Reflecting on The Last of Us Part II
Thoughts on a controversial title
By Graeme Sutherland
Image courtesy of The Last of Us Part II press kit on IGDB
When I reflect on my experiences with The Last of Us Part II, I think the reason I loved it so much might be part of the reason it continues to receive bitter hatred from the gaming community: the entire experience is built around painful reflection. When Ellie or Abby kill an enemy, for example, the victim doesn’t just feel like a lifeless avatar, and I’m compelled to consider the morality of their violence. For me, the result of this was not just more consideration about the decisions they made, but the disturbing sensation that I was somewhat complicit in their brutality. The game frequently put me in situations like this where I had to engage more consciously with the unforgiving world and its characters. Personally, I thought this was a stroke of genius, but for many, it didn’t work, and they were dragged through a narrative they despised.
Video games are largely about giving control to the player, with freedom-of-choice becoming an increasingly raised talking point on the release of any given triple-A, single-player title. But Part II is an exercise in limiting this control and forcing the player into uncomfortable territory. Joel, the beloved antihero of the previous game, is brutally murdered while Ellie and the player lie helpless. The narrative twists into a revenge plot that the player can empathise with, yet they are forced to commit extremely violent acts while being taken through painful decisions they have no control over. This culminates in a shift of perspective where the player is thrust into the character of Abby — the alleged villain they spend most of the game hunting. The player really has no choice but to consciously empathise with Abby or uselessly fight against the tide and resent the game for putting them in an unwanted position.
Of course, this wasn’t the only reason the negative response to the game was so overpowering. For one thing, the title received significant backlash upon release due to its inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and themes, arguably because these themes are rarely included in mainstream video games, therefore allowing the formation (and normalisation) of homophobic gaming communities. Additionally, while certainly not representative of all negative reviews, the bigotry that was present in many critical responses is emblematic of a larger gaming community that permits a culture of excessive entitlement and intolerance — a community that is undoubtedly the source of the death threats received by Laura Bailey, the voice actor who played Abby. In less severe cases, this community can also be attributed to the fact that the game hit its lowest Metacritic audience score the day after its release — far before anyone can be reasonably expected to complete a 25-hour story. This response is entirely unreasonable, because while The Last of Us Part II contains a challenging narrative, it is undeniably thematically appropriate for the series.
The first game begins with the murder of Joel’s daughter, a brutal tragedy that essentially mirrors the death of Joel in Part II. While Joel’s death was arguably more effective due to his presence as the first game’s protagonist, this fits very neatly into the unforgiving world that the games establish. The difference, however, is that while The Last of Us portrays a growing relationship between Joel and Ellie that offers an ounce of hope in its brutal landscape, Part II subverts this through a more painful narrative about grief and forgiveness. This kind of story is unusual in mainstream video games, and players of triple-A titles are rarely asked to engage with narratives in the same way: what other title demands the player to empathise with the alleged villain while they actively grieve with the character seeking revenge? Outrage at a request like this has to be expected, but it’s not a symptom of a badly designed game, but an ambitious narrative that challenges its audience in unusual ways.
Ultimately, the vicious reaction the game is continuing to receive over a year after its release is less about the quality of the title and more about the subverted expectations of a gaming community that is more familiar with fan-service than experimental narratives. Part II remains amazing to me because of how it serves as a reminder of what stories in video games have the potential to do. No other medium can drag a viewer to unwanted extremes and force them to reflect on them quite like one that puts you in a character’s shoes and gives you a controller. It’s definitely not for everyone and I think that’s okay, but it makes me excited about the various possibilities this medium has when developers have the means to experiment with their stories.