Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic epic, The Last Of Us 2, released to critical acclaim and massive review bombs. Even though some of it’s major plot points leaked weeks before it came out, the game still hit a chord with gamers. Its a lush and gorgeous game. The motion and facial capture are some of the best we’ve ever seen. The sound design is superb, where the guttural growls of a Shambler are very distinct from the porpoise-like echos of a Clicker. Most of all, the gameplay is filled with tension, kinetic energy, and weight. You can almost feel the blows through the screen. But perhaps one of the largest points of the game is an examination of vengeance. While this is perhaps the most obvious driver of the plot I think it hides a subtler point. What does it mean to be human in a savage, infected land? Who can call themselves a “hero” when heroism is directly tied to brutality?
(Spoilers After This Point)
Our Sins Follow Us
In the first game, Joel and Ellie trek across the US leaving a pile of bodies in their wake in search of the Fireflies. While the Fireflies are seen as terrorists they are the only group dedicated to curing the fungus that’s turned humanity into zombies. Eventually, they get to Salt Lake City where doctors are to perform a surgery on Ellie, hoping to find a cure for the Cordyceps Brain Infection. Unfortunately, the process would kill Ellie. Joel stops the operation right before it starts and kills the doctors, effectively ending any hope of a vaccine.
Fast forward to The Last Of Us 2 and Joel’s decision to save Ellie haunts him. He carries the weight of perhaps dooming humanity to infection. He becomes estranged from Ellie who says she had no choice in living or dying. And to make matters worse, a cadre of former Fireflies are on his trail. Enter Abby. Abby, we come to find out, is the daughter of the surgeon who treated Ellie. He was one of the first to die at Joel’s hands at the end of TLOU 1. Abby and her friends lost family to Joel’s rampage and they want blood.
Abby is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the game. We see her torture and kill Joel, we should hate her. We do hate her. But then the game changes to her perspective and everything shifts. Are we empathizing with Abby? Why? She took Joel from us! She CANNOT be a “good guy”.
Two Sides Of The Same F****D Up Coin
Ellie witnesses Joel’s death and vows to kill the Firefly group and Abby specifically. She travels to Seattle in search of Abby and her crew. As we play through with Ellie, we see her brutally interrogate people, play loved ones against each other and do so with a rage akin to Kratos or Asura. In one scene, she hunts down one of Abby’s friends, Nora. Nora never uses a weapon, she never truly fights you. But eventually, Ellie corners her, and in one of the most beautifully animated/acted scenes in the game, Ellie bludgeons her to death. Its the point of no return. Ellie’s decent becomes even more apparent in her encounter with Abby. Abby is a trained soldier, an ox of a woman that could easily man-handle Ellie in a fistfight. However, Ellie is a ruthless killer. She plants traps, checks her corners, and moves with the poise of a master assassin. Its the single most tense human encounter in the game. And its made to remind you that Ellie might be the most dangerous woman in the world.
Ellie, in the eyes of those she fights, is evil personified. An apparition that maims with wanton abandon. Enemies call the names of their fallen friends in sorrow, emphasizing that every death impacts someone. Abby, in her stages of the game, comes off as a more virtuous character, but this is only after we see her brutalize our beloved Joel. Even her companions squirm at her savagery, they carry the images of it in their minds when they speak with her. Our introduction to her is one of evil and we see her mature. While Ellie begins as virtuous and descends into wrath.
There Are No Protagonists
The shrinking dichotomy between Ellie and Abby gets magnified by the macro-conflict between the WLF and Seraphites. The two groups battle over Seattle as the infected still reign over large swaths of the city. The paramilitary WLF ruthlessly interrogate Seraphites and eventually raze their hamlet, Haven, to the ground. While the Seraphites hang WLF from power lines and disembowel them for all to see. Both groups believe they have a manifest destiny, and both groups are willing to kill for it.
This is where TLOU 2 really shines. There are no good guys, there are only good acts. There are no “protagonists” so to speak. Even characters who aren’t actively murdering are woefully virtue-less, like Owen cheating on his pregnant girlfriend. Our hero, Joel, might as well have been the Devil incarnate to Abby. Virtually every character in the game is a killer. Even young Lev has the body count of Stallone proportions. Abby kills, Ellie kills. Joel, Tommy, Dina, Jessie they all are killers. Abby and Ellie both have righteous fury. And yet both never truly sate the emptiness their vengeance sought to fill.
The Last Of Us 2 paints a world where survival trumps empathy and violence trumps diplomacy. The characters we play as all believe their cause is just and do not ask for forgiveness. It’s part of what makes the game beautiful in its own hyper-violent, oppressive way. Humanity is a lot less Superman vs. Darkseid. It’s much closer to Abby and Ellie where everyone is champion of their own story and wickedness could never come from within.
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