The Last of Us 2. That’s a big topic when you really start to break it down and over the past few months – since a series of leaks dropped, spoiling some big points in the story – the game has received a lot of mixed responses. Now that the review embargo is completely gone, I wanted to take a moment and write out all my thoughts. This article contains a load of spoilers for the game, so if you haven’t played it yet, or if you don’t want anything about it spoiled, then I highly suggest leaving before we go any further. This is your only warning.
Before we go too much further, though, I want to say that I am a big fan of the game. I really enjoyed the story, and while I’ll never think of it as a perfect game, I think that Naughty Dog did an exceptional job with the entire package. Are there things I don’t like? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that they were necessarily bad decisions. At the end of the day, this was Naughty Dog’s story to tell, and they told it the way that they wanted to.
The reviews didn’t warn me about this…
The first thing on our docket today is reviews. For anyone that read reviews for The Last of Us Part 2, you’ll probably notice that most of them were very, very vague, including our own review here on Shacknews. That’s for a number of reasons.
First, reviewers don’t really want to spoil the story for the readers. We’re here to give our opinion on things, but we also want to be respectful of those who don’t get the opportunity to play games early like we do. For me, personally, I’ve never cared about spoilers, but I know a lot of people out there do. That’s why I usually try to focus my reviews on how the game is, how it plays, and whether or not I think people will like it, all without going too in-depth on the story itself.
The second reason that reviews were so vague is because Sony gave us some of the most insane embargo rules to follow that I have ever seen in the five plus years I’ve been doing this. We were unable to talk about playable characters other than Ellie, we were unable to talk about the big inciting incident. Together this pretty much locked us out of talking about the entire second half of the game. So, because of those embargo rules, most reviews don’t even cover half of the game and talk about the problems or things that people liked about that section of the game.
There was a lot I wanted to say in my review for The Last of Us Part 2 and I struggled a lot to write down my original thoughts while still working around the embargo. Unfortunately, up until the game’s official release, Sony kept things under wrap to “protect the fans”. This might seem like they were trying to silence people because the game is bad, but ultimately, I think the company had good intentions when they set the embargo rules. Thanks to all the leaks that had dropped weeks before release, many fans were already readying their pitchforks and torches, and Sony was just trying to keep things under control. Of course, none of that matters anymore, because the game is out and we can all talk about whatever we want to talk about.
Let’s talk about that inciting incident
Alright, now that the warnings are out of the way, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, and one of the biggest points of controversy in The Last of Us Part 2: Joel’s death.
This is a huge point of contention for a lot of people, and many people feel that Joel was given a rough death – a death that he didn’t deserve. It’s definitely your right to have that opinion, and I won’t argue that point with you. I said it in my review, and I’ve said it since the game came out. The Last of Us Part 2 is not for everyone. Even if you’re a fan of the original, it doesn’t mean you’re going to like this. Naughty Dog made a lot of bold decisions during development, and you aren’t going to like them all. That’s fine. But, I do like them and here’s why.
“Joel didn’t deserve to die like that.” I can understand why people feel this way, but I also disagree. For me, I think that Joel’s death is a clear indicator of him getting “what he was owed”. Joel was not a good person. That was made very clear to us in the first game. Yes, he agreed to take Ellie to the Fireflies, but it wasn’t because he was a good person. It was because he wanted his guns back, and because Marlene offered to double the money that they would have made on the original deal.
Yes, it’s true that Joel changed over the course of the first game, becoming very attached to Ellie. However, that doesn’t excuse the countless horrible things that he has done over the years, nor does it excuse the killing of all the Fireflies that he encountered at the hospital.
“But there wasn’t really a cure.” This is another comment I’ve seen going around, as if it should somehow explain and excuse the fact that Joel literally murders dozens of people to get Ellie out of Saint Mary’s. Yes, the cure might have all been make believe. There might not be a way to save humanity from it. But that still doesn’t give Joel the right to take that choice away from Ellie. She was more than willing to sacrifice herself for a chance to save humanity. Joel was too selfish to respect her decisions.
For me, Joel’s death was brutal. It was anticlimactic in that it wasn’t some big send off of sacrificial offering to save Ellie. Instead, it was a betrayal. He’d grown complacent in his time at Jackson. He’d become too trusting. His heart had softened because of his bond with Ellie, and he paid the ultimate price for it. You might not feel this way about the scene, or even feel this way about Joel, but that’s the beauty of games and stories. We’re all allowed to interpret things in our own ways.
Why do I have to play as Joel’s killer?
You know what, that’s a valid question. Naughty Dog took a huge turn in the second half of the game, twisting the narrative so that players have to experience things from Abby’s point of view. But why would they do something like this? Why would the developer’s make us play as this character that we clearly hate and want to kill? The answer is quite simple: Perspective.
By making fans play as Abby and experience the story from her perspective, Naughty Dog is able to create a unique timeline for the story. Things that might not make sense when you play through the three days as Ellie will slowly unravel and begin to become clear over the course of the last half of the game. It’s a great way to bring the story to a head and really showcase everything that fans need to know about the story that they are setting out to tell.
I understand that some people might be angry by this development, and that some people will refuse to like Abby at all. That’s perfectly fine. I don’t like Abby. I think she’s a huge piece of human garbage that made some terrible decisions for terrible reasons. So did Ellie. Ellie chose to go after these people. To kill them one by one. She chose to torture Nora to get information. She chose to kill Mel and Owen, people that she would have tortured to get info on Abby if given the chance. She chose to give in to that darkness within her – the darkness that Joel showed her when he decided to kill all the Fireflies trying to take her from him at Saint Mary’s.
That’s part of what makes The Last of Us Part 2 so good to me. The story isn’t about good versus evil. It’s about two people who are very much the same. Motivated to do absolutely terrible things for the same reason without any thought to the cost it might bring them. It’s easy to dismiss that and see Ellie as the good guy and Abby as the bad guy, but ultimately, they are the same. They are human. They are flawed and they are both broken by their loss.
I’ve also seen some talk about how the writers paint Abby to be this good person by having her play with the dogs, and help the trans character, and all that. I don’t think this was done as a way to cheaply make people like Abby. I don’t believe that the writers were trying to make me like the character at all, because if they were, they did a terrible job of it. Abby doesn’t choose to help Lev because she is a good person. She chooses to help Lev because she feels guilty. There’s a huge difference there. Yes, she chooses to help Lev and she ultimately turns her back on the WLF and Isaac. But she’s still a terrible person at her core – which is very evident when she finds some sick pleasure at the thought of killing Dina after she finds out she is pregnant. It’s Lev’s plea that stops her. Lev is the good person here, not Abby.
But they could have killed someone else…
Going back to Joel’s death scene, I want to discuss why I think it’s important that the writers chose to go with Joel’s death over someone else – say Dina or another character that Ellie had grown attached to. I believe that the reason that they went for Joel’s death as the inciting incident is it’s really the only thing that would make Ellie do the things that she decides to do. You can't see it in a still image, but the picture above is actually taken from a short clip after Ellie runs into Nora and kills her. We later learn that she tortured Nora to get information about Abby's location, and it's very clear from the way her hand is shaking that she's struggling to come to terms with the death and devastation she has left in her wake.
Going back to The Last of Us, when we were first introduced to Ellie, she wasn’t the hardcore killer that she is now. Yes, she had done things she didn’t want to do, but the first time she killed a man she did it to save Joel. She talks about this early on with Dina in Part 2, and I think it’s an important conversation to explain why Joel had to die for her to become what she became.
On top of how much Joel means to Ellie, there really isn’t any other character that would help drive the player to feel for Ellie the way that Joel’s death does. I’m just as sad as anyone else that we don’t get to see more of Joel than we do, but I think that making the story without his death being the inciting incident would have robbed the story of its impact. This impact is what makes the decisions that Ellie makes so important. She decides to go after them. She decides to kill people, to torture them, and she makes that decision because she lost the one person in the world that meant everything to her.
You couldn’t accomplish that same kind of raw emotion by killing off a love interest or a close friend. It had to be Joel.
The Last of Us didn’t need a sequel…
You’re right. You are absolutely right. Naughty Dog’s original story ended in a great place. It left us with questions and dilemmas. It left us wondering what would happen to these characters that we had become so attached to. The Last of Us Part 2 never needed to happen, but I’m glad that it did.
While it might not be your cup of tea, for me, The Last of Us Part 2 told a fantastic follow-up to one of my favorite games of all time. It took the characters that I loved and it expanded upon them in a fantastic way. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to feel this way, and I’m not going to berate anyone for disliking the game. There are times where games just aren’t for some people, and that’s perfectly fine.
For me, The Last of Us Part 2 was a huge success. It expanded upon the brutal world that I grew to love in The Last of Us and it explored a darker side of one of my favorite characters in video games. I got to watch Ellie break and struggle with the decisions she felt she had to make. I got to watch how those decisions destroyed her, destroyed the life she had built for herself, and ultimately helped change her. Yes, there are things about it that I wish could have been different. The game did drone on for a bit long at times, and I wish we had more time with Joel to really build on how much he and Ellie’s relationship had grown since the first game.
Still, I’m not upset with what we got. I’m happy that we at least got to see more of these characters, even if everything didn’t play out the way that I would have wanted it to, but that’s just how stories go sometimes. We don’t always have to like where it ends up, but that doesn’t mean that the journey wasn’t worth experiencing.
Josh Hawkins posted a new article, The Last of Us didn't need a sequel, but I'm glad we got one