Rarely do video games challenge my emotional intelligence, it’s something games arguably don’t do. The ability for a game to make you sympathize, understand, and overcome difficult emotions involving fictional characters, is astonishing. ‘The Last of Us Part II’ is an experiential journey about managing emotions and coming to terms with past decisions and mistakes, both from narrative and player’s perspective. However, its execution may leave fans of the original game displeased. It’s a game intentionally written to test the player’s compassion, despite its bleak setting and subject. How far are you willing to sympathize with the antagonist? Will you be able to deal with harsh truths of our protagonists? These are the tough questions this game subjects us to and something no other medium, from movies to novels, is able to do (due to the interaction element of video games). Throughout the game we experience the stories of Joel’s Death, Ellie’s Revenge, and Abby’s Redemption through a range of conflicting emotions before we can fully come to terms with the purpose of these stories.
The Last of Us’ Ending
Before touching upon the sequel, it’s important to understand the emotional impact of the original game’s ending, as it is thematically and tonally similar to the sequel. The ending is less about post-apocalyptic vibes and more about paternal relationships. The story focuses on a lone survivor, Joel, on a task to deliver a young girl, Ellie, who has the cure to end an infectious virus that has turned its humans into monsters. Throughout the game, Joel bonds with Ellie and slowly sees her as a replacement for his dead daughter. At the end of the game, Joel finally delivers Ellie to the faction known as the Fireflies who can reverse engineer a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity, but there is one problem, Ellie must die to create a vaccine. After hearing this piece of news, Joel kills all the Fireflies and saves Ellie to rekindle the father-daughter relationship he lacked for almost 20 years. When Ellie wakes up from her sleep, she questions Joel about what happened and he lies to her. He says there is no cure and her immunity meant nothing.
The ending is melancholic. This world plunges further into depression, due to Joel wanting to have his daughter back. His decision is questionable, but many of us would make it. It plays on our emotions and rationality. On one hand, no one wants to sacrifice their own daughter for a cure, but so many will die as a result of not having a cure. The ending is compelling and strengthens the rest of the story that came before it. It makes us have a different outlook on Joel and Ellie’s relationship and what might happen to them going forward. What complications will come up because of Joel’s decision and whether it was the right choice? Will Joel finally get to have the father-daughter relationship he so ever wanted? Was his decision worth it? It’s a simple ending, yet it leaves us conflicted. And in a similar vein, the sequel captures the complexity and complications of the ending throughout its entire story.
The beginning of ‘The Last of Us Part II’ has a group of stragglers viciously murder Joel in front of Ellie and his brother, Tommy. The first two hours of the game don’t build any suspense or hint toward Joel’s death, it just happens. He walks into a room with a group of pleasant strangers to be later shot and torture to his death. It’s arguably one of the most controversial parts of the game. It’s an emotional gut punch, it’s upsetting, unsettling, but it’s an intentional choice. Many fans felt that Joel’s death is a plot hole or form of Character Derailment (When an established character becomes different, exhibiting behavior contrary to what has been previously shown). The original game establishes that Joel doesn’t trust people. For example, Hunters jumped Joel and Ellie while driving in Pittsburgh. A man stepped out in front of their car screaming for help, but instead of helping him, Joel tries running him over. Joel’s reasoning is he knew it was an ambush and said he had done it before to unsuspecting victims. So, if Joel doesn’t trust people, why did he trust a group of strangers?
The answer is Joel changed. As you continue to play the game or even read some notes lying around in the beginning of the game, you discover that Joel isn’t the same as he used to be. It’s been five years since the ending of the first game, and Joel and Ellie live in a safe-haven known as Jackson. Joel’s life has returned to normal, he lives in a community with his brother and surrogate daughter and he slowly wants to rebuild the world. The game goes out of it’s way to leave you clues about Joel’s growth without trying to ruin the shocking, emotional scene of his death. It tells us that Joel has shifted his mindset and has given strangers the benefit of doubt; he isn’t a cynical survivalist anymore, he’s a father and a role model. Joel’s death aggravates us. Despite his shortcomings and wrongdoings, he was trying to help those around him and make the world a better place. But the emotions about Joel’s death progress beyond anger, as we learn why he was murder and how his relationship with Ellie changed.
As we progress through the game we discover more details about Joel’s death. A woman named Abby murdered him. This is another controversial aspect of the game as we get to play and understand Abby’s motivation for killing Joel. Abby was originally part of the Fireflies, and her father was the surgeon operating on Ellie until Joel killed him. Abby spent five years training and working out to seek revenge against Joel and his atrocities. After all those years, she was successful, able to kill Joel and avenge her father, but Joel’s death didn’t satisfy her. For months, Abby became jaded and lacking purpose. Killing Joel didn’t bring back her relationship with her close friend, Owen, and only further pushed away her friends. It’s a crucial piece of information that changes our perspective on both Abby and Joel. Most stories that kill off a major character or protagonist don’t justify their actions. Why should we even care to sympathize with Abby, after all she is an antagonist that killed our beloved character?
There are two reasons to sympathize with Abby, one being that Abby’s story mirrors Ellie’s story and second, Abby redeems herself for killing Joel. Abby was on a revenge mission to kill the murder of her father, which is exactly what Ellie is doing. They both have the same anger and want of justice. How are we supposed to pick sides, when they are both equally right? Our perspective should shift from blind anger like in the beginning of the game to being neutral and sympathetic to both characters; Either Ellie or Abby is the hero or villain. It’s a crucial aspect that many critics of the game ignore about Abby and Ellie, they are on the same trajectory path and taking one side of the other based on who they like more is missing the point of the story. You have viewed these characters’ emotions the same way and we both should sympathize with them. Another important aspect of Abby’s journey is her redemption. Abby realized that killing Joel didn’t help her relationships and killed more friends. And so Abby helps Lev and Yara, two teenagers of an opposing faction named Seraphites, to prove to herself that she isn’t a killing machine, but a human who can empathize with people who were the enemy.
The main story of the game focuses on Ellie tracking down Abby in Seattle, seeking revenge for Joel. She takes months to track down Abby and her friends and in the process Ellie loses her friend, Jessie, and almost gets her pregnant girlfriend, Dina, killed. Ellie’s journey to kill Abby had major consequences and left Ellie more traumatized. She tortured people, murder dozens on people, and even stabbed visibly pregnant woman all to get even for Joel’s death. And after being spared by Abby in their last fight in an abandoned theater, Ellie was still thinking about getting revenge. After settling down with Dina and raising a baby, Ellie leaves Dina to search for Abby in California. She learns a group of slave traders captured Abby and Lev and left them to die. Ellie uses this opportunity to fight Abby, but before Ellie can get a chance to kill Abby and get her revenge, she gives up and loses her two fingers in the fight. It’s definitely odd for Ellie to spend months obsessing about Abby, only to let her go at the last minute. In the ending, Ellie lost everything and can’t even play the Guitar, the one memory she had of Joel. So what is the point of Ellie’s revenge story? Why did she go through the trouble of killing Abby only to not do it?
Many around me felt underwhelmed or unsatisfied by Ellie’s decision, but her story was never about revenge, it was about closure and being in tune with her emotions. Ellie and Joel weren’t on the best of term when he died, and it only further adds to Ellie’s trauma. Before Abby murdered Joel, Ellie discovered Joel’s lie about Fireflies and she felt as if he took away her purpose in life. For years, Ellie resented Joel for his action and never wanted to rekindle their relationship until the night before where Joel apologized for his mistake. Knowing about Ellie’s emotional state before tracking down Abby is important as it tells us she never wanted to kill Abby for revenge’s sake; rather, it was to give Joel’s death purpose. It was her form of apology to Joel and to give him peace. She cared about him despite her attitude toward him. Tracking Abby down was just Ellie’s way of coping with Joel’s death and the further she got to killing Abby, the more her pleasant memories of Joel disappeared. And when she finally let go of trying to kill Abby, she saw memory of Joel playing his guitar instead of his dead body, she was finally at peace with her mistakes and Joel’s death.
‘The Last of Us Part II’ may not have been the story people expected, but it was the story that fit the characters and the world. To simplify the story and say it just another ‘revenge is bad’ story completely misses the emotions and subtlety of the game. It’s about characters trying to navigate their anger and guilt. Yes, the game doesn’t follow a traditional story structure, it turns the antagonist into a protagonist, it kills a major beloved character, and it’s ending subverts our expectations, but it’s still powerful and impactful for a video game. In conclusion, ‘The Last of Us Part II’ is about the conflicting emotions of Joel’s Death, Ellie’s Revenge, and Abby’s Redemption. We aren’t supposed to feel one emotion about these stories, either are the characters. Traumatic events are complex and they allow us to experience a range of emotions, regardless if it’s contradicting another emotion.