Before we begin I would like to warn everyone that while this post isn’t directly about The Last of Us 2 it will contain spoilers for The Last of Us 2. If you have any intention of playing that video game and have not yet then please turn back.
Unless you have children you don’t understand what people mean when they say having children changes things. I remember thinking this was a silly concept once. But since I’ve had children I’ve experienced numerous changes and it isn’t limited to the fact that I can no longer comfortably eat out at restaurants or leave the house quickly. Having children changes you at a biochemical level. At the very least you become more empathetic.
I am not a scientist nor do I pretend to be. I am not the type of person to make a YouTube video in my truck claiming I’ve done vast research (watching other YouTube videos of fake documentaries or dudes in trucks) on a subject and calling myself an expert. What I do know is caring for two nearly helpless little balls of flesh has made me a more caring individual and I do not believe I’m alone in this belief. A quick Google search reveals a 2019 New York Times article on this very subject.
Now we come to the crux of the matter. Being a new parent in the age of Coronavirus, mass social change, and the presidency of Donald Trump. This is a time when being too sensitive is the number one insult of the reactionary right. They time and time again label anyone that disagrees with them as sensitive snowflakes while at the same time giving lip service to the made up All Lives Matter movement where they believe all lives matter except those killed by coronavirus, gun violence, corrupt cops, or border patrol agents. We live in a time that requires empathy, an emotion so many among us, including our president, wish to demonize.
It should come as no surprise then that The Last of Us 2 has proven to be a litmus test for a persons ability to feel empathy. Artistically that way the came is presented is not unique but is unique to the medium. I have played video games that present moral gray areas and complex characters before, and I have played games that have had me asking if the character I’m playing is in fact the bad guy before, but I haven’t played a game that so directly presents one character as the antagonist and then asks you not only to control them for half the game but presents it in a way that slowly dissolves your hate.
As I said this is not unique to other medium. Think about how many books are presented from multiple perspectives. Game of Thrones is the first that comes to my mind. The book ends with the shocking death of Edard Stark and then latter in the series you’re asked to sympathize with Cersei Lannister as she embarks on her walk of shame. The Star Wars movies demand you watch Darth Vader destroy Alderaan, kill Obi Wan, capture Han Solo, disfigure Luke, and then at the end you are asked to believe in his redemption. The TV series Justified spends as much time telling Boyd Crowder’s story as it does Raylan Givens. So what Last of Us 2 does is not unique outside its medium but is very unique within.
The Last of Us 2 is a tale of two women. The still somewhat innocent and sheltered Ellie and the hardened warrior Abby. The game even begins as an innocent journey. Ellie is sent out on patrol with her new girlfriend, who she kissed for the first time the previous night. In many ways Ellie is your typical 19 year old doing typical 19 year old things. Having issues with her father figure while ending up in a serious relationship for the first time. The innocence of Ellie’s life is highlighted by the first action being a snowball fight with kids. Ellie is very much still a child. She has had some adventures and seen some things, but the last four years of her life she has lived in relative comfort and now life is settling in to its most boring part of finding love and settling down.
Then everything changes. You meet Abby and she is looking for a resident of the settlement Ellie lives in. At this point you don’t know who but you have a pretty good idea it is someone you know. Eventually Abby is caught in a combination blizzard and zombie horde. That is when she runs into our protagonist form the first game, Joel, and his brother, Tommy. together they fight off the zombies and Abby invites them back to her camp. Here it is reveled that Joel is who they were hunting and a graphic torture scene begins. You get to watch the character you fell in love with in the first game get his leg blown off with a shotgun and beaten with a golf club.
It is here Ellie takes over and dominates the story. First you find Joel being tortured and watch him die in a tragic and dramatic scene. The close up of Ellie’s reaction as the killing blow is landed is right out of Hollywood. You feel all her emotions and hate for the people murdering her surrogate father right in front of her.
The game then shifts to Seattle. Ellie and her girlfriend, Dina, canter on horseback over green fields, under a canopy of green trees with the sunshine on their backs. The first couple hours in Seattle are an innocent romp through downtown. Collecting gasoline, killing zombies, and visiting various old world landmarks. Then just before making camp Ellie runs her horse over a trip wire and the journey becomes real. She is captured and about to be put to death when Dina shots one of her captors and Ellie barely frees herself to stab the other in brutal fashion.
With one of Ellie’s targets down she follows intel to her second target. Already having been easily captured and nearly killed the feeling of Ellie being in over her head is expanded as a second faction has beat you to your target and Ellie now finds herself in the middle of a war hundreds of miles from home. What started out as an innocent romp through green fields is now a perilous journey on the brink of survival. Making matters worse Dina informs Ellie that she is pregnant and can no longer assist her on her quest. Ellie is now on her own.
Or at least that’s what you think. Soon you meet up with Jesse, the father of Dina’s child, and he helps Ellie escape what would have certainly been her end. Jesse heads back to be with Dina and Ellie continues on her own hunting their latest lead. She finds another of the party that murdered Joel at the hospital and beats her until she gives up the one that landed the killing blow. The next morning Ellie and Jesse head out for the final confrontation, but on the way, they hear radio chatter that Tommy is at the marina. Jesse asks Ellie to go with him, get Tommy, and prepare to head back to Jackson, but Ellie will not give up on her revenge.
Separated from her friends once again and heading into a dark and dangerous storm Ellie heads off to finish what she started. Unfortunately, Ellie is too late and has just missed Abby. She attempts to hold the two conspirators she finds hostage but they fight back and Ellie ends up killing them and discovering one of them, Mel, is pregnant. It is here, in the midst of her disbelief, that Jesse and Tommy find her and take her back to the theater and Dina where in the morning they will leave Seattle and their unsatisfied thirst for vengeance behind. But in the morning vengeance finds them.
Inter-spliced throughout Ellie’s journey are flashbacks to her time with Joel, and as Ellie comes out into the lobby of the theater and is greeted by Abby blowing away Jesse and holding Tommy at gunpoint another flashback begins, but this time you’re Abby. Abby as a young girl with her father. Learning to track animals. It is here that you learn Abby is the daughter of the doctor that was to perform the surgery that would have killed Ellie at the end of the first game. The doctor that Joel casually blew away before picking up Ellie and carrying her out of the hospital.
Now, after hunting Abby, experiencing hardship after hardship as Ellie, struggling to survive, and reliving key emotional moments with Joel through flashbacks as Ellie, you are asked to control Abby. The antagonist of the game and the person that took so much from Ellie. You learn that just as Abby took away Ellie’s father figure it was Joel that took Abby’s father, and while Abby’s quest for vengeance had no immediate consequences Ellie, Jesse, and Tommy have cut a path of destruction through Seattle and taken all the remaining Firefly refugees in Abby’s life, and now you relive it all as Abby.
Abby’s journey parallels the beginning with Ellie. Manny and Abby get food just as Jesse and Ellie did. Abby plays with a dog, a dog Ellie ends up stabbing, just as Ellie participated in a snowball fight. Life is settled into its routine, but soon Abby learns her fellow WLF member, Danny, was killed by her friend Owen and she has to risk being a deserter to find and save him.
In Abby’s mission to find Owen she comes across two members of the WLF’s rival faction an develops a bond with them. She leaves Owen after finding him to go to the hospital and get supplies to save the life of one of the Scars. Then she abandons Owen again to follow the other Scar to their stronghold where he has gone to convince his mother to join them, but his mother is too ingrained in the cult and won’t abandon her faith or accept a transgender son.
Abby, Lev, and Yara fight and sneak their way through the Scar stronghold while it is under assault by the WLF. Eventually Yara is killed and Lev and Abby are running for their lives through a battlefield. Eventually they escape, return to the aquarium to find Owen, Mel, and the dog, Alice, dead. Abby tracks Ellie to the theater and you’re back where you started but with the understanding that Ellie has won. Ellie took all of Abby’s friends. Without Ellie’s interference Abby still would have been a deserter on the run from the WLF but when she got back to the aquarium she would have had a chance to depart Seattle for Santa Barbara where there are rumors of the Fireflies reorganizing. Ellie killing Owen left Abby with no friends, no family, and no home.
And now you must fight Ellie as Abby. I do have to admit that I wanted to see Abby get hers during my entire time playing as her. I several times purposefully threw her off buildings, let Tommy snipe her, and in this section allowed Ellie to kill her several times. Eventually I played the game and allowed Abby to get the best of Ellie. Abby is in every way a hardened warrior. She is much more Shayna Baszler than Lara Croft. She has the arms of a body builder and there is no chance Ellie could best her in a straight up fight and once Ellie is disarmed of all her weapons that is what happens. Abby is in the midst of cracking her skull on the floor when Dina runs in. Ellie tells Abby that Dina is pregnant, Abby’s eyes flash with memories of Mel, and Lev tells Abby to stop, and they walk off telling Ellie they never want to see her again.
Now about Abby for a second. If there wasn’t the savage torture and murder of Joel hanging over all of this Abby would be a likable character, and this would be a story of human redemption. The buddy tale of Abby and Lev. Two deserters from warring factions just trying to survive, but that’s not the story and the death of Joel hangs over our playing of Abby the entire time. It is also of note that the name Abigail means my father’s joy or my father is joy. Both of which hold true in Abby’s case. Abigail is also a character in the bible. A character that stops David from killing her husband Nabal. In the Last of Us 2 Abby is reignites the cycle of violence by tracking down and killing Joel whereas the biblical version of Abigail ends it by pleading for her husband’s life.
The story of the Last of Us 2 doesn’t end there though. In modern video game fashion we get an epilogue, and a long one at that. Ellie and Dina appear to be happy living in a farm house, but as Ellie goes about her daily chores it is learned that she suffers from PTSD and is not over the death of Joel. She relives it when a rake falls over in the barn and her mind flashes to the golf club caving in Joel’s skull. Ellie has not forgotten or forgiven despite living a comfortable life with someone she loves and a child to raise.
It is here that Tommy shows up with information about Abby being spotted in California. Tommy, who was ready to abandon the quest for revenge when it was just about Joel’s death, is no all gungho to send Ellie back into danger when he’s lost an eye and the ability to walk without a limp at the the hands of Abby and Lev. Dina sends him away but the intel is there and the seed planted in Ellie’s brain.
Here the game shifts back to controlling Abby. He finds the house where the Fireflies were staying and is able to contact them on the radio. Just as you think she’s about to reconnect with them she is captured by a faction called the Rattlers. They are a group of slavers that keep infected as pets (like The Govenor in The Walking Dead). The zombie apocalypse version of Nazi’s. Unlike other factions they have no redeeming qualities and can be murdered with impunity.
Ellie comes across Abby’s sailboat and finds the map with the address on it. While tracking Abby to that address Ellie is captured by the same faction but her immunity allows her to escape by letting a pet infected bite her and her captor. Ellie questions her other captor and finds out Abby is being held as a slave by that group in a large round building. Ellie cuts a path of destruction through that factions, frees their slaves, and learns that Abby is strung up on the pillars towards the shore. She heads down there and finds herself among a field of crucifix.
At this point the game will not allow you to simply shoot Abby in the face and walk away, believe me I tried, but instead it makes Abby very happy to see Ellie again when Ellie cuts her down and she cuts down Lev. They conveniently find two boats tied to the shore and are about to go their separate ways with Ellie feeling Abby has been through enough when Ellie flashes back to Joel’s death and tells Abby she can’t let her leave. Abby sits in the water in defiance and tells Ellie she is done and will not fight. Ellie threatens Lev to force Abby to fight and echoing Ellie’s words about Dina Abby tells Ellie that Lev is not part of this, but at this point Ellie is beyond reason and will have her showdown. Ellie has ridden away from the farmhouse leaving her woman behind while heading out for the final showdown with the black hat and she is damned if she won’t have the showdown.
Abby relents and Ellie attacks. Cutting and slicing Abby until she is too weak to fight back. Sh forces her head under the water and as she is drowning her, about to satiated her thirst for vengeance to flashes to Joel strumming his guitar, and as you soon learn about to patch up his relationship with Ellie. That flash of the image of a happy and content Joel is enough. He wouldn’t want this for Ellie. He would want her back at the farmhouse, happy with Dina and little J.J., growing old and living happily ever after. Ellie relents and tells Abby to go. To go before she changes her mind, and Ellie collapses overcome with emotion letting the waves break against her and sobbing. It is over. She has not forgotten Joel or dishonored his death by letting Abby walk away, but she has chosen to honor his life by ending the cycle of violence.
Ellie returns to the farmhouse to find it all but abandoned. All that remains is her stuff tucked away in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Gone are Dina, J.J., and the sounds of happiness and a peaceful life. It is just another forgotten place is a world full of forgotten places. Ellie finds her guitar, strums it, and recalls her last conversation with Joel. The conversation where she tells Joel she can’t forgiven him for stopping the Fireflies from attempting to make a cure from her, but that she would like to try. That she would like to restart and renew the relationship. It is here the viewer realizes that the promise of new beginnings quickly and brutally turned into a tragic ending and just how much Abby took from Ellie.
And this is where the cowboy rides away. Ellie walks away from the farmhouse headed somewhere. Either to Jackson seeking forgiveness from Dina or back to California to once again track down Abby. It is up to the viewer to decide if Ellie is filled with regret over letting Joel’s murderer live or if just as she wanted to try and forgive Joel she is hoping Dina will try and forgive her.
Last of Us 2 is a reflection of the culture and times it came out in. It demands that we feel empathy for a person that stole everything from both the protagonist and the player. Joel was a character we grew to love in the first game and his relationship with Ellie was just as important to the player as it was to the characters. Then after seven years of waiting for a sequel we are reconnected and ready to continue that relationship only to watch it bashed in the head with a golf club. Then we are asked not only to play as but to empathize with the person that took all that from Ellie and us. It is a difficult thing to do and more difficult for the medium in which it is presented. Darth Vader, The Joker, Tyler Durden are all antagonists that we have been asked to share the perspectives of in other medium, but a video game is different. It is interactive versus voyeuristic in nature. We are not only being asked to watch the story of Abby but to participate and that makes the empathy more difficult.
How much different I would have viewed the story if I did not have children I do not know. I do know that we live in a world where too many lack empathy and view being sensitive to others’ feelings as a weakness. Being sensitive to others’ needs and desires is not a weakness. I vow to teach my children that sensitivity is a strength. That caring for others is the foundation of a strong character, and one day, when they’re older, the Last of Us 2 will be a piece of art I share with them to help teach that lesson much as my mother shared Huck Finn with me to teach me a similar lesson.