Today I finished The Last of Us Part 2. Leading up to its release, I avoided the leaks and spoilers like the plague. I loved the first game enough that I wanted to form my own opinion and go in blind. Upon finishing, I cried, something no game has managed to make me do in my 20 years of gaming. I felt that I had just completed the greatest game I've ever played.
Now, I was already somewhat aware of the backlash facing the game. I didn't know the specifics, but I knew tons of people hated it. Throughout the game, this was in the back of my mind. I was waiting for the thing causing all the outrage. The thing that "betrayed the original". 23 hours later, the credits rolled and I never saw anything of the sort.
I liken this game to No Country For Old Men, where the world is indifferent to personal turmoil, people act erratically and deaths come abruptly. People you love are going to die and that's going to suck. We are all going through our own personal tragedies and all we want is some sort of validation, some sort of sign that our pain is justified, that we're doing the right thing. This quest for inner peace drives our actions, it's what made Joel save Ellie in the first game and what made Abby kill Joel in this one.
The Last of Us ended with Joel choosing to doom humanity to save Ellie. In Joel's actions, the player had no choice, making it all the more powerful. Naughty Dog aren't making games where you get total control, they're making tight character driven narratives and using the interactivity to make you understand/examine said characters and their actions. You aren't being asked to simply play a game however you'd like, you're being put in someone else's shoes and being asked to empathize with them.
I've seen a lot of complaints around actions of characters. People are upset that characters act differently or do something "they wouldn't do". To me, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity. People are erratic and unpredictable. Think of the most dramatic moments with other people in your life, I guarantee many of which were caused when you or the other person did something that you "wouldn't do". Somebody you love can break your heart, someone you trust can hurt you. Characters shouldn't be predictable, because humans aren't predictable. The best films of all time all have characters do unexpected, misjudged and misguided things. Videogames can and should offer us similar complexities.
This brings me back to empathy. Throughout the first half, we and Ellie are one. We spent a whole game bonding with Joel and we too are furious to see him killed. Ellie's bloodthirsty quest for revenge is no different than our own. When the game switches to Abby, its goals become clear. The "villain" is shown to be just as human, just as flawed, just as driven by tragedy as Ellie and ourselves. In the final act, when Ellie sets out for revenge one final time, we are no longer one. We are being forced to see Ellie's mistakes through, just as we saw Joel's through in the hospital sequence. Like with Joel's actions, we are not being asked to agree with them, but simply to understand how someone can be pushed to do something out of love/hate and how we as humans are just as fragile, just as easily broken.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a plea for us to have patience and understand others. To look beyond our personal bias and experience and forgive those that we do not yet understand. It's a game full of brutality, violence and hatred, asking you to have empathy in their place. It communicates all of this in a way only games can.
With all of this said, I can't wrap my head around people's complaints. People who are upset that Joel is killed somehow missed that that's the point. You're supposed to be upset he is killed, players are so attached to him that it's the perfect set up for a revenge plot.
People who are upset that Ellie doesn't get revenge must've missed the entire last 13 hours of the game designed explicitly to undo your own anger and want for revenge. Every good revenge story ever shows you that revenge is bad, it's Revenge 101. The fact that some players seemingly wanted to kill Abby and celebrate concerns me.
The idea that this betrays the first game is baffling. It's a perfect extension of the themes and characters. Did people just want a retread? Did they want Joel and Ellie to travel across the country again? We still got plenty of satisfying Joel and Ellie moments in the form of flashbacks. Not to mention the revelation that Ellie knew about Joel's lie is one of the most powerful moments I've experienced in gaming.
As someone who has been incredibly excited to see games advance as a storytelling medium, this game feels like a milestone. Where narrative, gameplay, characters and player interaction are all in service to the themes of the work. Even little details, like the NPCs addressing each other by name come back full circle to the themes when we are shown these same people going about their lives. It's a tremendous game, it's scope and execution are bewildering. I don't think it would've seen such extreme backlash had there not been leaks, the spoilers without the context and how they are told got people angry and then they just decided to stay angry. It's ironic that a game denouncing tribalism and rashness has been greeted by so much of both.
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