. Another criticism I’ve seen is that the game is too long. However, I believe these things are by design. By the end of the game, we want the violence to just stop. We want Ellie to just simply let this grudge go. This is the point, the complete moral of the story. So yes, the moral is in fact, “violence bad,” but to use that two-word summary does a massive disservice to what the game is trying to convey. What the summary really should be is “the costs of seeking vengeance are greater than the satisfaction gained from it.” 

Morals such as this one have a long history in media such as books, movies, and music. However, gaming’s use of storytelling to convey a greater message beyond entertainment is a much shorter time period, especially so in Horror gaming. Most horror titles, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, there’s a level of camp that exists to keep things fun, probably due to localization from Japan. Naughty Dog, the developer for The Last of Us Part II, is located in the United States, where there is a self-seriousness not present overseas. We can see this through the clear touchstones Naughty Dog uses in the presentation, touchstones that reach beyond other games, specifically to cinema and literature, like Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Carmac McCarthy’s The Road. There is a desolation here that goes beyond pure entertainment and is actively trying to teach consumers something important.

There is a precedence for this self-seriousness. Silent Hill 2 for example lacks much of the camp present in the other titles, as well as it should since it deals heavily with mental illness as a result of traumatic experiences. Even more recent titles as well, such as the deft handling of love between siblinfs in A Plague Tale: Innocence and the strong themes of obsession in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which in turn were influenced by The Last of Us Part I. What Part II does differently than all those titles is going in full tilt, everything from the subplots to the general mechanics and presentation of the game add weight to the primary theme of the cost of vengeance.

The Last of Us part II is one of those experiences that everyone should go through, at least once, because it does so much with a medium rarely used for telling such stories. Part one is often the poster boy of the argument for video games as art. It told such a personal story that fans often wondered how developer Naughty Dog would, or even could follow it up. When the credits of part one roll for me, I oftentimes end up crying. It’s a game that moves me so deeply that I can’t not cry. As for continuing that argument, Part two does so with flying colors but instead making me feel relief and sort of peaceful. If we never get a Part III, this game is a satisfying send-off for our protagonists. The Last of Us Part II is exhausting but in the best way. 

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