Also known as me trying to come to terms with this game. (Beware: Spoilers!)
(Image credit: Naughty Dog)
Seven years ago, Naughty Dog introduced the world to the journey of Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of ‘The Last of Us’ that would leave a lasting impact on the world of Playstation 3 gaming in terms of storytelling and ensemble acting.
As soon as the clock struck midnight, ringing in 19th June 2020, I booted up my pre-downloaded digital copy and dove headfirst into the world of ‘The Last of Us: Part II’. At the end of the journey, I resurfaced with eyes brimming with tears.
After making the journey from Boston to Salt Lake City, the final stage of the first game has Joel rampaging through the Fireflies in St. Mary’s Hospital – the Fireflies’ HQ – to save Ellie from being dissected in order to find a cure for the Cordyceps Brain Infection that had taken over. Once he escapes with her, Joel lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies were not able to find a cure.
“Swear to me. Swear to me that everything that you said about the Fireflies is true.”
Ellie replies with such hesitance that players know that she’s not 100% believing what Joel has told her. Nevertheless, she goes along with it and settles down in Jackson County where Joel’s brother, Tommy, has his settlement.
And into ‘The Last of Us: Part II’
Back in 2016 during the PSX panel, ‘The Last of Us’ director, Neil Druckmann explained that the sequel would be the opposite of the first game – while the first was about love, part two would be about hate. (Read Kotaku’s coverage of the panel.)
So, it comes as no surprise that the whole game was…definitely that.
Almost two hours into the game, we witness helplessly as Joel is murdered by Abby, a member of the militant paramilitary organisation the Washington Liberation Front as well as the daughter of the doctor who was to work on Ellie back at St. Mary’s Hospital – the very same doctor that Joel shot dead. This was all done in front of an incapacitated Ellie, who had to heartbreakingly watch as Abby bashed in the skull of the man who was her father figure with a golf club.
The backlash received over Joel’s death was understandable but I’m of the opinion that it had to be done. There was a need to show that this was a world where your actions have consequences – you might think that you’re doing something for the better good (i.e.: Joel saving Ellie’s life) but in the process, it impacts others. I can’t speak for others but I tend to forget that the “bad guy” that we’ve just put a bullet through is a person who – like the protagonist – was just fighting for something they believe in.
The world is never black or white, and Naughty Dog having us play as Abby puts us in that uncomfortable position of getting to understand where the supposed antagonist is coming from. Joel, too, is a morally grey character who – while he has undoubtedly done some good things – selfishly decided to deny the world a chance at developing a vaccine for the infections by taking Ellie away from the Fireflies.
Joel’s death fuels Ellie’s anger, and she spits out her vow to go after and kill Abby. On the other hand, Joel killing Dr Jerry Anderson, Abby’s father, was the catalyst to her desire to hunt him down and exact her revenge (which she totally did). Like the seasons we go through in the game, there are cycles of hate/anger:
- Ellie towards Joel for lying straight to her face about the Fireflies – this is when she felt that Joel had taken her purpose in life.
- Abby towards Joel for the murder of her father.
- Ellie towards Abby for killing Joel.
But this is a game about ending those cycles too.
While hate seems to be the driving force for both Ellie and Abby (honestly, those two ladies are unstoppable), the game ensures that one way or another, there is a form of closure.
A day before Joel’s demise, Ellie has a quiet moment with him out on the porch. After some small talk, Joel tells her:
“If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment, I would do it all over again.”
That, to me, was an indication that Joel had made peace with his decision to save Ellie and whatever consequences that might arise from that choice, including his death. In fact, while he was at the mercy of Abby, his reaction was to get her to spit out whatever speech she’s most likely rehearsed. That man was ready to go.
It might be the romantic in me but I believe that Joel also felt “complete” as he had another shot at raising a daughter (albeit with a couple of hiccups) after the loss of Sarah back in the first game.
Thus, a cycle ends.
“I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But I would like to try.”
In the same scene out on the porch, Ellie is still understandably upset at Joel for a choice that he made on her behalf but in order to preserve their relationship, she tries to forgive him.
After Joel was killed, Ellie was plagued with flashbacks of him being beaten by Abby. So consumed was she with the need to seek revenge that she gave herself no time to properly grieve. In the final fight with a very weak and emaciated Abby on the beach, Ellie suddenly has a flashback of Joel sitting out on the porch with his guitar, happy. It was at this moment that Ellie realises that she has burnt through her anger.
Abby, through her own unfortunate circumstances, had been weakened and Ellie could’ve easily drowned her but this was when Ellie understood that she had essentially won the fight, that it was over. After letting Abby escape with Lev on the boat, she sits in the water and sobs – she’s broken the cycle of hate/anger and has accepted the fact that Joel was gone.
She can finally grieve.
If only Joel had let Ellie sacrifice herself for a shot at developing a vaccine than go blasting through Fireflies to save her, then we wouldn’t have had Abby be on the rampage to avenge her doctor father and fellow Fireflies – these people were basically her family and Joel had taken them from her.
Her having had killed Joel meant that her quest was done – she could finally move on with her life. But Ellie was not going to let that lie. In fact, if you think about it, Ellie massacred more of Abby’s friends and comrades while Abby was only going for Joel. The two times Abby had the upper hand over Ellie, she let her go – the second time was at the behest of Lev who didn’t want her to kill Ellie.
As the game progressed, we see Abby attempt to redeem herself when she starts getting close to Yara and Lev, the two exiled sibling Seraphites who saved her when she was about to be lynched by a couple of Seraphites. Abby, later on, takes it upon herself to protect Lev after Yara’s death, even though it meant that she was cutting ties with the WFL for good. Thanks to Lev, Abby was able to slowly end the cycle.
During the final fight with Ellie on the beach, we see that Abby has had enough – she was broken, and all she wanted to do was get away with Lev to somewhere safe and recover. The cycle of hate, for Abby, had already ended.
While the game did suffer a minor setback when the storyline leaks happened, it didn’t ruin my experience playing it at all. I admit, I read the spoilers and even though I found out that Joel died, it was the performance by the cast that made it upsetting. I’m still in shock that Joel died the way he did and it did take me some time to process that the supposed protagonists of the first game were behaving like the villains in the second one.
For those who had doubts about this game, I recommend giving it another shot. For those who have played it and found the storyline lacking, I recommend trying to see things from the perspectives of the different characters, as I had.
Here’s also an interesting read I found on Medium.com that might also help you understand motives: The Last of Us Part II, in Quotes