If you haven’t beaten The Last of Us Part II, or want to watch it on your on time, don’t read ahead!
Today marks the day I have beaten The Last of Us Part II. It’s been only an hour, and I’ve found myself tossing and turning in my own skin after the ending. I spent a good portion of my morning playing, gasping “No, don’t!”, wincing, and ultimately, vigorously sobbing to the point that I had to put the controller down.
This isn’t a game for the weak hearted. This isn’t a game for the close-minded, or those who just want to “have fun playing another video game”. This isn’t a game about “beating the bad guys once and for all”.
This work of art is a gritty and painful statement about the downfall of humanity, the thralls of trauma and grief, driven by such potent violence, that sometimes, you just have to turn away.
Is this just another revenge story? No. It is so much more than that.
Let me dive a little deeper into the context of the story before I provide some analysis and deeper thoughts:
(Note, I do skip over chunks of the story, as I didn’t want to write an entire summary of the game – just enough to provide understanding of the stakes [with a main focus on Ellie, Joel and Abby]. If you’d like a full summary, I’d recommend reading this and then reading my analysis if you’d like.)
After the events of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie find themselves in a settlement called Jackson where they’ve made a life for themselves. They go on patrols to protect the town, have their own places to live, and build new relationships. The beginning of the game is a breath of fresh air, like seeing old friends, finally safe and sound. But the underlying chords of tension and darkness begin to loom within the first 30 minutes, as Ellie and her friend (later girlfriend) Dina are tasked to go on a patrol in an area where infected may be wandering.
At the same time, Joel and his brother Tommy are on a separate patrol, doing their rounds.
Dina attempts to humor Ellie as they go about their daily grind, but Ellie seems stoic and distant, especially when Joel is brought up.
And then, not even an hour into the game, you find yourself pinned to the ground by a militarized group called the WLF that massacres Joel right in front of your face. I would explain more of this part, but it’s too painful to write. Ellie escapes and spirals down a path of grief and rage.
Back in Jackson, she visits Joel’s grave, and sees his house is embellished with flowers, notes of sorrow from those in town who knew him. What she takes with her from his home is a guitar, a revolver, and his old broken watch that Sarah (his biological daughter) gave him…and then her one true goal arises: Seek revenge on the woman, Abby, who made the killing blow on Joel.
Her dark journey then begins, as she travel through lush landscapes and broken cities filled with infected and divided groups of people. A civil war rages between the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a rebel military group that overtook FEDRA (the government’s military) after the outbreak, and the Scars (or Seraphites) – a religious cult that decided to abandon the old ways of living that they believe caused the outbreak to occur.
Throughout Ellie’s travel, death is at every corner, caused by herself and many others seeking to find some sort of purpose in this broken world. But there are small, ephemeral moments of joy, where you flash back to the past and see Joel and Ellie together when she was still 14, providing you morsels of connection and story that expand beyond the first game. Joel taught Ellie how to play guitar, they went to an abandoned science museum for her birthday and pretended to fly in a space shuttle, and laughed together.
But ultimately in the last flashback, the truth was revealed – Joel lied about the Fireflies and the cure, and Ellie is devastated by the resentment she feels – their relationship is never the same again.
And then, the player finds themselves playing as Abby, the woman who killed Joel. At first, I was filled with disdain when I was forced to play this character. She was brute in stature and in personality and she massacred someone Ellie (and I) loved, so why would I care about her at all? At first, she just seemed to be another video game villain that I was meant to destroy. But that was not the case.
Through your travels as Abby, you begin to see her softness. You find yourself connecting with her friends (that are part of the WLF as well), and even play fetch with one of the attack dogs that Ellie fights and kills later on. You see Abby as a young girl, working with her father, the head surgeon who was part of the Fireflies – the same Fireflies that were going to perform the surgery on Ellie to create a vaccine and restore the world. Joel killed this same man and destroyed the chances for humanity to be restored.
In that, a double revenge story surfaces. One for the loss of a surrogate father, and one for the loss of a biological father, as well as a cure to so much suffering.
The surfacing of these two clashing journeys is massively moving and uncomfortable in my eyes. While I wanted to hate Abby, I grew to understand her and saw her help people she loved and even help people that were meant to be her enemies. Near the middle of the game, Abby separates from the WLF after saving two Seraphites siblings (the WLF’s enemies). She bonds with them over guilt, seeing that they were going to be left for dead by their own people because one of them is transgender – in soon time, they become family, and Abby risks her life for them multiple times. Her heart grows, maybe even larger than Ellie’s.
But Ellie soon accomplishes her goal to find Abby, and the two women fight each other violently – but, in the first round, Abby wins.
But she spares Ellie – Twice – once after killing Joel and later when Ellie finally finds her after traveling across the country. You physically have to beat the living shit out of Ellie as Abby, rightfully so, since Ellie killed all of her closest friends to get to her. But still Abby spares Ellie.
Ellie then has a chance once again at a normal life with Dina (her girlfriend) at a beautiful farm away from the chaos of civilization. But it is not enough. Ellie is crippled by PTSD and trauma, as she relives nightmares of Joel being murdered. So she decides to track Abby again, regardless of Dina’s pleas to stay. I remember physically yelling at the screen at this point, begging Ellie to stay myself – after experiencing over 3 days of pain, and killing, you only could hope she would see that the additional suffering is not worth it. But to her, it is – without ending it, she would continue living a voidless life filled with visions of Joel’s death, filled with sleepless nights and hopeless memories. Even Dina’s love isn’t enough. Any joy is sapped away.
After tracking Abby down once again in Santa Barbara, California, and finding her tied to a post on a beach by yet another cultish group, Ellie cuts her and her friend Lev (the Seraphite) down and Abby begins to carry a comatose Lev to the beach where escape boats are resting in the ocean. Ellie quietly follows.
And hence, the ending begins.
Ellie once again refuses to let Abby go and Abby pleas for her to give up this fight. But just one traumatic flash of Joel and a threat on Lev’s life throws Abby and Ellie together in a hopeless fight. Both of them have spent three days killing, scavenging, tending wounds, and watching their loved ones die. Both of them have lost friends and family, and are riddled with bruises, scars, and fresh cuts. The fight they are forced to have is feeble and sickly as each of them swing at each other while old wounds gush with fresh blood, and salt water fizzles at their ankles as they wade in the banks of the ocean.
In the end, Ellie prevails – she pins Abby underwater, ready to have her revenge, but a flash of Joel, alive and well with his guitar he taught her to play, comes to her mind – that moment she remembered was the moment she decided to work on forgiving Joel for lying to her about the Fireflies for so long. With that, she releases Abby, and tells her to leave. Abby gives her one weak look, hops in the boat where Lev is lying and rides off into the distance.
The last moments of the game show Ellie, back at the farm Dina and her child (a child that Ellie helped take care of) were living. The farm is packed up – all that is left is dust and Ellie’s things (artwork and old records) in her room. The guitar that Joel gave her when she was younger lays on the floor, and she picks it up. The player finds out quickly that Ellie has lost a few fingers on her journey back to the farm, and is no longer able to play the songs Joel taught her – her last connection to her surrogate father severed. She sets down the guitar after taking in the silence, leaves the farm, and walks off into the distant unknown.
The credits roll and sobbing ensues.
Why I adore this game, even though it hurt so much:
Our world is a grey place. It is a place filled with great amounts of love, but massive amounts of hatred. While we sit in our comfortable homes, people are in fact being hurt, traumatized, and killed in all different places around the world in this very moment. One divide of people demands that humanity’s honest truth is “A” while another divide swears that it is “B”. The blacks and the whites blend – the bad and the good blend, leaving us with what is the ultimate truth: Grey. This truth is deeply seen through Naughty Dog’s most ambitious and painful game yet.
The Last of Us Part II challenges the player in ways that require a high level of complex thought and contemplation to truly appreciate its brutal beauty. It is, by no means, an easy story to digest. I did not have “fun” playing this game. I did not feel like a hero. I did not feel invincible or just – I had many moments of yelling at the screen, saying “Why is this worth it? Why are we causing so much pain?” But as I continued, as I saw both sides of the coin (which Abby would appreciate), I began to realize this story was much bigger than Joel and Ellie’s story we experienced in the first game.
I know fans wanted to see Joel and Ellie together again throughout this game. I know they wanted to see Joel lift Ellie up after almost being grabbed by an infected. I know they wanted to see him drinking coffee with her and talking about comics and the ways of the cosmos.
Jesus guys, that’s what I wanted too! Do you know how badly I wanted to see these characters we love get the life they deserved? To see them age together and once again conquer challenges that no one else could conquer? Yes. Absolutely.
But this game isn’t just about Joel and Ellie. It’s a game that forces you to question all you know about good and bad in an apocalyptic world – but these ideas also relate to our world today.
Even with all the death, it is ultimately about finding empathy through a place of deep suffering.
Ellie from a young age was exposed to death – she was taught to shoot, to fight, and was survivor from the very beginning. She has a priceless life, one that could have saved millions of people if she was sacrificed to create a cure. But instead, after finding out that Joel lied to her and what her life could have meant, she lives in a state of constant suffering and regret. Even while settling in a “safe” place, can you image how many sleepless nights you’d have, thinking about how the whole world would be a better place if you gave up your own life, but you didn’t even have the choice? Could you imagine waiting for an infected person to break in and kill you at any moment?
While Ellie’s dismissal of the lives of others can be both painful and sometimes excessive, I understand it.
Ellie, in her mind, was meant to die for something greater. She should have been dead a long time ago, so for her, going on a mission to save the one person who meant anything to her came easily. Without a second beat, she decides to tackle this suicide mission, and frankly, only fears dying because it will mean she failed her goal of killing Abby. She disregards her own life, because to her, her life is bleak and meaningless (in her heart) when she knew she could have saved the world, but no longer can, because all the Fireflies are dead.
Think about this – Ellie grew up in a desolate place as is, behind the walls of a quarantine zone with infected thrashing about just outside – the amount of trauma she has had from such a young age gives her every place and right to make irrational, emotionally fueled decisions that disregard herself and the lives of others. Ellie has had everything taken from her day 1 – the small moments of happiness she does have are taken away shortly after.
Does this mean I love her decisions and agree with them? Absolutely not. I’ve had moments watching the game where I just had to walk away because I was so frustrated with Ellie’s decisions – the point isn’t that I agree or love it – the point is that I understand it and feel the complexity of the character and the story she is telling about herself and the state of humanity.
The same goes for Abby – while at first, I hated her character for killing Joel, I understood her as we continued forward in the story. Joel killed her father, in turn, killing the chance of there being a cure. Am I surprised at all that ex-Fireflies would seek to kill him? No.
Did I want him to die so soon and the way he did? Hell no. Objectively, did he deserve the brutality of death he suffered for what he did? Sadly, yes.
And while it took a while for Abby to grow on me, the relationship building done between her and her friends, and eventually the Seraphite siblings (Yara and Lev, who she saves and works with throughout the end of the game), made me care about her. At the end, I was desperately begging Ellie not to go find Abby again and kill her, because I knew the decision to have mercy would mean so much more for the scale of this game if it in fact did end that way – which it did, thank God.
You need to have a certain level of empathy to care about Abby – if you were mad that Ellie didn’t kill Abby at the end, because “that was the point of the game”, you need to step away and look at the bigger picture ; step away from your personal attachments to Joel and Ellie, and see what Abby was originally fighting for as a Firefly – a person who wanted to save and reform society. The Fireflies, all in all, were the closest things to “good guys” in the series in my opinion – and while Abby makes dumb and brutal choices herself, you see her humanness grow as she detaches from the WLF and makes her way to find old remnants of the Fireflies she was once a part of.
Empathy and mercy is what saved Abby and Lev at the end – if Ellie never sought them out, they would have died, tied up on the beach, but in turn, after Ellie remembers the moment of forgiving Joel for lying to her about the Fireflies in a flashback, she forgives Abby for what she has done.
The beauty in this ending is that the Abby would have died anyway if Ellie didn’t find her, but Ellie’s mission ends with her saving her from her imminent death, and then, in the most brutal way possible, forgiving her.
To be met with such traumatic beauty all in a moment left me feeling so full and so empty all at once. This game is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Do I understand why a lot of people hated it? Yes – because it’s not fun. It’s not another hero’s story – it has very progressive themes and incessant violence that only makes sense if you step back, open your mind, and think critically about the characters, their lives, and the world they live in. Does a typical “gamur boi” have those type of processing skills when playing a video game? Just read user reviews, and you’ll see that they don’t.
Is it a game for everyone? No.
“But, what about Abby being ripped and not feminine? And about Lev being trans? And Ellie being gay? These diverse themes offend me!”
All I see are human beings when I see these characters. But I won’t lie and say I didn’t have my own judgement against some of them initially. Yes, Abby being built like an ox put me off at first – I questioned her appearance and was distracted by it in the beginning. But it’s the fucking apocalypse guys – I’m sorry that a woman in the apocalypse lifts weights and wears no make up?
On the other hand, I really loved Lev’s character, but I wish there was a little more depth behind the reasons for the Seraphites disowning him. I don’t mean to offensively state that “him being transgender” wasn’t enough, I just wish it wasn’t focused solely on that theme, so we can just appreciate the humanness of Lev as the male he feels he is, rather than – “my cult rejected me because I identify as male”. The thing I loved most about him though was his unwavering faith.
He continually quotes his prophet (who was built on peace by the way – the WLF killed her, causing the Seraphites to change their ways towards violence, thus kicking off a Civil War) as he travels with Abby, stating things like “when we are at our weakest is where we find our truth strength.” Seeing that type of peaceful wisdom in a kid so young was refreshing and welcomed.
And ya’ll ever play “Left Behind” – the DLC in the first game? Ellie kisses Riley, her childhood best friend. We knew from the start she was going to be gay, so we need to chill out about that. I loved the contrast between Ellie’s stoicism and her girlfriend Dina’s ability to soften her with her quick wit and humor. Their relationship felt real, it felt human, and it worked…until the painful end of Ellie coming back to an empty house, but, you know.
The gameplay and combat system is one of the most refined and realistic I’ve ever seen. Every gunshot and cut with a knife you make feel as if you’re actually doing it. Enemies spray blood as you slit their throats while hidden in tall grass, and dilapidated buildings are filled with supplies and mementos from a lost world.
While I had moments in the beginning of the game of “man, we’re exploring a lot and not really fighting much – I’ve opened like, my 50th drawer”, there is by far plenty of gameplay (as opposed to some other reviewers opinions). The beginning of the game provided a sort of “easing” in to the true stakes ahead, you are not just thrown in, but given time to let this journey and this grief really sink in as you explore the mostly abandoned city of Seattle and pick off infected, and eventually, WLF.
Exploration is key because this is what you’d have to do to survive if you were actually in living through the aftermath of a deadly outbreak – picking over every building and finding every resource is what you’d actually do, so while moments of it can feel excessive, it makes sense for the context of the story.
Gun play, crafting and upgrading weapons is seamless – I was amazed by how every gun you upgrade, you physically take out your weapon and modify it on screen. Like literally, Ellie will straight up put a stock on a gun and build it in front of you, and then have the gun out after you walk away from the work bench. That type of attention to detail to me was mind blowing.
Let alone the environments themselves – every plant, every shadow, and every texture in this game breathes life onto your TV when you play. It is by far the most detailed game I’ve ever played, and I had moments where I would just look at mountains in the distance on screen and ponder if they were real, because they felt like they were.
This game is bigger than I think any of us expected it to be – if you want to just play another video game, don’t play this game. Don’t touch it. If you don’t wish to think beyond the images in front of you, and if you don’t wish to be deeply uncomfortable, don’t play this game. To truly appreciate this TLOU2, you have to embrace the uncomfortable, imperfect truths about the world we live in and be hurt by it.
Yes, you have to be hurt and understand the hurt to truly understand and appreciate this game.
It’s a story of loss, trauma, suffering and ultimately, finding the strength to empathize and forgive in a merciless place.
I’m still grieving Joel after beating it. I’m still grieving for Ellie, who has lost almost everything. But I am so desperately grateful that she didn’t fully lose herself behind her rage, and she chose forgiveness in the end – even at the cost of dozens of lives, I still felt grateful. Forgiveness was the thing she wanted to give Joel if he were still alive – she still was able to give that piece of herself away, even to the one she wanted to kill. Even though the story ended with many bleak unknowns, I still am thankful for that moment of mercy.
This whole experience is a statement about humanity – about the greys and the waves of morality and emotion we experience through life – if you haven’t been through a traumatic experience or have ever felt deep grief in your life, it may be harder for you to understand or appreciate this story.
The world of The Last of Us Part II is a dark place, just as our world is, but there are morsels of light, truth, and wisdom if you can see them past the pain of living each day.
Through this pain, we can see the deepest versions of ourselves, if we only dare to look.
With everlasting encouragement: