Writing about The Last of Us Part 2 is a perilous and difficult exercise. Difficult because there is a lot to unpack, and because everything that can be said about it has been said -- and then contradicted. Difficult because it was made under crunch conditions, and because picking it as my Game of the Year almost feels like an endorsement of its every aspect.
But it isn't. I picked it because it's a game I never intended to play, and it resonated with me long after I finished playing. That does not mean it's perfect.
Never has a sequel made me question the entire experience of its predecessor, and that is worth talking about. This has been a point of contention in itself for some reviewers -- the mere existence of The Last of Us Part 2 has been questioned ad nauseam. What more could you want to say? How dare you follow up on what is widely seen as a perfect game? Is this a character assassination? But for me the appeal of understanding a story from a different perspective is strong.
Never has a sequel made me question the entire experience of its predecessor, and that is worth talking about
In general, I am a strong advocate for conciseness in narrative-driven media. Whether it's games or television series, I like strong endings that make a statement, and don't necessarily call for a follow up. God of War is the perfect example of a AAA game delivering an incredible, self-contained story to play. Outside of games, I'm one of the people who think the Netflix show Russian Doll should have never been renewed for a second season, because it sits so perfectly as its own entity. But when it comes to The Last of Us, it was difficult for me to consider it within that frame of reference, simply because I played the first entry already knowing that the second one was just a few months down the line.
I was completely oblivious to The Last of Us for years. When the first entry came out, I stubbornly decided that it wasn't a game for me. I tend to dislike shooters, and I frankly can't stand zombies. This says a lot about how much I misunderstood what The Last of Us was about.
Considering my position on the first entry, it only made sense for me to widely ignore the hype around the reveal of Part 2. I was in the room when that gruesome teaser trailer was revealed at Paris Games Week 2017 and I had to look away -- too violent, too brutal. It only confirmed my gut feeling: this franchise wasn't for me.
Enter 2020 and the global pandemic. I finally started to pay attention to the buzz surrounding the imminent release of The Last of Us Part 2, while also being in a situation where I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I played both games, back-to-back. I would not recommend doing that unless you want all joy to be sapped from your existence for two months.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a story of grief and anger. There's often a pattern in the type of stories I enjoy, and these two themes are usually the cornerstone of that pattern. The Last of Us ends with a lie -- Joel's lie, refusing to sacrifice his daughter figure Ellie for the blind hope for a vaccine that could potentially save humanity.
I will be forever grateful to Naughty Dog for deciding to ignore the trolls out there to tell an unequivocally queer story
While The Last of Us Part 2 does deal with the consequences of that lie to some extent, its appeal for me lay in its attempt to show different perspectives, taking a step back and forcing you to consider The Last of Us' setting not only as the background for Joel and Ellie's story, but as a living world populated with other Joels and Ellies, each one with their own story to tell.
There are no good guys in The Last of Us. Through the years, some of my favourite stories have questioned notions of good and evil, and The Last of Us Part 2 puts a grim spin on that trope, exploring themes such as obsession, self-destruction, guilt and agency in a way that I had never experienced before in a game, and that left me feeling terribly uncomfortable.
The Last of Us Part 2 also questions player expectations, and what you think is a given as someone playing the sequel to a beloved game. Many were expecting a story led by Joel and Ellie. Some were expecting a story led by Ellie. No one was expecting Abby.
And when it comes to player expectations, it's also worth adding here that I will be forever grateful to Naughty Dog for deciding to ignore the trolls out there -- the Gamergaters, the misogynists, the bigots -- to tell an unequivocally queer story, supported by an incredibly diverse cast of characters. The Last of Us Part 2 is a AAA game led by a gay woman. It features characters from several racial backgrounds. It features trans characters. It features strong female characters who do not conform to the body type that is typically presented on screens -- whether it's frail Mel or muscular Abby -- and overall does an impeccable job of representing those who are usually forgotten or hidden away.
Abby is a character that's been subjected to a lot of hate online -- for her body type, deemed "unrealistic" by people who've obviously not met a lot of women before, but also because they saw her as the villain. Giving players the ability to understand the other side of The Last of Us coin triggers an instant feeling of rejection. In video games, you almost exclusively play as the 'winner', and you rarely question what it's like for the other side. But that's also because AAA game developers rarely take the time to give humanity to the other side. They don't implement mechanics and story beats that are designed to make you feel empathy for the other side. That's what Naughty Dog did with Abby.
AAA game developers rarely take the time to give humanity to the other side
There were several scenes in The Last of Us Part 2 that I almost couldn't bring myself to play. That hospital corridor you've paced up and down as Joel, desperately trying to find Ellie; I did not want to be in that hospital corridor as Abby, knowing what I was going to find.
The impact of the cycle of revenge The Last of Us Part 2 portrays is strengthened by most of the story being set across three days, mirrored from Ellie and Abby's perspectives. It's a story where it feels like the player should have a choice. Which side do you want to be on? Abby or Ellie? And when things come to an end, do you want to give that last blow? But it is commendable that Naughty Dog unequivocally decided to tell this story in the way it did, without giving players that agency, leading them to sincerely question their role in this profusion of violence.
Yes, the violence in this game is way too much, and I still don't have the answer as to whether it was necessary for the game to portray such brutality. But it did contribute to how impactful the story was for me. In this post-apocalyptic world, no one is spared, and neither is the player.
The utter despair of playing through certain sections of The Last of Us Part 2 contrasts sharply with the unmitigated joy of others -- the Wyoming Museum of Science and History section is one of the most wonderful and heartbreaking things I've ever experienced in a game. Those moments make you wish things could be different, but they are not, and every step feels heavy.
While The Last of Us Part II is an imperfect work of art, it is difficult to escape its impact, and how it challenges AAA development as a whole. But much like the story it tells, I guess it's just a question of perspective.