The Last of Us Part II Holds Itself Back While Advancing Storytelling in Games
*This post contains spoilers The Last of Us Part II.*
The Last of Us Part II, just like its much lauded predecessor, was meant to be the swansong for a console generation. While other critics and writers have mostly heaped well deserved praise on the game for its graphics, gameplay, sound design, world and set-pieces it’s hard to believe that so many of them believe in the power of its over-long, draining and often perplexing story. I wasn’t as frustrated by the game as John Hogan, our reviewer, was when he played it but I do think that it’s split character story needed a great deal more polishing. Still, I think that what the game does with a traditional revenge story is innovative but I’m not sure a sequel to one of the most acclaimed games of all time was the place to start taking these kinds of narrative gambles.
The Last of Us Part II finds Ellie, a girl immune from the Cordyceps infection that turns people into fungal zombies, living in Jackson, Wyoming four years after the events of the first game. Joel, her surrogate father, is living in Jackson too but a rift has grown between the two. An act of violence shatters the peace of Jackson and Ellie, with her new girlfriend Dina in tow, sets off in pursuit of those responsible. Here’s where things get complicated. Upon reaching Seattle Ellie spends three days searching for Abby, a member of the militaristic Washington Liberation Front, the girl responsible for tearing her life apart. Things come to a head after these three days and Abby and Ellie come face-to-face but before any shots are fired we’re dragged back 72 hours to experience the story and past from Abby’s perspective.
It’s a controversial decision to make not to mention a ballsy move in a video game blockbuster. Previous Naughty Dog efforts like the Jak & Daxter games and the Uncharted series steered mostly clear of anything that would upset the balance of these games. All that changed with The Last of Us. After travelling across the post-apocalyptic United States in order to deliver Ellie to the freedom fighter group the Fireflies Joel discovers that the procedure to create a vaccine will kill Ellie. So he does the only thing that makes sense to him. Joel massacres every Firefly in the hospital including the surgeons about to operate on Ellie. When Ellie wakes up sometime later Joel lies and says her immunity essentially means nothing. It’s a decision only a father could make and an emotional gut punch of such power game storytelling is still reeling from its impact.
That impact ripples into The Last of Us Part II and turns a story of redemption and love into one of revenge and hate. The Last of Us Part II is missing the comparatively light pacing of the first game. It will take most players roughly twenty-four hours to complete Part II roughly double the length of the first game. It’s an exhausting experience. Every corner turned could mean encountering a group of WLF soldiers or “Wolves” ready to pounce, a pack of infected or worst of all a raiding party of the fanatically religious Seraphites or “Scars”. Almost every cut scene brings with it the threat of another character we’ve come to know and care about being killed, maimed or wounded. It’s misery porn, plain and simple.
Neither Ellie nor Abby’s stories lack for hurt and pain or reasons for one to hunt the other but usually it’s just one of these stories we get to experience. In The Last of Us Part II we experience both, whether we like it or not. It would have been easy for Naughty Dog to make Abby a compelling villain with a good reason for turning Ellie’s world upside down and, for half the game, that’s all she is. Abby is a little seen, much discussed presence during the Ellie heavy first half and we know nothing about her other than that Ellie wants her dead. The problem with the switch to Abby is two-fold. Firstly it lengthens an already grueling experience to biblical proportions. Secondly it explodes the cast of characters and while all of them are pretty likable we’ve killed them all already as Ellie.
When reviews of The Last of Us Part II started to drop one critic tweeted “In a medium where everything is John Wick, The Last of Us Part II is Schindler’s List.” There’s problems aplenty with that comparison but I get what he’s saying even if I don’t think that his positive, confused but ultimately well-meaning tweet is the glowing endorsement he thinks it is. Seeing people suffer is not a pleasant experience. It’s why movies like Saló, Or the 120 Days of Sodom and Martyrs aren’t what you’d called popcorn fare. Playing through all of this suffering and death and pain is very different to watching it and it sucks a lot of the fun out of playing Part II.
Of course it’s easy to criticise. Fun too. But what could be done differently? Well shortening both story sections as well as that tiring epilogue would be a good start but I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what I don’t like in The Last of Us Part II. What I like the best about Part II are the segments where I don’t have to worry about the Clicker around the corner or counting bullets while listening to enclosing Scars whistle to each other. The combat is fun, for a while, but by hour ten as Ellie and hour two as Abby it’s pretty repetitive. What gives the game it’s juice in between the bone-crushing violence and nihilistic story beats are the segments that amount to a third person walking simulator. Exploring a museum as a young Ellie or rescuing a zebra from razor wire as Abby might not require a whole lot from me as a player but I was more invested in these moments and in these characters than I ever was when I was ripping a man’s face off with a nail-studded baseball bat.
I like the idea of playing as two different characters on opposite sides in a game. Movies, like The Departed, have given us that perspective before but we’re only watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play cat-and-mouse we were never guiding their actions. That said, no I don’t want to play as a Nazi in a Call of Duty single-player campaign. The crux of the matter is that Part II is simply too long for its own good, too wrapped up in its own world to realise that time spent there is not always a rewarding experience. Naughty Dog’s experiment was not successful with much of its audience but it does lay the groundwork for something better down the road. Forced perspective is key to video games but The Last of Us Part II showed that two forced perspectives might one day be better than one.