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Review: Pushing the Medium To Its Limits, 'The Last Of Us Part II' Grapples with Empathy and Grief, and Might Just Be the Best Game I've Ever Played

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | July 8, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | July 8, 2020 |


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(Note: this review is largely spoiler-free)

There are not many games that have affected me as much as 2013’s The Last Of Us, superstar developer Naughty Dog’s much-lauded swansong for the PlayStation 3. The Last Of Us was a third-person action-adventure survival horror title that took place in a post-apocalyptic United States. It followed Joel, a middle-aged smuggler, and Ellie, a young teenage girl, as they traveled together across the country over the course of a few months, in search of a potential cure for the fungal infection that had caused the apocalypse. The catch? That cure might be found in Ellie, whose secret is that she is the only person in the world known (by a handful of people) to be immune. The prologue of The Last Of Us, set twenty years before the main plot, followed one life-changing night in Joel’s life, as a tranquil evening with his daughter Sarah was transformed into hell on Earth by the arrival of the disease to his Austin, Texas suburbs. The infection turned normal people into raging, flesh-eating Infected. It was spread by bites, and by air-born fungal spores. As Joel, we tried to flee with Sarah. Out the back door we ran after an infected neighbour tried to attack us. We ran, not knowing which way to go. Through fire and panic and death, we tried to make it to some safety somewhere. It all ended out in the darkness, in a ditch away from most of the chaos, with a brief promise of escape shattered by an overzealous, paranoid soldier, pointing his rifle at Joel and Sarah. The soldier had his orders: Any suspected of infection had to be put down, lest they turn and help spread the disease. Joel pleaded with the man, trying to prove that he and Sarah were okay, but it all fell on deaf ears. The soldier opened fire, and Joel spun into the bullet to protect his only child cradled in his arms. Joel’s brother arrived then, and saved Joel from the soldier, but Joel’s efforts were for naught. Sarah died in his arms.

The Last Of Us was a masterpiece of story-telling in video games. It remains so. Director and writer Neil Druckmann and his team crafted a bleak, horrifying tale that was nevertheless shot through with a warm humanity and a story of human connection that pulsed like a heartbeat revived, pushing back in defiance against total darkness and death. Joel and Ellie’s relationship was at the heart of this. Joel had of course lost his only daughter just as the outbreak began, and Ellie had been born in a world already brought low by it—it was the only world she’d ever known. These were two lonely, guarded people, who had all but given up on ever being able to feel any sort of love or hope or joy again, and yet who nevertheless—over the course of a few months spent traveling along the razor’s edge between life and death—found a deep familial bond growing between them. Fraught with tension and mistrust at first before gradually thawing and blossoming into something beautiful, their joint arc was a wonder to see unfold. There’s a quote from Ellie from an argument the two have halfway through the game, that gets to the heart of their joint journey: ‘Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me. Everyone - f***ing except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.’ It’s a pivotal scene, and, really, it has to be seen to be properly understood, as the animation, direction, and acting by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker are all truly fantastic:

The ending of The Last Of Us was the heart-tearing moment of all heart-tearing moments in video games. I played and finished the game in 2013, and it has stayed with me ever since. I’ve revisited it multiple times in the intervening years, and I’ve pondered how I, with each advancing year and additional little grey hair at my temple, understood and parsed the moral quandary at its centre slightly differently. I like to write my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, in case there is someone who still may yet experience whatever I’m talking about. It will be that way here too. Suffice it to say that the ending of The Last Of Us was perfect. It did make you ache and yearn to know more, but it was perfect. The idea of a sequel to the game, though clearly made logistically possible by its end, seemed unthinkable. Terrifying, in a way. What if they did come back to this perfect ending, and they expanded on it, and they ruined it? That would be their prerogative of course, but man it would hurt. Surely there’s no way they could actually do it justice. I vowed to stay clear of it, if it ever did come into existence.

The Last Of Us Part II arrived at my house in the post on June 19th 2020. Release day. I’d pre-ordered it. On arrival I put the disc into my PS4 immediately, and I couldn’t stop until I finished it. After completing it around midnight one day, I thought I would take a break and play something else the next day. Something light and frothy, to relax my mind into a more non-thinking state of being, so that I could subconsciously absorb the experience I’d just lived through. I couldn’t play anything at all. I tried five different games, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about The Last Of Us Part II. Actively thinking about. Re-examining scenes and arcs and dialogue and characters over and over from different angles. About an hour later, I had started the game again. At the moment, I find it hard to imagine being able to play any other game at any point in the near future. In pushing the medium to its limits, The Last Of Us Part II has almost ruined video games for me.

But let’s back up here for a second. In my usual mostly non-spoilery way, what is The Last Of Us Part II about? The story here picks up five years after the end of the first game. The human world lies even more in ruins than before, as the Cordyceps infection continues to chip away at our species. Nature has reclaimed that which humanity has bled away from. Joel and Ellie are living in a fortified settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. There, some semblance of pre-infection normality has resumed, a modest echo of what once was. People flirt drunkenly in bars, small markets bustle, children snow fight. There is no pretense or hope that this will grow and spread and be victorious against the infection. No, the Cordyceps has won. People survive in bubbles, ever-vigilant and prepared for the fragile existence they have eked to be threatened. Patrols are a regular feature of life in Jackson: People go out on horses, armed, organized in teams. They go between nearby checkpoints, scouting for Infected, eliminating any they find, and logging down numbers and details. This uneasy peace peppered with scattered, controlled violence is punctured by a shocking act of brutality that sees Ellie and her friend/romantic partner, Dina, set out for Seattle, hell-bent on revenge.

When Ellie and Dina get to Seattle, the game proper begins. It’s a cliche to say that a well-developed location in fiction can almost play the role of an additional character, but I’ve rarely seen it be quite as true as in The Last of Us Part II. The post-apocalyptic Seattle depicted here is one of the most captivating locales I’ve ever experienced in a game. It is up there with—and to my mind exceeds—the likes of Bioshock’s Rapture, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, and the (almost) empty lands of Shadow of the Colossus. Thanks to their interactivity, video games have a unique relationship to mise-en-scène that is different to the likes of theatre and cinema. Whereas in the latter the creative team have essentially complete control of what the audience sees and when, in video games that control is heavily truncated by comparison. Yes, the world is still created by the creators, but they do not control which parts of that world you see, and how. Naturally there is a spectrum, with fully open world games (eg. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) allowing near total freedom of exploration on one end, and linear corridor ‘press forward to advance plot’ type games (eg. Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series) heavily micro-managing the player’s experience on the other.

Both types of design philosophy have their advantages and disadvantages. Broadly speaking however, if you’re going for a tightly scripted story that arises from the words written on a page then you go for the latter; if your focus is the incidental, unique mini-stories that will happen to the player as a result of their interactions with the environment, the former. The Last Of Us Part II is a heavily cinematic game. It hews closer to the latter. The script and performances are some of its strongest features, and that is mostly how it tells its story. However, it also achieves a beautiful sort of balance, by matching the fantastic told storytelling with an incredible found storytelling. Video games tell a story through their explorable surroundings, and the Seattle depicted in The Last Of Us Part II is almost infinitely detailed, with layers upon layers of filigree etched over every single inch of your surroundings. In your pursuit of the endgame you could simply barrel past the vast majority of these details, your eyes fixed ahead, the multitude of stories being told around you never rising above a background blur. If you do take the time to do some exploration—and the game does encourage this to an extent by heavily limiting your equipment and requiring that you scavenge spare parts in order to craft more to survive—you will be rewarded with a thousand stories, all weaving together to form a picture of humanity’s fall. Look around the derelict, collapsing hotels, cafes, offices, shops, and apartments, and you will see how the spaces once colonised by our parasitic industry and adorned with the rich and often beautiful tapestry of our lives have sprouted with new life. Decayed corpses in uniform, notes loved ones left for each other, posters about local community events, a long-forgotten child’s playroom littered with debris, a bank in the midst of being robbed, the mania of the act frozen in place forever by the Cordyceps cataclysm. Houses littered with evidence of lives abandoned. Board games lay unfinished on living room tables. Clothes strewn over beds. Plans made in urgent haste, arrested forever. Seattle rests on one knee, bowed and brought low, a modern day Pompeii. The spaces we once called our own now reclaimed by tall grass, ivy, and wildflowers. It is all there for you to see, and have the story of this world enriched, if you so choose.

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The characters feel good as they move and exist in this world. They look and sound as if they belong there. The game has taken the few clunky elements of the moment to moment gameplay of the first, and it has ironed them out. There is less reliance on mechanics that take you out of the experience. The ever-convenient planks that were present everywhere in the first game and used to traverse gaps in the environment, are gone. Now there are ropes— truly a marvel of video game physics in this game—but not so many that it feels like a mechanic programmed by a developer to facilitate your progress. This, I think, sums up one part of why everything worked so well for me in The Last Of Us Part II: The game world feels like a real one. Aside from the game ‘corridors’ making this a relatively narrow game by the standards of the open world sandbox that the industry has—for better and worse—developed, here everything feels incredibly organic, from the way Ellie carries her equipment on her, to the way she handles objects and traverses terrain, to the way events leave a mark on her and the marks she leaves on the world. There’s a lived-in weight and heft to it at all. The gameplay loop here is one of exploration, scavenging, and combat. You move around the world, advancing to your goal, drinking in the many human stories left violently cut short in decayed Seattle. It’s a game of resource management in a world no longer producing in obscene abundance to cater to human needs and whims. You’ll find one bullet here, two there. Don’t use what you don’t have to. Hoarding in other games is often treated as a joke: ‘I saved this mass of amazing equipment to use later, and I never needed it.’ Here, it’s a necessity. Every bullet, every scrap of binding, every container of medicine, every broken blade, counts.

This is where the combat comes in. Aside from a few more scripted intense firefight-style encounters, the combat emphasis here is on stealth. Which makes sense. Your resources are limited, and you are woefully outnumbered. So you play accordingly. If I had to pick one genre of game that I prefer above all others, it would be stealth. I love sneaking around, patiently watching and waiting, and striking when the time is just right before melting away into the shadows again. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. The Last Of Us Part II may well have the best stealth mechanics of any game I’ve played to date. In any stealth game the developer has to strike a careful balance between giving the player the tools and abilities to make situations that would in real life be nigh-on impossible to survive, and making you overpowered and rendering the challenge somewhat weightless. Naughty Dog have struck gold here with their design. Contrasted with a game series like Metal Gear Solid—especially its most recent iteration—everything in The Last Of Us Part II feels harder, meaner, and more real. For one thing, there’s no enemy marking here like in Metal Gear, where you approach the enemy from a distance, parking yourself up on a nearby hill and scouting the enemy camp you’re about to sneak through. There, the enemies you spot from a distance stay visible to you as icons on your screen, even through solid objects. You are a human weapon, fully in control of the tens of gadgets and near superpowers at your disposal. In The Last Of Us Part II, you often jump a fence and suddenly you’re among an enemy patrol or Infected horde. Smashing the button to lay down on your belly and laying stock still in the tall grass that gives limited but effective cover at a distance, you wait, scarcely able to breathe, and you look. You wait, and you watch unblinking, trying to spot any signs of movement, and that’s it. You just have your eyes and your memory to rely on. Once you feel confident, you can proceed to eliminate those in your path however you see fit. The most glaring concession to video game mechanics here is the ‘listen’ feature, which at the press of a button allows you to see a hazy impression of where nearby enemies are behind walls and other obstacles. It is a smart concession, however, as it nestles neatly into the challenge provided by the rest of the design, ameliorating it in a way that enhances playability. It can also be turned off, for those who want a truly organic experience. Another aspect of note is that compared to the first game Naughty Dog have greatly expanded many of the areas in which the larger encounters take place, so though overall the game remains largely a plot-driven linear experience, the freedom afforded to the player in deciding how to tackle these numerous encounters is bountiful and generous.

There is a term in video game theory (yes, that’s a thing) called ‘ludonarrative dissonance.’ It refers to the conflict that occurs when playing a game, between the narrative being told by the script and performances—so, the actual story—and the picture built up by the gameplay. A popular example is Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, in which you play a treasure hunter who is painted in every cutscene and scripted event as a rogueish yet fundamentally good person. Yet over the course of the series he—or rather, ‘you’—guns down or otherwise murders hundreds upon hundreds of people in cold blood, often quipping intermittently throughout like a psychopath. In Uncharted, the game mechanic and the fun you have with taking down these nameless goons clashes with the story being told about this character, creating a sort of ‘aesthetic distance’ between the story the game wants to tell you and what you partake in. Ludonarrative dissonance runs through the industry. Almost every game that attempts to tell a story even somewhat sophisticated or mature falls prey to it. The Last Of Us Part II is the closest I think I’ve seen a game come to squaring that circle. It doesn’t pull it off entirely—perhaps that is an inherent limitation of the medium—but the themes here are married well to your actions, the story and characters aligned with your input.

The Last Of Us games, like many post-apocalyptic stories, explore what we as a species would do if society as we know it fell. In the wake of a civilization-destroying cataclysm, would we band together, or would we splinter and wage war based on the most trivial-seeming differences. Naughty Dog explore the latter scenario. The first game, despite its bleakness, had a sort of poetry to it. Following Joel and Ellie as the seasons changed and their relationship developed over the course of long months on the road, that haunting yet beautiful guitar score your companion, the arc there was one of thawing hostility and of a bond of familial love being forged in an otherwise hopeless landscape. This time round, it’s more complicated yet also more direct than that. The Last Of Us Part II is a bleak and merciless story of revenge, and though there are bright spots and flashes of human warmth—some of which are potent enough to bring tears to your eyes—it does away with the poetry of the first. The violence here is grisly and often nihilistic. Ellie’s single-minded obsession for vengeance, acting as a toxic outlet for her grief—yet entirely logically so, born into a world of sharp edges, death, and violence as she was—threatens to consume her and those around her. Naughty Dog’s world class animation skills have been deployed here not only to showcase a hauntingly beautiful post apocalyptic world part reclaimed by nature, but also the look of raw panic and fear in the eyes of a grunt as you grab him or her from behind, wrapping your arm around the neck and placing a shiv at their throat after leaping out from the shadows. The effect of seeing this person struggle—yet not too much so as not to risk incurring your wrath—is potent. You see every emotion play out in their eyes.

And it is the eyes that deserve special mention here. Most video games, no matter how good the graphics otherwise, fall down at the eyes. You are ripped from the experience by the sight of these not quite right, uncanny valley orbs. The Last Of Us Part II has the most realistic, soulful eyes of any game I’ve seen. It needs them. The subject matter being explored, and the deft way it is explored by the script and through the phenomenal performances of the cast, requires you to believe that these are real people. If the eyes were wrong, it wouldn’t work as well as it does.

You kill a lot of people in The Last Of Us Part II, often in gruesome, horrible ways. Baseball bats crush skulls. Shotguns explode limbs. Shivs slit throats open and blood sprays out, staining the surroundings while the victim’s eyes go blank. If you kill someone, the other enemies in the area might notice them gone and they will call out their departed friend’s names in fear. They have names here. That’s in and of itself a telling sign of the kind of story unfolding. If they find the corpse, their behaviour will adjust accordingly. As you play through the game as Ellie, you realise that bit by bit you are turned into a monster, as grief poisoned by vengeance turns you into a merciless killer—more so than that, you are turning Ellie into a monster, by being complicit in her actions. There is a genius story mechanic that comes into play halfway through, that flips everything on its head, and you suddenly understand Ellie’s—and your—actions in a completely different way. It is an incredibly bold move, and it works tremendously. Here is that ludonarrative dissonance at the heart of so many games again. Yet Naughty Dog are after something here, and they harness that dissonance ingeniously, making it work to reinforce their theme. The gameplay mechanics are so well developed, the stealth action so satisfying, that you enjoy all the killing, you relish it, and then the game makes you feel terrible for doing so. The killing is not as much of a power fantasy here as in many other games, no. You are too desperate, too up against it, the deaths just a little bit too real, for that. Nevertheless, by virtue of making the killing the core of a well-designed game, you enjoy it. And yet it damns you for doing so. You damn yourself. It’s a hell of an achievement. Where the medium goes from here, I don’t know.

It should also be noted that The Last Of Us Part II is quite possibly the most diverse game ever made, and it is so without making a big deal out of it. The vast majority of the main characters with a significant degree of agency are women, of far broader body variety than is usual even in other media. There are characters of non-hetero sexuality and of multiple ethnicities present throughout in prominent roles, and a key character is revealed to be trans—as well as being voiced by a trans actor (Ian Alexander). The game has received some arguably justified criticism from some parts of the trans community for not handling aspects of the trans storyline as well it should have, so perhaps the best that can be said of the studio is that they had good intentions, yet maybe fumbled the delivery a little bit. Nevertheless, in an industry that is absolutely plagued with regressive attitudes to virtually every aspect of society, Naughty Dog’s bold movements counter to that trend should be noted. It will come as no surprise that for its efforts, the developer—and voice actors—have been on the receiving end of a vicious online campaign of abuse, with the game itself being ‘review bombed’ on Metacritic within hours of release. This is the kind of tide that we are fighting against.

The trolls should be firmly ignored, however, because what director Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog have crafted here is something truly special. Quite aside from the ‘vengeance is bad’ theme that runs through the game—and which is handled very well—there is more here, something even more vital. More than anything else The Last Of Us Part II is, to me, about grief, love, and learning to forgive. The game hit me hard. I suffered a tragic bereavement while quite young and I’ve been living with the poisonous effects of unprocessed grief ever since, only a decade later slowly starting to learn how to deal with it all. That inability, or refusal, to properly deal with grief is at the heart The Last Of Us Part II. That thrashing at the universe that often takes the place of healthy processing, that violent lashing out in a desperate bid to get a loved one back. It can take a very long time to realise that nothing ever will bring them back. Not in the way you want. But you can lose less—of yourself and of them—by refusing to let the departure of their physical self erode whatever remains of your soul. It never ceases to amaze me that we’ve reached a point in the medium’s history where a video game can address themes such as these, and to do it in a way that has me awake at night, pondering what it has to say, and feeling as if my own feelings on the matter have been changed, enriched. Finally, The Last Of Us Part II is also, in a very timely and resonant choice, a testament to the difficulty but necessity of learning to see life through the eyes of The Other, and accepting that while we naturally see ourselves as the heroes of our own little-big narrative, the tapestry of human life is infinitely more complex. The game forces you to confront this, plunging you head first into a deep maelstrom of hate, out of which—somehow, gradually, magically—it salvages empathy. It’s an incredible act of perspective realignment in an incredible game that’s going to stay with me for a very long time.




Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Image sources (in order of posting): Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment