It’s back to The Last of Us—this time, Part II. I’m trying my best to finish one entry in this series once every three weeks, even in the midst of my current teaching schedule. So far, so good! Script below the jump.
The following video contains spoilers for the Last of Us games (which you probably expect), but also spoilers for an array of other games (which you might not expect). I would also recommend watching this series in order, rather than beginning it here.
In 2001, Ueda Fumito and his colleagues at Team ICO made ICO, the debut effort which gave the team their name. The game is about escorting an AI companion, Yorda, through a series of cinematic platformer challenges. Its design was revolutionary: taking a very simple suite of behaviors and crafting a character out of them—and not just a character, but a whole relationship between this character and the player. In crafting an emotional journey with an ever-present companion character, ICO looked forward not just to later Team ICO efforts like The Last Guardian, but also to Alyx in Half-Life 2 Episodes one and two, Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, and Ellie in The Last of Us.
In 2005, Team ICO followed up their debut with a very different game. In Shadow of the Colossus, you play a young man who literally sells his soul, agreeing to a bargain with some sort of godlike entity in exchange for the life of a young woman. As the young man, you are tasked with killing sixteen colossi roaming the area. Given that you’re doing this as part of a devil’s bargain, from the outset it’s pretty clear that killing these colossi might be bad. And that initial instinct is only further developed and hammered home over the course of the game. The colossi are majestic creatures, and most are not particularly agressive. They may bat you out of the way if you get in their personal space, but they don’t actively try to kill you. Several of them aren’t hostile whatsoever, and will attack you only in self-preservation, if you attack first. So the game forces you to be the aggressor. Although the game never ceases to be exhilarating on a certain level, thanks in no small part to the scale of its creature design and its thunderous score, there’s also a growing tension as the player progresses through it. Moment by moment, it becomes more and more evident that what the game is asking you to do isn’t right, that this is destroying your character in both body and soul, that these beings don’t deserve to die and that by killing them you are unsealing something that shouldn’t be unsealed. It takes a lot of guts to make a game where the main action you’re asked to take is repeatedly signposted as being morally reprehensible, but thanks in no small part to its clean design and clear vision, Shadow of the Colossus works exceptionally well as an interactive fable. Pretty much from the moment it came out, it became a key example in discussions of video games’ maturation as an art form.
The Last of Us was Naughty Dog’s ICO. Although they had used companion characters to some extent in all of their PS3-era games, Joel’s relationship with Ellie was nevertheless a milestone, comparable to Team ICO’s achievement a dozen years prior.
And then, in crafting the sequel to their ICO, Naughty Dog attempted to make their own Shadow of the Colossus. The Last of Us Part II is a game that tells you, loudly and clearly, over and over and over again, that what you are doing is wrong. That your character is on a terrible downward spiral that will turn them into a monster. That they will lose everything they hold dear, lose their very humanity, and unlike in Shadow of the Colossus, not even get anything in exchange. The closer you get to the end of Part II, the louder it shouts at you, again and again until its voice is horse, that if you care about Ellie as a character, that the only possible good option is for you to put the controller down.
In the immortal words of Joshua from WarGames: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
The Last of Us Part II does not have the clarity of vision that Shadow of the Colossus had. That game was simple, pure, clean, and above all quiet, giving you plenty of time to to ponder and mourn how doomed its protagonist is. The Last of Us Part II is full of stuff. It’s not really full of ideas—its has one idea, really, the simple idea that the cycle of violence is bad, and that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. But it’s full of characters, and bold storytelling gambits, and little moments of thematic rhyming. It’s not all bad. If it was all bad, I wouldn’t have made a video on it. But it ultimately doesn’t work.
Now: Let’s get into why, starting from the beginning.
From the beginning ….
In the first half-hour of Part II, you control three characters. First, you play as Joel, in a short coda to the events of The Last of Us that I think may take place just hours after that game ends. Joel makes a confession to Tommy—that Ellie’s brain-fungus could have provided a vaccine, but that he killed the Fireflies rather than let them kill her. Then he performs a song for Ellie, and gives her a guitar to learn on. And that’s the last time we’ll play as Joel in this game—it’s a real passing of the torch.
Next we play as Ellie, in a tutorial set four years later in Jackson. Ellie’s about 19 now, if I have the math right. She’s involved with some drama with a girl named Dina, some bigoted guy named Seth made a comment about them, and Joel apparently made a scene, and Ellie’s pissed at Joel about it, but all of this is introduced second-hand. Ellie goes out on a patrol route with Dina.
And then, we play as Abby, a new character. She’s trudging through the snow with some dude named Owen, and we have no idea what they’re up to, but their casual banter is up to Naughty Dog’s usual standards, so they seem likeable, if a little world-weary. [“I feel like the farther south we go, the prettier it’s gotten.” “You wanna keep going? And just drive all the way to Mexico?” “I’ve thought about it.” “We could see Manny’s hometown.” “Yeah, I don’t see that living up to his stories, somehow.”] And then they look at Jackson from afar, and it become evident that they’re after someone in Jackson. [“Assuming he’s in there, how do we get to him?” “We can corner one of the controls and get confirmation, and then … I don’t know. Maybe find a way to lure him out.”] And at this moment, if you’re in any way familiar with, just, like, the concept of sequels, your mind is probably turning to the law of conservation of detail. If these people are after someone, it’s going to be someone we know. They’re not looking for this horse guy, who had one line. [“That’s a good girl!”] They haven’t come all this way to sample Seth’s world-famous bigot sandwich. [“That was too close. You were almost a bigot sandwich.”] They’re here because they’re looking for Joel. Or, at the very least, Tommy.
And the next move is kind of bold, considering. We continue controlling Abby. Even though it’s just been revealed that she’s probably after Joel, or at least his brother. She continues hiking through the woods, and she runs from some infected, and through all of the first real combat and danger of the game, we’re playing as someone whose goals we might not sympathize with. But right now the whole thing is hazy in its details, and the unanswered questions surrounding her character provide us with motivation to continue on.
When I looked at the first game, I said that that game’s opening, in which you play as Sarah, is important because it establishes from the outset that you won’t always be playing as Joel in the game. Playing as Abby serves a similar function here—it sews the seeds of our connection with her character early on, so it won’t come as quite of a shock later when she’s revealed to be the game’s straight-up deuteragonist. Personally, I think that Naughty Dog could have been even bolder here. The fact that we control so many characters in such a short amount of time makes the opening of the game feel unfocused, and robs these first moments as Abby of some of their impact. I do wonder if there was, at one point, a version of the game that opened with players controlling Abby, but Naughty Dog eventually chickened out. I don’t think that necessarily would have been better, but the Joel section especially feels extraneous, especially given the lopsided proportion of cutscene-to-control.
We go back to controlling Ellie. She mentions to Dina that she plans to watch a movie with Joel that evening. [“I was thinking of inviting Joel to watch a movie.”] Which means that they still must have some sort of relationship, despite her being pissed at him for the previous night. This is good. It introduces new questions. If Ellie still has at least an okay (if rocky) relationship with Joel, does that mean she ended up accepting the story he told her at the end of the first game? [“Okay.”] Or has the truth come out in the intervening four years, and she forgave him for it? This little mention of a movie night does a lot of work of perking up our interest. A snowstorm hits, Ellie and Dina hole up, there’s a tutorial about restoring power with generators, and using weapon upgrade benches—which have changed now, there’s a dedicated animation for each upgrade, rather than just a menu. And it’s such an incredible mis-use of the developer’s time, and I can’t help but think about the animators who didn’t see their families for months because they were crunching on stupid shit like this. But this is not an analysis of the labor conditions at Naughty Dog! I’m not a reporter. I don’t have enough information to do that. It just couldn’t help but strike me, because the menus from before with the sound of duct tape were perfectly fine! There was absolutely nothing wrong about them!
Ellie put the moves on Dina, and after things tastefully fade to black, we’re playing as Abby again, and she meets Tommy and Joel, and there’s a chase scene as they all run from infected. The Last of Us has chase scenes, now. I guess there were a handful in the first game—that super half-hearted chase against Robert, Ellie on horseback, a couple of times you had to outright run against infected. But there are a lot more chase scenes in Part II, to the point where it really starts to remind me of the chase set pieces in Uncharted. Or in Half-Life 2. If you squint, you can see a real Valve-like approach to the staging in these. Overall, it feels like the deliberate stylistic contrast Naughty Dog had previously set up between Uncharted and The Last of Us, as a way of product differentiation, has been lessened. Characters can jump in Part II, as well, and it no longer feels like the “no acrobatics” whiteboard note from the first game is still in effect. [“Oh, fuck!” “Ellie!?” “Can’t make that jump.” “I’m good!”]
Anyway, Abby uses the attacking infected as an excuse to lure Joel and Tommy back to the house where her friends were staying, and then she kills Joel. [audible gasp].
Now, people got mad at Part II for a lot of silly reasons—including this. I would not put Joel’s death near the top of the list of silly reasons people got mad at this game for, but I do feel like anyone who got mad at it has never encountered any type of rugged post-apocalyptic fiction before. Joel’s story is over. The first game was his story, and this game tells a different story. And when your story is over in a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, you tend to die. Violently.
Joel knows the score. He’s genre-savvy. He accepts his fate with as much grace as a person in this situation possibly could. [“Why don’t you say whatever speech you got rehearsed, and get this over with.”] And frankly it’s in keeping with his character, who never showed any trace of denial of the violent death he was most likely going to suffer in this world. [“You guys are pretty good at this stuff!” “It’s called luck. And it is going to run out.”]
But Ellie is understandably very mad at this, especially because she found the house where they were doing it in just in time, and they pin her down and she witnesses Joel’s last, violent moments. She’s so seething with rage at this that she can’t hear what they’re conversing about afterwards. But that doesn’t stop her from being able to follow a cold trail and find their home in Seattle! Through the magic of … patches on their jackets? Let’s say patches on their jackets.
And so it is that Ellie, Dina, and Tommy end up in Seattle. Except Tommy left a day earlier than Ellie and Dina, so by the time those two arrive they’re following a trail of corpses already left by Tommy. Let’s talk about that trail, which has three acts.
SEATTLE DAY 1
I mentioned that Part II shouts its thems louder the closer you get to its end. And the good news is, we’re nowhere near the end, so we’re still in the portion of the game I have nice things to say about. In truth, Ilike Seattle Day 1. Once you get through the main quarantine zone gate, you find yourself in a roughly three-by-six city block area, and I was impressed by how much the game opened up at this moment. Naughty Dog had already experimented with larger, more freeform maps in Uncharted 4, and I was a little afraid that they would try to go “open world” with Last of Us Part II, which I thought would play against their strengths as a developer. They didn’t—wisely, in my opinion. Downtown Seattle is big, but still feels like a crafted and directed experience.
I’m tempted to call Downtown Seattle the perfect-sized videogame level. In terms of size and detail, it reminds me of a few of my all-time favorite single-player levels in gaming history: “Battery Park” in Deus Ex, “Life of the Party” in Thief 2 [“The season’s most ballyhooed social event, and we’re not even invited?”], “Recovery” in Crysis, The “Army Warehouses” in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, “Follow the Ink” in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, and a whole bunch of levels in the new Hitman trilogy I’m not going to attempt to rank right now. These levels are all small enough to feel intricate and handmade, while simultaneously being big enough to nestle away multiple self-contained stories. They contain tons of surprises, and these surprises are well-paced, they make internal sense, and they end up informing your understanding of the place as a whole. I’ll certainly remember Helen West’s basement in Whittleton Creek more than I will any random encounter along the road in Red Dead Redemption.
Downtown Seattle doesn’t have human enemies. It’s a quiet area, which some players might find boring. It does have infected enemies, including at least one really well-staged jump scare. So you can’t let your guard down completely. But mainly, it’s about exploration, resource-gathering, and moments of conversation—and these were often the best moments of the first game, so I’m all about this. The exploration itself unfolds in a nice way. Although the area is large, the game sets up breadcrumb trails to point you in specific places, rather than just leaving you undirected. You’re looking for gas, and the first obvious place to go on the horizon is a synagogue, so you most likely head there. And as you’re exploring there, you can find to a note to a WLF hideout at Spring St and 5th Ave, which Ellie marks down on her map. [“Spring and Fifth.”] You have an actual map in this area, and Ellie progressively marks it, much like how the map gets marked up in the Silent Hill games. Actually, another game that Downtown Seattle reminds me me of is the very first Silent Hill game. And that might seem like a slight, since Silent Hill came out on the PS1, whereas Last of Us Part 2 is a big tech showpiece for the PS4. But the nine blocks that make up Old Silent Hill in the first half of that game were astonishing for the time, even more so considering that there are a couple of buildings on the map that you can enter and that have fully-rendered interiors, and items to collect, despite not serving any strict gameplay purpose. This sense of openness in Old Silent Hill wasn’t always matched by the game’s sequels, so I mean the comparison as a genuine compliment.
Anyway, you go to Spring St and 5th Ave, and there are some supplies in a diner, but there’s also a key to a pet store, and so you head several blocks south to the pet store, and it’s another WLF hideout, and there’s some environmental storytelling, and that’s nice. [“These are plans to hit a FEDRA convoy.”] And along the way, Dina has also mentioned a music store. [“There’s a music shop around here.”] So you check that out, as well. And there’s not that much in the way of supplies there, but there are ton of optional scenes, including the ability to pick up a guitar and serenade Dina to the tune of Take on Me. [“♫Take on me…♫”]
And, actually, now’s a good time to talk about Dina. Having just recently said that I was okay with Joel having bought the farm so early in the game, I do have to say that I was missing the banter between Joel and Ellie during this Downtown Seattle portion of the game. It was the only thing that felt like a letdown.
I think that Ellie and Dina have a compelling relationship. Dina is outgoing, likes to be the center of attention and drama. [“She was probably just trying to make you jealous. I didn’t … I would never …”] Is even arguably a bit of a preening narcisist. [“You wanna see something spectacular?” “You’re going to point at your face, aren’t you?” “Nothing is that spectacular.”] Ellie seems genuinely surprised at times that Dina reciprocates her romantic interest. [“How’d you do that?” “Magic.” “You’re my favorite.” “Heh.”] It’s like she can’t quite believe that the popular girl actually likes her, and doesn’t want to let her guard down. [“You wanna meet up after?” “Uhhh … okay. Maybe I’ll play guitar for you.” “Okay.”] It’s a cute dynamic. And more than being a cute dynamic, it also says something about where Ellie is now, psychologically. She seems shy and introverted, avoiding emotional vulnerability in a way that doesn’t line up 100% with what we saw back when she was 14. [“You wanna hear a joke about pizza? Never mind, it was too cheesy.”] But it makes sense, when you take into account how much her life is about hiding the truth about herself from people. [“You ain’t told not new, have you? Not Jesse, or Dina, or …” “Of course not.”] Her personality has changed, but in a way that feels consistent with her survivor’s guilt, with all of the people she’s lost. [“Her name was Riley, and she was the first to die. And then it was Tess, and then Sam.”] And the chance for her life to have meaning that she lost. [“I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered.”] And all of the secrets she’s kept in the intervening years.
But just because Ellie and Dina’s relationship is compellingly written, it doesn’t mean that their banter is up to snuff. Joel and Ellie were an odd couple. So much of their reparte was based around the generational rift of someone who remembered life pre-cordyceps, and someone who didn’t, and the culture shock that entailed.
[“They’d sell ice cream out of the truck.” “What? No way. Joel?” “Well, it’s true. This thing would drive around and play real loud, creepy music, and kids would come runnin’ out to buy ice cream.” “You’re totally fucking with me.” “Uh-uh, serious.” “Man, you lived in a strange time.” “Told you so.”]
This sense of culture shock worked best when Ellie wasn’t just ignorant of things that came before the cordyceps plague, but also more appreciative of them. The commentary she offered in the first game often served as a counterweight to player’s own behavior.
[“Man, this is kinda sad.” “What is?” “All this music that’s just sitting here. No one’s around to listen to it. I dunno. Doesn’t seem right.”]
In a sense, Ellie serves as the voice of the developer in this moment, saying: “Hey! Stop seeing this world as just a stack of supplies! Actually stop to look at all of these beautiful assets we spent hours laboring over!” And I guess maybe that’s a little obnoxious. But it’s also good procedural storytelling. The game reinforces that you should be scrounging at all times, and so that’s how the player’s going to behave. And that’s how Joel would see the world at this point. So the contrast between Ellie’s attitude and the player’s attitude highlights a character contrast between her and Joel. This cycle of mechanics prompting predictable behavior on the part of players, which in turn generates opportunities for the game to comment on that behavior in storytelling-relevant ways—it’s great! This is what made The Last of Us stand out when it first came out.
What is the essential contrast between Ellie and Dina that could lead to similar culture shock moments? Uhh … Dina is Jewish, and Ellie isn’t. [“My sister used to drag me to a synagogue all the time.”] Dina grew up outside a quarantine zone, whereas Ellie grew up inside of one. [“My sister always avoided QZs”] Dina is a bad musician. [“Oh, wow. That was … that was an interesting beat.” “Excuse me! I am a natural.”] Whereas Ellie is a good one. (Supposedly.) There’s an attempt, I guess, to draw contrasts between these characters, but it just can’t match the contrast between Ellie and Joel. And there’s this weird recurring attempt to resurrect the generational divide, but have Ellie be the person who now knows things about the pre-apocalyptic world. Because Joel I guess taught her them? [“What the hell happened out here?” “I’m guessing the military bombed the shit out of this place.” “Why would they do that?” “Well, they would sometimes destroy parts of the city that were lost to the infected. Or to rebels.”] It feels a little bit like seasons 8 and 9 of The X-Files, where agent Doggett was the new “skeptic” agent, so Scully suddenly had to switch characters completely to act as the show’s designated Mulder. [“But if nothing less than a block of steel could stop this far, then ipso facto it could not a have been a man standing in the street last night.” “Certainly no ordinary man.” “How about you be my groupie?” “Your what?” “Well, okay. Bands apparently had these hardcore fans that would just follow them around.”]
So, yeah. The banter between Ellie and Dina was my first inkling that Part II might not reach the heights of the first game. But Downtown Seattle is still so cool! You can find a bank, and the skeletons left by a robbery-gone-wrong. It really just feels like they wanted to have fun with the setting, and this big, less-linear style of level allowed them to include bits that maybe wouldn’t have fit with the overall tone of the first game. [“The bag’s full!” “Man, if we were back in the old world … hoo, we’d be rich.”]
This is also as good a moment as any to point out that there have been some changes to infected behavior, which I think are improvements. The clickers, in particular—in the first game, they’re introduced as enemies that “see with sound,” like a bat. [“So what, are they blind?” “Sort of. They see using sound.” “Like bats?” “Like bats. If you hear one clicking, you gotta hide. That’s how they spot you.”] Except they don’t. An enemy that could “see with sound” wouldn’t walk right past you as long as you’re not making noise. What’s actually going on is that they sense motion—they’re like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. They don’t notice you as long as you’re not moving. Part II changes their behavior so that their initial description in the first game actually applies. They actually can detect your presence, even when you’re standing still, if they face you while they’re clicking. [“Look out!”] So you have to use the level geometry and make sure they don’t do that. And I think that’s good. It makes them more dangerous, so the game has to throw fewer of them at you. And it makes the mixed-clicker-runner sections of the game feel more dynamic.
Ellie and Dina leave Downtown Seattle once they get gas and work a powered gate. [“It worked!”] And infiltrate a hotel … [“Well, there’s no welcoming committee”] … where they find one of the crew that killed Joel, already killed by Tommy. [“Tommy did this.”] I don’t think this guy ever gets a name. If he did, I missed it. Then, the player is forced to walk into a trap. Ellie is really bad at keeping her horses alive. This is a running theme in this series. Ellie kills Jordan, another one of the crew that came to Jackson, as Jordan is in the process of strangling Dina. This sets off the game’s first real combat encounter with human enemies, and it’s very much in line with what players will have come to expect from combat in the first game. This is the first area where you get to try out stealth, and that does have some new aspect compared to the first game. But pursuing a stealth strategy in this section is hard, even on the easier difficulty levels, because of some annoying scripted moments where more enemies appear from set points. [“Over there! Look out!”] So I’m going to put off talking about those new aspects until a little later.
After this indoor encounter, the game opens up again. And I really like this area, too. I was really damn excited about what the game was doing with scale when I first played Day 1. There are human enemies patrolling now, but the area is still big, and the streets are wide enough that you can carefully skirt past people, or just wait for them to pass, if you want to conserve ammo and play non-lethally. There’s one scripted moment in the first game where if you wait long enough for a conversation between some hunters to play out they’ll move on and keep patrolling, and you can move past them without engaging. That was a nice stealth option, but it was just an isolated moment. Here, the map is much larger, and the patrols are genuinely much more mobile. So there’s a lot of opportunities for similar moments that aren’t as rigidly scripted. You might wait for a patrol to pass, enter a building, find a workbench, and start using it, only to hear voices. [“Ellie, another patrol.”] And realize you’re now cornered in a tight spot. And if and when a firefight does break out, the map is big enough that you can run away and genuinely lose a group of pursuers, slip back into stealth. There are also infected on this map, and if you’re feeling clever, you can antagonize them and funnel them toward the human patrols, staging an AI fight and slipping by while your enemies are distracted. Turning infected AI enemies against human AI enemies was something the series introduced in the Left Behind DLC for the first game. But Left Behind reduced your ammo so severely that you were almost required to do it to get past certain spots. Or at least it was made very obvious that it was a smart option. I like the sense of discovery in this map as you figure out you can do it. It’s one option among many, it’s less obvious, and that makes it more rewarding when you successfully pull it off.
Ellie and Dina head to a TV station, looking for another one of the crew named Leah. Along the way, there’s some environmental storytelling that gradually introduces a new faction, the Seraphites. Sepharites? Sepha … seraphites. The first is a mural with an optional “look-at” prompt, the second is a painting that the UI actively forces Ellies to interact with, before you can open up a trailer and progress through the area. When you finally get to the TV station, Leah is there, but she’s already been killed by the Seraphite faction. That’s three of Joel’s killers checked off the list now: one killed by Tommy, one kiled by Ellie while saving Dina, and another killed by Seraphites.
WLF enemies flood the TV station, and you flee into the subway system. When you finally get out, Dina is tired, so you hole up in an old movie theater for the night. Find a radio, play some guitar, and leave a fire escape unsecured in a way the game calls your attention to. [“Enjoy your death trap, ladies!’’] That’s it for Day 1, and we launch into the first of the game’s many intersticial flashback sequences.
It’s one year after the events of the first game. Joel is here. He’s teaching Ellie guitar. [“That’s starting to sound like something.” “Urgh, I suck.”] He taught her how to swim, which explains the lack of palette-puzzles in this game! And he takes her to a long-abandoned museum of natural history. This part is really charming. Joel and Ellie’s banter is back at full force—this is them at their friendliest, and the dialogue and vocal performances just really sing, selling this whole day out. [“Pretty sure these are velociraptors. Yeah. Or, at least that’s what they called them in this movie I saw.”] It feels like Naughty Dog’s 30-million-budget version of an indie game, where each interaction is just about characterization, getting at the emotional core of these characters rather than pursuing traditional gameplay systems. [“That is a hat on a dinosaur.”] I was reminded of Firewatch. [“Uh, hey, I found a structure that might have been an outhouse once, I think.” “Woah, uh, you don’t need my permission to go to the bathroom. But, you know, use abandoned shitters at your own peril.”] And also of the games by the small indie studio Turnfollow, such as Wide Ocean Big Jacket, which is a great low-stakes hangout comedy in game form. There aren’t really meaningful decisions to be made in this section. I think it basically comes down to whether you make Joel wear the hat, or keep the hat in-hand and keep placing it on every dinosaur’s head. But the writing is incredibly charming. I especially liked the detail of Joel acting knowledgeable about dinosaurs, only to admit over and over again that all of his knowledge is based on the Jurassic Park movies. [“Did you see that in a movie too?” “Actually, yeah.”] The bit with the lunar reentry pod is a long reference to a bit of throwaway dialogue in the first game. [“I would have wanted to be an astronaut.” “That a fact?” “Yeah.”] Which shows an impressive commitment to consistency, if nothing else. Overall, the tone of this segment reminded me less of the first game than it did Ellie’s scenes with Riley in the Left Behind DLC … [“Is it a dinosaur?” “Is it a dinosaur?”] … which shares a similar commitment to visually expressing Ellie’s joy. Then the flashback gets darker—quite literally. Ellie gets trapped in a windowless part of the museum, and someone has forebodingly scrawled a final confession on the walls. There’s no danger in this space. [“Oh, shit.”] Ellie just ends up reminded about the Fireflies, which is still the looming shadow over her relationship with Joel. And I really like that there’s no danger here. [“Come out, fucker.”] It’s another smart thing the game is emulating from indie games. You don’t always need to switch over to combat when you want to create tension. Videogames are an audiovisual medium, and they have all the same tools at their disposal for controlling mood and tone that cinema does. Sometimes if a character is psychologically in a dark place, it’s just best to put them in a dark place for a bit. An actual combat encounter would be too exciting, and it would work against this carefully-crafted feeling of dread.
SEATTLE DAY 2
Dina is preggers, so she gets some maternal leave from the murder factory. Ellie starts out this day alone, and now is a good time to talk about violence and stealth in this game.
In the previous video, I said that the inclusion of stealth was thematically important for The Last of Us. These games are about holding on to one’s humanity in a violent world, so it makes sense to at least give the player the option to not murder every person they see onscreen. Part II is explicitly about the choices we make that lead us to violence, and while I think that the game leans too heavily on that flimsy theme, collapsing into a pile of contradictions by its conclusion, at least it can be said that, early on, it specifically calls your attention to the violence you’re doing, and gives you options for not doing quite as much violence.
Most notably, when you kill people, their comrades call out their names in shock. [“It’s Miles! They took him out!”]
Now, technically speaking, this isn’t entirely new. Far Cry 2 did the same thing way back in 2008, with the fate of TJ the new guy. [“Aw, shit. He got the new guy.” “T.J. His name was T.J.” “Doesn’t matter now.”]
You probably noticed that the video of that moment was quite low-quality. I didn’t capture it myself. I pulled it from another YouTube video, uploaded by MattyDienhoff. So: thanks, Matty! I really wanted to capture my own footage of that line, in higher quality, so much so that I replayed the entirety of Far Cry 2. Which is not a short game. It took me, like, 20 hours. And I just kept persisting with it, our of sheer misplaced pride, and obsessiveness, and COVID lockdown madness. But although I successfully got a few other moments where NPCs lament the deaths of people I just killed, like this moment: [“What’s wrong?” “He’s dead! He’s dead!” “Ok, look sharp! Someone’s out there!”] And this moment: [“Oh, no.” “Jesus, what happened?” “Someone killed him. Someone fucking killed him!”] I actually never got the TJ line in my entire replay of the game. Not even when I went to the same area Matty used in his footage, lobbing grenades in the same direction, in a vain hope that maybe the number of NPCs in this area and the way the lines of sight work would somehow make getting that line here some small percentage more likely.
Which I think makes an important point, which is why I’m admitting all of the time I wasted on this, despite the fact that it shows an utterly embarrassing lack of time management skills. The “his name was TJ” line was something that stuck with me about Far Cry 2, so much so that it was still lodged in my brain even though I played the game a decade ago. [“I’m still alive. It doesn’t matter what they say—he dies like everyone. He’s just a guy, and he’s gonna die. Today he’s gonna die.”] But it’s just one line of NPC banter in an open-world game with dozens, if not hundreds, of possible NPC barks and exchanges. [“Move in and I’ll cover you!” “Why the fuck do I have to move in?”] You’re not even guaranteed to hear it if you play the entire fucking game! It was an extremely memorable moment for me, but it’s not the result of an in-game system that assigns every NPC a name and ensures that they’ll have an opportunity to be properly mourned by their colleagues. And in The Last of Us Part II, it is. [“Jorge!”] Naughty Dog built that system. They built it so that you would have lots and lots of opportunities to feel bad. [“It’s Carey!” “What, what?” “They got him!”]
But you can also not feel quite so bad, by using stealth.
In the previous video, I listed about four areas in the first game I had successfully gotten through without killing anyone. In this game, that list is even higher. On “hard” and above, it’s often very difficult to get through areas following a no-kill rule, but it’s definitely possible in most areas. And it becomes an even more attractive option on lower difficulties. I haven’t tested the game to its absolute limits, too see exactly how few people you can get away with killing and still beat the game, but I think it’s probably possible to only kill only 5 or 6 people as Ellie in the Seattle portion of the game. Which is still more than no people. [“Fuck! Lee! Fucking ambush!”] But it’s not terrible by videogame standards.
Part II gives you more options to to use if you’re trying for a minimal-kill pacifist run. You can now lie completely prone in addition to couching, which means you can hide in tall grass and under certain environmental features. This is useful for short stretches, but it also gives you a false sense of security. It was a real nasty surprise when the WLF soldiers started peering under the solar panels on the roof of the school, and I had nowhere else to go. [“Got them! Right over here!”] And the game is just plain shit when it comes to communicating to you when the grass is actually hiding you, and when it isn’t. [“Thought I saw something. I’ll check it out. Look!”] This is not a traditional stealth game, where you have perfect information about cover and your enemies’ cone of vision. This is what I might term an “experiential stealth game,” where, by design, you’re supposed to feel a certain amount of “oh shit” moments where you underestimated the enemy’s abilities. [“It’s her! Right over here!”] It is what it is. It’s not really fair. If you want perfect fairness, you should stop lying prone and just use the level geometry.
One thing you can’t use in Day 2 is sheer distance, which was useful in Day 1. It really feels like Naughty Dog couldn’t figure out how to properly ramp up difficulty while keeping the large map sizes, so as the days progress and the difficulty gets harder, the maps also get smaller, more in line with the general scale of the first game.
It’s disappointing. But thankfully it’s not the only way they ramp up difficulty. Day 2 also introduces dogs. [“Got a scent, girl?”] Dogs sniff out your trail and pursue you, and this acts as a sort of countdown timer. You can’t just crouch in a safe spot for minutes at a time, waiting for the patrol routes to line up and present the perfect opening. Because something’s on your tail and you have to keep moving. I like what dogs add to the mix. Stealth gets more interesting when you can’t wait out enemies forever, and need to take calculated risks. And this fits well with the scrappier, less perfect stealth that Last of Us is going for.
Ellie thinks she’s going to rendezvous with Tommy, so she’s surprised when she meets up with Jesse instead, who also made the independent journey from Wyoming to Seattle, and now … well, frankly now we’re just stretching credulity. You have a car chase where you do have to kill some people, then you return to the movie theater and get Flashback #2.
Flashback #2 gives us a moodier, colder Ellie who’s clearly not buying Joel’s shit anymore, and seems moments away from calling him out on his lies at any time, even when they’re in life-threatening situations. [“I’ve never met another immune person.”] There’s combat in this flashback, so it’s not a bold gambit like the first one is. It builds to something that’s left unresolved by the end, and it marks the point where I was officially getting annoyed with the game’s fussy, stop-start approach to storytelling.
Speaking of stop-start, day 2 isn’t actually over! That was just an intermission. Ellie heads back on her own again, and you get a series of buildings and arenas that are again similar in scale and feel to the first game. Also, to be fair, one cool area, where you first meet the Seraphites and hear their whistling ways, and have to sneak through ferns to get past them. Finally Ellie finally reaches the hospital and interrogates a girl at knifepoint. [“Hands up.”] And then stabs her in the neck for no reason! Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—she stabs her in the neck in self defense. You see that, there, where the girl feebly fights for her life? Yeah, totally justifies killing her. And as I watched this poor girl’s lifeblood pour out of her neck, I thought of all of the time I had spent painstakingly stealthing my way through the proceeding areas, and how Naughty Dog had just forced this moment on me in a cutscene. Bbut also didn’t even had the gall to go all the way with this moment. Nope, they just had to have that plausible deniability of “but she had a knife!” And this girl had a PlayStation Vita improbably still in working condition in year 2038 of the post-apocalypse, and you can hear “Hydrogen” by Moon coming out of it, and oh my god she was playing Hotline Miami when she died, a game about committing senseless violence because a voice on the phone tells you to, and oh come the fuck on.
And then after sneaking very carefully and not killing anyone and not hearing anyone’s friends call out their name in shock, you meet Nora, Ellie’s target. And she seems like she’s genuinely remorseful and suffering from PTSD after what happened. [“You still hear his screams?” “What?” “I hear them every night.”] HA HA HA HA JUST KIDDING. [“Yeah, that little bitch got what he deserved.”] Nora says something mean, so Ellie beats her to death! See? There’s your prompt! Press square to beat her to death. You can just sit there. That prompt won’t go away until you press square and beat her to death. If you don’t hit it, Ellie just gets more and more furious.
There’s a lot to say about that button prompt, but really I can’t get over this line of dialogue: [“Yeah, that little bitch got what he deserved.”] It evinces an astounding lack of self-preservation instincts on Nora’s part, and it also evinces The Importance of Being a Dick in these games.
In Naughty Dog’s moral universe, people deserve to die if they’re dicks. And people have a tendency to turn in to dicks right when it’s their designated time to die. [“Yeah, that little bitch got what he deserved.”]
Let’s talk about the Fireflies, at the end of the first Last of Us. I praised this ending in the first part, but it’s not without problems. I didn’t mind those problems when looking at the game in isolation, but they became worse in retrospect. Because Part II has the same problems and is much more shameless about them.
Who are the Fireflies? They are a protest group, trying to wrest the country away from marshal law and resurrect the legitimate elected US government. They’re akin to the Human Project in Children of Men, trying to solve the medical mystery that has doomed humankind. They’re also a bunch of terrorists with cultlike symbology. [“Have you found the light yet?” “Oh, har har.”] They have a surprisingly militaristic structure for a group that supposedly wants to resurrect democracy. And their dangerous scientific incompetence rivals the Umbrella Corporation. [“Jesus!”] That’s a lot of things to be, and it gives the writers a diverse hand with the ability to play radically different cards when convenient.
When Tess and Joel first take the deal to transport Ellie, Joel is nervous about dealing with the Fireflies. But he doesn’t seem to be nervous because he thinks they’ll, like, murder him or whatever. He’s just concerned that they’re being systematically executed by the authorities, and no one will be left to give the promised payment of guns. [“I just hope there’s someone alive to pay us.”] He’s ultimately right about this. And just for reference on Joel’s payscale, he and Tess are promised a shipment of guns for the task of transporting Ellie just a couple of miles, from the inside of the quarantine zone out to the capitol building.
That exchange goes south, so Joel ends up carting Ellie safely across a huge swath of the continent, from Boston to Salt Lake City. Marlene is completely astounded that he made this trip. [“You came all this way. How’d you do it?”] And how do they greet him? By knocking him out when he’s attempting to give CPR to Ellie, on whose survival the whole of humanity depends. They just knock him out when he’s trying to revive her! And you might say, “Woah, hold up, they didn’t know, maybe the CPR thing was just a ruse—after all, remember the ruse that the hunters use in Pittsburg, which Joel immediately sees through! Maybe the Fireflies think this is just a ‘my travelling companion isn’t breathing’ ruse!” To which I would respond: the soldiers that knock Joel out are specifically intercepting him because they suspect who he and Ellie are! This is established in a note in a hospital. When Joel and Ellie were making their way through Salt Lake, a scout spotted them and radioed in. Based on the description Marlene hears she sends out men specifically because she thinks it may be Joel bringing Ellie into the city. And she doesn’t think to say to the men, “by the way, it’s important that Ellie be brought in in one piece, because she’s the savior of humankind? And also Joel is probably looking for us and he just performed an unbelievable miracle by getting her across the country safely.” [“You came all this way.”] So maybe don’t rough him up too much, either?
But they do rough him up. And apparently we’re supposed to believe that they finish administering CPR on Ellie, getting her breathing again, but she doesn’t regain consciousness. And while she’s unconscious, they prep her for immediate surgery. This seems really hasty, for no discernable reason. [“She’s being prepped for surgery.” “What the hell do you mean, surgery?”] They’re rushing through it so fast they don’t give Ellie a chance to medically consent to this fatal procedure. [“I’m aware of the situation.” “And you’re okay with killing her?” “I’m okay with developing a vaccine that will help save millions of lives. How many Fireflies have died for less?” “That was their choice!”] Yeah, and it could be Ellie’s choice, if you just give her time to wake up! [“If this was your daughter…”] I’m sorry Marlene, but seriously what the fuck? We don’t need this hypothetical about his daughter. Ellie is capable of giving consent, if you just wait. And you know what? I have a pretty good idea of what she’d say … [“I’m still waiting for my turn.” “I was supposed to die die in that hospital.”]
When Joel wakes up, Marlene marvels at his perseverance and dedication to his job. [“You came all this way.”] And then says that they won’t be paying him. Or, rather, that his payment will be his life, because they’ve decided not to kill him. [“Don’t waste this gift, Joel.”] So his compensation for carting Ellie a couple of miles was going to be a crate of weapons. But his compensation for carting Ellie 2,431 miles is apparently “we refrain from killing you.” That’s … a hell of a sliding scale for compensation. They don’t let Joel see Ellie, because she’s being prepped for surgery. [“You can’t.”] Again, the need to do this immediately, without consulting Ellie, without conducting a barrage of other non-fatal blood and tissue sample tests over the course of weeks before you directly jump into the brain-ectomy, is never explained. And then they march him out at gunpoint, assuring him that although his payment is supposedly non-death, if he makes even the slightest wrong move they’ll execute him instantly. [“March him out of here. He tries anything—shoot him.”] They don’t even return his backpack to him. They confiscate his stuff! And yeah, given the circumstances I could understand why they’re keeping his weapons from him. But he has literally nothing on his person! Do they really expect him to march all the way back to Jackson, or Boston, without so much as an filtration mask and a Clif bar? How is that not an even more brutal death sentence than just shooting him point-blank? [“I said keep walking!”]
So anyway, Joel kills the asshole putting him on this death march during a cutscene. And then we regain control, and we have to fight our way through waves of fireflies. The faction we’ve been trying to catch up with for the entire game becomes enemies we’re supposed to burn to death now. And yeah, with a lot of patience and some luck you can stealth your way through chunks of this level. And the game even has one cool moment where if you reach down to grab some supplies you’ll automatically be crouched just as a new wave of enemies is scripted to run past. So it’s definitely designed with at least some stealth in mind. But right after that there’s an unavoidable scripted combat encounter when the emergency exit doors burst open. So no matter your play-style, you’re going to kill at least one Firefly grunt. [“Shit!”] And we’re supposed to be okay with this. Because the game has just given us the impression that they’re enormous dicks. That’s the one unforgivable sin in the moral universe of The Last of Us. Don’t be a dick … or you’ll get your dick shot off.
The storytelling reason why they have to be dicks at this exact moment is obvious. Imagine if Joel had delivered Ellie, and she actually consented to being operated on. Joel, meanwhile, had been properly compensated for his work beyond “I.O.U. one not getting murded.” Maybe they give him a lifetime’s supply of canned bacon, and promise he’ll be first in line to get Ellie’s brain shot into his ass. Under these circumstances, given what we know about Joel, he’d still probably refuse to let Ellie die, and would take steps to abduct her away from these people. But the player might not particularly like this decisio. If there’s even an ounce of sympathy for the Fireflies, the player might be thrown out of allegiance with Joel’s actions and desires. Hence, the importance of the Fireflies being dicks. It allows the game narrative to have its cake and eat it too. The player can be thinking: Ah, yes, the classic philosophical dilemma of the needs of the many versus the needs of the one. Perhaps Joel is making a grave moral mistake here in not allowing Ellie the chance to give her life for a future cure. While also thinking: I’m okay mowing down these fireflies because they’re assholes. They’re just fucking fascist assholes, who take people who have made incredible efforts to help them in their cause [“You came all this way.”] and then beat them and toss them aside. [“Give me an excuse.”]
It works in the moment, but the more you think about it the more it becomes obvious that the writer is cheating. I don’t mind it in The Last of Us so much, because it’s used sparingly at the ending. And it does deliver a genuinely great ending. [“I swear.”] But in in Part II it starts here. [“Yeah, that little bitch got what he deserved.”] And we still have a long way to go in this game. We’re only about a third of the way in, and already I found myself groaning, and begging the game not to make me do the thing.
There’s a moment that I didn’t talk about, before you reach the hospital. If you use a certain upgrade workbench, you automatically get ambushed. [“Ahhhh …. fuck! I got her!”] It’s kind of cool, actually. [“Let go of me!”] The things these WLF soldiers are saying don’t make any sense, until you realize they’re actually WLF deserters, and they’re mistaken about who you are. [“We’re not going back!”] These people aren’t your enemies. They’re just confused. Ellie doesn’t realize what’s going on, but I didn’t particularly want to kill them all, so when the final deserter surrendered, I fumbled with the controls for a few seconds. There’s no way to holster your weapon outright, but I was at least trying to find the least-threatening weapon to hold. And then this happened: [“You don’t have to do this.”]
And I can’t think of a better microcosm for this game. It wants to have something to say about violence, but it can’t stop talking out of both sides of its mouth. So you get a character saying “you don’t have to do this,” in the exact moment she’s pulling a gun to shoot you with, [“You don’t have to do this”] proving beyond a doubt that yes, indeed, you do have to do this, because these characters are not programmed to allow for mercy as an option. [“Jesus.”] The detail in this woman’s blown-up face is horrifying, but what’s even more horrifying is that this is her intended end state. Despite what she insisted [“You don’t have to do this”], there was no other option. It was always going to end this way.
No matter how long you wait to hit that square button.
SEATTLE DAY 3
Viewers, I was not happy by the start of Day 3, and it did not help at all that this is the day the game decided to be in love with its own cleverness. Jesse makes some deep points about the cycle of violence and the ambiguity of who the instigator is in this particular situation, and Ellie gets defensive. [“You ever worry they’re going to come back to Jackson after us?” “What do you mean?” “I mean, we’re going through a lot of their people. In their city.” “Because of what they did.” “Didn’t Abby and her friends come to Jackson because of something Joel did?” “This place isn’t like Jackson.”] And this would be a fine conversation, except … well … [“you don’t have to do this”] … I already know the game isn’t playing fair. In fact, Ellie’s defensiveness mirrors Naughty Dog’s own position. [“These people are trying to kill everyone around them. I mean, they shot you on sight, didn’t they?” “Yeah. They did.”] After all, they’re the ones that are constantly making sloppy stand-your-ground self-defense justifications for the violence in their game. This is followed up by another moment: If you stand around long enough in the bookstore, Jesse starts talking about what he’s going to do when he makes it out of this. [“So assuming we survive this…” “Uh-huh…” “I say as soon as we get back, we get drunk and play some board games.” “Oh yeah?” “I wanna feel normal.”] Which is already ironic, because he’s not going to (spoilers). But the real icing on the cake is the fact that if you sneak through the next WLF-controlled arena, a hostile NPC is having the exact same conversation with one of his friends. I guess it’s a nice touch. The only way to hear this conversation is to take a stealthy approach, which means you’re more likely to hear the moral about humanity on both sides if you’re already refraining from killing these people. But still: it’s a bog-standard “humanity on both sides of war” moral, delivered in a game that just made you press square to violate the Geneva conventions.
Ellie reneges on her promise to help save Tommy, and instead insists on going out on her own to kill Abby. [“He can take care of himself.” “Jesus Christ.” “The best way to help Tommy is to go after Abby.”] By this point we’re deep into “Ellie’s downward spiral,” which, I want to be clear, is a character arc that could have worked. I’m not against it in principle. But the problem is, again, that the writing feels like it’s attempting to paper over earlier deficiencies.
I have to say I do like Ellie’s final, desparate push to the Ferris wheel in the face of watery hell. It gives off a real sense of spiritual desperation, in no small part I think because it recalls a pre-existing lineage in the visual language of videogames. I was getting real strong echos of the Silent Hill series here again—in particular, the boatride to the Lakeview Hotel in Silent Hill 2, and the swim through the freezing water to the lighthouse at the end of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Both of those games share a sense of real spiritual collapse on the part of their protagonists, and by the time you get to those respective moments you mostly just feel hollowed-out, heading to one final location that will probably just house horrible revelations. So, yeah. If Naughty Dog were going to borrow from any games in this particular moment, might as well steal from the best.
Ellie infiltrates the aquarium, and you press square to not die against a guard dog, and then press square to not die against Mel. Oh, and by the way, as a result of you pressing square, Ellie kills that dog, and kills Owen, and kills Mel, who is pregnant. See, they’re … they’re just like us. They’re just … they’re us.
Jesse, Tommy, and Ellie all return to the theater, where Abby shows up, pulls a gun, and kills Jesse. Damn, guess Jessie won’t be playing Cones of Dunshire. Abby despairs at the fact that she and her friends deliberately left Tommy and Ellie alive to show mercy and break the cycle of violence, and they squandered that opportunity. [“We let you both live. And you wasted it!”] And you know what? She’s got a point. I mean, over the last few hours I’ve really begun to find myself at odds with Ellie’s decisions, and come to resent playing as her, and oh holy shit, hold up, we’re playing as Abby again!
And this is a good place to break for this video. In the next video, we’ll look at the Abby portions of the game—with a bit less moment-by-moment commentary, a bit more large-scale argument. Until then, thanks, as always, for watching.