A version of this essay has been published at The Philadelphia Globe.
The following essay, while not explicit, is suggestive of details that might be considered spoilers for The Last of Us Part II. Reader discretion is advised.
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.” – Pearl Jam, “Future Days”
What is the cost of revenge?
But it wasn’t the question of revenge itself that Ellie wrestled with in a pivotal scene towards the third act of The Last of Us Part II. No, our protagonist is at grips with something far more complex than that—an ambiguous collage of guilt, commitment, redemption, and emancipation from the horrors of her nightmares. Every choice is a shade of gray, a sacrifice of something for another, and upon each of her shoulders reside the burdens of obligation and obsession.
It’s a moment I will never forget—a turn of events that felt all too real, upending what would have otherwise been an idyllic, reluctantly satisfactory conclusion any lesser writer would have settled for—and it’s the first time a video game has moved me utterly to tears.
I’m sitting in my apartment, squinting at the sun through a gray fog as the clouds roll by. Rain is running down spokes of the balcony outside and pooling up in the parking lot—the sun’s glare cutting its muted radiance across the blacktop. It’s a beautiful summer storm, and its timing feels only too fitting.
It’s 7:30pm on a Thursday evening towards the tail-end of June. This part of the world has been in a state of pandemic for the last three months. We’re all disconnected. I rung up a friend over the weekend just to remind myself that they’re still out there. Nothing has resembled normal.
The end credits are rolling for The Last of Us Part II. Like most who’ve completed the game since its launch last week, I’m exhausted. But it’s not a frustrated or relieved exhaustion; rather, it’s an exhaustion from having experienced something incredibly human, and while it drained me to tears, I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to say goodbye to characters I’ve spent the last week bonding with, empathizing with as if I was right there in their shoes, because I was.
Naughty Dog has elevated the proof of video games as a dramatic medium. Canadian communication thinker, Marshall McLuhan, is famous for saying, “the medium is the message,” and I can’t believe its taken this long for such a powerful message to be realized through interactive entertainment. What Naughty Dog have produced is one of the most gripping and human narratives I’ve ever experienced—both in terms of its excellent direction and writing, but also in the flawless execution of its chosen medium. Nothing was sacrificed in the years spent making this game, which in-and-of-itself is a subject of broader, industry-wide controversy. But it seems as though, at least critically, almost no-one can argue that the final product is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The Last of Us Part II is a painstakingly crafted work of genius, the best video game I’ve ever played in the two decades since I first picked up a controller, a monumental triumph for the industry, and above all, a story the world desperately needs right now. Because at its core, The Last of Us Part II is uniquely equipped to invoke the response of all great art—empathy, a call to change one’s life—and it achieves this in spades.
Over the course of twenty-four hours of playtime I was confronted with the weight of actions I was used to taking in video games, but burdened with a gravity of which I had never felt before. The game takes this medium’s infamous penchant for violence and horror to realistic extremes of which I’d never seen, and while this example is not the first to have ever encouraged such moral reflection from its player, it’s done in such a gratuitous and realistic way that I flinched and squirmed with every enemy I took out, every attack dog I took down, and everything I did to survive.
What is apparent from the start is the meticulous care that’s been put into the game’s central gameplay component—its combat system. It’s fluid as silk, cuts like a knife through butter, and would have been immensely gratifying had it not been for the layer of realism that envelops it. Names of comrades are yelled across skirmishes as allies are taken out with an arsenal of articulately controlled weapons, hordes of infected crone and screech in languages beyond pain, and bodies are gutted—including my own character’s, should I stumble enough times—in a countless variety of ways. I had an unsettling sense in the game’s early hours that the non-player-characters (NPCs) I was killing somehow mattered, and that there was something more significant to their artificial existence than the normal NPCs of video games typically let on. As it turned out, my suspicions were justified.
In a not quite unexpected twist, the game forces the player to reflect upon its protagonists in the second act, and I found myself standing in the shoes of my enemy, back in time on day one. Characters I had taken out just minutes before with a reluctant but tense sense of accomplishment were now my close allies—people I had, over time, begun to care about—and when their time inevitably came it was heartbreaking to know that just hours before I was the one behind the controller, self-righteously taking them down.
The Last of Us Part II doesn’t give the player much of a choice in these matters, especially not in regards to its main plot-points, and this design decision would inevitably have been met with criticism had it not been for the excellent writing that drove the story forward. This isn’t a game about player choice—it doesn’t care what choices the player would make. Naughty Dog’s games have never been about that. On the contrary, this is a game about being in another person’s shoes entirely, being the momentum that literally drives their actions, and if it weren’t for the careful execution of its narrative and the excellence of its writing, the whole endeavor would have fallen completely on its face.
Having no control over character actions is nothing new—it was the default mode of most narrative-based games for decades before branching narratives became so commonplace that they’ve now been taken for granted (a trend that has lead to some unfortunate corner-cutting and check-boxing, ironically even by developers that helped to pioneer the concept). Naughty Dog leveraged this inherent limitation by using their fans’ implicit bias garnered by the previous game against them, and I believe they’ve done so justifiably and with grace.
Fans of the first game tend to be of the opinion that Joel did the right thing at the end, if only because they were lead to believe so by empathizing with a character they had spent so much time with. The sequel focuses on the idea that there is another side to the story—as there is to all stories—and through the power of agency that only this medium can offer, gives the player the opportunity to acknowledge an equally empathetic—and quite often strikingly parallel—perspective of the other side.
Creative director, Neil Druckmann, has stated that the game was inspired by his experiences growing up in Israel, and it’s something that’s always stuck in my mind as I was playing. In a sense, I wonder how biased my initial take on the story is, having had such an analogy to work with. It made for a clearer lens in which I understood his vision, but I wonder how much I would have picked up on had I not known such a thing going in.
Regardless, I think there’s enough on the surface to drive home the story’s key themes: those of war and fanaticism, revenge and vendetta, survival and justice, mental health and post-traumatic stress, and embracing and acknowledging the diversity of the human experience amongst its entire cast of characters—driving home the point that these are human themes we all share, regardless of our unique background.
Further complementing these themes are countless notes found littered throughout the entire journey, each telling their own stories, sometimes even in small serials that give each area its own context and history. These notes add dimension to the world, and I found parallels in their scribbled recollections to coincide just enough with the main characters’ own that they helped to emphasize how these struggles are truly universal.
The written word is used to great extent in fleshing out characters in this game, and Ellie’s journal was something I routinely returned to as she went about her travels. Reading her stream-of-consciousness diaries, her struck-through poetry and musings, made me feel as though I knew her intimately and identified with her struggles, inevitably making her decisions all the more gut-wrenching with the knowledge that I was the agent enlisted to guide her through them.
It’s a testament to the creative minds behind this project that their formula works with such surgical precision to drive their message home, and as a consequence, the relationship between myself and these characters is amongst the strongest I’ve ever had with characters in fiction. These people are not psychopaths—they’re not deranged killers, maniacs, or virtual surrogates for the player’s reckless impulses. They’re fleshed-out products of circumstance and environment. They’re just as human as you and I.
We are all capable of darkness, and that is what the game is trying to emphasize by deliberately omitting any opportunity for player choice. In doing so, it forces the player to see shadows of themselves in the characters they are guiding in a way I’d argue wouldn’t be possible if agency was given to make the choices themselves. Former moments of triumph at clearing a pack of enemies felt oddly sickening when the narrative forced me to embody the other side of the conflict. It invoked an openness to experience that I’ve never felt so strongly, and it was profoundly moving.
The Last of Us Part II stands in stark contrast to the common tropes and senseless violence of AAA video games, including Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series—games oddly singled out and criticized for their nonchalant dismissal of violence—and even builds its narrative upon the fallout of its predecessor, making the player question the actions of characters they’ve grown so fond of. It’s not afraid to be self-reflective, and it uses such reflection not only to its advantage, but as the basis of its entire plot.
Fans of the first game may very well hate this sequel, if not in its entirety, then at least until they become aware of what Naughty Dog is up to as things become clearer towards the game’s second act. An early leak of a narrative outline provoked a vitriolic response by fans, many bemoaning its key plot-points and claiming they would no longer purchase the game, having lost faith in its developers.
Such a response only heightened my interest further. I tend to support artists who go against their own grain, even at the expense of their own fans, and no more do I enjoy such risk taking as in the genre of video games, where pockets of the fanbase are rabidly passionate and selfishly entitled to a sickening degree. While having first played it long after its release and not being aware of its very similar controversy at launch, Metal Gear Solid 2 (2002) is one of my favorite games of all time because it uses the medium as its message—it makes the player self-reflect—and when I had hunched that similar risks were being taken with this title, my anticipation peaked.
The Last of Us Part II, as I’ve said from the start, is an exhausting game. As much as I didn’t want it to end, there were many moments before its true conclusion where I was desperate for it to be over. Each scenario brought with it a pursed sigh and a gut feeling of, “let’s get this over with;” and in part, I think the game wanted me to feel that way. My disillusionment with video games generally rears its head when I can see through a game’s design and sense how it’s manipulating me into playing more, oppressively looking down upon me as its inferior consumer and exploiting me with meticulously designed pathways of addiction.
The Last of Us and its sequel are amongst the first video games I’ve played in recent years that didn’t feel so condescending to the player. In fact, it feels as though the same empathy I was asked to extend to its characters was extended to me, personally.
Therein lies its brilliance.
Through its design, the game exhausts you—it makes you realize that what you’re doing, while incredibly polished and impressive, is only dubiously entertaining. It casts a gruesome shadow upon its own technological achievement and presents itself unfiltered to the player as if to say, “here, this is what you wanted, isn’t it?” It’s tense and exciting at times, but that excitement requires so much from its audience, and seeing the consequences of my actions in such vivid and unrestrained detail made me question why this is something that would ever be fun, the idiosyncrasy all-the-while being that the gameplay system Naughty Dog have created is, of my opinion, unparalleled.
The ramifications of this level of technological achievement, combined with the mounting mainstream criticism aimed at video game violence, is a peculiar thing that I believe the industry as a whole will wrestle with more fiercely than ever in the coming years; but it feels as though this is Naughty Dog’s way of starting the conversation, and leveraging their position to do so.
The experience of The Last of Us Part II has changed me unlike any form of fiction that has ever come before it. The story isn’t wholly unique—no story is. Variations of these themes have been told before, and in many cases even better than they have been told here.
But it’s the medium that sells The Last of Us Part II. Its medium is its message, and it’s one that is going to reach a very, very large audience, and hopefully affect them, too.
Stories are how we view the world—they’re how we view ourselves. I firmly believe there is no greater instrument for change that we have as a species, and in the midst of the chaos this year has brought upon us—all of us, the world over—I believeThe Last of Us Part II is the story for our times, and through its medium it has poignantly expressed the archetypal drama of our kind to an audience of the modern age.