Review of The Last of Us Part II
The Last Of Us Part II. Playstation 4, Naughty Dog. 2020.
The Last of Us Part II is the sequel to Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful third-person shooter The Last of Us (2013), and as of the writing of this review remains the fastest-selling Playstation 4 exclusive (a title it may hold in perpetuity given the release of the Playstation 5 in 2020). Unlike its predecessor, however, The Last of Us Part II was far more controversial, and was the subject of an early review bomb—a phenomenon wherein a large number of people post negative reviews en masse—on Metacritic. With a typical playtime of 20-25 hours, and its status as a Playstation 4 exclusive, it is a title that is unlikely to make its way into many classroom settings as a primary text, although it remains significant to scholars of science fiction, horror, video games, and popular culture. There are at least three major topics that are likely to come up in scholastic discussions of the title, including: the game’s attempted interrogation of the norms of violence in video games, the attempted if-limited representation of a trans character in a science fiction horror game, and as its place as, if not an epilogue, then perhaps an addendum to the social controversies surrounding the “Gamergate” harassment campaign of 2014. As such, it is a touchstone in the current understanding of the video game-related culture wars.
The main focus of the game is the representation of cycles of violence. Understanding these cycles relies on some familiarity with the first game and its plot. The first game, 2013’s The Last of Us, presented Joel Miller (voiced by Troy Baker) as a hardened survivor in the midst of a fungal-zombie apocalypse (like MR Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, the zombie outbreak is modeled on the fungus Cordyceps). In that game, Joel travels across post-apocalyptic America with Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson), tasked with delivering her to a group called the Fireflies in the hopes of developing a vaccine to the zombie pandemic. When it’s revealed that the Fireflies will need to kill Ellie and extract part of her brain to develop a vaccine, Joel chooses Ellie’s life over the potential vaccine, killing the Fireflies, including the doctor that was about to perform the operation. Given Joel’s centrality to the first game and his popularity with the players and fans of that game, The Last of Us Part II stands out by killing Joel in the first two hours of the sequel. The game is framed around an initial cycle of violence, as Joel’s killer, Abby (voiced by Laura Bailey) is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon who would have performed the operation on Ellie at the end of the first game. Abby killing Joel is the completion of this first revenge plot, but it stirs a new revenge plot as Ellie chooses to hunt down Abby in revenge for killing Joel. The game disrupts this revenge plot halfway through, however. The perspective of the game shifts from Ellie in her quest to kill Abby, to Abby herself. The choice to shift perspectives so that the player is forced to play as the character that killed Joel for 10-12 hours of gametime highlights the game’s foregrounding of theme in shaping the structure and narrative. The game wants to aesthetically be in the same ballpark as Spec Ops: The Line in deconstructing its own franchise and the player’s relationship to violence. Like Spec Ops: The Line, which attempted to subvert player expectations by recasting the end boss of the game as the projection of the protagonist’s guilt over war crimes he commits throughout the game, the form of subversion in The Last of Us Part II is to still present heavy violence throughout the game, but emphasize the guilt the characters experience for committing that violence as well as the guilt the game seems to think the player should feel.
For this interrogation of violence to work, Abby needs to have character traits established that go beyond her revenge killing of Joel. This is executed through the representation of Lev (voiced by Ian Alexander). The game’s attempt at presenting Abby’s redemption arc centers around her rescue of Lev and his sister Yara (voiced by Victoria Grace) from the Seraphites. In this vision of post-apocalyptic Seattle, the city is divided between the warring factions of Washington Liberation Front, which Abby is a part of, and the cult of the Seraphites, a group which, among other things, practices arranged marriage. Lev, a transman, is assigned to marry an elder man in the Seraphites. In rejecting the arranged marriage, Lev becomes a target for Seraphite violence. The apparent purpose of this sequence is to highlight that Abby is capable of rejecting the regional conflicts between the WLF and Seraphites, and that she could be viewed as a “heroic” figure if not framed around her murder of Joel. This is contrasted with Ellie who, in her own quest for revenge, kills a pregnant woman and her boyfriend in her unyielding pursuit of Abby. As a redemption arc for Abby, this presents some problems, since even if the intention is to contrast Abby’s willingness to help Seraphites to Ellie’s unwillingness to forgive Abby, the contexts may seem different enough that the parallels among the various characters will either be missed or feel weak. Despite the issues with how well Lev fits into the game’s attempt to present a redemption arc for Abby, Lev remains one of the few earnest depictions of trans identity in post-apocalyptic narrative, and this allows the game to serve as a kind of benchmark in understanding the horror genre’s evolving depictions of non-cis identity. Although the game is not interested in deeply exploring Lev’s identity, its banal depiction is still an improvement from many earlier representations of non-cishet identity in the horror genre. The range of trans characters depicted in post-apocalytpic narrative further expanded with the 2021 TV series Y: The Last Man.
Thematically, the end of the game is likely to elicit mixed reactions; the game continues to interrogate the cycle of violence as Ellie again chooses to pursue revenge at the cost of her friends, family, and fingers, only to opt for mercy in the final moments. The final scenes, though, are undercut by the ludological structure of the game, which even up until the final moments involve Ellie shooting and stabbing her way across America in her pursuit of revenge. Nonetheless, the nuances of the ending are not central to the game’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. The review bomb on Metacritic at the game’s release is as much tied to the game’s place as a kind of addendum to the Gamergate harassment campaigns of 2014, as it is to players who were unhappy the game kills off Joel in the first two hours. In response to a developer looking for a source for one of the many false accusations against the studio and developers, director and co-writer Neil Druckmann lists some of the false conspiracy theories that led to its early review bomb:
you fight homophobic Christians? Or that Anita worked on the game? Or that Abby is trans? (@Neil_Druckmann).
Since presenting the “Ambassador Award” to Anita Sarkeesian at the 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards, Druckmann has been a target for the Gamergate harassment campaign, a characteristic that has evidently lingered in the years since. The false rumor, meanwhile, that “Abby is trans”, reflected the puerile attitude of some early review bombers that took Abby’s muscular appearance and the knowledge that the game had a trans character as a sign that Abby herself was transgender. The combined commercial and critical success of The Last of Us Part II, as a lesbian-led post-apocalyptic game featuring a transman suggests that radical attempts at changing the typical representations of video game protagonists only fuels the sales of games, even if it also elicits a backlash. That being said, that this controversy exists at all reflects that there is a vocal population of misogynists and transphobes in the gaming community. This is not to imply that there are no valid critiques of the game. Some negative reviews also focus on the clumsy attempts to humanize Abby and the uneven nature of her redemption arc, although it is this dynamic that may be the game’s most interesting element for scholars.
Despite the complexities revolving around issues of representation, the game’s attempt at subverting player attitudes toward violence does not really work, but the heavy-handed attempts of the game to subvert player attitudes transforms the audience’s relationship with the narrative structure of the game. It’s not like Undertale, where the player has a ludological choice between a Pacifist or a Genocide run. While players can attempt to stealth their way through some parts of the missions, the game is primarily designed as a third-person shooter. Instead, the game interrogates the audience’s relationship with violence by toying with audience feelings. The audience is unlikely to forget the scene of Abby killing Joel at the start of the game, where she shoots out Joel’s leg with a shotgun and then bludgeons him to death with a golf club, but by the second half of the game, they are confronted with a scene where Abby plays fetch with Bear the dog. It’s a short scene, and its impact in part stems from the contrast with the twelve hours of brutal violence that precedes it. The player is probably aware of how manipulative the game is trying to be with the sequence, given the extreme violence depicted in her murder of Joel, and it is improbable much of the audience would “forgive” Abby just for playing with a dog. Instead, the player becomes more aware of the overt nature in which the game is manipulating them. The inadequacy of the dog scene in humanizing Abby is also what makes the game’s meta-textual play between developer and audience interesting. The “real” game, in some sense, is being played on the level of meta-cognition between developer and player, as the player likely still abhors Abby’s actions in the first half of the game. The narrative creates reflection for the player because of the discomfort and confusion they feel playing Abby, but also for their own willingness to continue engaging with the game’s artistic perspective. The Last of Us Part II challenges the player to reflect on what it means to choose to continue playing the game. It’s this highly subjective and variable discomfort that the game seems to most want to explore, even if the game’s argument about the nature of violence is extremely undercut by the necessities of its gameplay. The Last of Us Part II is not a masterpiece because it successfully dramatizes the complexity of cycles of violence, rather, what makes it a compelling case study in artistry are the ways it attempts but fails to do so, and in doing so creates an entirely distinct experience.
@Neil_Druckmann. “Maybe the same source as… you fight homophobic Christians? Or that Anita worked on the game? Or that Abby is trans? Or that I was scanned and mocapped anything in the game? Or that we paid for reviews? Or… I’m exhausted.” Twitter, Jun 2020, 6:28 AM. https://twitter.com/Neil_Druckmann/status/1275103339907178496?s=20.
Dr. Steven Holmes is a lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he is currently finishing a book project entitled Exploding Empire: Imagining the Future of Nationalism and Capitalism. His publications include articles in Studies in the Fantastic, The Written Dead: The Zombie as a Literary Phenomenon, War Gothic in Literature and Culture, and Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy. He teaches classes on argumentative writing, science fiction, fantasy literature, digital art, and Shakespeare.