I felt many emotions after finishing The Last of Us Part II a couple of weeks ago. Chief among them, accomplishment, for having beat the game before my husband 😈 But less petty than that: disgust, despair, dissonance. TLOU2 was overall a gruesomely violent game that, at various points, became too heart-wrenching to continue. I had dreams about this game because the violent and apocalyptic imagery were so vivid. Love it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a fantastical beast of a game. I think any gamer should play it at least once, because that’s really all you’ll need once the story is done.
Visually, the game is very pleasing to navigate through. The spattered blood, the freckles, and the dirt on Ellie’s beat-up Converse sneakers show an impressive level of detail. The lush greenery and architecture in both the Seattle and California portions of the game were almost romantic until you saw a clicker enter the frame. Despite the game having a linear structure for a majority of the game, the parts where you could explore to scavenge crafting supplies were some of the most satisfying.
What’s more, the story is such that the game was very hard for me to put down as I played it. I kept wanting the story to unfold to get to the inevitable meeting between Abby and Ellie. (I should have been more careful for what I wished for.) Although it could be argued that the flashbacks took too much time away from the main story, I felt that they were necessary to provide the emotional backstory that both protagonists (antagonists?) were pulling from. That the men they lost were human beings that both women had complex relationships with.
Interconnected relationships were also the driving force between most of the present-day parts of the story. We are introduced to the new life Ellie has made in the Jackson settlement with Dina and Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse; and later we are introduced to Abby’s WLF community including her friend Manny, her former lover Owen, and his new girlfriend Mel. With both Mel and Dina being pregnant (Mel visibly so by her death), it is clear the writers were seeking to create some synchronicity between Abby and Ellie’s inner circle. What’s more, both women had companions for a short time in the game that were men of color — Jesse was Asian, and Manny was Latino. I pointed this mirroring out to my husband as we played, and joked that Manny would probably die like Jesse did once I began Abby’s portion of the game. I was half-joking, and still ended up being correct. Sigh.
Which leads me to representation of marginalized characters in the game. Firstly, it is a remarkable feat that such a widely beloved franchise would choose to have not one, but two female leads for the entirety of the game. Indeed, I believe that part of many (male) fans’ issues with this game are, at their core, that we had to care about Abby, the woman that killed the male protagonist they felt was the star of the series. Further, it could be said that fanboys’ adoration for Ellie simply stems from the fact of her relationship with a man that they had invested in. If Ellie had no connection to Joel, and the first game was centered solely on her (with a different story of course), I don’t think the first installment of the series would have been as popular. Especially considering Ellie is queer.
Even still, Ellie having sex with another woman in this game is a big deal. And the writers didn’t stop there, either. Lev, a character we meet in Abby’s part of the game, is revealed to be transgender. Assigned female at birth, Lev shaved his head as part of his transition, and was thus the target of visceral hatred from his people, the Seraphites (or Scars, as they are pejoratively referred to by outsiders for the identifying scars on their faces). I loved how Lev’s transness was revealed and not once questioned by Abby; instead, Abby seeks to protect Lev more and more as the game progresses.
As for other marginalized characters, there were a handful of people of color in this game. There was Isaac, the head of the WLF, who served as the real evil behind the organization’s violence toward the Seraphites. Jesse, of course, the mild-mannered Asian man who was Dina’s baby’s father. Manny, the humorous pal that was Abby’s right hand in missions. There was Nora, the Black woman who served as WLF’s resident medic. She lead Abby to medical supplies at the hospital, and was ferociously chased and questioned by Ellie. And lastly, Yara and Lev, who were Asian. Yara was tortured to the point of needing her arm amputated, and Abby risked her own safety to get the surgical supplies Mel needed to sever Yara’s arm safely.
All of these characters, with the exception of Lev, were killed. By Abby, Ellie, or in the shuffle of the conflicts these two started. And Lev really only lived to be part of Abby’s redemption story, an obvious foil to the Joel/Ellie dynamic in the first game.
We can recognize that TLOU2 should be championed for its queer and female representations and that it lacks in equitable treatment toward its characters of color. All of these characters were violently killed for no other reason than they were in Ellie or Abby’s line of fire. I mean, Ellie clubbed Nora to death. Inclusion should not be the finish line in video games, or any form of media frankly. To simply include more characters of color and give them actual roles in the story only to kill them in the end anyway is not progress because it essentially negates the inclusion. Even more than that, a sizable number of casual kills throughout the game are those of non-white people. How is that supposed to make Asian, Latinx, Black, and Indigenous people feel when they play this game? Are we supposed to feel nothing because the game developers didn’t? If BIPOC characters are ultimately seen as disposable parts in white stories — even if those stories are female and/or queer — then their inclusion does more harm than good. It is almost as if white developers are saying “We included you, so you can’t be mad at us when we kill you” when they do this. This factor is the only thing keeping me from giving this game a 10/10.
But for better or worse, this game was intrinsically about the dichotomy of violent motivations for Ellie and Abby respectively. The game’s story was told so well and so poignantly that it almost makes up for the fact that every character on the protagonists’ periphery felt shallow in comparison. (Almost.) Of the two, I preferred playing as Abby. Justice for Abby! The subject of much internet vitriol, Abby, love her or hate her, made the game more compelling. I felt that Abby had better weapons, crafting items, and enemies than were present during Ellie’s gameplay. Put simply, the game became noticeably more difficult while playing as Abby; even the infected enemies got worse. When playing as Abby, there felt like there were more stakes in whether or not she survived. If Abby died, Lev and Yara’s fates would have likely been sealed; if Ellie died, she’d simply have been unable to avenge Joel’s death, and Dina would have been able to return to Jackson unscathed. Abby’s quest was defensive, while Ellie’s was offensive.
Indeed, this game could be visually represented by both characters making their way into a dark, desolate cave. Abby has been stuck in the darkness for far too long after being drawn in by disturbances, and after having done her evil deeds in this dark place, realizes she must find her way to the light. While Ellie has been drawn from the light to the darkness by Abby’s wrongdoing, and is becoming lost in the shadows. She can barely see anything in front of her eyes because she is blinded by the darkness.
By the end of the game, when Ellie threatens Abby into a final showdown, as a player we are meant to feel sorrow for both women as they fight. Near-death, Ellie and Abby in their own ways just wanted to be free of the violence that haunted their pasts. Abby wanting to escape into the light, and Ellie believing fully entering darkness — by killing Abby — will bring her peace. But the lesson for players of the game is that violence for violence never brings us that peace. It only creates more violence. The WLF against the Seraphites, Abby against Ellie. Humans killing other humans…for what reason? What does it solve?
Abby existed as a cautionary tale for players about the misconception that an eye for eye will help one see clearly. As the gameplay portrayed, even after Abby killed Joel, she still had nightmares about her own father’s death. No resolution was achieved for Abby by offing Joel; her own tranquility of mind only came after she began to save others from their own demise. And, once she began to realize that perceived differences of the Other, those being the Scars, had been distorted by her own people seeking to simply destroy an enemy settlement. Only then, did her nightmares become visitation dreams where her father could let her know he was proud of her. In the process of learning this, though, Abby lost everything.
Ellie, too, lost everything in her fantasies of revenge. Just like Abby did at the beginning of the game, Ellie left her home defiantly to chase after revenge. And this singular choice, for both of them, cost them everyone they loved, as well as their own safety at numerous points in their respective quests. For Ellie, it was remembering Joel’s unconditional love for her that gave her the calmness to proceed with her life, even after having lost it all, including him. The only thing more powerful than her desire for vengeance was Joel’s love for her.
The Last of Us Part II may be one of the most polarizing games in history. And that is its magic. This game demands your attention and emotional investment, so much so that you may actually have a hangover after finishing it. A good piece of media is one where fans can argue and disagree and discuss its layered meanings. And the years of development put into this game by Naughty Dog proves that the ensuing discourse was every bit their intention. If there is one thing that fans and critics of the game can agree upon, it is that the real revolution is putting violence to bed. Using violence as a coping mechanism for trauma causes you to remain fixed in cycles of reliving your life’s little deaths, making you the ghost of the life you could have lived without them. Yet acting upon those anguished impulses won’t undo the harm from the past. There is no peace that can come from creating our own suffering; the only way to thrive is to wake up every day and choose life, rather than survival.