“It can’t be for nothing.”
That was Ellie’s refrain in the Last of Us. The belief that, in a desolate, hopeless world in which everyone she cared about either died or left her, her life could mean something. And not just anything, but the saving of the human race. All of the deaths that led her to meeting Joel, all of the people they killed along the way, all of it could mean something if she could help find a vaccine. That chance was taken from her at the end of the first game, because for Joel, their adventure wasn’t for nothing. It was a second chance for him raise a daughter.
That choice and its fallout should have been the basis of the second game: How would Ellie react to eventually finding out that Joel saved her life at the expense of a chance at saving the world? Instead, the Last of Us: Part II forgot what made it unique, and it resulted in a plot with no characters. And the truth is, I think Naughty Dog knew this story was going to fall flat all along, because…
*Major spoilers below*
Within hours of starting the Last of Us: Part II, Joel is killed. But because it wasn’t spelled out graphically in front of me, and I never saw the body go into the ground, I didn’t quite believe it. Not after seeing trailers showing an old, grizzled Joel in the verdant Seattle landscape. In particular, this trailer — in which a hand reaches out and grabs Ellie from behind, and after a moment of shock, she turns to see Joel, who says, “You think I’d let you do this on your own?” — had me holding out hope. It wasn’t until I reached that point in the game and the exact sequence and line was said by Jesse that the truth started to set in.
That was far from the only example, however. This older Joel model was used in various trailers portraying scenes that were actually flashbacks as part of the main story. Then there was the time that they said the game would only be played as Ellie, or that you wouldn’t have to kill dogs. There was also the review embargo, which essentially prevented reviewers from discussing half the game.
The entire game was sold on the premise that you would be getting a wildly different story than you got. Perhaps it was a little self-awareness creeping in, Naughty Dog realizing that what they would be serving you wasn’t a good story in the first place.
Two unique factors
The Last of Us is, on the whole, a fairly generic game. A third person stealth-action cover shooter that takes place during a zombie apocalypse. You even escort a young girl. Nothing about that screams “originality.” But what made the first game one of the most revered games of all time was two things: Ellie and Joel, and Ellie’s immunity.
The developing relationship between Ellie and Joel slowly, but surely, overtook the main plot of the story. From his disgust at having to smuggle a child, to not trusting her with guns, to having his life saved by her (and a belated, grudging thanks), to trusting her to fight alongside him, to being saved by her again, to loving her like the daughter he lost, Joel’s character arc is a powerful one, and it’s inextricably tied to Ellie.
Ok, so, that should make his death hurt a lot more, and killing him off wasn’t necessarily the wrong move, although it was executed extremely poorly. The biggest problem in killing him, especially so early in the game, is that it removes one of the game’s two differentiating factors. But it could have worked, in part because of the connection formed with Joel by players over the course of the first game. The real problem emerges when the second factor is also removed.
In the scene where Joel dies, Abby inexplicably (or at least, implausibly) agrees to leave Ellie alive. When it’s later revealed that Abby is the daughter of the doctor that Joel killed at the very end of the Last of Us, the doctor who was going to try to develop a vaccine, I thought Naughty Dog had done something brilliant. It would make sense that Abby knows that Ellie is immune, and so while she’s hellbent on killing Joel, she knows that Ellie needs to stay alive in order to offer hope to humanity.
The story could then have taken a turn where Ellie’s revenge plot leads her to Abby, and the two of them are forced to ultimately put aside their differences to work together and try to find a vaccine. Ellie could forgive, or at least accept, Abby for killing Joel, and could try to make right for his actions at the end of the first game by offering to sacrifice herself to find a vaccine, like she would have done in the first place had she been given the choice. It would have brought Ellie’s immunity to the forefront, and allowed her to put humanity’s needs ahead of her desire for revenge, to really believe that it was all for something in the end. And it would have tied Ellie and Abby together in a powerful way.
That’s not what we got. Ellie’s immunity is relegated to minor plot point to be glossed over. Abby’s decision to leave her alive becomes a choice that serves solely to create a plot, and Joel’s death means nothing in the grander scheme of things. Once the revenge plot is set in motion, there are no subplots, character relationships, or developments that tie into or change the overarching story in any way. And very little of it makes any sense.
Perhaps the biggest casualty in this boilerplate plot about revenge being bad is logic. Joel forgets all of the caution that has kept him alive when blurting out his name to a group of strangers (hell, saving a stranger is out of character for him). Tommy, who pointed a gun at his own brother in the first game, has the same brain fade. Abby leaves Ellie and Tommy alive for no good reason. Ellie realizes that revenge isn’t worth it in Seattle — then goes ahead and throws away her family life to do it all over again. Tommy, who convinced Ellie to leave Abby alive in Seattle, is the one that pushes her back to it. These actions aren’t within the characters themselves, and it didn’t feel good to take them. Because they weren’t believable.
What’s left is a petty revenge story that tries to tell a grand moral lesson in a ham-fisted, inelegant way. In its attempt to convey a deep message, The Last of Us Part II forgets all about developing its characters. It’s shock value for the sake of shock value. It’s the dreaded subverting of expectations. Ask David Benioff and D.B. Weiss how well that works.
A Failure in Storytelling
Ultimately, the Last of Us Part II takes everything the first game built up and wastes it on a story that’s been done before to try and create the illusion of depth. Every major action is done for the sake artificially advancing the plot. By killing off Joel so early, the game is forced to try and develop half a dozen new characters and cram their arcs into a plot that doesn’t allow for arcs.
Taken individually, there were a lot of things that were fine. Trying to show that Abby is a good person by making the player control her as she tries to save Yara’s life (which really was all for nothing) is one of the things that makes video game stories so unique. Ellie being unable to play guitar after losing her fingers in her revenge plot was, in a vacuum, a powerful moment. The triangle between Ellie, Jesse, and Dina was one of the better relationships in the game, and I was genuinely sad when Ellie returned to an empty farmhouse. But the feeling was fleeting, because at that point, I didn’t care. The plot is so hellbent on being “deep” that all of these relationships are sacrificed to move the plot forward, making it hard to get invested and preventing the characters themselves from driving it. Promptly killing everyone off has a way of doing that.
How about, next time, instead of subverting expectations, considering simply meeting them.
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