Hello, everyone! This is my very first blog here - I hope I do not mess it up! I wanted to start by discussing one of my new favourite games: The Last of Us - Part II, share my analysis of the story and how it impacted me. I know there are already some people who did this, and I apologise for adding yet another Part II discussion! My goal is certainly not to pretend my vision is the truth nor to try and change anyone's mind. This said, I invite everyone to join in with your own thoughts and opinions. I believe it's only through honest and healthy discussions that our industry will evolve as a form of artistic manifestation!
One last warning: this is a full-spoiler discussion, so if you haven’t played the game yet and do not want to know plot points, turn away and come back later!
All right… What would be a good point to start our coffee talk? Well, the beginning, of course! And the beginning gives us a retrospective of the main events from Part I for those who haven’t played or have forgotten the story. It’s cute and interesting to see revamped models for Joel and Ellie but, in all honesty, Part II could’ve survived quite well without this.
Now, the reason I complain about this initial scene is that it takes up a space that could have been filled with something more impactful to give more meaning to the main event that follows: Joel’s death. This is the Inciting Incident that sets the Revenge and the almost Disillusionment Plot (more on this later) in motion.
I have a confession to make: I did not cry and I feel bad for it (I did cry when we visited his house though). This is an event which the mere thought would inspire tears in my eyes. But, when it actually happened, I did not shed any tear; I will not say I was indifferent because I wasn’t. I did feel the impact but not as much as I supposed I would. Why? I am willing to admit that the fault is on me. However, if I look at the event with a technical eye, I am obliged to entertain the possibility that the game might have its share of guilt.
I am not against killing characters. But the circumstances surrounding the event must be believable, must be strong. And you see, I have a small problem with the events leading to Joel’s murder.
I kept thinking: why Tommy and Joel, longtime survivors, would so easily give away their names and trust on a total stranger? My theory was confirmed by Neil Druckmann in the Kinda Funny Spoilercast (great episode, by the way; if you have finished the game, I strongly suggest you watch it): Joel grew softer in those five years he spent being a father to Ellie and rescuing a lot of survivors. The flashbacks and his house did corroborate to the image of this more friendly Joel.
Druckmann and Troy Baker also provided another interesting insight: Joel saw something of Ellie in Abby. He allowed himself to trust her because of that, but when he arrived at the house, he wasn’t so invested in trusting the others. And here’s the issue: we do not exactly see this mistrust. I mean, this does explain why he didn’t pay attention to Abby after she went talking with Owen. But if the directing of the sequence had allowed us to see more of Joel’s reaction instead of leaving the camera away from him for most of the time, it would’ve made the scene better, stronger, even more impactful.
Because this sequence, since Joel and Tommy saved Abby, was intense! I just feel like we needed a little more (trivia: I did feel more “unstable” in the second time I watched his death scene, perhaps because I knew everything that happened. Well, a non-linear structure can also have its cons).
Instead of getting the retrospective, we could’ve played or watched another scene with Joel. Maybe showing his waking up and going to the lookout with Tommy. Maybe a brand-new scene. I watched Jacksepticeye’s playthrough and I also liked his idea of placing the beautiful museum sequence right at the beginning. Can you imagine how much more powerful it would’ve made his death? How many more curses would’ve been cast at poor Abigail? I’m not sure if this would be the best sequence to place there but it would have been better than the retrospective. I do like their first scene when Joel sings for her and gives her the guitar (and tells that incredible joke); that should’ve been kept even if in a slightly different order.
The moment itself of Joel’s death does not trouble me. Some people say: “Oh, it was bullshit! Joel should’ve died as a hero, defending the ones he loved, being bitten by an Infected”, and so on… Should he? Should he have died as a hero in a game where one of the pillars is that no one is a hero or a villain? In a game that, by depicting the harsh reality of life, must step away from such glorifying moments of romanticism? I understand the frustration, I really do. We have spent many hours with Joel in the first game and we care for him so much that we are willing to forgive and forget all the bad things he did… and he did a lot of bad things! Joel, as a character, is phenomenal. As a person, he’s a selfish piece of shit, and our partiality towards him blocks us from seeing this and thus, we consider Abby a monster. We cheered when he murdered Marlene so that the Fireflies wouldn’t go after Ellie (after him) but there was no escape. In the end, Joel had it coming, and he understood that when Abby said: “guess”.
After having played and meditated about the story for a few days, I’m kinda glad they decided to kill Joel and go with this narrative. Because I feel that Joel fulfilled his “mission on Earth”. Not having him in this new story was the unbalance, the shock, needed for Ellie to grow. In a franchise that is so focused on characters, it’s exponentially harder, in each new title, to bring them back and give them a meaningful purpose. And even if they killed Joel, Naughty Dog still gave him an essential role in the story. No matter how I try, I cannot see how this is a “cheap” move, much less a “trolling”.
“Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” William Shakespeare – Hamlet
Also, I do like the irony in the sequence: Joel decides to help someone and end up getting killed by that person because of the crimes he committed in the past. Troy mentions it in the Spoilercast as well, how this regret of letting his guard down crosses the character’s mind. He also says that he didn’t show this feeling quite well, which I more or less agree, but really, I won’t hold this against him. It was a very well-acted piece – the whole game was extremely well-acted.
Then some people will say that Abby’s motivation was weak. It may seem weak in a first glimpse. But The Last of Us was never about epic confrontations. And, if we stop to analyse the whole context, the group’s motivation was quite epic: Joel had destroyed the world’s chance at a vaccine! For Abby, she not only hated him because he took Ellie away but because he killed her father. Joel became a smuggler, a torturer, a criminal of a horrible kind when the soldier killed his daughter. 22 years later, he condemned the world so his new daughter wouldn’t die. So, when one claims that Abby’s motivation is weak, one is indirectly claiming that Joel’s and Ellie’s motivations are also weak.
In the end, we are humans and, one of the things the game shows us is that life, no matter how magnificent it is, how much we care and protect and love it, life is fragile and, to some extent, has such little meaning. That’s why Nora, Owen, Mel, Jesse, Manny, Yara and even Joel all die so quickly (Joel and Nora were tortured but anyway), almost in a heartbeat.
You fought to die, thinking
in destruction lies the seed
Of birth. You may be right.
You may be right.
Your slow return from
Regions of terror and bloody
Screams, races my heart.
I hear again the laughter
Of children and see fireflies
Bursting tiny explosions in
An Arkansas twilight.
(Maya Angelou – Kin)
So Ellie sets off in her journey to bring justice to the people who murdered Joel, especially to Abby. It doesn’t take long for this sentiment of justice to degrade into reckless bloodshed. As Tommy says at the beginning: “You have no idea what you are walking into”.
Ellie wants to be as merciless and skilled as Joel. It’s funny, in a quite painful way, to see her descend into her inner hell. She attempts to torture Nora (a defenceless woman on the verge of death because of the spores) to get information out of her and, while she is successful, the experience is her first big shock. Then she attempts to use the interrogation/torture strategy taught to her by Joel and also used by Tommy. She fails miserably and ends up assassinating a man and a pregnant woman. After all that, she loses to Abby in their first fight, left with a broken arm and bleeding on the theatre’s floor. Despite her wanting to look and sound powerful, barbarian, Ellie is a child who’s lost, a sequence that rapidly became one of my favourites. It's so powerful and, honestly, at that point, I could never wish that Ellie won nor could I think that Abby was wrong. All the violence propagated by Ellie, much like happened when she murdered David in Part I, is only traumatising her. The difference is that now the trauma is becoming gradually worse.
Part II is such a tragedy because practically nothing happens as it should and the ones who suffer the most are the exact perpetrators of the misdeeds. Even if, in theory, the death of Nora, Owen and Mel should be seen as an accomplishment, they leave a sour taste in Ellie’s (and in players’) mouths. Ellie is not achieving the victory, the satisfaction she expected, and quite fast everything around her starts to collapse.
I want to highlight the difference in duration between Part I and Part II and how this choice connects beautifully to the story. Joel’s journey across the country stretches for a whole year. This was not done only to give players more scenarios to explore or to show how ruined were the Fireflies. This whole year was necessary to build love. Because damn, it usually takes time to love someone, especially to love them so much that you decide to condemn the whole world instead of letting they die to produce a vaccine.
Now, to be destroyed by hate takes much, much less time. In the course of a few days, Ellie brought havoc to herself and to the people around her. And even when a few months go by, she’s still being eaten by that bloodthirst. And perhaps the saddest part is how believable the character is. Naughty Dog portrayed grieving and guilt in a viscerating, honest way.
I liked how Naughty Dog used the characters’ bodies as a reflection of their quest. Ellie’s body becomes more and more damaged as she pursues her need for vengeance, until, by the end, she has lost two fingers and can no longer play the guitar as she used to. Abby’s muscular built also reflects her obsession: she starts as this thin girl and after her father dies, becomes fixated on her training and on “improving” her muscles; after she kills Joel, notices how she doesn’t even mention training anymore despite living among soldiers; by the time she reaches Santa Barbara, she’s slightly less bulky than she was before, and she speaks of food and leisure instead of military exercises.
Since we mentioned it, let’s talk about love. Part II features two romance subplots: one between Ellie and Dina and another between Abby and Owen. Am I missing someone? Yes, two people. For, in a way, those two romances form a love triangle: Ellie, Dina and Jesse; Abby, Owen and Mel. In both of those trios, someone is pregnant.
As it happens to many other elements, the romance in one side mirrors and contradicts the romance on the other side. Ellie and Dina are a loveable couple; we can see they care for each other. However, despite the jokes between them, we can see they’re never as happy as they could be. Before Joel is killed, their romance starts to flourish… and then it’s interrupted by the quest for vengeance and, from there on, it goes downhill until Ellie sacrifices her family to go after Abby.
Abby and Owen face a similar situation: a promising couple whose passion is obstructed, mainly because of Abby, by the quest for retaliation, in this case against Joel Miller. Mel carries Owen’s son in her womb but she never gets to give birth to their baby, because of Ellie, who will not too long after that, beg for Abby to not commit the same crime against Dina and her still unborn child.
Dina gets to have her and Jesse’s baby, who becomes Ellie’s adopted son. She gets to live the family Mel never could. They form a family that they denied to Abby, Owen and Mel. And what Ellie does with this gift? She throws it away to hunt Abby down. It becomes quite more tragic when seen under this light, huh?
Oh, please, before we go on, allow me to congratulate Naughty Dog on how they portrayed both romances, including the sex scenes. I saw some people flinching at seeing Abby and Owen making out on the sailboat (my Goddess, I knew we would have a sex scene in that boat the first time I saw it!) and like… why? Sexuality is a part of life and I am super glad that ND depicted this in such a natural way. Also, it does make me a bit proud that the fastest-selling PS-exclusive has a lesbian protagonist. All right, we can move on.
Now it’s a good time for us to look at another side of the story for a moment. Let us talk about the best character of Part II (people will hate me for that, but I’m joking… half-joking): Abigail “Abby” Anderson. Her role in the game is phenomenal and the way Naughty Dog handled her was (almost) perfect!
Watching some YouTubers, reading comments online, the reactions are basically the same: they get suspicious of this new character who’s looking for someone in Jackson; then they hate her when she plays golf with Joel’s head; then Ellie’s Lawyers swear vengeance; and then their faces, when Abby kills Jesse and then the game obliges them to play as her is priceless! Even better is when we come back to that cliffhanger and we’re asked to fight against Ellie!
It’s a bold move, although not unprecedented, to make players take control of a character they hate, an “antagonist”, and not only for a scene or two (lucky Metal Gear Solid 2 that came out in an age before Twitter and Reddit).
Before we go on, here comes one of my complaints about the pacing and, to a certain extent, story decisions. I loved the idea of playing as Abby and I admit she quickly earned my favour but to play this big chunk as Ellie and then play this other big chunk as Abby in almost a backtracking fashion didn’t sit quite well with me. After Lev and Yara enter the story, her plotline shines, but before that, it feels a bit repetitive – even though Abby’s journey is more entertaining than Ellie’s in many ways. Not that is bad; the real issue here is the pacing. I believe that, if ND had placed those earlier Abby’s sections in-between Ellie’s initial search, or better, if they had trimmed both sections a little, it would’ve been less monotone.
I also wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of playing as Abby after all her friends had been killed but, in the end, this didn’t bother me. Actually, I felt even sadder to know that all those plans, all those relationships, would come to an abrupt end because of Ellie.
There’s something that a lot of people miss during Joel’s death scene and that only becomes 100% clear later on: Abby spared both Ellie and Tommy. She had her need for vengeance, a need that consumed most of her life after Jerry’s death, and despite she having tortured Joel and all, she’s not a bad person, a monster, as many people labelled her. I also don’t believe her denial to take their lives was because of Owen. Abby was shocked by her own actions, and only joined in the discussion later, but if Owen exerted any influence in her choice, it was a tiny one.
After exacting her revenge on Joel, Abby continues her life in more or less normality – I say more or less because, as you probably noticed, her actions in Jackson did not come without consequences, most of them psychological; again, as much as some people like to believe it, Abby and her companions are not bad people in nature. And we can even see this while she’s torturing Joel, how tumultuous are her sentiments, how she almost cracks when Ellie enters the room and begs her to stop.
Part of this guilty consciousness is what drove her to help Lev and Yara, the siblings that belonged to the faction that was the Wolves’ sworn enemies. And here becomes clearer what I said in the review about this being a character-driven story instead of a story that focuses primarily on the plot (the revenge plot, in this case). Some people find it odd Abby’s quest to help the Seraphite’s siblings, that it almost seems like a different game, a The Last of Us – Part III. In reality, this arc perfectly resonates with the rest of the game, for Abby is becoming the exact same person she hated the most. She kills people from her own army, she risks her life and gradually becomes a better person because of Lev. Just like what happened to Joel because of Ellie. The thing she said earlier to her father about wanting him to do the surgery if it was her… would it still be true if Lev was in Ellie’s place? But Part II deals a lot with hate. So, of course, Abby cannot have a peaceful progression (what a villain you are, Ellie, to go after her like that!).
As I said in the review, another element very well explored in the game is the cycle of violence. Joel opened a cycle when he killed Jerry and took away humanity’s chance at a cure. Abby completed the cycle by killing him… but before the cycle closed, it opened again, fuelling Ellie’s need for vengeance. Her desperate actions against the Salt Lake crew, in turn, opened another cycle for Abby, who now wants to exact revenge against – she believes – Tommy.
It is an unending cycle. That is, until someone has the strength, the courage, to put an end to it. To break the cycle by answering hate with forgiveness. Abby does exactly that: she had all the right to be angry, to hate Ellie beyond consolation, for Ellie destroyed everyone she loved. But, for a second time, Abby spares Ellie’s life. She breaks the cycle. Or at least she tries to. It was a noble action, anyway. Imagine if she had killed the three of them. Would it end? Doubtful. Maria or someone else at Jackson would take Tommy’s or Ellie’s or Dina’s pains. Killing everyone (or almost everyone, as Joel did with the Fireflies) do not mean you broke the cycle. Somewhere, someone will continue it.
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The ending is another polemic point of discussion; I heard some people saying it’s bad, meaningless. I didn’t worry about it since I heard the exact same thing for Part I‘s ending. And I’m glad I didn’t allow their opinion to dishearten me because damn, Part II‘s ending is brilliant!
Let’s first discuss the interlude, on the farm, that takes place after Ellie got her arse beaten and that lured a lot of people (including me) into thinking that was the ending. At first, I thought this was an unnecessary piece, a filler; however, upon further analysis, I saw how smart the writers were to put this in there.
This is the moment when we think: “Okay, she didn’t get her revenge but at least she’s living a rather happy life”. And even though the trauma is still there, even though we get a lead on Abby’s location, the overall sentiment for the following beats is: “Goddamn girl, you’ve got a family. Let it go!” Could the game have ended there? Absolutely not! Ellie hadn’t gone to the end of the line yet. Her consciousness was as heavy as it could be, and the non-linear structure did a wonderful job in portraying the decline of the relationship we came to care about so much. It was quite painful to watch the dance scene and think that was Joel and Ellie’s last encounter – even though some earlier barks hint that that wasn’t the case, but who in their right mind will remind of those little bits of conversation from the first hour of the game?!
This is the frontier Ellie must cross to step into Act 3, the choice she must make in continuing to pursue her blind quest for vengeance. At this point, she’s pretty much like Tommy: someone who’s being consumed by their thirst for blood. By the way, Tommy in this scene is a perfect portrait of hopelessness and bitterness, evoking both contempt and pity. The man has been ruined by his quest, both physically and psychologically (again the body used as a reflection of the characters’ actions!). That joyful and caring Tommy we knew and loved is gone. Maria, Dina, Ellie, himself – everyone and everything is blurred for him, just like it is for Ellie.
While Ellie restarts her quest, Abby is done with all that bloody past. Her bound with Lev has strengthened and it’s so loveable to watch this duo! It was quite heartwarming to see they finding the Fireflies and imagining the life they would have together with the group. Unfortunately, this peaceful and prosper scenario will stay only in our imagination.
Then Ellie reaches Santa Barbara, gets even more hurt and cannot stop to think about Abby. When she kills the Infected, she hopes they haven’t killed her; when she wakes up after passing out she believes she’s seeing Abby; and by the time she reaches the slave camp, she keeps murmuring: “Abby, Abby, Abby…”. Until finally, she finds Abby tied to the pillars, nearly dead – Ellie herself in not quite a good shape. Ellie frees her and she frees Lev. They find two boats. Ellie cannot let her enemy leave. Both hurt and miserable, they engage in a gruesome duel; one of the hardest boss fights I ever fought, and not in terms of game difficult. The whirlwind of emotions at this moment was astonishing! At one point, I was hoping Abby would not die even if this meant Ellie would have to pay the ultimate price.
The game, however, took a different turn. If everything had been the same except this one choice, the story, in my eyes, would’ve been much weaker and less valuable.
In her Crisis dilemma, Ellie made the hardest choice. Killing Abby would’ve been easy; sure, she would’ve drowned in her inner pit of blood and darkness and would get no reward from it, but it would’ve been easier. Two or three seconds more and Abby would stop moving. But, as it turned out, Ellie did not kill Abby. Instead, she let her go, take Lev away from all that chaos, so they could both prevail. And here enters another curious parallel: Joel saw something of Ellie in Abby and this got him killed; Ellie saw something of Joel in Abby and that supported her decision to let Abby live.
If her choice seemed blurred at the moment, the last flashback with Joel shed a light upon it. Some people were confused because of Druckmann’s comments: after all, is the game about hate or about love? Both! The Last of Us – Part II is not only about hate but also about love. Not love vs. hate. But love and hate. As I said, to kill Abby would have not changed anything. Ellie would feel neither relieved nor fulfilled. She would’ve drowned – quite literally, I’m willing to believe. So, if you say Ellie’s journey was stupid and tragic, but still wanted her to kill Abby… well, you’re just wishing her an even more grievous future. Ellie has nearly gone through a Disillusionment arc, which states: “The protagonist is left emptied and perhaps morally worthless as they abandon themselves to their fate or otherwise go off the idealistic rails.” This is what would’ve happened if she had killed Abby and, from what I see, many people do not realise this very important point.
Letting her enemy go will not solve all her problems either. One of the game’s original songs is titled Beyond Consolation (and goddamn, this shot in the ocean is fabulous), and it translates quite well one of the facets of the game’s finale: there’s no return. Ellie didn’t take the last step to completely lose herself, and this is great… but now she gotta learn to live with the harsh consequences of her quest. There is no celebration waiting for her; no easy forgiveness, no comfortable life.
But there’s another facet here – the facet of love and forgiveness. Most players won’t remember to do this – I didn’t but thanks to Reddit, I know about this :D – but if you open Ellie’s diary in the epilogue, you’ll see that she drew Joel. “Why does it matter?” you might ask. If you paid attention to her previous sketches of Joel, you might remember that Ellie couldn’t draw him, especially his eyes, that were always covered with a black strip. Seeing her finally being able to draw him shows that she has, to some level, overcame her trauma and forgiven Joel. Forgiven herself.
One possible interpretation of that final shot is that Ellie finally puts Joel to rest by leaving her guitar and her things behind her – which was a clear message from Dina. By the way… what happened to Dina and Tommy? Did Ellie go back to Jackson and told them the truth? Or did she lie? I understand the desire to know the answers for those mysteries but, technically speaking, the game doesn’t need to provide them. The main conflict has been resolved and, by not closing all the pending emotional questions, this open ending invites the players to add their own closure, which, in my opinion, is a great way to close your story if your narrative allows it. And Part II, just like Part I, allowed for an open ending typical of minimalistic stories.
Naughty Dog’s decision to work with two protagonists is not just to show the other side or to make us tendencious towards Abby (the idea was never to make players care more about her, by the way, even though it did happen to some players), but to empowers the narrative with a series of symbologies and parallelism that encompass both Part I and Part II: The Salt Lake crew slaughtered, the pregnant women, Abby getting involved with Lev, the romantic entanglements, the acts of forgiveness against hate… And, by offering us those two points of view, the game ended with two very strong protagonists.
Abby, in my opinion, is even better than Ellie. She not only has an exceptional redemption arc that resonates with Joel and Ellie but she’s also an example of a perfect antagonist:
You know that philosophy of thinking of the antagonist as the hero of the story? Naughty Dog did more than that: she made Abby both a protagonist and an antagonist… the same can be said about Ellie, really, although Ellie’s not the best antagonist for Abby; that title goes to Joel.
All right, I admit it: I still love Ellie but Abby is my favourite character from Part II. Now I’ve got to wait more seven years until The Last of Us – Part III takes me on a journey with Abby and Lev to the west :D
The way I see it, a lot of problems spark from the deviation from the classic structure of storytelling: single protagonist, mainly external conflicts, linear time; which is the most common structure seen in games (at least in big games). But there are more ways to tell a story and I do believe that Part II could’ve only be told the way it was.
Oh, I feel like I have so much more I could talk but I also don’t want to write an essay. I have not read articles or discussed with many people about the game, so it’s quite possible that next week I’ll have additional or different interpretations on some aspects (or even today, when people start answering to this!). That’s what I love about this kind of artistic work, how it allows for so many interpretations and none of them necessarily more correct than the other; it’s beautiful! And yes, it has its flaws but I am happy that Naughty Dog continues to provoke and shaking things up. Hopefully, more developers will give more freedom to their artistic ambitions!
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid, promised walks
Great souls die and our reality, bound to them, takes leave
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Maya Angelou – When Great Tress Fall