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*This post contains spoilers for both The Last of Us games.*
It’s rare I’ll play a game in order to experience the consequences of my actions as a player. If it’s an RPG I’ll go all in agonising over whether to leave either Ashley or Kaidan to die in the first Mass Effect or debating the advantages of helping Temerian loyalists or the mercenary spy master in The Witcher 3. I expect it less in games where I’m not the one making the decisions. When I don’t have a choice I care less because I’m not the one making these decisions even if I am pressing the buttons. I could just walk away but that defeats the purpose of experiencing a story like The Last of Us Part II in all its gory details. I want to know how it ends even if I know I won’t like it.
By the end of The Last of Us Part II I identified with protagonist Ellie far more than I did when she was slicing and dicing her way through post-apocalyptic Seattle. The line from MacBeth “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” was no longer something I just understood it was something I felt. Just like Ellie I had to keep going because stopping where I was would be just as painful. I no longer wanted to know what happened, I needed to. And when Ellie came face-to-face with Abby, the game’s other protagonist, I got the ending I expected but not the one I felt that players or the game itself deserved.
After the events of The Last of Us Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie have moved to the relative safety of Jackson, Wyoming. Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps virus that devastated the world is kept secret, as is the fact that Joel massacred the only people capable of creating a vaccine in order to save Ellie. Five years later Joel’s chickens come home to roost in the form of Abby and the survivors of the massacre that went north and joined the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) in Seattle.
They smash Joel’s head in with a golf club in front of Ellie and leave. Ellie, with new (and pregnant) girlfriend Dina in tow, travels to Seattle in pursuit of both Abby and Joel’s equally vengeful brother Tommy. Over three days she mercilessly slaughters her way towards Abby resulting in a confrontation that leaves Ellie, Dina and Tommy defeated but alive. Months later Ellie now lives on an idyllic farm with Dina and their son, JJ. Suffering from PTSD Ellie abandons Dina and the baby to go after Abby one last time and after a vicious knife fight in the pounding surf she lets her go.
Between Ellie’s first confrontation with Abby and the ponderous brutal epilogue that ends the game there’s a section that shows what Abby was up to in the three days that Ellie was systematically butchering her friends. I’ve already talked about that innovative, if ultimately unwise, storytelling technique here but it’s Ellie’s story that matters more in terms of the game and to players. The sins of the past echo deep into Ellie’s present. Everything she learned about survival she learned from Joel. Concealing her feelings and emotions has become second nature to her and brutally dispatching infected and regular people is part-and-parcel of everyday life. Ellie is a killing machine and little affects her in her bloody work so is it wrong to wish for a happy ending for the Michael Myers-esque villain she eventually becomes?
I don’t think so. I think Ellie – despite her crimes – deserves happiness. In a world filled with people trained to kill mercilessly everyone is just as bad as each other. Ellie kills a pregnant woman by accident. Abby betrays the WLF in favour of helping the Seraphites – sworn enemy of the WLF. In a world where everyone is as guilty as each other it feels just as callous to dismiss the possibility of second chances. Of course it’s not like Ellie didn’t have innumerable opportunities to go back to Jackson. Every slit throat, every trigger pull, every brutal beating was a choice often made in the heat of the moment but others were cold and calculating and Ellie ultimately pays for each of these decisions if not with her own life than with the things that make life worth living.
That’s where my problem with The Last of Us Part II lies. Ellie is caught between a rock and a hard place. Like anyone, she’s driven by what she wants. She wants that happy home life with Dina and JJ but her traumatic memories of Joel’s murder won’t let her sink into the domestic bliss she craves. The only way to deal with that trauma as she sees it is to seek out Joel’s murderer and kill her, perpetuating a cycle of violence that has no end. Ellie is capable of forgiveness, a flashback at the end of the game tells us, but this is after Ellie has lost everyone near and dear to her. That forgiving nature is never allowed to blossom though stamped out as it is by the steel-capped boot of vengeance. When Ellie once again tries to nurture it back to life it’s too little, too late.
The Last of Us Part II, like so many others of its ilk such as The Road, is post-apocalyptic misery porn. At least The Road has the good grace to offer a spark of hope in all its grey grimness The Last of Us Part II offers no such spark, not for Ellie at least. After wading through this swamp of human misery for about 20 hours it’s hard not to hope for a light in the dark. It’s to Naughty Dog’s credit that they stuck to their guns but what’s wrong with Ellie realizing that Dina and JJ can help her more than violence can? What’s wrong with forgiveness and healing and reconciliation? What’s wrong, in this year of plague and fire and tyranny, with a happy ending? What’s wrong with hope?