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The Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige: A narrative-focused analysis of The Last of Us Part II. (originally posted in r/gaming)

Gamingtodaynews1g - The Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige: A narrative-focused analysis of The Last of Us Part II. (originally posted in r/gaming)
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Disclaimer and Disclosure: This review contains spoilers of nearly all major plot points in The Last of Us Part II. I completed The Last of Us on grounded mode because I am a masochist. I am currently playing through The Last of Us Part II, but have watched my wife play through the entirety of the game.

The framing device for The Prestige (a film primarily about two magicians whose fates are brutally and inextricably linked) is a monologue by Michael Caine’s character about the three parts to a magic trick. With echoes of the three-act structure, Caine explains that the first part, the “Pledge,” is the presentation of something the audience is familiar with. The second part, “the Turn,” brings awe and disbelief—in the film, this is the magician’s disappearance from the stage. At this point, Caine says, the audience is trying to find the secret, waiting for the resolution, because making something disappear isn’t enough—you have to bring it back. And that journey, the “Prestige,” is the hardest part.

The Pledge

The end of The Last of Us has Joel and Ellie safe on the outskirts of Jackson, having survived a nearly endless onslaught of horrors ranging from the horde of infected that plague the world to the innumerable factions of tattered survivors the plague created. Ellie’s safety, however, comes at an incredible cost—the obvious societal cost is the devastating loss of a cure, but the personal cost is a destabilizing force in Joel and Ellie’s relationship, buried just below the surface. Despite everything they’ve gone through together and all they mean to each other, Joel risks undermining the whole of Ellie’s trust in him by taking away Ellie’s agency and choice as to what she does with her own life. This is what the audience knows at the outset of The Last of Us Part II.

Entering the game, you play as Ellie wandering through the streets of Jackson after a tough night, surrounded by burgeoning life and community—there are stores and pubs, theaters and children playing about. This hard-won slice of freedom from the infected is small compared to the wide world, but it’s a sanctuary, and it’s theirs.

Soon after, we switch to playing as Abby, an initially nameless girl who arrives in Jackson on a desperate mission. When we first meet her, we’re not sure who she is, what role she has to play, or how long we’ll be playing from her perspective—in retrospect, this is not only the beginning of the interweaving of Abby and Ellie’s storylines, but also our first experience with asymmetric information. As the audience, we carry Joel’s devastating secret to be kept safe from Ellie, but as the narrative unfolds, we become keenly aware that many characters in the story harbor secrets from us as well.

A short while into the game, we see the brutal killing of Joel at the hands of Abby. When the game was first released, several reviewers noted that the game was being review-bombed by users, leading to extremely disparate critic and user scores. They also noted that these reviews had come in just several hours after the release of the game, suggesting that most of them had been posted without the user having played through the entire game.

I think it’s clear that the review-bombing was in part a reaction to Joel’s murder—not just the fact of it happening, but the confluence of events that leads to it. As you play as Abby for the first time, you feel out of place—you play a character you don’t know or understand, but you are carrying out whatever semblance of a plan she has. This is different from the player experience in the original. In The Last of Us, you play as Joel and Ellie, knowing for the most part what their intentions are, and what they feel at each turn. Their choices are hard, but understandable, and players are well within the moral window to rationalize and support those choices.

As Abby, you run into Joel and Tommy and you help each other escape a terrifying onslaught of infected. Moments of extreme pressure and survival make for fast friends, but Abby uses that trust to bring Joel and Tommy back to her campsite where she ultimately tortures and kills Joel. It feels bad because a seemingly random girl wandering the mountains in search of Joel overcomes immensely improbable odds to kill a hero. It feels bad because she betrays a trust forged in the chaos of survival to do so. And it feels bad because the game makes the player complicit in Joel’s murder. But needling in the back of my mind is Joel’s secret. Watching Ellie witness Joel’s murder is heart-wrenching—I had to actively take some time to process it—but even in the moment, I couldn’t help but think that it had to be related to the cure Joel took from the world, and that Abby had a deeply personal stake.

The response from the community since the release of The Last of Us Part II has ranged from a deep appreciation for the game’s invocation of strong emotion to the misdirected anger and despicable death threats toward Abby’s voice actor, Laura Bailey. Joel’s death is a catastrophic event that shakes the player and the entire town of Jackson, but the fact of his secret cannot be forgotten. Obvious but obfuscated, Joel’s act of saving Ellie is the center of the story. It represents the love and restoration of a man who lost his daughter, lost everything. It represents the pain of betraying a loved one’s trust to keep that person safe. But it also represents the irretrievable cost of that choice to the whole of humanity.

Once you believe that Abby’s mission was personal and certainly related to Joel’s choice, a parallel forms—Abby is the dark half of Ellie. Fierce, even when alone, she is a survivor, fighting against impossible odds, against the professed wisdom of the collective, toward a singular goal in the chaos of the world. What we see in Abby is what vengeance looks like, even in the face of wrongs that are far past undoing.

The Turn

Ellie and Tommy are left alive by Abby and her crew, and they each embark (Tommy first, Ellie second, accompanied by her love interest, Dina) on a journey to avenge Joel. The player understands Ellie’s journey: Joel may have taken the cure from the world, but Ellie has no idea. As the narrative progresses, we see beautiful, comparatively serene flashbacks interwoven with the intense horror and stress of Ellie’s present journey. All the while, we see shadows of Joel’s secret echoing around Ellie in the past—the memories of a former Firefly who committed suicide after the group’s failure to stabilize society, Ellie unsuccessfully pushing Joel for answers when her doubts inevitably resurface. The player understands—Ellie is blameless here, because she was robbed of her choice, and cannot fathom why a group of people would travel nearly a thousand miles to murder Joel in cold blood.

But we learn that she knew all along. After Ellie confronts Nora (who Ellie later tortures for information on Abby), we are brought to a flashback several years prior where Ellie issues an ultimatum, and demands answers from Joel after she revisits the Firefly hospital where they were going to develop the vaccine.

He gives them. He tells her that creating a cure meant that she would have to die. That he couldn’t let that happen. And (through subtext) that even if she grew to resent him for his choice, it would still mean she was alive to do so.

This drastically changes the tenor of our outlook on Ellie’s journey to Seattle—it’s not that she doesn’t know why Abby killed Joel, it’s that she doesn’t care. We aren’t severed from our connection with Ellie as a character by any means, but we begin to understand it a little less. Nora’s conversation with Ellie tells us that Abby killed Joel because of what he did. Ellie knows this, but against her need for vengeance, it does not matter. She pushes forward, and we understand her a little less with each kill, with Ellie ultimately murdering Owen (Abby’s close friend and love interest) and Mel (a WLF medic pregnant with Owen’s child) before returning to her Seattle hideout, and abandoning the hunt for Abby.

All the while, the narrative neatly slots in parallels between Ellie and Abby—Ellie’s mission essentially traces Abby’s mission in reverse, both having love interests involved in pregnancies with another person. We begin to see that Abby may not be the dark half of Ellie, but rather an opposing reflection.

The end of Ellie’s journey in Seattle dovetails with Abby’s, just as we are brought back to the movie theater that Ellie and her crew use as a local base for the last time. The morning that Ellie and company prepare for their journey back to Jackson, Abby arrives, killing Jesse (the father of Dina’s child), and injuring Tommy. As Abby holds a gun to Ellie, telling her that she found the bodies of her friends that Ellie killed, telling her that Ellie and Tommy squandered their chance at living after she chose to leave them alive, we wake up as Abby on the morning of her first day back from killing Joel.

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Abby’s story begins with a feeling of community within the WLF stadium not dissimilar to what we experience when we first walk through Jackson as Ellie. We walk in her shoes, experiencing life and all the little moments that make us human. We see the faces of those that Ellie killed, living their lives in the haven this group built. We see the aquarium Owen discovers with Abby, echoing Joel’s birthday gift to Ellie of the natural history museum tour. And we learn that Abby’s father was the first doctor that Joel shot as he entered the operating room to rescue an unconscious Ellie.

As we are introduced to Abby’s world, we see her wrestling with her part in an ongoing war between the WLF and the Seraphites. By the end of her first day back, she finds herself captured by the enemy, narrowly being rescued by two defectors from the religious sect—a sister and a brother (Yara and Lev). Yara’s left arm is shattered by the Seraphites, but the trio manages to escape together. After they reach a place of safety, Abby splints Yara’s arm and leaves.

That night, Owen tells Abby a story about an old Seraphite he encountered during a skirmish. The old man didn’t try to retrieve his weapon or continue fighting when his unit was overwhelmed—he just looked tired, and ready to die. That story wandering in her mind, Abby returns for Yara and Lev the next day and brings them to the aquarium for treatment and safekeeping.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the WLF and the Seraphites escalates into all-out war, and Abby finds herself rushing into the fray with Yara to rescue Lev, who has gone back to save his mother. The Seraphites’ island is in chaos and ruin—fire engulfs nearly everything in sight, Lev kills his mother in self-defense, Yara dies saving Abby, and Abby and Lev narrowly escape the island.

At this point, Abby has had a real challenge of a day. Her world has been turned upside-down, her closest friend is leaving for Santa Barbara to chase rumors of the Fireflies regrouping, and she just fought through the front lines of an active warzone to save the life of a former Seraphite. She returns to the aquarium for a bit of rest, but finds Owen, Mel, and her dog, Alice, all dead.

This brings us back to the intersection of Ellie and Abby’s stories. Abby holds a gun at Ellie after having killed Jesse, with Tommy cowering on the floor. She’s prepared to shoot when a sudden scuffle leaves Tommy badly wounded, with Abby chasing Ellie through the theater.

The ensuing battle is emotionally difficult to play. You control Abby, chasing and beating Ellie down, at one point, nearly strangling her to death. But as I watched the fight play out, my misgivings about Ellie’s intentions evaporated—it didn’t matter that she was single-minded in her vengeance, it didn’t matter that she knew about Joel’s secret. All that mattered was that she lived.

Abby ultimately defeats Ellie, moving to slit Dina’s throat before finishing Ellie off, but Lev intervenes. The former Seraphite, the boy who was told by his mother and clan that he was wrong about who he was, embodies whatever forgiveness and peace Abby can muster. And in the end, it’s enough. Abby leaves Dina and Ellie alive, warning Ellie to stay away from her, and heads to Santa Barbara with Lev.

The Prestige

We wake up as Ellie on a small farm with Dina and her newborn child, Potato (given name J.J., probably for Joel and Jesse). You find Dina in the kitchen doing something or other, you search for a toy elephant of Potato’s in the front yard, you meander through your vegetable garden before tending to your flock of sheep in the backyard—everything is idyllic, peaceful, at rest.

It could end here. Ellie could be content and live out the rest of her life on a small, self-sufficient farm with her love and their child. She could spend her days just living, traveling the short path between her hard-won slice of solace and the town of Jackson, wandering into town to see familiar faces, come and go as she pleased.

It could end here, and Ellie might be happy—but it’s not that simple. The sound of metal cracking against a hard surface—a shovel in the barn—brings Ellie right back into the basement where Joel was tortured. She relives that moment in her mind over and over, with stray sounds able to leave her stranded in the memory, alone. She hears him begging for her to rescue him, for her to be strong enough, but of course, she can’t. She hears him die thousands of times—she can’t sleep, she can’t eat—until finally, one night, she begins packing her backpack.

Dina finds Ellie in the middle of the night preparing for the journey. She doesn’t want to think it, but she knows that Ellie is going after Abby. Ellie tells her so. Dina says that she can’t handle waiting anymore, wondering day after day if Ellie is dead or alive, but Ellie won’t change her mind—she’s going.

Ellie’s departure feels like a ghastly unearthing. I can understand this as an attempt to rid herself of her PTSD—in fact, with everything she’s gone through, I’m surprised she doesn’t have infinitely more triggers. I can also understand the heat-of-the-moment promise she made to Tommy to make Abby pay after she shot him and he was left for dead. But watching everything unfold in what felt like an epilogue, I wondered if vengeance alone was sufficient to drive her to what almost certainly was her final journey.

We switch to Abby’s perspective one last time as she searches for the Fireflies with Lev. She finds a way to rendezvous with the regathering group, but is immediately captured by a brutal frat-like group that seems to pit their prisoners against infected in cage matches for their amusement.

You arrive as Ellie in Santa Barbara a couple of months later. You cut a swath through the Rattler ranks, ultimately finding Abby bound to a tall post on the beach, delirious, emaciated, tired. Ellie cuts Abby down, who in turn, cuts Lev down. Abby tells Ellie there are a few boats nearby they could use to escape. Ellie says nothing, but follows quietly.

What follows is an emotionally brutal battle between Ellie and Abby. When they reach the boats, Ellie tells Abby she can’t just let her go with Lev. Your heart sinks—why, Ellie—but Abby refuses to fight, until Ellie threatens to kill an unconscious Lev.

In my mind, I was fairly convinced that Ellie and Abby would both live. The combat sequence made me unsure. Each punch or grapple in the prolonged back-and-forth fight scene was agony, waiting for something to give, waiting for the end to come, until finally Ellie pins Abby beneath the water. She strangles and begins to drown her, holding Abby’s head underwater as she flails helplessly. A moment passes. Another. And then it happens—a single frame of Joel with his guitar, bathed in porchlight, flashes in her mind, and she stops. Ellie releases Abby, and tells her to just leave with Lev—and Abby does.

In one of the first scenes of the game, Joel visits Ellie at night, and plays a song for her on guitar: Future Days by Pearl Jam. The first lines: “If I ever were to lose you / I’d surely lose myself.” Throughout the game, we watch Ellie pick up various guitars and play a few notes of that song here and there, in remembrance. There is, however, a reason she never finishes it. It’s not because she can’t, although she is missing several fingers after her final confrontation with Abby—it’s because the song isn’t hers. The lyrics are beautiful, but the refrain is really Joel’s. The Last of Us was about Joel finding someone to live for, someone to love, and someone worth dying for, after having nothing and no one for so long. When Ellie lets Abby go, it’s not because she realizes that cycles of violence are pointless. I believe it’s because she realizes that she is more than just her relationship with Joel.

For the longest time after Joel tells Ellie the truth, she believes that she was supposed to die in that Firefly hospital, and that her death would be a gift to the world. Once Joel took that away, her purpose vanished as well—if she was not a cure, then she was nothing at all, just a husk of what could have been.

Whatever you may think of what Joel did, he gave Ellie a chance at life. He was willing to sacrifice everything to do it, and if given the chance to do it all over again, as he tells her in our final flashback, he would make the same choice. For Joel, the loss of Ellie would be the loss of himself, but what Ellie realizes in her moment of clarity is that her loss of Joel does not mean she has to lose herself too. We are more than what we can do for others, and we have value simply in living our lives.

The Last of Us Part II is a stellar piece of storytelling. Imperfect, sure, but it feels silly to magnify the imperfections until they blot out what is an eminently worthy conclusion to the original game. What everyone on The Last of Us Part II team crafted was nothing short of magic—through music, narrative, details, and gameplay, they unearthed the shallow-buried secret that defined the first installment, complicating our heroes and making us complicit in their questionable decisions and actions, journeying through fresh hellscapes and endless cycles of violence, until we arrive at the end with our hero, her humanity alive, and our faith in her just a bit worse for wear.

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