FEATURE ARTICLE: How The Last of Us Part II Defies Conventional Storytelling

By Marty Mulrooney

How The Last of Us Part II Defies Conventional Storytelling

Since completing The Last of Us Part II over a week ago, my mind keeps drifting back to that overcast Santa Barbara beach where Ellie finally made her last stand…

WARNING: This article contains major spoilers and shouldn’t be read before completing The Last of Us Part II.

Despite what you may have heard, The Last of Us Part II isn’t just a bleak tale of revenge that isn’t ultimately fulfilled; it’s a modern-day parable about letting go and moving on, even when you can’t forgive.

We’re so used to movies, TV shows, books and video games matching our expectations that when they don’t, our gut reaction is often confusion and anger. Ellie’s post-pandemic world will never have a truly happy ending. Instead, fleeting moments of happiness must be cherished, whether it’s kissing a beautiful girl at the winter dance, visiting an abandoned museum full of dinosaur bones and space rockets on your birthday, or singing an awesome cover of Take On Me while playing guitar.

There was a moment in The Last of Us where Ellie admitted that the thing she fears most is ending up alone. By pursuing vengeance at any cost following Joel’s death, this fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you truly believe that The Last of Us Part II glorifies violence, or is simply about revenge, I’m sorry – you’ve entirely missed the point.

The many perfect 10 review scores and glowing accolades bestowed upon The Last of Us Part II have been accompanied by a torrent of abuse and toxicity from a vocal minority of the gaming community. Certain ‘fans’ have accused Neil Druckmann and the Naughty Dog team of being unfaithful and untrue to the spirit and the characters of the first game, completely destroying everything that made The Last of Us so special in the first place. I’d like to take a moment to dispel this notion.

Ellie has always been violent; her portrayal in Part II is just an escalation caused by unbearable grief. Even before Joel entered her life and she left the confines of the Quarantine Zone in Boston, she was a survivor. In The Last of Us: American Dreams – a four-issue comic book series co-written by Druckmann that served as a prequel to the first game – it is revealed that she’d tried to run away from the last school she’d been in seven times. She had over a dozen counts of assault on her record and had even stabbed another kid in the knee with a compass. By the time she is repeatedly burying a machete into the head of David – the leader of a group of cannibalistic survivors who tried to kill her – violence has been irrevocably hardcoded into her DNA.

Naughty Dog could have played it safe when developing The Last of Us Part II. The studio would still have faced criticism, but it probably wouldn’t have resulted in Druckmann – and others involved in the production, such as the actors – receiving death threats and abuse. A retread would have been easy enough; keep Joel alive and have him travelling with Ellie again across the ruins of the United States as the last surviving Fireflies hunt them down.

He could still have died, but perhaps more heroically towards the end of the journey, after he had finally made his peace with Ellie. She could have even found a way to develop a cure for the Cordyceps infection without needing to die. I’m sure it would have been a very good game. I’m glad Naughty Dog didn’t make it.

While playing The Last of Us Part II, we think that Ellie is simply angry because Joel – essentially her father – was killed in front of her. Her actual feelings are later revealed to be much more complex. Abby didn’t just kill someone Ellie loved; she robbed her of the opportunity to forgive Joel. After years of unspoken feelings and thoughts, of anger that the chance for her life to mean something was taken from her, Ellie was finally ready to forgive… or at least try.

Abby didn’t just kill Joel with that golf club; she killed any chance Ellie had of reaching a moment in time when she could finally say the words I forgive you. Ellie might be angry, she might have the fire of revenge burning fiercely in her heart… but she’s also driven by an incredible sense of shame and guilt.

It’s no coincidence that soon after killing Joel, Abby starts to question everything she once held true. Following the collapse of the Fireflies, joining the Washington Liberation Front (the WLF) wasn’t just a smart move to survive; it enabled her to learn the skills she would need to exact revenge. Her muscular physique is a clear visual representation of her sole purpose in life: to find and kill Joel. How many times did she picture Joel’s death when she killed a Seraphite in combat? How many times was she haunted by the image of her dead father on that operating room floor?

Once Joel is gone, Abby has no purpose; she’s cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty, just like the boat she will eventually escape in. This is why she ends up bonding so closely with Lev; she needs a purpose. The WLF was a means to an end, but there must be more to life than just surviving. Lev makes Abby realise that despite the bad things she’s done, there is still good inside her; she can still make a difference. Sounds like a certain smuggler we all know and love doesn’t it…

Two powerful images flash through Ellie’s mind as she fights Abby at the end of The Last of Us Part II. The first is of Joel lying there, bloodied and dying, unable to speak. This haunting image – a moment Ellie has replayed over and over again in her mind – is what convinces her she can’t forgive. She holds a knife to a young boy’s throat to force Abby to continue their fight to the death.

It works… but as the life drains from Abby’s face beneath the water, a second image flashes through Ellie’s mind. It isn’t Joel during his final dying moments; it’s the night before, as he peacefully played guitar on the porch of his home in Jackson.

This bittersweet memory is finally revealed in full just moments before the final credits roll. Ellie confronts Joel, telling him that she was supposed to die in the Firefly hospital. Her life would have fucking mattered, but he took that from her.

Joel’s response? If somehow the Lord gave him a second chance at that moment… he would do it all over again. Joel made a morally grey judgement call to ensure Ellie lived. Some of it was because he loved her; some of it was pure selfishness. He can live with it.

Abby likely feels exactly the same way. She killed Joel and the unforeseen consequences were horrific, but she would do it all over again if given a second chance. As Ellie pushes Abby’s head beneath the water, thinking about the events that have led up to this moment… can she honestly say the same? Is this what Joel would have wanted? By letting Abby live, the cycle of violence is broken. At last, Ellie can grieve.

Ellie played guitar to feel closer to Joel. In the process of trying to avenge his death and bring his killer to justice, she doesn’t just lose two fingers; she loses the ability to play guitar and ever feel that connection again. It’s telling that the final shot of the game is the guitar Joel made her being left behind as she leaves the empty farmhouse, destination unknown. She is finally letting him go.

The Last of Us Part II honours the original game by fully immersing players in a beautifully rendered world of despair, violence and horror, but never letting it overwhelm the flawed humanity of the main characters. Joel – what he did to save Ellie, and the destructive power of the immense lie he told her when she asked him for the truth – is a constant presence throughout the entire game, not just during flashbacks, but in every moment we spend with Ellie and Abby.

To take one of the greatest endings of all time and double-down on its moral ambiguity to create one of the greatest sequels ever made – without lessening its impact one iota – is no mean feat. Neil Druckmann and the Naughty Dog team clearly love Joel just as much as the rest of us… but sometimes, in the pursuit of telling a worthwhile and honest story, you have to kill your darlings.

Thanks for reading! Agree/disagree? Please feel free to leave a comment below and I will reply as soon as possible – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

7 Comments

Filed under Alternative Musings, Games

7 responses to “FEATURE ARTICLE: How The Last of Us Part II Defies Conventional Storytelling

  1. AtomHowlett

    Great writeup for a great game!

  2. ariel

    This is what everyone needs to read. Perfectly describes this masterpiece of a game. People are so blinded by Joel’s death that they don’t get to experience and learn from the game.

    • Thanks Ariel, I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! I agree; Joel’s death is so sudden and unceremonious that it comes as a complete shock, but sticking with the game until the very end actually gives him the send-off he deserves in a touching, honest and beautiful way.

      • 100% agreed. His death was meant to be surprising, and in the world the game takes place in, it only makes sense that nobody is ever truly safe. His death was powerful, and it needed to be in order to drive Ellie to do the things she did. This game will stick with me forever, just like the first one did. A true narrative masterpiece ❤

    • james henton

      I loved the read through. Thanks for providing us with a platform of forgiveness. It makes absolutely alot of sense that ellie felt robbed of her chance to forgive joel. This game was a stunner and very emotional for me. I agreed with everything that you wrote. It definitely wasn’t just about revenge. I didn’t know there was a comic apart of the last of us. Thanks im going to check it out. The writing you put down was so good. Thank you i enjoyed reading it. I look forward to more of your writings.

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