“If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment… I would do it all over again.” I know you would, Joel, but when it comes to The Last of Us, I’m not sure if I could.
I’m a huge fan of Naughty Dog’s games. The company itself, not so much – the culture of crunch can’t be ignored, and I think the company could produce even better games than it already does if devs were given more time rather than more work. Disclaimer aside, I love almost every game Naughty Dog has ever released, even if the older ones don’t hold up quite as well as I remembered. When it came out, I played The Last of Us Part 2 every day for a week. I streamed the whole thing, which was a mistake, because I cried a lot. Once the credits rolled, I put the controller down and haven’t returned to the game since. It’s been a year, and I’m not sure when I’ll play it again, if ever. I like the darker direction Naughty Dog has gone in over the last eight years, but The Last Of Us Part 2 might just be too dark. Big spoilers ahead.
Right off the bat – or club, should I say? – Joel gets brutally murdered right in front of Ellie’s eyes. Right in front of our eyes, too. His death was an absolute gut punch for me. I loved Joel. I know he’s a bastard who’s done unforgivable things, but I truly believe he did them out of love – love for his brother, love for those he was protecting, and, most importantly, love for Ellie. He’s a dad who would do absolutely anything to keep his surrogate daughter safe, even if it makes her hate him.
From there, the game becomes less of an emotional rollercoaster and more a log flume of misery. Everyone Ellie loves suffers because of her quest for revenge. Jesse catches a bullet to the face, Tommy gets a permanent leg injury, and Dina is forced to abandon Ellie, unable to continue watching her self-destruct. Even the single day of joy we see Ellie experience with Dina at the farm is marred by her trauma.
Even though Ellie eventually abandons her quest for revenge, there’s no joyous end to her story, no prospect of a brighter future like when her and Joel left the road to start anew with Tommy at the end of the original game. All that remains is blood, pain, and misery. She even loses some fingers so she can’t play guitar anymore, the last good thing that connected her to Joel. By the end, she’s alone, with just the grim silence of her empty house surrounding her, contrasting heavily with the sounds of laughter and music that used to fill the once happy home.
The Last of Us Part 2 demonstrates how pointless revenge is, not only by showing us Ellie ruining her life in order to wallow in her past, but by also allowing us to play as Abby for so long. We see her love, her pain, and her redemption. I loved Abby’s story, despite hating her initially. I think it was a bold decision to force us into her shoes for so long, but it really paid off for me. By playing through these women’s lives, I start to feel as they would. I feel all of their rage and hatred, but because I understand why they both seek revenge, I know it’s pointless. The Last Of Us Part 2 does a brilliant job of making the boss fights absolutely horrid encounters. Playing as Abby trying to kill Ellie is masterful because I don’t want to fight her. Despite her bitterness, I’ve known her since she was a goofball teenager. I cried throughout most of that fight, hating the thought of having to kill a character I loved.
When the tables turn and I fight Abby, it’s not some glorious spectacle. The once strong Abby is gaunt and hollow after being tortured half to death by sadistic slavers before Ellie can get to her. I fight her in the grey ocean, with dark clouds overhead, and the two limply slash and swing for each other. That last fight is sad – the two powerful women are both at the end of their tethers, barely alive. Had I played as Ellie in the first fight and Abby in the second, they’d be completely tonally different, but as they are, I never actually want to win the fight I’m in.
Games hit me hard. They’re by far the medium that elicits the strongest emotional response from me. Unlike with films, the interaction between myself and what’s happening on screen via the controller prevents me from protecting myself with any distance – I’m physically connected to a game in a way I’m not with a film or a painting. And even though I physically hold a book, I know I’m reading someone else’s words. A game may be someone else’s code, but I enable it by playing – I make the characters’ decisions my own, so it’s hard for me to put myself or characters I love through the same awful decisions again.
There’s a sad comfort in Joel’s words. He’s reassuring me that I made the right choice at the end of the first game. In a way, it’s us players who are the Lord Joel is referring to. Replaying The Last of Us given what I know about the sequel, and Abby, means I choose whether or not Joel gets to relive his past and save Ellie from the Fireflies again, damning himself, and her, in the process. Joel’s words are bittersweet, as he’s given me permission to ruin his life again. It’s what he wants, but I don’t think I could put Ellie through any more suffering. Maybe I’ll pick up the game on the two year anniversary, but for now, that disc is staying in its box.
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