The rest of us: revenge, prestige, and putting The Last of Us: Part II in its place

This essay includes extensive spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II.



The Last of Us: Part II (hereinafter TLOU2) is the much-anticipated direct sequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalypse zombie shooter The Last of Us. Upon its release last month, it provoked two drastically different critical responses. The first was overwhelming and effusive praise for the game’s advanced visuals, nuanced and believable characters, and grim and complex story about the fallacy of revenge. The second was frustration and ambivalence at what seemed to be an overly self-important and insincere shooter pretending to be much bolder and deeper than it actually was.

The first of these positions is best exemplified by a much-derided tweet from Jeff Cannata stating that ‘in a medium where everything is John Wick, The Last of Us Part 2 is Schindler’s List.’ The second by Maddy Myers’ considered review for Polygon, where she calls TLOU2  ‘the latest game that exists at the cross section of shaky moral ideas and an incredibly high level of craft.’

TLOU2 is, at once, a remarkably impressive blockbuster videogame that develops characters and places both visually and emotionally to an extent rarely seen in videogames, and also yet another videogame where you satisfyingly shoot a bunch of people and zombies in the head while being told that, gee, this violence thing is pretty bad huh? Both extreme positions are understandable and defensible, but I also find them both insufficient to really situate and understand what TLOU2 achieves, what it doesn’t achieve, what it shouldn’t have to achieve, and what other videogames beyond the blockbuster niche of videogame production we call ‘triple-a’ have already achieved years ago.



Development studio Naughty Dog hold something of a jaded messianic position in videogame discourses. Every time they release a new Uncharted or Last of Us game, we end up in this same discursive stalemate where their games are, at once, bravely pushing the medium forward with their sheer level of craft, and also seemingly holding it back with how they anchor that craft in musty old conventions of running, jumping and shooting your way down a series of corridors.

It’s a cliché to praise a videogame for being ‘cinematic’, but there is truly something filmic about Naughty Dog’s work. Every single moment in these games is carefully authored to occur a certain way before the player presses a button. The story cannot be budged one way or another by the player’s ‘choices’. Characters have a level of nuance to their acting that no other videogame compares to. Moments of tense playable action and chill conversations are interweaved seamlessly with non-interactive cutscenes. In The Last of Us and its sequel in particular, direct cuts between scenes and shots where most games would use a slow fade-in/fade-out (typically to hide necessary load times) are used to great effect to add a transmedial filmic veneer. This in turn helps to consecrate Naughty Dog games in the self-conscious critical discourse of videogames as ‘real art’ because they now look more like a pop cultural medium whose artistic value is better understood (the movie) – despite these games effectively just being videogame re-imaginings of Indiana Jones and The Walking Dead.

But more than these design and aesthetic decisions, it is the positioning of the player that gives Naughty Dog games their filmic feel, and that also leaves many players frustrated and feeling constrained. The typical convention in videogame design is that the playable character or ‘avatar’ is a vehicle for the player to drive, a virtual limb extending the player’s agency into the virtual world. Playable characters in Uncharted and, more so, The Last of Us, are not this. They are already fully-formed before the player occupies them with their own histories, identities, ambitions, decisions. In Naughty Dog games, the player is not the character so much as the actor who is performing the character: you have been handed a script and told what to do, and all that is left to do is get on the set and do it with your own particular flair.

This redefined player-character contract liberates Naughty Dog’s storytellers. No longer do they have to worry about what the player would do or might do – the agency question that so often defangs otherwise effective videogame storytelling- Instead, they can confidently determine what will happen and why, leaving the player no choice but to opt in to that.

Unsurprisingly, it’s this rigidity that frustrates some players, as they find themselves thrust into positions where the characters make choices other than the ones they would have made. It’s here, in the relationship between player and character, that Uncharted and The Last of Us are both so affective for some and so frustrating for others.



TLOU2 pushes apart the conceptual distance between player and character much further than any previous Naughty Dog game.

The player jumps between three different characters throughout the game: Joel and Ellie, and newcomer Abby. At the end of the second playable sequence as Abby, when the player is still unaware of her motives or background, Abby violently murders Joel. It’s a shocking and confronting scene – in part, because the player is so familiar with and has been Joel for most of the previous game; and in part because you, the player, were responsible for directing Abby towards this goal without knowing what you were leading her towards. It feels like a betrayal, an abuse of the player’s trust. But its effect is to make sure the player knows, right from the start, that this isn’t their story. It’s the characters’ story. You’re just along for the ride. Here, you’re not even a single actor anymore but more akin to a cameraperson, observing this story unfold from its numerous perspectives with no say over where it is going to go.

TLOU2 is about revenge and how violence begets violence. It’s not the most original or revolutionary theme, but it’s delivered powerfully and effectively by, somehow, making every single character on each side of the conflict relatable and sympathetic. No one is entirely evil, and no one is entirely good. Every act of revenge throughout the game is entirely justified, and yet only ever makes things worse.

After Abby and her friends murder Joel, Ellie, her partner Dina, her friend Jesse, and Joel’s brother Tommy head to the zombie-infested ruins of Seattle to murder Abby and her friends. Ellie calls it justice, but we know from the start that it’s really just revenge. After a number of increasingly violent and grim scenes that sees the-player-as-Ellie kill off Abby’s friends one by one without successfully finding Abby – culminating in Ellie murdering Abby’s pregnant friend Mel – Ellie and her colleagues finally call off the search only to be confronted by Abby herself, who points a gun at Ellie’s head after killing Jesse.

At this cliffhanger, time rewinds and we are back ‘in control of’ Abby (or perhaps controlled by Abby) shortly after her team returned to Seattle after killing Joel. We hang out and chat with and learn all about the friends and colleagues that we have already seen Ellie murder. We learn that Abby didn’t simply kill Joel for his decision in the previous game to choose Ellie’s life over a vaccine for the zombie fungal virus, but because in the process of that choice Joel killed Abby’s dad, the doctor tasked with killing Ellie on the operating table to produce said vaccine.

At this point, the stories of Ellie and Abby become paralleled and intertwined. Abby treks across the country with her friends to hunt down and murder Joel because he killed her father; Ellie treks across the country with her friends to hunt down and murder Abby because she killed her father-figure. Ellie’s two main friends are her pregnant lover Dina and Dina’s ex, Jesse; Abby’s two main friends are her ex-lover Owen and Owen’s pregnant partner, Mel. Perhaps TLOU2’s greatest achievement is that it successfully gives the player the time and the opportunity to get to know the stories and motivations of these two main protagonists, as well as each of the friends who end up as collateral in their joint destruction. By the time Abby’s extensive sequence converges with Ellie’s timeline, there is absolutely no possibility of an outcome that the player will consider ‘good’ between these diametrically opposed women.

The game culminates in two dramatic, brutal, and exhausting melees between Ellie and Abby. In the first, you play as Abby. In the second, as Ellie. Each fight is difficult to play, as you bash the square button to attempt to kill another character you have spent so much time with.

This long, twenty-five-hour, multisided slog between two women’s search for revenge in which they each lose everything and gain absolutely nothing is grim and exhausting, but it is also profoundly affecting in its well-trodden themes because, by the end, we know these characters and we really can’t say one is any more or less justified in their actions than the other.

Numerous critiques have dismissed TLOU2 as yet another game where the player is forced to do bad things and then told to feel bad. This misses the point and misunderstands the player-character contract that Naughty Dog is asking you to sign up to, and which is it uses so effectively to make us care for all these characters. The player is simply along for the ride in this story of characters making bad, understandable decisions, and then living with the consequences.

However, this ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ dynamic also weakens TLOU2 on another level.

The personal revenge stories of Ellie and Abby are wrapped in a broader struggle between two groups of survivors, the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) and the Seraphites. This struggle is a deliberate and explicit analogy of the Palestine/Israel conflict, with the WLF standing in for Israeli state and the Seraphites standing in for the displaced Palestinians. Throughout the game we see WLF members complain about Seraphite kids breaking truces by throwing rocks at armed guards and ‘death cult’ Seraphites making things worse by not ‘staying on their island.’

The Palestine/Israel conflict is perhaps an obvious backdrop for a story about cycles of violence – albeit one few commercial videogames would dare go near – but a poorly-chosen one when the game’s position is that ‘both sides are equally bad’. In the personal struggle of Ellie and Abby, this centrist position works effectively; in the structural story of WLF and the Seraphites, it is hugely problematic and, as Emanuel Maiberg notes, ‘perpetuates the very cycles of violence [TLOU2] is supposedly so troubled by. ’ When Naughty Dog involve us in the struggles of Ellie and Abby, they are all too happy to tell us the stakes and the history that led both sides to this crossroad. When Naughty Dog involves us in the struggles of WLF and Seraphites, however, they refuse to articulate a clear political stance or engage with power and history, an all-too-common position in the Triple-A industry.



What of other aspects of representation and their politics? TLOU2 has a far more gender diverse cast than is typical for blockbuster action videogames. The main character is a white lesbian, her lover is a bisexual Jewish woman, and her friend is an Asian American man. Abby is muscular in a way that only men are typically allowed to be in videogames, and her group of friends are as racially and gender diverse as Ellie’s (and includes a pregnant woman who isn’t treated as being disabled by her pregnancy). Enemies, too, an important site of representation rarely discussed in videogame diversity discourse, includee women as often as men. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the presence of a transgender character whose gender identity is not only explicit but a central plot point. The game’s numerous queer characters are not killed off as is the typical trope, and form instead, no doubt deliberately, the majority of the few characters to actually survive Ellie’s and Abby’s destructive spiral (though, as Cameron Kunzelman observes, the game’s black characters are not so lucky).

Simply hiring ? more ?women ?guards ? doesn’t automatically make TLOU2 a politically ‘good’ game, however. Maddy Myers rightful notes that

Naughty Dog makes its queer woman protagonist act just as violent and self-involved as the legions of grizzled straight-white-dude video game protagonists who have preceded her. There’s something that feels off about that straightforward swap here; it’s a missed opportunity to explore how the rage of a marginalized character might take on a different form, and what that form may look and sound like.

The structure of the game is still very much one of conservative and masculinist hacker/gamer values, regardless of the diversity of its cast.

In praising the game’s gender diversity, a number of critics have made mention of TLOU2 being the ‘first’ game to present women, queer relationships, or transgender characters in a complex way. These are dangerous and self-defeating proclamations that are only accurate if you ignore all the videogames that women, queer folk, and transgender folk have been making about their own experiences for decades beyond the borders of the blockbuster triple-a industry in games such as Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia and Queers in Love at the End of the World, Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket, Fullbright’s Gone Home, Porpentine’s CYBERQUEEN, Merrit K’s Lim, Sundae Moth’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and Natalie Lawhead’s EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK, to name a few.

That said, it’s equally important not to dismiss or obscure the many female, queer, and transgender developers working within the massive blockbuster studios who have long been agitating for change and representation in these most visible and widely played videogames. Just last week, news broke of Ubisoft executives – now plagued with sexual harassment allegations – rejecting a development team’s decision to cast a woman as the sole lead character in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I have heard numerous similar stories anecdotally and off the record of Triple-A projects at which a marginalised developer pushed hard for more diverse characters only to be rebuffed by management and harassed by colleagues.

TLOU2’s inclusion of a more diverse cast is not groundbreaking for the medium of videogames, even if it is boundary-pushing for the specific subset of videogames where you run around and shoot people in the head. But the game’s more diverse cast is absolutely the result of long and ongoing struggles of usually invisible marginalised minorities working within the Triple-A studio system, and their victory here should be applauded.



I want to return to that tweet highlighted earlier in this essay that stated that in a medium of John Wicks, TLOU2 is Schindler’s List. It is of course easy to tease this exaggerated and overly self-important statement (never mind the offensiveness of comparing a game where you shoot zombies to the grim realities of the Holocaust), but it also stands in as an explicit example of an undercurrent of TLOU2’s praise: that this prestigious game where you shoot a bunch of zombies and people in the head marks the time when games become consecrated as art thanks to the empathetic and diverse characters, strong themes and serious storytelling.

The thing is, videogames are not a medium of John Wicks and never have been. (As an aside, to say a videogame foundationally about the consequences of seeking revenge as not being a John Wick is deeply ironic). Such a claim can only be made if one draws a very deliberate and arbitrary border around which videogames get to count as ‘real games’. For a range of historic and cultural reasons beyond the scope of this essay, Triple-A blockbusters have long been able to position themselves as the only authentic works in the videogame form – everything else is just casual games or amateur games that can safely be ignored. For this reason, something is often considered not to have happened in the videogame medium until a Triple-A videogame does it, despite the fact that it has already probably been done somewhere else by someone with a far smaller budget a long time ago.

When we talk about Triple-A videogames, we are effectively talking about ‘Hollywood action movies’: a particular subset of a broader medium that has a high budget, offers massive amounts of spectacle, and, sure, can tell challenging stories and explore deep themes but doesn’t necessarily have to in order to be successful. More likely, it is going to play things pretty safe to ensure it makes a return on the investment required for said spectacle and budget. For decades now, the situation in much of popular videogame critical discourse is the equivalent of if critical film discourse insisted that Hollywood action movies were the only films in existence.

The ‘endless cycle of violence’ theme that TLOU2 explores so powerfully at the personal level but fails to explore meaningfully at the structural or historic level was already well achieved by Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th in 2003. Themes of new relationships, growing up, and parenting were much more powerfully explored in Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket earlier this year. Themes of queerness and gender have been deeply explored in countless games such as those already listed above – many of which were released back when Triple-A still couldn’t be convinced to include a white straight woman as a playable character. Everything that TLOU2 does narratively or thematically has already been done elsewhere, years ago, by a team with far less resources in a game that more likely takes twenty-five minutes, not twenty-five hours, to play from start to end.

But does this lack of originality or a pioneering element really matter? The critics who find TLOU2 overly self-important and even vapid certainly seem to think so. I find myself more forgiving and ultimately more impressed by TLOU2 as a work, I think, because I do personally think of these sorts of Triple-A blockbusters as simply the ‘Hollywood action films’ of videogames. When I go to the cinema to watch an action blockbuster, I want competent but not necessarily groundbreaking storytelling at the service of more affective registers such as spectacle, exhilaration, emotion, bedazzlement, fear. I’m not  necessarily there to be challenges intellectually. Triple-A videogames fill a similar space. The one thing they do that all the smaller, more thematically developed videogames can’t do is offer what I’ve previously called a spectacle of labour: that amazing demonstration of craft that only comes with a vast amount of resources (and, often but not inevitably, the exploitation of workers). Again, in this they are similar to the blockbuster action films of Marvel or Lucasfilm.

This isn’t to say Triple-A videogames shouldn’t be critiqued for perpetuating old-fashioned or conservative ideas, or that critics and players shouldn’t demand they be better. Rather, that we shouldn’t necessarily expect them to be better. That instead of waiting for Triple-A to accurately tell a transgender character’s story, we could seek out the games transgender developers have already made to tell their stories. If we properly situate TLOU2 in the broader medium of videogames, and not just the subfield of Triple-A action blockbuster videogames, both its accomplishments and failings are better tempered and it is easier to evaluate it for what it actually is.

TLOU2 is a profoundly affecting and accomplished Triple-A action game that uses well-trodden tropes and themes to present an endless, exhausting spiral of revenge between two characters. Its grandest accomplishment is using an unconventional dynamic between player and character(s) to make every act of revenge equal part justified, understandable, horrific, and absolutely the wrong thing to do. It does what Triple-A videogames do best, using tried-and-tested conventions to great effect and affect. For the most part, aside from its centrist and ahistorical stance on Palestine and an ill-considered and unnecessary final act, it avoids doing what Triple-A does worst: it is not, despite what many critiques have said, a game where the player is forced to do bad things and then told they should feel bad for doing them; it is a game where the characters do bad things and then have to deal with the consequences, and the player comes along for the ride.

Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that those creators that hold the dominant position within a cultural field do so by working to ensure their cultural field is popularly imagined as only their own work. TLOU2 is spectacular, devastating, beautifully crafted and a huge accomplishment. But perhaps a game primarily about shooting zombies and humans in the head is not actually the daring and pioneering next step for the entire medium of videogames that those journalists and marketers and developers with the most invested in the Triple-A industry’s dominance of the field would have us think it is.

Brendan Keogh

Brendan Keogh is a senior lecturer in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and co-author of The Unity Game Engine and the Circuits of Cultural Software.

More by Brendan Keogh ›

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  1. This is an excellently written piece on what TLOU2 is. All without being condescending to those who dislike it! I have a great many friends whom have stated that they don’t understand why I enjoyed the game so much and called me pretentious for saying that it’s a work of art. I may have to share this to them and maybe they will come away with a different point of view.

  2. I’m commenting because this anomaly of the internet makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. But the context of the original Jeff Cannata tweet is that was his attempt at illustrating how the game is not supposed to be fun. He was saying that other games, like John Wick, are trying to be entertaining. Where TLOU2 is not trying to be fun. And his touchstone for that is Schindler’s List, which I think is probably No.1 on the Family Feud survey when you ask people to name a movie that isn’t supposed to be fun (with the possible exception of Passion of the Christ in the U.S.). It had nothing to do with the content of the stories, and I think you’ll see that if you go back and look at the thread.

    I get that the internet gets to decide its own reality. It’s happened to me. But I still don’t think we have to give in to that tendency.

    Of course, I don’t think this invalidates your take.

  3. No offense, but Naughty Dog failed at making a proper sequel to a game I absolutely loved as one of my favorite games of all time. The original was about the lengths people will go to survive and care for one another, even complete strangers, in a world gone to shit. Anyone who thinks TLOU part 2 is a good game is not a real fan and probably never played the first game. And anyone who decides their game isn’t going to be “fun” hasn’t made a game… you’ve made a brick. If I wanted to play with a brick, I would go the local hardware store and buy one, and STILL probably get more entertainment out of it! Disappointing…

    1. Daedrium: Real fan eh?

      I loved part 1. Prior to the new game coming out it was my favourite game. It isn’t any more as part 2 improves on the first game in almost every way. It was brilliantly written, acted, directed, shot etcetera.

      It made me hate Abby, then love her, then be happy that I don’t have to kill either main character.

      I thought it was a brilliantly crafted and well-executed game that was fun to play.

  4. Something that bothers me is that no one is picking up on how this games examines the failure of people to reconcile or even sympathize with one another. It’s no coincidence that this is reflects current cultural turmoil in America (and much of the world to be fair). In TLOU 2, even close friends fail to–as Jesse says–“get over themselves”.

  5. I’m sorry, but TLOU2 isn’t a work of art outside of visuals. The story is just hot garbage stuffed inside a nice box to look at. Why did we love Joel so much in the original? Because we agreed with the choices he made. We connected with him. We bonded with him. And we waited 7 long years to see how that story continued, only to have our hearts (and our expectations from advertising) ripped away from us in Act I of the game.

    This was the fatal flaw for many fans. You killed a character we invested a whole game and seven years of waiting in, Abby could have been the daughter of Jesus and Michelle Obama and it still would not have been enough to redeem her. We didn’t care. We didn’t want to invest in a story about her, we knew it. We went through that story in the last game, and we’d make the decision to waste her father again to save Ellie.

    Instead, we are forced to slog(great word choice, btw) through a backstory we don’t care about, characters we want to see meet their end, and an ongoing war that has nothing to do with our concern of Ellie’s mission just on the driving factor of hope that we get some satisfying resolution of Abby getting what she has coming to her. Only, we don’t. We got literally nothing. No resolution, no sense of avenging Joel, not even a sense of accomplishment we did anything. Just…an ending. If you want to call it that.

    It’s the only game that as soon as I finished it, I broke the disc. One, because the game was so terrible that I knew I would never pick it up and play it again. Two, I was not about to put it back on a GameStop shelf for it to give someone else the same awful experience I had.

    And notice, not one critique of why I hated this game had anything to do with the sexual identity of the characters. Why? Because I don’t care. None of that matters on why this game was awful. We knew in the first game Ellie was finding herself as a lesbian, so anyone who let that part of the game be what ruined their experience have no one to blame but themselves. It’s not like this was something new to the series.

    In the end, let’s call this game what it was. It was eye candy with little to no expansion at all of the old gameplay mechanics, a weak and absolute disastrous story to tell, and no replay-ability factor.

  6. I’ll respectfully disagree with you on a couple of points, fist that it’s really just you along for the ride. If naughty dog made the parts of both games where you basically can just sit for eternity because the game is waiting for you to put in the 1 button press 5hat makes you take the action they want. And instead just make that into a fmv part of the game. Then yes, your along for the ride. But by making you press that button, they are forcing you to take action, to make a choice, continue or walk away from the game forever. If they force a choice it should have game changing consequences. Not simply, do you play it yourself, or watch it on YouTube to see the rest. It isn’t a choice, it’s forced consent. No means no man.

    And 2nd, I never felt any connection to Abby after I had to play her, if anything her story felt forced. We are expected to believe that the #1 scar killer suddenly turned softy just because 2 who were on the run from the rest happened to save her life. The reality would have been much closer to, she lets them go this time. The play time as Ellie firmly established that the elf were very bad people, the torture cells in the base, the kill on sight anyone orders, all of the notes left by people who they killed. Everything established them as a group of murderers. Even if you did end up with 2 of them later regretting how they killed Joel. The rest were not good people. Ellie’s fall was believable and felt. Abby was just a thug.

    Now had her story been 1/3 in the past with her dad, so a bond is formed for the player and a reason we can sympathize with were not established, then, her dad was murdered. And the next 1/3 was her seeking revenge, and both of these came before you ever played as the original characters, without you knowing who killed her father, or even mentioning Joel or Ellie. Then a big shock, the final flashback to Joel killing her dad, a nightmare the character has been living with all the play time since his death. And she then kills Joel, and boom your now playing Ellie and her story is unchanged, only the part where you play Joel is gone. Ellie’s game is now played, and the game continues as it is from that point, only the entire Abby story is cut to 1/3, cause all of the pre hunt for Joel parts are now back when she would have been hunting him. Before you played as Ellie.

    That, would have been a great game, and you would have definitely cared about Abby. As it is, Abby is a throw away character.

  7. This game was a waste of time. Just so meh in every way. Boring linear story and world. Samey scavenging gameplay. SHITHOUSE story. Glad I just borrowed it and didn’t pay for it.

  8. Thank god that Ghost of Tsushima has redeemed my faith in video game developers. Thanks to “The Last of Us Part II,” I’ve been feeling probably the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my 30+ years of gaming. Not at all due to a character I loved dying, but in the total bullshit story which was nothing short of hypocrisy.

    Dear Naughtydog, stop forcing your fucking your moral agendas in games (not at all about sexuality, because we need more representation in the industry.) Or at the very least, make your moral values consistent throughout the story. That aside, the gaming industry has grown too comfortable with animal violence that is FORCED UPON the player to commit. It was absolutely repulsive to see how you tried to use a subconscious trick to make the player dislike Ellie for killing Alice the dog, meanwhile playing fetch with her as Abby. You have 100% lost me on all of your future projects, because I realize that one man with hypocritical ideals will be forced upon me as the player in the year 2020. See what Ghost of Tsushima did with their story and giving the player choices? Take notes.

  9. This was a really great take, and I appreciate it! I read the WLF/Seraphite conflict as a more general commentary on the nature of sectarian war. Obviously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one expression of this, but I didn’t read the game as directly, particularly commenting on it. In some ways, I think I gave the game an out for being so centrist regarding the conflict as a result of that; feeling like they were making the larger point on the futility of war (and that was all) let me be ok with the fact that they don’t pick a side. Having said that, I also found the Seraphites pretty awful, when encountered by Ellie, Abby, and especially Lev, but they were definitely who I was rooting for in the conflict with the WLF. That probably has to do with my own way of seeing things more than an inexorable conclusion the game was trying to bring me to, though, so it’s probably still accurate to say they didn’t pick a side.

    Having said that, I definitely agree that the centrist take regarding Ellie and Abby was compelling in a way that it wasn’t with regards to the WLF and the Seraphites, and when I start my second play through I’ll be thinking about that. Thanks again!

    1. I agree with your take. I think it’s simplistic to interpret the WLF/Seraphite conflict as direct representation of and commentary on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Even if it was, I thought it was clear that the WLF had crossed a line when they attacked the Seraphite home island. Their attack was a massacre and a living nightmare, the culmination of all the game’s themes about the failure to seek reconciliation and make peace, the futility of revenge, the ways we dehumanise each other (see Lev’s insistence that Abby refer to him as a Seraphite, not a Scar), and the innocence and life lost through such brutality.

  10. Thank you for this wonderful analysis! I would be very curious to hear more regarding the author’s assertion that the final act is “ill-considered and unnecessary.” Critical opinion on the third act seems split as to whether it cements Ellie’s motivations and follows her trauma to its psychological conclusion or confuses the narrative.

    1. Thanks Trish! Mostly I just found the inclusion of some simplistically evil slavers really disappointing after the game had worked so hard to make both sides in the Seattle conflict so complex and well-rounded and contradictory. It was the only time in the game I did feel like I was just killing random baddies.

      I also liked where it could have finished, post-Seattle, with Abby being the one who chose to stop the cycle and Ellie, having failed to do so, having to live her PTSD trauma.

      That said, I did like how the final confrontation between Ellie and Abby’s in the boats did finally make Ellie’s story symmetrical to Abby’s, in that now each had chosen to walk away. But mostly it just seemed cruel to continue to punish Abby after she had broken out of the revenge cycle back in the theatre in Seattle.

      Ultimately, I don’t think the final act added anything to the themes or story of the game that hadn’t already been achieved prior to it.


  12. This game had a lot of great ideas executed poorly. The gameplay and the level design was fantastic, but the story felt miserable to play through. Even my friends who liked the story, felt tired of playing it.

    In TLOU you had time to connect with the characters Joel and Ellie met. They felt unique and interesting. In TLOU2 most of them felt exchangeable and faceless, which is why you didn’t care for them when they were killed.

    The story narrative felt “preachy.” When the theme of the story drives the narrative this often happens. “Revenge is bad” and “you’ll lose everything” was rubbed in our faces all game long. Lev’s story being centered around him being trans was also the same way. Even Abby who was trying to be supportive was scalded by Lev for calling them Scars and how that was offensive… You know the murderous death cult.

    Whether that was the intent or not isn’t the point. Making it feel like that was a failure of good story telling.

    I know most have said this, but flipping the story structure would’ve done a lot to fix the game. They should’ve marketed it as a new game with a new character and then reveled what Abby did half way through the game. Hiding Ellie as a playable character. That would’ve been more risky and creative than what they did.

    This is my opinion, you don’t have to agree with me.

  13. Great essay. I agree completely.

    I think the people who are so angry with Abby about Joel are mentally and emotionally stuck in the same one dimensional space that Ellie and Abby were stuck. It’s ironic and also a credit to the game that the hate is so meta.

  14. I think this is broadly a good review, and I think you’re right that its take on Israel/Palestine or other sectarian and imperialist struggles is a bit liberal.

    However I think you’re wrong in identifying the Seraphites as the Palestinians. All 3 sides in the story (Ellie + Jackson/WLF/Seraphites) clearly and no doubt deliberately have elements of all sectarian sides present in them. For instance, the WLF fought a mini civil war against the state to gain dominance in Seattle. If that’s like anything, it’s more like Hamas. The seraphites are probably also inspired by the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, especially in their strict dress code in relation to hair. And the Jackson community could very easily be taken to be Israel, and their socialistic economy smacks of the Kibbutz.

    I am sure the point of the game is not really to push a liberal agenda on Israel Palestine and say that both sides are equally wrong, but to tell a more personal tale about how individuals get caught up in blind hatred whenever sectarian violence takes place, no matter which side is more to blame

  15. To be frank, the game did something that would have only worked if it started with the first game. The main issue, and why I find it hard to understand how anyone connected with Abby and the Wolves, is that we had an entire game to bond and learn things about Ellie. That creates a rift in players wanting to understand and care about Abby or any other individual who assisted in Joel’s death.

    NaughtyDog tried something but instead of teaching a lesson to their audience, it’s left us with regrets and honestly a bit of hatred towards this game. I personally can’t even fathom a second playthrough because one time was enough for me. And that’s saying a lot considering I played TLOU Part 1 several times.

  16. I feel like the only person who felt that the game did take a clear stance on the WLF and Seraphite conflict. Yes, they were caught in a ‘both sides’ cycle of violent UNTIL the WLF’s culminating attack on the Seraphite’s home island. This event was horrifying and I thought the game intentionally portrayed it that way. The WLF were shown as willing to murder children and burn down an entire society rather than seek a peace truce. There was nothing centrist about that.

  17. well for all the “talk” this game was supposed to entertain, thats it, and I found that it didnt do that for various reasons I am not gonna go into. I paid good money to be entertained and was disapponited by what was offered.

  18. The Problem with Abby

    Heroes and Other Murderers
    First let me state clearly that the gameplay of TLOU2 was stupendous, a tour de force. But the story itself was awful. This was Druckman and Gross’ attempt to paint a morally gray LGBTQ themed world akin the Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto. The anti-heroes of those games were bad men, who all got the endings that they deserved no matter how much we loved them. Arthur Morgan’s death on the top of the mountain watching one final sunrise as he gasped for his last breath restful in the knowledge that for once in his life, he had done the right thing, was one of the best demises an antihero could ever hope to achieve.
    Yet was Joel Miller worthy of death because he saved a little girl from a fanatical paramilitary group seeking to murder a child?
    In comparison many of our heroes in fiction are guilty of murder. For instance, Captains Picard and Kirk are perhaps guilty of the deaths of hundreds of Klingons and Romulans. I am sure there are hundreds of people seeking revenge in the name of a fallen loved one. But as a fan of those men, do I want to pay $20 to go down to the local cinema and watch the vengeful daughter of a Romulan or Klingon beat my favorite Captain to death? And then force me to watch the rest of the movie from that murderer’s point of view? Yes, it worked for Thanos, but I know Thanos, I grew up with Thanos, Abby is no Thanos.
    How can we paint Joel as a villain worthy of death when he sacrificed his wellbeing to save Ellie? How to we honor that sacrifice by giving him such an ignoble death?
    Worse yet was Ellie’s treatment of Joel in this sequel. Please remember Joel chose to live the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Was it even fair for Ellie to shun Joel when she learned the truth?
    “Thank you for saving me life on from a group of maniacs that were attempting to murder me to make an uncertain vaccine. Now I hate you forever? You stole the meaning from my life when you saved my life?”
    I call Millennial New Age bullshit in this story mechanic. The subversion of expectations for shock value alone.
    What type of gratitude is that? Let me tell you, surly teenager that I was, I would love anyone forever that gunned down a horde of soldiers to save my life.
    The Bad Man’s Daughter
    A Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi. I am sure Nazi’s, Klansmen, and Colombian drugs lords have a side to their story also. But should I be forced, to understand their point of view? Should gamers be forced to play as the murderer of a beloved and iconic video game character? In my point of view that answer is no. If Neil Druckman and Hailey Gross’ true intentions where to garner my sympathy for Abby and her friends, they failed miserably to move me.

  19. See, to me, the game was like the movie Logan- an amazing work and beautifully done, but absolutely brutal on the emotions, and not something I’d want to experience again any time soon.

  20. I believe The Last of Us 2 us beyond it’s time because it tells you both sides of each story. You get to play the good guys and the bad guys. While I agree, they do a very good job at justifying Abby’s actions and making us understand her motive for killing one of our favorite video games characters ever, she still did just that so a lot of people don’t like her but then you see how she helps out some Seraphites and shows that she too cares about others and really gives the villain a very human element which I believe was beautiful storytelling. That being said, anyone who thinks The Last of Us 2 is garbage and saying anyone who played it probably never beat the first one is just very closed minded in my opinion. Yes you can believe what you want but I’ve beaten The Last of Us Part 1 at least 27 times and can honestly saying it was my favorite game for 7 years as no other game could compare to the emotion it took from me until The Last of Us 2 came out. Nobody outlashed about the soldier killing Sarah in the first act we all just mourned her death with Joel but I think Joel’s death was the only emotional connection we could habe gotten out of that game because we already saw their story and it was just as much if not more mournful than Sarah’s death in the first game. We wouldn’t even have this game if Abby didn’t seek revenge and kill Joel is something Naughty Dog is trying to say. I love how the second game one upped the first one in every aspect including better close quarters combat, better weaponry and even a diverse cast that most popular games are still rejecting. Throughout this entire game all I wanted to do was help Ellie get revenge and murder Abby, but when it came down to that moment I was worried about what would happen to Lev and found myself relieved that Abby wasn’t killed because Lev was always going to continue that cycle of violence Joel started when he killed Abby’s father. Which means a story about violence becoming more violence finally broke that cycle because Ellie decided that a brutal fight was enough revenge and realizing that Abby’s death wasn’t going to bring Joel back from the dead. Hence the flashbacks during the drowning scene and her mourning Joel once again as Abby and Lev leave her alone as they depart in their boat. I just don’t think people are ready to accept the reality aspect in games like we have in the real world which, in fact, is all actions have consequences whether they are good or bad. Just like people weren’t ready to accept the PSP as the groundbreaking console it always was, nobody wants to accept The Last of Us 2 as the next step for storytelling in gaming. Tell both sides of the story so we know everything that really happened. If we didn’t have to play as Abby, then we would have never known why she brutally murdered Joel which was entirely justified because I would want revenge of someone killed my father too. It’s about putting yourself in both of their shoes and understanding why each character did what she did. I’ve waited seven long years for this game and even if I’m the only one who thinks this, it lived up to every bit of hype that it has built up to.

  21. To the author — I thought this was a really, really fantastic look at the game. Extremely good textual reading (including the para below, but not limited to it) and an even better situation of this game within wider currents.

    “This long, twenty-five-hour, multisided slog between two women’s search for revenge in which they each lose everything and gain absolutely nothing is grim and exhausting, but it is also profoundly affecting in its well-trodden themes because, by the end, we know these characters and we really can’t say one is any more or less justified in their actions than the other.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. And, FWIW — while this is the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster — we can read blockbusters just as well as we can read indie games. They’re all ours. You’ve demonstrated that in your thoughtful look.

    I wrote a textual analysis of the game that you might find interesting — similar points about what the key choices are — though obviously impoverished by a comparative lack of understanding of these comparative texts.

    Anyways — fantastic work. Thank you for paying attention to what games do, and not just what they look like.

  22. thank you so much, i very much enjoyed this review. could you explain in more detail how the Seraphites were analogies for Palestinian people? i agree w u but would like to buff my knowledge a bit more re: this portion of the game.

  23. Can we just stop, please. “This is actually about Israel and Palestine.” How? “The protagonist is a lesbian! Way to represent the community!”

    You know who was a good lead character? Alex in “True Colors”-not because she’s bi, Chinese and female, because she’s Alex. An individual who makes friends, chooses her actions and faces the consequences of same.

    Or how about Samus: a woman who, no matter how often she’s knocked down, always gets back up. A person of character, not a stereotypical “strong woman”.

    I dread to think what Anne McCaffrey would say if her characters were (mis)represented in today’s media.

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