Stories Beyond Books: The Last of Us Part II
As a writer and a storyteller, I'm always fascinated with the many different ways stories can be told outside of books, including in movies, video games, animation, and so many more incredible mediums. And I love talking about stories and exploring why they work or don't work, how we connect with characters, and how some of the most important parts of our own lives are explored through storytelling. So today, I'm launching a new blog post series to do just that, and we're going to start by talking about The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us is my favorite video game of all time, hands down. In my opinion, there is no other game out there that gets you so invested in the characters and their relationship. It pulls you into the story and takes you on an incredibly emotional journey through a harsh world, and while you might not always agree with the characters, you form real connections with them and understand what drives them. It's a masterpiece of storytelling and characterization in video games, and when I heard that there was going to be a sequel, I was beyond excited.
Fast forward a few years and I finally got a chance to play The Last of Us Part II. I finished it in about 30 hours spread out across 5 days. And then I needed some time to process what I had just experienced, because this game really does a number on your emotions and everything you thought you knew going into it. So let's talk about it. And yes, I am going to be discussing specific plot details, so don't read beyond this point if you haven't yet played the game.
***THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING!!!***
Taking Risks in Storytelling
It's no secret that The Last of Us Part II has been met with lots of criticism since it's release. When you make a sequel to a game that's so beloved by so many people, there are always going to be people upset with how the story plays out, and those emotions are valid. I do honestly wonder how much of a role the marketing for the game played in people's frustrations. Many of the trailers seemed to show that a certain beloved character was still alive and well, but then...well, we know how that turned out. (Still emotionally devastated, by the way. Thanks, Naughty Dog.) I know I certainly went in with different expectations than what we got, and for a while, I was a pretty upset with some of those trailers and clips for the misleading information we got.
But now, I actually think that only served to make Joel's death so much more impactful for me. Here was a character I loved, who I thought was going to be okay and would go on this journey together with Ellie. And then he was very much not okay, and Ellie was not okay. And I as the player experiencing that devastating event through Ellie's eyes - yeah, I was definitely not okay either. Looking back at it now, I'm not sure Ellie's quest for revenge could have started any other way. There had to be a believable motivation for every horrific action she takes throughout the rest of the game. A motivation that, if not entirely justifiable, was at least understandable. And what better way to do that than by making the player also suffer through the death of someone who became so dear to us in the first game?
Killing off a fan-favorite character within the first couple hours of a game is a huge risk. Asking players to then spend 10+ hours in the shoes of the character who murdered their favorite is an even bigger risk. But this isn't a story that's supposed to feel safe or comfortable or easy, just as the world the characters live in is not safe or comfortable or easy. It was at the transition to Abby's point of view that the game got me legitimately upset...again. We have that climactic scene in the theater that puts Ellie and her friends in a very dangerous position. The tension is at its highest point, and we know something big is about to happen. Jesse's dead (still emotionally devastated by that , too) and we're not sure Ellie, Tommy, and Dina are going to make it out of this situation alive.
And then the game hits rewind and sticks you in the shoes of the one character you hate most. Not just for a single cut scene (which is what I was hoping for at first) but for hours as you go back in time to that first day in Seattle and get to experience Abby's side of the story. This was a HUGE risk for the developers to take, and it's easily the thing I've seen people complaining about most. So let's talk about that for a minute.
An Exercise in Empathy
There's a commonly quoted piece of writing advice that always goes around in regard to creating well-developed characters, particularly antagonists: Everyone is the hero of their own story. Or, put another way, everyone is the villain in someone else's story. The Last of Us Part II takes that idea and explores all its nuances by pitting Ellie and Abby against each other and then asking us to experience both points of view throughout the game.
We come into the story already knowing and empathizing with Ellie. We went on an incredibly emotional journey with her in the first game, and she became a character we loved and wanted to protect at all costs. She's easy to like, and we're hurt right along with her when Joel is brutally murdered before her eyes. Then, as the game progresses, we're forced to do things as Ellie that we don't always want to do. She becomes so single-minded in her pursuit of vengeance that she does't care about the emotional cost - to herself or to the friends who are risking their own lives to help her. She's selfish, and as we see her starting to struggle with her actions, we begin to wonder why she's even still doing this, why she can't let it go. We even watch her get a second chance at a new, happier life with Dina and JJ, just to throw it all away when she chooses hate and vengeance instead of love. That scene at the farm with Dina just before Ellie leaves was the biggest gut-punch in the entire game for me. Little by little, I started to lose empathy for Ellie as I disagreed with her choices more and more. I still cared about her and wanted to see her happy, but I became more and more frustrated as she refused to make any of the choices that would bring her happiness and peace instead of suffering and turmoil.
Then there's Abby, a character we were intentionally set up to hate from the beginning of the game. Within the first few minutes of being in her perspective, however, we're already encouraged to empathize with her as we watch her lose her father when Joel forcibly removes Ellie from the surgical room at the Firefly hospital - a selfish act that destroyed any hope the human race might have had of recovering from this plague. The game then repeatedly asks you to empathize with Abby and shows you why you should, to the point that it does feel a bit manipulative at times. I've seen a lot of complaints about the game that address this, and I think some of those complaints are fair to an extent. Abby gets to play with dogs instead of killing them, Abby gets to save some kids instead of just destroying all the lives around her, Abby gets to be a sort of hero while Ellie is painted as more of a villain. And I admit, while I was playing as Abby, I felt frustrated at first and just wanted to get back to Ellie - a character I already knew and loved and who I'd left in a terrible predicament. I even started to resent having to reconsider my own bias against Abby. By the end of the game, I still wasn't sure how I felt about her and my time in her shoes, and it was only after days of reflection that I was finally able to understand and articulate how this game made me feel.
Here's the thing, though. Abby was a good character. Not 'good vs evil' good, but a well-written, three-dimensional, fully developed character. She had her own motivations, she had her own complex relationships with the people in her life, and was struggling with her own internal fight against blind hatred. Seeing the story through her eyes forces you to consider how Ellie's actions impact all those she crosses paths with - something that is often overlooked in video games as you interact with various NPCs and enemies who only exist to serve the player character's story. You don't have to like Abby, but if you can't at least understand and empathize with her on some level by the end of the game, that's on you, not on the game itself.
One of the things The Last of Us Part II excels at is its use of flashbacks. These flashbacks provide deeper characterization and add extra layers of meaning and context to the plot, which is exactly what any good flashback scene should do. But we don't just get one or two flashbacks. We get a lot of them, for both Ellie and Abby, and it's only when we see these moments played out that we can fully understand the characters, their motivations, and the story itself.
In the game's present, we see Abby trying to navigate her friendship with Owen, a man she clearly has a long history with and was in a romantic relationship with at some point in the past. He's with another woman now, and he's about to be a father, and that has only made his and Abby's relationship more complicated. But it's not until we see them interact in flashbacks that we fully understand some of the nuances and complications in that relationship. Their first scene at the aquarium is especially impactful as we see what a strong hold Abby's desire for vengeance has on her. She can't let go of what Joel did, and it prevents her from engaging with those she loves and with life itself in any kind of healthy, positive way. This is similar to what Ellie experiences throughout the game, and it's interesting to see the parallels in their stories and the consequences their desire for vengeance has on those around them.
We also get several flashbacks of Joel and Ellie that take place at various points between the end of The Last of Us and the beginning of Part II. These were my favorite. At the end of the first game, there's a certain level of ambiguity about what Joel did and whether Ellie really understands what happened after he took her to the Fireflies. Rather than just allowing that to remain ambiguous, Part II really dives deep and examines the consequences of Joel's actions and what it means for his relationship with Ellie. There's a heavy emotional weight to all of these scenes, but it's the one at the very end of the game that has the most impact - to the point that it adds an additional layer of context that changes everything. Or at least, it did for me, and it's why I feel like I need to play the game again to fully appreciate it.
In this scene, we see Ellie stop by Joel's house for a heartfelt conversation after he intervenes to defend her at the dance. By now we know that this is the first real conversation they've had in a long time, and there are still lingering feelings of resentment on Ellie's part for the man who stole her opportunity to be more in this world. This is also the last conversation they have before he dies, which only makes his loss that much more painful. Before this scene, we're under the impression that Joel and Ellie were still on bad terms when he died. With the inclusion of this scene, however, we realize there was potential for forgiveness and healing, for them to reconcile and rebuild the bond we all connected with when we played the first game. Potential that was stolen before it could even get anywhere because the very next day, Joel is murdered.
For me, this shines a new light on everything that came before in the game. Ellie still hates Abby and wants revenge, yes, but it's deeper than that. I think there's a part of her that hates herself, that's angry with herself for the wasted potential, for letting this rift between her and Joel linger until it's suddenly too late to build a bridge across it because Joel is gone. By chasing vengeance and redirecting all of her energy into hating and punishing Abby and her friends, Ellie doesn't have to confront her own inner demons and the hatred and anger she has for herself. That's why she can't let it go. That's why she's willing to pursue vengeance at all costs, perhaps somehow believing it's the only thing that will heal the hurt and the self-loathing inside herself.
It's not until the end of the game when she finally has the upper hand on Abby that she's able to confront those feelings and realize what she's become, but by then, it's too late. She's a changed, broken woman who has destroyed countless lives, and her selfishness has killed, hurt, or driven away the people she cares about most. It's her worst fear realized. As she says to Sam in the first game, "I'm scared of ending up alone." Yet that's exactly where we find her by the end of Part II, and she has no one but herself to blame.
The Last of Us Part II isn't an easy game to play. It will make you feel all kinds of conflicting emotions, many of which aren't particularly fun to sit with. But it is a good game with a powerful story, and I like to think that behind all the pain, darkness, and death, there's a light to look for as well. I like to think that there is still some hope and some healing for Ellie and Abby, even in the grim, violent world they live in. I like to think that Abby and Lev found safety among the Fireflies. I like to hope that Ellie returned to Jackson and eventually reconciled with Dina, or at least was able to have a relationship with baby JJ. And I'd like to hope that in time, as people move past some of their knee-jerk negative reactions to this game, they'll be able to appreciate the story and the characters for what they are.