Your enjoyment of The Last of Us Part 2 hinges on one thing—your ability to empathize with the enemy.
This isn’t a new trope in narratives. Movies like Heat and books by Stephen King have been offering people dual narrative formats for a long time. Following both a hero and a villain isn’t a novel idea, but playing as both a hero and a villain in a video game. That was pretty novel. Not only was it novel that you play as enemies, but the game actively tried to make you empathize with the enemy’s mission.
The Last Of Us Walked
The first Last of Us game put you in the shoes of Joel Miller. Joel is a rough 20-year veteran of a war being waged against zombie-like mushroom enemies. He instantly became a loved member of the PlayStation family. His demeanor and loose morals made him a perfect anti-hero, and The Last of Us was lauded as a major leap forward in video game narratives.
The game’s sequel rewards fans’ love for this character by brutally murdering him within the first hour. Joel doesn’t get a hero’s sendoff. He doesn’t die in a blaze of glory saving someone in distress. He gets tricked by an unknown character and has his head beat in with a golf club while those he loves are forced to watch.
So Part 2 Could Run
Naughty Dog always knew this was going to be a contentious plot point. They also knew the second part of the game, where you control Joel’s killer for roughly ten hours, was going to set even more people off. They chose this narrative, though, to push a broader theme. The first game was a game about love. The second is a game about hate.
If Naughty Dog can make you hate a character, and they do, but then make you empathize with them. If they can totally change your perspective on the villain, then they’ve accomplished their thematic goal.
Naughty Dogs Trick
The whole crux of The Last of Us Part 2 hinges on this simple trick that Naughty Dog tries to pull. The game makes you hate Abby, the character that kills Joel. And then, after hours of hate-fueled gameplay tracking her down, the game puts you in her shoes. The Last of Us Part 2 gives you Abby’s entire backstory. You learn her motivations for killing Joel. You learn about her friends and the colony she’s been living in. The game tries so hard to make you understand not just Abby’s motivations but who she is as a person. For some, this worked. For others, it didn’t.
Imagine if Super Mario 2 began with Bowser killing Mario, and you’re left to play the rest of the game as Luigi seeking vengeance. That would be a pretty bad game. Now imagine the game threw another curve ball, and halfway during the game, you had to play as Bowser hunting down Luigi. All the while being reminded of the castles Mario destroyed and the innocent goombas he had needlessly slaughtered. An even worse game.
The World Of The Last Of Us
Mario isn’t a perfect analogy for The Last of Us, mainly because the worlds each character inhabits are strikingly different. But it does give some context for why this decision was so controversial. Players connect with Mario because they’ve been playing as this hero for thirty years. We’ve spent hours in his overalls fighting goombas, and if Shigeru Miyamoto decided at some point, actually he’s a villain, we’d all be pretty upset. But that’s precisely what Naughty Dog did, only they did it in the first game.
The Last of Us Part 1 and its television counterpart ends on a pretty dire note. There is a lot of ambiguity and nuance to the ending, but the cliff notes version is that Joel murders some innocent doctors to save his surrogate daughter. His daughter figure, Ellie, is immune to the disease ravaging the world, and her brain may be the key to saving humanity. The Sophie’s Choice of it all is her brain is currently connected to her body, so saving the world means dooming this girl’s life. Joel was having none of it.
Death Was Inevitable
Much like Thanos, Joel dying in the second game was inevitable. We knew he did some pretty lousy stuff, and it was only a matter of time before he pissed off the wrong people, and they came looking for their pound of flesh. Abby was not inevitable.
When Naughty Dog announced that The Last of Us Part 2 was a game about hate and featured Ellie as the main protagonist, the writing was on the wall for Joel. Most fans assumed his death was going to play a crucial role in Ellie’s motivation, but they didn’t expect his death to be so unsatisfactory. Let alone did they expect that the game would then try to get you on his killer’s side.
Division Amongst Division
The Last of Us Part 2 had a long road towards making this narrative work. The road got even longer thanks to a pesky viral infection known as COVID-19. The timing of The Last of Us Parts 2 release is even more ironic than an Alanis Morisette song. It is a game about a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, released in the middle of a deadly pandemic. A game about brutal, intense violence was released while images of police brutality covered our television screens. It’s a game about bridging the division between enemies released at one of the most divisive times in American history.
The Last of Us Part was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. But the serendipity of this game’s release date is almost unfathomable. Part 2 was released in June 2020 to Republicans and Democrats, Police and protestors, mask-wearers, and anti-vaxxers. The game told you to slow down and think about your enemy’s motivations. Ponder why they hold different world views than you. Commiserate on what a situation looks like from a different lens. The American people were having none of it.
Narratives And Themes
The Last of Us Part 2 wasn’t just contentious for the trick it played on players or because of the time it was released. The narrative was also a bit of a mess. After you play as Abby for hours, you are finally put back into the shoes of Ellie to continue her quest for revenge. The game ends with Ellie reaching Abby, and after everything she’s done in the game, the countless number of people she’s killed, she lets Abby go. This ending makes no sense narratively. There is no conceivable plot point for Ellie to let Abby go. But it does work thematically.
The Last of Us Part 2 is at odds with itself thematically and narratively for the majority of the game. The story it’s telling is one of revenge and hate, but the theme it presents is one of understanding and forgiveness. If you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, maybe you can understand their choices. But understanding someone’s choices doesn’t mean those choices are virtuous.
Black And White And Gray
The world of the Last of Us, much like our own, isn’t a world of strictly gray areas. There are clear right and wrong choices made by people each day. Police brutality resulting in the murder of an unarmed civilian is wrong. Ignoring precautions during a deadly pandemic is wrong. And Abby killing Joel was wrong, regardless of her motivations.
Ellie letting Abby go at the end of Part 2 makes no sense, but that may also be the point of the game. The violence in Part 2 is just as pointless because it never comes to an end. If Ellie kills Abby, then Part 3 is just someone killing Ellie in retaliation. The only way to truly quell violence is to do something that doesn’t make any sense. Walk away.