WARNING: Spoilers for both the first and second The Last Of Us games.
When I first heard of the original The Last Of Us game, I had to admit it was intriguing. The first-ever video I watched about it was a YouTube review that gave it a ten-out-of-ten rating. From there, it slowly went from looking up the game's story, to buying the remastered game on Playstation 4, to playing through it myself. Now I'm usually a victim of overhyping; hearing how a certain game/film/etc. is “so good”, so much so that when I play/watch/etc. it and find that it doesn't match up to my all-too-perfect image of it, it doesn't feel as good by comparison. That being said though when I finished playing through the game and there's that famous scene where Ellie says “okay” and it cuts to black, I simply put down my controller, stood up and applauded my TV, knowing full well that I had just finished playing a masterpiece. I feel like all I can say about the first game is what is already known about the game; graphically it's gorgeous, story-wise it's unique and emotional, characters are complex and likeable, Gustavo Santaolalla's soundtrack is fabulous, the voice-work/acting is top-notch, essentially if you want a game that does everything amazingly you should play The Last Of Us (that being said, small nit-pick: I found the AI annoying at times). Leading onto 2016 when The Last Of Us Part II was announced, surprising and exciting everyone, it seemed like one of the only good things to happen in 2016 (it was a shit year, wasn't it?) and after three and a half years of waiting, we finally have it and, boy, do we have a lot to talk about.
Now it pains me to start things off like this when talking about The Last Of Us, but at times I struggled to vibe with it properly. I think it comes down to my play style. I think that mainly I'm a casual gamer, usually more interested in the game's story than a challenge, so it was disheartening when I started to play through levels that felt more difficult than the first games', as I finally had the game and just simply wanted to have fun. To be brutally honest if it weren't so difficult at times I'd probably be saying a few more nicer things about this game in the remainder of this article. Now, this isn't just me complaining about the difficulty, I have two friends, also fans, who I would message often while playing and they said they also found it tough. It also does have to be said that fans might feel a bit bummed out by the majority of the game taking place in one city whereas the first game had several locations as it was a road-trip story. The game's designers do make up for this by providing different kinds of levels that all look different and even some that look something unto themselves, like The Tunnels or Ground Zero, but it is still all set in one city (and the only other complaint I have is a nit-pick really; I just thought that the relationship between Ellie and Dina formed a bit too quickly for my taste but they are adorkable).
All that being said though, it wasn't until halfway through the game, where there is a switch in story perspective, that I fully fell in love with the game. In one level I instantly got an idea as to what the game was trying to say/go for and I loved it. It really does differentiate itself almost entirely from the first game; same world but different story structure, possible message, debatable-ness and emotional punch. What the game truly merits from is the duality between the two main playable characters Ellie Williams (which is apparently her last name, according to Japan), who was the fan-favourite secondary character of the first game and returns, now five years older, for a fully playable experience, and Abby Anderson, a new character who's also lost and gone through a lot, just like Ellie. After the reveal that Joel dies in the games first few hours at the hands of Abby and her friends (well done for the misleading marketing material leading us to believe it was Dina who dies), their paths become uniquely entwined, what with Ellie setting out on a revenge quest to kill Abby, while Abby is having her own character arc similar to the one had by the man she kills earlier in the game. And as the game goes on and more twists are revealed, you learn how their stories have been intertwined since the first game's finale. At the end of Abby's main campaign, you're left with two characters whose motives you both sympathize with and feel justified in their own right, two opposing forces of nature set to collide. Naughty Dog has always put a focus on making cinematic experiences when it comes to gaming, most notably with the Uncharted series, but The Last Of Us Part II feels like a thought-provoking intense thriller in a video game's skin; it is a brutal experience, in action, in emotion and bleakness, an unapologetic rollercoaster, and as this is happening the game gives you lots of topics to think about; I personally have a real affinity for stories that just make you think.
Staying on the topic of Naughty Dog in particular, they put a lot of time and effort into the making of this game, it being their largest and most ambitious and expensive project yet, and it most definitely shows. There is incredible attention to detail throughout; even the emotions in certain scenes, with the smallest of details, can be interpreted in different ways. To give an example, we'll use the first scene seen between Ellie and Joel, set four years before the game's main events. Fun fact about this scene; it was originally a scene from the One Night Live event, where the game's actors acted out scenes from the game live, that wasn't included in the original live-stream, serving as a segway between the first and second games, though with a few changes. To my knowledge, no video footage exists online of this scene but there are some pictures and a written description on the The Last Of Us fandom wiki. In the game, their exchange feels a little awkward, giving a hint to how Ellie is still a bit suspect to what Joel told her about the Fireflies. Joel then proceeds to play and sing “Future Days” by Pearl Jam, a song about thoughts/feelings and morality concerning the death of a friend - a hint of what's to come, to her (Ellie requested he sing something to her in the first game), which comes off as a somewhat desperate attempt to maintain the father-daughter relationship they have while also being just adorable, but the exchange ends on a positive note, showing that there is still love between the two. Another small example is how after being saved by Joel and Tommy, Abby stares at Joel after hearing his name, which tells the audience that there is immediately something up with her. There is just so much detail in the game and a very small part of that might be unnecessary, but when you take out enemy characters and learn that each of them has an actual name, it makes the world feel lived-in, with actual characters, not just mindless NPCs, and when loved characters are killed off in the story with little time to mourn them you know that the developers aren't holding back.
Another aim of Naughty Dog with this game was to make it more mature, which they were successful with; there is a little bit of nudity (about three scenes of it, with one weird-to-watch sex scene), drug use and a lot more violence. The dialogue also takes on a nice little upgrade. Now the writing for the first game was great, nicely written and suited to the characters without trying to sound “too Hollywood”, but this time around, with help from new narrative lead Halley Gross (who's previously written for the HBO hit series Westworld), the game not only carries on that but also takes on a new symbolic approach, one which I'll go more into detail shortly. The acting and voice-work is still as great as it was in the last game, with a total of five actors returning to play their prior roles, including Troy Baker, my personal favourite voice actor, and BAFTA Award-winning actress Ashley Johnson. They are joined by some great additions, including Laura Bailey, who plays the game's second main character and gives what might be her best performance ever, Ashley Birch, an actress I've learned more about over the past year and whose casting I didn't know of at first and was nicely surprised by, and Jeffrey Wright?! (I didn't know he was in the game until I looked it up after I had finished playing it) And finally, worry not, everything I've yet to mention has been shown the equal amount of attention that Naughty Dog gave before. The variety of levels and the designs of them is still enjoyable and intelligently thought out. To give an example, you have to use audio clues in Infected levels to work out what kind of Infected you have to deal with, runners make human-esque groans, clickers click, etc., and there are still those simple puzzle levels that you have to work around. The soundtrack is still equally as gorgeous too, and according to Spotify, it has fewer people other than Gustavo Santaolalla working on it than the first game had, making it a soundtrack he probably had more control over. What The Last Of Us Part II is is a game that is different to the first in several ways, which might annoy some fans (I mean I *might* prefer the first game myself) but what they do instead is what makes it what it is, it's themes are gonna be discussed, it's unapologetic nature is gonna break your heart and the amount of time and effort that's gone into this game is gonna show. It's a game that is just as much of a masterpiece as the original was.
Now there is another reason I'm writing this article and why I've not been explaining what I think this game's message is. It's because I want to give it its own section. At a panel at Playstation Experience 2016 when talking about the just-announced The Last Of Us Part II, Neil Druckmann, the games director and co-writer, said “if the first game was really like, the core of it, the theme was the love between these two characters and how we build that through story, music, interaction, gameplay, mechanics, this story is the counter of that. This story is about hate, and how we use all those same things to make the player feel that...”, which are words he's gone back on since, as said in the Spoilercast episode he, Troy and Ashley guested on. But for now, let's run with that; the game's theme is “Hate”. How so? Well, the game has a lot of examples about our relationship with that emotion, how we deny it, how it affects us and how it distracts us. Throughout the start of the game, knowing that you might think that Ellie's on a revenge quest against the evil murderous Washington Liberation Front/WLF, or Wolves as they're most known as, and along the way you might see how Ellie's hatred is leading to a never-ending murderous rampage, killing lived-in characters as she goes but it isn't until the story both skips back to a few days ago and switches perspective from Ellie to Abby that you learn that the Wolves... are not evil. They have a community, they have relationships, there have people they need to take care of and they even have children with them (when I saw that I was shocked, it's a small moment but damn). They might be more militaristic and at war with the cult-like Seraphites, or “Scars”, but at the end of the day the Wolves are just as human as Ellie's, Joel's, Dina's, Tommy's and Jesse's home community in Wyoming. Our previous hatred for them was wrongly placed, and if I'm being honest, apart from a few obvious antagonists, I'd say there are no villains in this game, only complex characters who are good people but have done/do bad things. It's important to remember there's a difference between bad people and bad actions.
Now from here the only way I can structure this is to list the several standalone examples in the game that describe what hate can do to us...
Hate as justice - Ellie's revenge mission is fuelled by hate, but she seems to perceive it as a sense of justice against a group of murderers (“So they just get to get away with this?”, a line Ellie says, could therefore be interpreted different ways), just like Abby does against the Scars. Such flawed perceptions 'cause several deaths of those who had friends, families, etc. along the way, an enhancing of Ellie's trauma and guilt and Abby's love triangle problems, and a drop in morality, whereas the heroes who we've been introduced to slowly turn into actually kinda villainous characters. Hell, we finish Abby's campaign by actually fighting Ellie as her final boss (when playing this level I literally paused the game and said out loud “I don't want to fight her, I don't want to fight her”), and the level where you have to make your way up to Tommy, who's sniping, depicts him in a villainous light too, even killing Manny, a charismatic character who we got to know when Abby's level began. It's amazing how far some people go when their hate deludes them into thinking that they're in the right.
Owen and Mel - The scene where Ellie confronts Owen and Mel has two examples, the first being how Ellie tries to employ an interrogation tactic used by Joel and Tommy, showing how she's trying to be like them. Now, this could be for several reasons, but one of the said reasons might be because Ellie *is* aware of what her hatred is doing to her and is trying to dissociate it by inhabiting the characteristics of someone else. The second example is the fallout, where Ellie's interrogation attempt fails and Owen and Mel both end up dead, the latter revealing to have been pregnant. It is a shocking moment that finally (partially) convinces Ellie to head back to Jackson, as she finally starts to realise what her hatred is doing to her. I would say the message of this scene is to stop hating before it's too late, just take a second and have an honest look at yourself.
A piece of shit - The scene where Mel breaks her friendship with Abby and calls her a piece of shit is one I don't personally understand, mainly because I don't understand what Mel is getting at and how it comes out of nowhere. The best I can work out is that Mel doesn't buy that Abby has changed or she's sticking fast to the whole “Wolves vs. Scars” mindset. Her underlying hatred of Abby or her hatred towards the Scars makes her close-minded to the idea that people can change.
Screw you, Isaac - Isaac, the leader of the Wolves, completely dehumanises scars, as shown in his and Yara's death scene, where beforehand he refers to Lev as “that” (he's transgender, dude, he prefers he/him pronouns). It is a partially outlandish thing to do but one still fuelled by hate.
What happened to the Seraphites? - The actual events that lead up to the origins of the Seraphites are mainly unanswered, apart from a few lines of dialogue and items you find around Seattle. I can't remember if it was Lev or Yara who said it, but it is said at some point that the Seraphites' founding prophet's teachings/writings were corrupted by the Seraphite elders who were at odds with the Wolves at the time to form the modern-day violent version of the Seraphites. Another example as to how letting hate fuel all your life choices effects those around you. A smaller second example is earlier in the game where Ellie decides to continue heading on to Abby despite hearing that the Wolves are being attacked by a mysterious sniper, who might be Tommy, leading her and Jesse to go their separate ways.
The ending - This game's ending I felt was a bit unnecessarily drawn out and maybe should have been a light level with quick-time events and little to no stealth aspects, but it is in this ending where Ellie makes her largest mistake. After a year since they left Seattle, Ellie is now living on a paradisical farm with her girlfriend Dina, and her child, but after given a lead by a now guilty and bitter Tommy and still haunted by PTSD she leaves Dina to find Abby, despite Dina's pleas. Now you could argue that Ellie's claims of not being able to eat and sleep and her PTSD are to blame for her decision but you could also argue that she could receive actual help back at Jackson, meaning that Ellie's gone back to her hateful ways at the first sign of temptation. The trip finally leads her to face-off against a now tortured Abby, who bites off two of Ellie's fingers as they fight. The fight almost ends with Ellie drowning Abby but she decides to let her go (and I want to say I enjoy how this scene mirrors the last game's finale; the unconscious Lev is the unconscious Ellie, Abby is Joel and Ellie is the Fireflies that tried to stop him, meaning that Ellie letting Abby go is also symbolically her forgiving Joel and understanding his choice). Having made that choice to move on so to speak, she returns to her and Dina's farm to find it empty. Ellie is yet again placed on the other side of a hate-fuelled decision and this time it's final; she's lost her home, her girlfriend, her surrogate child, her surrogate uncle (probably, and you can't blame him for being angry at Ellie; because of Seattle he lost his eye, his ability to walk properly and now he's broken up with his wife), still probably suffers from PTSD and because of her physical deformity she can't even play the guitar now to remember her late surrogate father who she never got the opportunity to properly make up with because of her prior hatred. This kind of leads back into one of my prior points about taking a good look at yourself before it's too late, but it's important to note that there will be those who can help you as long as you don't push them away.
It's amazing how many fans of Naughty Dog have missed the point. With the games focus on telling a mature emotional story, several decisions were taken that have upset several fans of the first game, mainly story decisions like killing Joel off early in the story and having you play as his killer for half of the game being the main source of online anger (guess what, guys, if I'm being honest, I preferred playing as Abby more than Ellie – this'd be where I'd be using one of those emojis with the tongue sticking out). This is my opinion but I just wanna say... come on, guys, seriously!? Now, yes, sure, you're allowed to be upset, we all played as Joel in the first game and a little bit in the opening scene of this game, we all like the guy, but what happened to him was a tragedy that was used to provide the right kind of emotional fuel for Ellie, to therefore provide the best and most provoking story possible (would it really feel the same if someone like Dina or Tommy, who wasn't there when Ellie went through what she went through, like Joel was, was killed off?). Just 'cause he was killed off doesn't mean that he wasn't loved any less by the creative team and actors, and it definitely doesn't deserve the response of death threats to the actors and anti-Semitic remarks to Neil Druckmann, they're people too, dammit. It is all actually quite ironic because the online hate comes off as a roundabout/backwards way to make the game seem better, as it just comes off as another example similar to the ones I've just listed. Simply put; like Ellie, the death of Joel caused them all to react inhumanly. Wow, what a powerful game it must be to have its emotional points vindicated because of online hate. Hell, maybe by that logic we can assume the added difficulty was intentional, to instil hate in me, the player (that sounds like I might be joking, I'm not, call it a very small and silly conspiracy theory).
You know, when I was playing through the game I started to theorise about how the game would end, thinking it would end with some massive close-knuckled fight between Ellie and Abby, trading blows of both the physical and verbal kind, leading up to Abby saying out loud “Joel killed my father!”, to which Ellie would respond by dramatically declaring “well, you killed mine!”, leading them both to stop, take a second, seem to understand each other's perspectives and, while they'd never be forgiven in the others' eyes, just simply walk away, but thanks to the game being as bleak as it is, we never got that and their motives are never known to the other. That leads me to one of the main reasons I wanted to write this. This might seem to be coming out of left field but if you stick with me I'm sure you'll understand where I'm coming from. The Last Of Us Part II came out at a time that's strangely similar to the game's world, as our world is currently suffering from our very own virus outbreak, if not as bad as the Cordyceps virus. But that is second however to the game's message about hate. With everything that's happened as a result of the worldwide lockdown(s) and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, leading to the Black Lives Matter movements/protests and the exposure of institutionalised racism, it does seem that we're all at each other's throats, for the most stupid of reasons, might I add. Like most of you, I would like to hope that this is all cleared up by the time the next generation is our age(s); our ways of lives, our religions, etc. might all be different but so is every individual and there is still so much room for compassion if we all just let it in. There's a conversation had in the game between the characters Abby and Owen in a flashback scene that I think sums up my point well...
Abby: I just don't understand how anybody willingly joins the Scars.
Owen: Why not?
A: Because they're an insane cult. That's why.
O: In the QZs people would refer to the Fireflies as terrorists. Fanatics.
A: Don't say shit like that at the stadium, okay?
This conversation highlights three facts; how we are quick to assume, how we *can* be open-minded to the idea that our collective ways of life aren't that different and sadly how quick we are to dismiss it. Using the examples of the Wolves and Scars you can see the cost of such rivalry. Now, yes, you might think that Scars, a metaphor for organised religion, might be a very un-relatable group, which is true, but in Abby's final level you see for yourself the carnage caused by a constantly hostile rivalry; people dying and houses burning, both sides share a responsibility in this instance. I mean there was even a truce between the two groups and I don't know how it was broken but can it really be that difficult to have a better go? Both Ellie and Abby show that they can look past all that; Ellie is able to look past her hate for Joel to try to forgive him before the game's events and Abby bonds and creates a brother-sister relationship with a Scar, someone who she'd normally be at odds with, and chooses him over being a Wolf. To go back to something I briefly mentioned earlier on, Neil Druckmann has said he's gone back on his original statement as to The Last Of Us Part II being about hate and that it's about love just like the first game was, or rather the second game is about how it could lead you down a different path and what bad things are done in the name of love, i.e. doing hateful actions to protect those you love. Maybe in a big-picture sense, there is a fine line between love and hate? Just something to think about when it comes to other people's motivations.
It starts with one person, like how at the end of Abby's campaign she's ready to kill Dina, knowing full well that she's pregnant (maximum hate) and stops only when Lev asks her not to; we need to set a better example to our young and those around us, like a big-ol' domino effect. There are most likely those out there who agree with what I'm saying and wish for a less hate-filled future, those who campaign for it, those who talk about how it should be constantly, and if you do, great, this part of this article isn't for you then. It's for those with prejudiced hate put in their hearts throughout flawed teachings and misguided motivations (who definitely share most of the blame, don't worry), those who do campaign for a change but do it the wrong way, by rioting/using physical violence, and those who stand on the sidelines. To quote something my friend said when we were talking about this game, “hate is a bastard”, so why let it ruin lives?
In summary, The Last Of Us Part II has come out at a time we need it. Technically it is as much of a masterpiece as the first game was, and I feel that it's emotional points now touch on something larger than just a game. Some of the examples I've detailed, yeah, sure, they're outlandish at times and could be interpreted in a completely different way (leaving the majority of this article as pointless dribble, great(!)) but my personal interpretations aren't without a point, I feel; something we all ought to be talking about. Until a game comes out showing how our government can be improved I feel very sure about saying that this is the most important game of the year so far. Now we gotta hope that the The Last Of Us HBO series is something worth waiting for, Neil Druckmann and Gustavo Santaolalla who worked on the games are attached to it, and I just hope they stick to a grounded post-apocalyptic story and don't go full Westworld, with philosophical messages, unreliable narrators and heavily non-linear storytelling. Only time will tell. Now if you don't mind me, I've realised how I've yet to read through American Dreams and need to see how much the graphic novel costs...