When critiquing any kind of entertainment, it’s important to consider what the creator’s vision was during creation. What messages did they intend to convey? How well were those messages delivered? This is the lens that I viewed The Last of Us Part II through as I played it, and the title of the essay is the conclusion I reached by the game’s end.
TLOU2 has lofty ambitions for what it wants the game to be, and the potential for it was great considering how loved the original was. But it lives up to none of what it wants to be because of its half-hearted attempt at engaging the player through story and gameplay.
TLOU2 was inspired partly by a lynching that Neil Druckmann witnessed when he was younger. By his own admission, Neil wanted the player to feel the same kind of rage that he felt upon seeing that vile act. To make the player feel a thirst for revenge and then look back on their actions in disgust. This became one of the philosophies upon which the game was built.
When it comes to videogames, specifically ones with a poignant message to tell, you cannot divorce the gameplay from the message. As we interact with the world and its people, our actions must eventually communicate what that participation means to the us as players. When done properly, a reconciliation takes place and it should lead to the player changing the way that they view their role in the game from then on.
A good example of this is in MGS3’s The Sorrow boss fight, where by going on a massive killing spree, you make the boss fight more difficult as it’s directly tied to your body count. Punishing the player for killing indiscriminately, when you have the option to not kill them, encourages them to adopt non-lethal methods of play.
Instead of aligning the gameplay with its message, TLOU2 relies on its surface level gimmick of naming the NPCs to evoke emotion during gameplay. However, this doesn’t have the effect that the developers thought it did. On many occasions, we’re shown just how vile the two enemy factions of the game are. Giving names to these people who participate in violence, who actively seek to kill on sight with no remorse, does nothing.
TLOU2 also gives you no other options during play, it’s a game that funnels you into encounter after encounter. Making you stab, shoot and bludgeon your way through leagues of enemies to the point that it becomes mundane. It’s supposed to mirror ours and Ellie’s desire to get revenge at any cost, but it’s just senseless violence that you’re forced to do so the story can berate you in a flashback later.
It’s quite disappointing that this is all the game can muster in regards to player agency tied to the game’s themes. While the original TLOU was no masterclass in this method of storytelling either, it had a very powerful example of it in its final moments — Saving Ellie.
TLOU2 attempts to build off of this ending by introducing Abby, its deuteragonist. The execution of this is where the game completely trips itself up.
Abby is the daughter of the doctor responsible for using Ellie to create a vaccine for the Cordyceps infection. After Joel kills her father, she goes on a revenge journey to kill him, setting off the events of the sequel.
After rampaging through Seattle as Ellie, we finally get to the confrontation between the two girls. Just before the fight, the story shifts perspectives and goes back in time. We’re then made to play as Abby, reliving the same three days we just played as Ellie.
The purpose of the character switch is to humanize Abby to the player, to get them to empathize with her position after being caught up in a lust for revenge as Ellie. We’re given a glimpse into Abby’s life and relationships that are somehow near identical to those of Ellie’s.
The problem is that this setup is half-baked and doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work for many reasons, one being that we have history with Ellie and Joel. We’ve loved these characters for years, so how can you make us demonize them and feel for Abby instead? You can’t.
It’s half-baked because this game is so on the nose about Ellie and Abby’s parallels. Their dynamic comes across as if the writers weren’t confident in their ability to make Abby a likable character on her own, so they decided to make her an almost 1:1 replica of Ellie.
The biggest reason why this setup doesn’t work is because if you played the first game, you pulled that trigger in the operating room when Joel did. You’ve already resolved yourself to making that decision years ago, so it’s impossible to make the player sympathize with Abby over Joel and Ellie.
TLOU2 refuses to truly acknowledge the gameplay surrounding its story, and that makes its message less effective.
This ludonarrative dissonance is carried all the way into the final fight between Abby and Ellie where just after indiscriminately killing more people yet again, Ellie decides at the last second to spare Abby, of all people. This act drives home the feeling that the journey we embarked on was for nothing, that all our killing, all of Ellie’s friends lost along the way, all of it was for nothing.
There was no lesson learned for the player. There’s no reconciliation for anything we’ve done. We’re left with nothing, and this is punctuated by Ellie returning to her farmhouse, only to find that Dina has left, leaving her all alone in an empty home. And with no real consequences for all of the havoc we’ve caused throughout the game, TLOU2 ends up glorifying that same violence it wanted to shock the player with.
To say TLOU2 is a confused game is an understatement, it’s shock value entertainment that desperately wants to be seen as meaningful commentary. It wants to subvert expectations, but only by making it painfully obvious. It’s a game for fans that would likely be enjoyed better by someone with no knowledge of the original — at least the game is pretty, right?