I don’t know how I feel about The Last of Us.
I don’t mean that my feelings are ambiguous or undefined…I mean I don’t know what words to use to describe the feelings.
(Major spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II abound below, obvs.)
When we say we ‘like’ or ‘love’ a story, we’re generally talking about one that has evoked positive feelings that we were glad to experience. Hope, joy, compassion, humor, triumph, romance, beauty, justice. We might still say we like or love creative works with sad moments or sad endings because of the good feelings along the way, or the connection we felt with the characters that was worth the negative feelings we felt.
On the flipside, stories we ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ usually bring out negative emotions that we wish we had not experienced. Disgust, boredom, anger, disappointment, annoyance.
We even have the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, creative works that give us positive emotions, but which we feel some negative emotions for having (embarrassment, shame, moral ambiguity).
But what about stories that fill you with negative emotions…but which you are glad you experienced? How do I describe how I feel about Grave of the Fireflies, a Studio Ghibli drama about two children struggling, and ultimately failing, to survive in an area of Japan ravaged by firebombing in World War II? The film is moving, haunting, compelling, and I’m glad I have seen it and been affected by it…but it doesn’t feel right to say I like the movie. It hurts to watch, and it is meant to.
The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II are both games that hurt, but they hurt in different ways. (Okay, for real this time, the spoilers start here:)
The first game is mostly Joel’s story. Having lost his daughter at the beginning of the outbreak, in the years that followed, he has learned to prioritize survival over everything else, and avoids forming any strong personal ties. Over the course of the game, he softens and eventually cares for Ellie as a second daughter, risking his survival (and the survival of humanity) to save her from a death that she herself welcomes for the good it might do for the world.
The Last of Us Part II is mostly Ellie’s story, and its arc is like a reversal of the first game. Ellie loses Joel, and over the course of the game, loses every personal bond she has in her increasingly single-minded quest for revenge.
Within the first few hours of the game, Joel is captured by a group of survivors led by a woman named Abby, in revenge for something Joel has done over the course of his shadowed past. She bludgeons Joel to death in front of Ellie and Joel’s brother Tommy, but lets them both live. This sets up the narrative for the first half of the game: track the killers down and kill them all in turn. Tommy sets off first, to do it on his own, and Ellie and her new love interest Dina set off after him. Another friend of theirs, Jesse, follows in turn, and eventually joins them further down the narrative.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is not a new story. Most serious stories about revenge don’t end with the message “Revenge is cool and we should all do more of it.” In most of those stories, though, the cost of revenge only tends to surface after the audience has been allowed to enjoy (even if secretly) the fruits of that revenge. It comes as a revelation at the end, chiding the protagonist (and the watcher) for giving into baser urges.
The Last of Us Part II never provides an instance of revenge that is truly satisfying. The people you’re chasing down aren’t caricatures of evil, gloating about kicking kittens. They’re just people. People of violence, yes, but also people with friends, families, and complex motivations. A sense of discomfort at the earlier kills grows and gives way to outright horror, as you later stab one of the group’s members in the neck, realizing after the fact that she was pregnant (as Dina is, in your own group), and beat another to death with a lead pipe for information on the others.
There are reprieves from the horror. Flashbacks take you back to memories of better days with Joel, including some where he teaches Ellie to play guitar. She still finds guitars from time to time in the world as you explore, and these moments serve as a physical reminder of Joel’s influence, and his absence.
After Ellie has dispatched nearly the entire group that killed Joel, Abby confronts her in her base of operations, killing Jesse and leveling a gun at Ellie’s head. And here…
…the story shifts. You jump back three days and are now playing as Abby, the antagonist you’ve been hunting for the first half of the game. And you’ll play as her for most of the second half of the game. She has her own equipment and skill trees, even her own collectibles. And her own flashbacks, where you learn her motivation for killing Joel…the events at the end of the first game.
Abby had been part of the Fireflies that Joel massacred in The Last of Us’ final conflict, an her father was one of the surgeons preparing to operate on Ellie. If you felt Ellie’s bloody revenge path to avenge her adopted father figure was justified, is Abby’s revenge of her own father any less justified? Ellie’s revenge cuts through hundreds of people on her journey across the country to avenge one man. Abby’s revenge killed one man, a man who had killed her father, her friends and allies, and doomed humanity, all to save a girl who didn’t want to be saved. The only reason you’re on Ellie’s side (if you’re still on her side at this point) is because you met her first. Ellie and Joel aren’t heroes of these stories…they’re just the people you know.
When you start to take a step back, you start to see that Ellie has become the villain of this game. She’s given the scenes and actions that are traditionally given to the antagonist, while Abby gets the scenes and choices that you usually see given to protagonists: Abby is the one with a loyal dog companion. Ellie is the one who kills the dog. Abby risks her life to protect people she’s come to care about. Ellie prioritizes her revenge over going to help one of her oldest friends. Abby lets the innocent people live, rather than tie up loose ends. Ellie threatens a child to provoke Abby to fight her. Abby tries to break the cycle of violence. Ellie tries to keep it turning.
Many video games offer you moral choices that you can make, to determine what path you want a story to take. The Last of Us Part II does not. In many parts of the story, violence is compulsory. Sometimes it makes you enter the button presses to enact violence in a quick time event. Other times, a cutscene will have your character initiate a conflict that you, the player, do not want to follow through on. Some may see this as a failing of game design, but I think it is an effective way of putting you inside the mind of Ellie.
I don’t believe Ellie likes the violence. She is good at it, she takes to it, and she seeks it out, but it doesn’t bring her satisfaction, relief, or closure. Each new death traumatizes her, and heightens her need to continue rather than abating it. She isn’t forced to do anything, but she is compelled out of a sense that this is what she is supposed to be doing. Similarly, the game doesn’t really force you to be complicit in the violence…you could just eject the disc and stop playing the game. But she doesn’t stop, and I’m guessing most players don’t stop either. Both continue out of a sense that stopping would be to leave things unresolved.
This game elicited feelings and behaviors from me that I’ve never really encountered in a video game. At one point as Abby, I was saving a young boy from the crazed cult he had been brought up in. And even though the cultists would kill both of us on sight (and I’d fought several groups of them before), I felt bad attacking them in front of the kid. And due to how the companion AI works, he wouldn’t attack them if I didn’t attack them first. So I ended up alternately sneaking and sprinting through the whole area without killing anybody. The game never told me to, and never rewarded me for doing so, but I did so anyway. In a game full of compulsory violence, I felt compelled for a brief stretch to be pacifistic. And any time Ellie and Abby were in direct combat, I found myself dying over and over from not wanting to actually kill the other character, hoping that holding back could somehow bring the fight to an end.
Ultimately, that choice is up to Ellie. At the conclusion of a brutal fist/knife fight, in which she loses two of the fingers on her left hand, Ellie is choking Abby out, drowning her in the ocean surf, and then…
Ellie lets Abby go, and Abby takes off in a boat with Lev, the boy she’d rescued earlier in the story. Maybe the two of them, child and protector, remind Ellie of herself and Joel. Ellie remains behind, and starts to finally deal with her grief over Joel’s death.
She returns home, and you think about how much she has lost in pursuing revenge. Jesse died. Her relationship with Tommy has soured. Dina has left her, taking with her the child they had started to raise together. And as she picks up a guitar, to play once more the first song Joel had taught her, the chords fall flat, a consequence of the fingers lost in the final confrontation. Even this last tangible connection to Joel has been lost.
It’s a hard game to play, emotionally. And it’s one which many fans dislike for a number of different reasons. Some are angry that Joel was killed off early in the game. Some dislike the diverse representation in the game. Some are disturbed by how far Ellie’s violence goes, and others are pissed off that it doesn’t go further.
I didn’t dislike the game. But as discussed above, it doesn’t feel right to say I liked the game, either. I was moved by it, riveted by it, affected by it. Several times I had to stop and just feel the weight of the story and let it wash over me. I was hurt by the game, but it’s a hurt that I sought out, and a hurt that I will likely seek out again.