TL;DR The Last of Us 2 is really strange if you expect a sequel to Joel-and-Ellie-travel-around, but is fantastic as a sequel that takes seriously the people, events, and themes of the first game.
There's a lot of negative talk about TLOU2, and I was surprised by how good it actually is. This essay is me trying to organize my thoughts on the matter.
WHAT IS A SEQUEL?
I think the division revolves around two different expectations of what a sequel should be. As a continuation of Joel and Ellie's story, TLOU2 is bewildering, confusing, and infuriating, because Joel is murdered only about two hours into the game. But as a continuation of the first game's commitment to groundedness and taking violence seriously, TLOU2 is a brutally honest, inevitable narrative that takes some themes from the first and develops and interrogates them further and further. In some sense, TLOU2 is a deconstruction of the first. Its relation to the first game is strange, as if another author wrote it. It is like Alan Moore wrote it – TLOU2 relates to the first as The Killing Joke relates to early Batman comics or how Watchmen relates to superheroes. It questions, deconstructs, interrogates, and in this way deepens its examination of the themes of the first game: of what love is and its examination of violence.
I think the line between hating and loving TLOU2 is split across wanting more Joel and Ellie and wanting more of the storytelling and themes expressed through Joel and Ellie. The first is not delivered, but the second is.
It is rare that a sequel so actively interrogates and deviates from its original, especially such a big AAA title. There is no committee design here, there is an artistic vision, a story that must be expressed, rather than a watered-down retread of the first game. The Last of Us 2 is no "The Force Awakens" to the first game's "A New Hope"; it is more like the early 2000's Knights of the Old Republic 2 games, which actively questions and deconstructs the simple binary morality of Star Wars.
LOVING JOEL, HATING ABBY
Many players despise Abby. This is obviously author intent. Abby is a strange and unfriendly character who comes out of nowhere and murders Joel, who we have embodied for so long, for an unknown reason. We hate her as Ellie hates her. The players who signed the petition to completely remake the game experience Abby and her murder of Joel as a kind of betrayal of the players. And yes, if the game was primarily about Joel and Ellie, it is a bizarre choice. But even the first game had clearly made certain commitments to the impact of violence. Not only in terms of animation and sound design was the first game's violence meant to be off-putting. Many enemies talk among themselves about Joel as if he is a serial killer. When Joel murders all those Fireflies and the doctors at the hospital, they talk about him like he is some kind of insane murderer. In TLOU, you are not killing video game enemies; you are killing people. TLOU2 takes this further.
What Abby does to Joel is a direct consequence of Joel's actions in the first game. Everyone Joel kills has friends and family that would gladly make Joel die screaming in revenge, and this one does. Yes, it is awful that a beloved character is ripped away from Ellie and us, but it is a testament to how TLOU2 wants to take violence seriously not only in its direct, visceral impact in the moment, but in the scarring and long-lasting personal effects it has on the people surrounding the incident. The reason Abby kills Joel and the reason Ellie wants to kill Abby is identical.
The way the game tells the story of Abby is a little stilted, however. It is out of sync; we are introduced to Abby at her most horrible, as she tortures and kills someone we love. Then, later, we see more of Abby and we slowly warm up to her. I did, at least – it seems many players did not. And yet this is what the game challenges you to do. The game revolves a lot around perspective and empathy.
WHO IS JOEL?
Joel and Abby's stories are inversions of each other. When we first see Joel, he loses his daughter in a heartbreaking way. Our sympathy goes out to this man who lost everything. Twenty years later, he is bitter and violent, selfish and hopeless. It is through Ellie that he becomes a lighter and brighter person, and the love and trust that develops between them is truly heartwarming – all the more because of the horror and darkness that surrounds them. We love Joel, and the horrible violence he inflicts to protect Ellie when he saves her from the cannibals is almost cathartic in this sense. We want to see papa bear unleashed.
But is it truly Ellie Joel loves? This is the central question of the first game's hospital section and the question answered in the ending. To Ellie, her immunity is important. Her best friend (and love interest) died while she lived; the survivor's guilt marks her entire character, and she needs her immunity to be something other than a fluke, she needs it to matter. Although she is immune herself, she needs the cure more than anyone. Joel takes that from her in order to save her.
It is of course fucked up that the Fireflies want to kill Ellie without even speaking to her about it. It is likely that Ellie would have agreed: this is the most important thing in the world to her. But the Fireflies take her agency away; they will just do the procedure without informing them. Joel, however, does not give Ellie any agency either. In killing the Fireflies and taking Ellie away, Joel is arguably protecting her. But in lying to Ellie and in killing Marlene in cold blood – Ellie's friend and a friend of Ellie's mother – Joel shows that his love for Ellie is a stilted love, a skewed love. He loves her as a surrogate Sarah, as a second chance at protecting his daughter who died in his arms. He does not love Ellie as Ellie. If he loved Ellie for who she was and what she wanted, he would perhaps still save her, but he certainly would not lie to her at the end of the game.
This is why the end of the first game is such a gut punch. All the heartwarming, hopeful love and trust that grew between these two is shattered by Joel's lie. He betrays their relationship and rots its foundations.
So Joel not only robs humanity of a chance for a cure (betraying the last wish of his friend Tess), but also betrays Ellie's trust. He destroys the cure for his relationship with Ellie, but in doing so destroys this very relationship by infecting it with lies. But what is crucial is that we know exactly why he does it. We know him so well that we would do the same thing. We have inhabited his perspective so long that the crime against humanity and against Ellie makes sense. (I have seen people argue that really there was nothing wrong in what Joel did, since the Fireflies are clumsy bunch of fuck-ups and they probably could not create the cure anyway. This is the sort of lie Joel might have told himself, a rationalization after the fact. It is clear that the game wants us to know that there could be a cure and there isn't one because of Joel.)
LOVING ABBY, HATING JOEL
So in Joel's story, we get to know him and love him before he commits his horrible crime. Abby's story is the reverse: we meet her when she commits her horrible crime – her murder of Joel who we know and love. It is afterwards that we get to know her, perhaps even love her. We spend so much time in Abby's perspective that I truly warmed up to her. It seems many players could not. This is a testament to the power of perspective. What Joel did was truly horrible from the perspective of anyone who is not Joel (or Tommy) – even Ellie finds it almost impossible to forgive him. Abby's murder of a single person is nothing compared to the people who die who could have lived if Joel had not stopped the cure. And yet many people were unable to inhabit Abby's perspective.
Partly this is because of how the game introduces us to Abby. Only after having spent hours with Ellie trying to kill this person do we get to understand even why Abby killed Joel in the first place. Her father was the doctor Joel killed. To ask us to spend so much time with this murderer who killed Joel is evidently a big ask. But the game wants this tension, this discomfort. It asks us: why do you hate this person? Why do you love Joel? Does that really make sense? Is Abby truly worse than Joel? In any metric, Abby is a better person certainly than Joel – even than Ellie. When Abby finally got the chance at revenge four years after her father's death, she kills Joel and only Joel. But when Ellie goes after Abby, she does not hesitate to kill all of Abby's friends – some in a struggle, some in cold-blooded murder.
Abby's narrative feels slightly disjointed in how little it has to do with Ellie and Joel. But this is purposeful: Abby has a full life, is a real person who has already forgotten about Joel. This already foreshadows the emptiness of revenge. Abby becomes a happier person through connecting with Lev. Her revenge gained her nothing – except an angry Ellie coming after her. While the story of Abby, Lev, and Yara does not connect with Ellie, it does connect thematically with Ellie's story in that it explores in more ways the cyclical and mutually destructive nature of violence in the conflict between the WLF and the Seraphites. These two groups are culturally entirely different; while the Seraphites are introduced as deranged cultists with a penchant for disemboweling, I warmed to them when the game passes through their area. Their way of life is not unsuited to the post-apocalyptic world, and their ability to live entirely off the land without scavenging the "Old World" is more sustainable than the WLF's. All the same, their desire to execute sinners and to kill Lev because he does not conform to the traditions complicates this positive appraisal of their lifestyle. The WLF and the Seraphites are portrayed like Ellie and Abby; both are simultaneously awful and admirable in different ways, and their destruction at each other's hands is somehow tragic because we know that in the past there was a truce, and there could be again. But they have got in in their heads that only complete destruction of the other is the way forward, and this leads to the disastrous orgy of war/ethnic cleansing we see as the WLF raids the Seraphite island. Though this plot has almost nothing to do with the events of Ellie's story, it has everything to do with the themes of Ellie's story.
Playing Abby is in some sense a twist. Not a twist in narrative, but a twist expressed entirely through gameplay – through perspective. We are forced to inhabit Abby's perspective. I have seen angry video's of how Neil Druckmann, the game's writer and director, lied to audiences when he said Ellie would be only playable character. This is not a lie (well, it is), but it is refraining from spoiling a twist. It is a twist through gameplay, so to not spoil the twist, he had to lie about it. Nobody would care about this lie if it wasn't for the tremendous amount of hate some players feel towards not only Abby (which you are supposed to feel), but to the creators of the game themselves for what Abby does. This is nonsensical. It is like being mad at George R.R. Martin for the Red Wedding. Being angry and sad is what they want you to feel as part of the greater story arc and thematic exploration of the work. Killing Joel is not "empty shock value", as I have seen some say. It is the central inciting incident of the entire plot of the game and its examination of violence, revenge, and perspective. It is the opposite of empty, it is the lynchpin of the entire plot, and the central drive to Ellie's character arc.
WHO IS ELLIE?
Ellie goes through a similar trajectory as Joel, where it becomes hard to identify with them; where the character's moral choices and what we understand as the right choice become separate. When Joel stops the cure, we realize this is wrong. When we have come to know Abby, her reasons for killing Joel, and see her in her relationship with Lev (which is similar to Joel and Ellie's relationship in the first game), the final confrontation when Ellie goes to California to kill her feels similar to playing Joel in the hospital: we are playing the villain. We are playing someone who is doing something wrong. When we first play Abby, it feels as if we are playing the villain. But after Abby's story, returning to Ellie in her final, insane hunt of Abby, Ellie is the villain.
Not really though; Ellie and Abby are neither the villains. They are both consumed by a desire for revenge. As Joel's murder of Abby's father catches up with him, so Ellie represents Abby's murder of Joel catching up with her. No one is wrong and everything is wrong. Violence begets violence. Revenge is a never-ending cycle without end or completion.
This is what Ellie realizes when she is about to drown a severely weakened Abby. She flashes back to Joel sitting on his porch. Later we get the context of this flashback. In this conversation, Joel says he would save Ellie and stop the cure again without hesitation, and to Ellie saying she would like to try to forgive him. Their relationship, so rotted out by Joel's lie, begins to mend. Abby killed him before this could happen, but the beginning of reconciliation and forgiveness is there. And at this memory Ellie lets Abby go and sits weeping and alone in the grey fog in the ocean. I wonder if this scene is meant to express that Ellie can – maybe not forgive Abbey, but at least let her revenge go, or that she realizes that this journey of revenge into the darkness is the last thing Joel would have wanted for her.
In this sense, Joel and Ellie's journey also mimic each other. They both began with a specific goal, but something changes inside them that makes them forgo their initial goals. Joel wants to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies and develop a cure. But then we learn that really, this journey was not about the cure, but about Joel learning to love again – so much that he betrays the cure, their initial goal.
Ellie wants to kill Abby and take revenge for Joel. But in the end, she remembers her last conversation with Joel and realizes that this revenge would help neither Joel, nor herself, nor what Joel would have wanted for her – so she betrays her initial goal, the revenge. She thought she could honor – perhaps even forgive – Joel by killing Abby, but she learns that to truly honor or forgive Joel, she needs to let go of violence and live for something else. In this sense, though the ending of TLOU2 is depressing, because Ellie has lost her life with Dina and JJ by choosing to continue her hunt of Abby after Seattle, it is more hopeful than the ending of the first one, because the hopeful and enthusiastic girl Ellie was in the first game would be well and truly gone if she killed Abby. She would then truly be a mindless force of violence. Though irreparably damaged, Ellie has not entirely lost herself. All the same, her choice to go after Abby after Seattle led to her losing some essential part of herself and of her relationship with Joel. It was the wrong choice. This is reflected in the fingers she loses in her fight with Abby. She is now unable to play guitar, the skill Joel taught her and which connects her with him. She understood, before she killed Abby, that to honor Joel would be to live well rather than to seek revenge – but she understood it slightly too late, and now her ability to live well as Joel would have wanted is damaged by emotional and physical trauma – as is her ability to play Joel's guitar. She made the right choice, but very, very late, and though she lost her partner and her fingers, she just barely managed to not entirely lose herself.
TLOU2 is a remarkable work and it is likely for this reason that it is so divisive. It is not a "safe" sequel. Narratively, it takes far more risk than the first game, which was a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story, although told very well with authenticity and subtlety. Only the ending took a serious risk in making Joel do something a villain would do. TLOU2 takes a lot more risk in order to take seriously the events and people of the first game, and I think that for this reason it is a fantastic sequel. The temptation to just make more Joel-and-Ellie adventures must have been quite large, and this is certainly what would have been made by a company like EA or Ubisoft and its higher-up suits and market research. Come on, Ellie, we have to travel half-way across the country – again! It could have been a very tepid sequel, but instead it took serious risk in order to take seriously what happened in the first game and to expand on its themes of the reality of violence and to take its commitment to groundedness and reality further in its portrayal of violence as cyclical and meaningless, and I have tremendous respect for that.
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