The Last of Us Part II
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I heard something snap and I stopped. An assumption I made long ago had been broken, snapped in two like a frail bone. It hurt but I think I was fascinated by the pain.
The old assumption had gone something like this: all these video games I play are inviting me to do things I want to do. These are both activities I enjoy and activities I want to excel at — for the cause. I am the hero so I back the hero. If there’s a challenge to contend with, it’s fine because I’m on board and I want to play. I want to help out, finish the fight, deliver the goods, solve the puzzle, or find the thing that’s missing. And I love that in making it through these challenges, I also gain access to great things. I play pretend in someone else’s body, I have new abilities and skills. I get to go on adventures, and sometimes I travel through time. I get to be the one that overcomes the antagonist, whether the antagonist is another person, a poison, or just a bad vibe. It’s exciting to be the hero.
Up until now, I have played games that have presented me with virtual dreams I could climb inside — for reverie, challenges, and wish fulfilment. But that small clean view of the medium has now been eclipsed. I just finished playing The Last of Us, Left Behind and The Last of Us Part II, and I can’t stop thinking about that fight in the shallows at the very, very end. Ellie versus Abby. I found something in a game that I didn’t want to play but that I knew I had to. I played, I winced, and I’ve been thinking about that one moment ever since.
I shouldn’t be here — Ellie shouldn’t be here. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and march her back home. I was ready to beg Dina to let us into the house and the family. Like, I’m sorry. It was a mistake. Dina and JJ, please. Was baby JJ named after Joel and Jesse? God, that makes me feel even worse.
Take me back. Ellie never should have rejected the ending she had on the farm for this dismal post script. After everything we’ve been through — a hellish epic through states, gangs and horror. And that final leg through the Santa Barbara mansion where infected were being kept on chains for sport… the crucifixes on the beach in the mist… all the murder, the heavy doom. No, we shouldn’t have made it through all of that just to beg an emaciated girl to fight us to the death, and yet here we are. And I am being made to play it? I am the one making it happen.
I felt angry. To be honest, at that point in the story, I had no patience left for Ellie. From the moment she had killed the pregnant woman in the aquarium, and the way she had leered at us in the basement of the theatre, her face had spoilt in my mind. I had understanding for her character but no patience. I thought she had changed for the worse — from a brave energetic girl into a toxic, brittle, compulsive woman who was suffering under a complicated sadness out of her control.
I get it. She can’t process the fact Joel took her from the hospital, that he made the decision to save her life over leaving her there for the greater good. Guilt, resentment, loss of autonomy, and loss of meaning too. On the cusp of forgiving him and moving on, he was murdered by Abby. And now Ellie is traumatised by flashbacks of a death that happened before her eyes. Her neuroses cling together in a horrible, choking knot. She spends her life trying to avenge Joel as a way to process both halves of her pain. Because maybe if she killed his murderer, it would mean she had finally forgiven him for not letting her life save everybody else’s.
I don’t blame her for coming to the beach and seeking an end to what she feels is an unfinished pain inside of her. I understand it. But… I still don’t want to play her in this moment. I don’t want to swipe my knife at a wrecked Abby because I don’t want to co-sign Ellie’s actions. More than that maybe, I don’t want to feel Ellie’s trauma either, it’s too much. A wound that pounds and seeps. Ellie might be immune but she is essentially infectious in the way her pain spreads out over all of the people around her. I couldn’t look. She had an ending and she threw it away to chase down a girl that let her go.
I was stood in the water helping a character I didn’t agree with. It was visceral, and I was loyal and stubborn.
Even though Abby was also imperfect and violent, I found it much easier to like her as a person over Ellie. They’re very similar, the two of them, but they’re at different points in their stories. They both had somebody they wanted to kill in order to settle their souls, but only one of them got to achieve that and so only one of them got to move on. Ellie has become stuck, intent, selfish. Abby has been able to think beyond herself. She seems to have fully committed herself to supporting others in a way I came to admire her for.
To start with, she ignored orders from Isaac to go and check on Owen, travelling through tense, dangerous zones just to see if he was okay. She then left the boat the next morning because she wanted to make sure Yara and Lev had made it to safety — two people she knew nothing about except that they had come from the enemy. From then on, she became something like their protector or their parent. Abby trawled through the infested hospital for goods that could make Yara’s surgery easier. And then she went even further, travelling into the lion’s den - the Seraphite’s island - to save Lev, a young trans boy who she never once questioned, only accepted. Later, she tried to find a home for herself and Lev in a new state entirely. And even though she was the woman that had killed our protagonist in the first game, part two seemed to want to reset our image of Abby by showing the other side. It worked for me.
The shape of the game made it possible for me to grow to like Abby. The shape of the game also made it easy to forget why I had once liked Ellie too; the switch in player characters forced a new emotional distance between us. Once upon a time she was having fun with Joel, finding comics, drawing in her journal, and learning guitar. Once upon a time she was messing about in a photo booth and having a water fight with her old best friend. But these felt like impossible memories when I, as Ellie, arrived on the beach to kill Abby.
Do we gain anything from doing something we don’t want to do? I play games to be entertained, so is this anti-entertainment? Honestly, there were plenty of moments in The Last of Us that I would like to have skipped: the slow violence of the first instalment, killing dogs in the second; going into the unknown, going into scary buildings; trying to defeat the infected that could run really fast, and desperately trying to escape the colossal monster under the hospital as well. I didn’t like the gangs that formed and the NPCs I killed along the way. I found it stressful not having enough items to make health kits and weapons to properly alleviate the difficult encounters, and I struggled with that. I would have paid real money to have endless shivs.
But if I had skipped any of these challenges, or got rid of the constant scarcity, I wouldn’t have understood the heaviness of the world in this game; what people have to do to survive here, and the strange creatures they now live with on the Earth. Adrenaline, terror, adaptation. I played this game not because I particularly enjoyed the aesthetic of the gameplay but because I wanted to know what happened in the story. I realise now, more than ever, that those are the same thing. Playing is a way to read the story too, to feel the story on a new level, and I wouldn’t have appreciated the depths and the difficulties of The Last of Us without playing it so closely. I made it through the terrifying parts because of a dark optimistic desire to survive; and I played through the parts that made me uncomfortable because I found that feeling of discomfort atmospheric and world-building. I think the game is strong and nuanced enough to absorb all the moments of anti-entertainment in this way, but I needed to take breaks nonetheless in order to make it to the end.
And I found the final showdown to be the toughest encounter in the series. A conflict in itself, and a conflict between the game and I. Abby is there, sunburnt, battered, dirty; her strength stolen, she looks deflated. Even in her weakness, she immediately seeks out Lev and carries him to the boat. ‘I got you, I got you.’ In her care for others, she even tells Ellie where the boats are so they can all get away — before she knows what is going on, that Ellie has come to kill her. Ellie looks rough as well, possessed, pierced by the tree after getting caught in a trap — but she has a switchblade in her hand. She also has nothing left to lose, having abandoned Dina and the baby to come all this way to do something she thought was more important than them. Two girls, their stories intertwined like barbed wire. All of their pain is funnelled into this one scene, it is recalled clearly; it’s why I am able to write about one scene and still feel the whole game on my shoulders as I type.
Ellie has a flashback to Joel’s bloody face on the floor and then she forces the fight on Abby. The fight is long and vocal. It feels as though it is never going to end. I didn’t want to do it. And I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of rejection so I stopped throwing punches and I let Abby kill me instead. I didn’t know if the game was giving me a choice. But when a familiar death animation began and the kill screen appeared, I realised I didn’t get to choose what happened here. I was stuck. The old assumption I mentioned at the beginning of this text was blown apart. I thought I should try and get it over with, but again, it was long. They were so weak, the both of them. I couldn’t find a way to speed it up — I had to play it and therefore I had to feel it. The knife going into Abby’s chest, the fingers Ellie’s loses. I thought about other media — books, films, even music — and being able to skip past the bits you don’t want to know. I couldn’t hide behind my hands in this situation; my hands were busy creating the story and making it happen second by second. There’s an ugliness in that, like dreaming about a murderer and looking into a mirror in the dream only to see your own face reflected because the murderer was you all along.
My head was spinning. I wondered if Ellie had a death wish; I wondered if she wanted to die like Joel, by Abby’s sword. I wondered why Ellie hadn’t gone another route entirely and searched for somebody else in the US or beyond who could have used her body to make a vaccine. Back in the foyer of the theatre, Abby had said to Ellie, ‘We let you both live and you wasted it.’ She was speaking about letting Ellie and Tommy live after Joel’s murder. She could have said the same words again on the beach; Abby had also let Ellie and Dina go from the basement, and Ellie had wasted that as well.
She wastes her chances one final time when she cannot even go through with the murder. She pulls away from Abby’s drowning body and sobs. And I don’t know — I wasn’t celebrating. I didn’t cheer. I didn’t even feel much relief that Abby and Lev got away. I felt something else entirely.
In that moment, I felt sucked back into Ellie’s psyche and I felt bleak. I could feel how meaningless this all was, not just for her character but for myself as the player too. I was stuck in a role I had lost touch with, playing a girl I no longer supported; playing a girl who no longer supported herself. And there’s no redemption because this is the end. Ellie sits in the water as the boat leaves. She catches her breath. The sky and the sea blend together in a grey abyss that feels as empty and lonely as her future. In the few final scenes that follow, we walk around the bare house. Dina and JJ are gone, they didn’t wait for her and I don’t blame them. The fingers lost in the fight with Abby mean we can’t play guitar in the same way anymore. So much is gone. So much will never return. And the story is complete.
I was left with a sense of loss I have never felt in a game before. It felt powerful and dark and personal. I heard something snap and I stopped. An assumption I made long ago had been broken, snapped in two like a frail bone. It hurt but I was fascinated by the pain.
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