Forget interactive movies. We’ve entered the world of interactive Peak TV series.
In The Last of Us Part II, we get another of Naughty Dog’s unique cinematic adventures, laden with scripted events, lengthy cutscenes, and exaggerated set pieces. Its focus is a single-player, stealth/shooting campaign set in post-apocalyptic America.
So…what’s the big deal? This is nothing we haven’t seen before. Why all the gushing, why all the buzzing, why the hate, review bombs, and death threats?
Well, that’s the interesting part. For what I think is the first — though likely not the last — time, we are seeing backlash against a game not because of it has bad graphics or poor design (this game has some of the best of these ever seen in fact), but because its story and themes are simply too challenging for people to handle.
The original Last of Us had a powerful story of its own, about an infective outbreak that enveloped most of the world, turning people into violent and dangerous beasts. The federal response was an unsurprising clampdown, so smuggling rings were formed to get needed supplies across checkpoints. One such smuggler, Joel Miller, was tasked with an unusual bit of cargo: a little girl named Ellie, who was to be brought to a group of survivalists called the Fireflies.
Ellie was special in that she was immune to the monster-making disease, and in her biology lied the possibility of a cure. During the trip, Joel, who had lost a daughter years earlier, became attached to Ellie, and when the Fireflies revealed that their exploratory research would kill her, he wouldn’t have it. In a climax that was surprisingly powerful for a video game, Joel slaughtered the survivalists, murdered their lead surgeon, and effectively destroyed any chance at ending the pandemic. Ellie, who was unconscious at the time, had no clue about any of this, and the game ended with Joel lying to her face about the whole thing. It was a particularly impressive ending as it required players to remain Joel’s agent even as he did questionable things, forcing them to pull the trigger and see it through. Maybe said players didn’t agree with Joel’s decision (I did), but they had to go along with it, or else be trapped in narrative limbo.
In Part II, Ellie, now grown up, must face the continuing ripples of Joel’s actions, as must the players. The material here takes on a life of its own, examining its characters, expanding its world, and exploring the different manners of human adaptation. The infection is reduced to little more than a backdrop, but that’s okay, as the horror in this survival-horror game lies elsewhere.
Joel and Ellie have been living in Jackson, Wyoming, a small mountain community developed by Joel’s brother Tommy. It’s rustic, but they have electricity, food, and other leisures. The monster disease is still rampant, so Jackson’s citizens run regular patrols to clear out the infected where they roam. This relative peace has attracted folks from all across the country, and one of them is Dina, a bisexual Jew who is madly in love with Ellie.
Aaaaaand this the point where Naughty Dog invited trouble. Supplanting the former protagonist — a hulking, white, gun-toting Texan man — with a skinny lesbian was the perfect way to make right-wing reactionaries feel threatened, and the usual, scornful accusations flew. Obviously another game developer had been subsumed by the forces of woke-ness, and was using this game to push its evil agenda on us.
Agendas, for God’s fucking sake. Okay, listen, people: the only agenda the entertainment industry has, or has ever had, is to fucking make money. That means capitalizing on trends, shamelessly titillating, and deliberately pissing people off. They’re a troupe of entertainers, a traveling circus, the pushers of make-believe, the original attention whores. They’ll do anything to pull an audience. The more you bitch and moan about how they’re out to destroy your way of life, the more attention– and money — you end up drawing their way. So why don’t you just shrug it off instead of throwing a tantrum? The surest way to destroy a piece of entertainment, after all, is to ignore it. Maybe you should admit that the real reason you’re whining is that you want people to give their attention to you.
Besides, I also think there’s a bit of pandering going on here, but I can look past it, because there’s still a lot of good stuff happening beyond it.
See, what really bothers me about Ellie at this point isn’t her sexuality, it’s her transformation to a self-centered adolescent. Now that she’s securely on the base of Maslow’s pyramid, Ellie is free to linger on dopey teenaged concerns like “omg she kissed me what do I do” and “can’t wait to score some weed.” Her journal is full of angsty poetry, and her personal pastime is plucking out wistful 80s songs on her new guitar. Ugh.
An early scene shows Ellie and Dina discovering a sort of pot house during a patrol. Instead of moving on, they stop and help themselves to some of the crop. After that, they strip down and screw, because as Orange is the New Black, Counterpart, and Game of Thrones taught us, you can’t have a mature story without a little girl-on-girl happenin’. Of course, they’re doing all this when they’re supposed to be working, and I felt like I was watching a couple of Crystal Lake camp counselors tempting fate. After playing as the no-nonsense Joel in the first game, I was incredulous about how stupid Ellie was being — and not for the last time.
Now, despite the bad behavior and obvious titillation she brings about, I really don’t hate Dina. My only problem with her is that she’s too sweet; she cloys me with her little flirty jokes and adorable glances. I realize that she’s meant to symbolize love and hope, a chance for the drifting Ellie to do right, but as such, it’s plain that she’s doomed to a life of victimhood.
The catalyst for this doom is one Abby Anderson, the other horrible blight Naughty Dog unleashed upon the world. Abby just might be one of the most reviled fictional characters in recent history, for some of the most head-shaking reasons. Due to her impressive physique, idiots online assumed she was transgender, tossed in as a token to the woke crowd, and as another attempt to devastate the American way of life. It’s always the end of the west when a woman is strong and capable, after all.
Abby does not, in fact, owe her muscularity to a now-removed penis, but to a strict diet and disciplined workout regimen. Imagine that, huh? She is part of a military-like faction called the Washington Liberation Front that has occupied the CenturyLink Field in Seattle. They eat the meat that they raise on the gridiron and make good use of its gym.
Sadly, this still isn’t a sufficient explanation for those post-apocalypse PhDs you find online, who argue that “it wouldn’t be possible to look like that in this world!” Of course, it’s not possible to turn into a flesh-eating mushroom from the inside out either, but that never comes into question. Exploding fungus people? That’s fine. Women with muscles? Gimme a break!
The other reason people hate Abby is more understandable: early on, she and a crew of her WLF buddies seek out and murder Joel, right in front of Ellie’s eyes. It’s an uncomfortable, vicious scene, but even as I watched it, I knew that the man had it coming. No one could just walk away clean from a past like Joel’s.
It turns out that Abby is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon that Joel killed, the one who could have stopped the pandemic and saved the world. Abby, hurt and haunted, is merely exacting justice. She doesn’t explain this to Ellie, though, so all we know at this point is that she’s a bloodthirsty invader with bulging arms and bitchy eyes. I can understand why people would hate her.
That doesn’t justify, however, the death threats against Laura Bailey, the actor who voiced and motion captured for her. Yep, that’s right: just like with Anna Gunn, who played the similarly disliked Skyler White in Breaking Bad, a horde of “fans,” who apparently can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, hustled online after playing this game and felt completely okay with threatening another human being’s life over the happenings of a fictional story. It didn’t even matter that this human being had nothing to do with the writing of that story.
It seems unbelievable, and I guess it’s possible that Naughty Dog’s PR department overstated the situation to get the game some extra attention, but…I don’t know. People are pretty fuckin’ dumb.
I can’t say I’m surprised at the ever-lowering depths of human stupidity, but I am impressed that it could be riled by a video game. As depressing as they are, these death threats stand as a testament to the game’s effective storytelling. Naughty Dog clearly did something right in order to get these people to react so strongly. I just hope that they played through the rest of the game, and learned a little about what such blind hatred actually earns them.
Anyway, Ellie and Dina decide to ditch Jackson and hunt Abby down. They trail her to Seattle, where they’ll spend the worst three days of their lives. You, as the player, will get to see those days from two angles, as the game switches perspectives, goes back in time, and lets you spend those days as Abby. With any luck, this will help you to understand Abby’s motivations.
So what do you actually do in this game, besides watch the story? Well, mostly you walk around and try to find your way in and out of buildings. You’ll gather supplies, build traps and tools, upgrade your abilities, but really it’s an exploration game. There are lots of little crawl spaces and locked doors to maneuver around, and you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out how to get from here to there. The attention to detail is wondrous: every location has a story. Not all of these stories are unique — you’ll find plenty of suicide notes, for example — but it’s pretty amazing that Naughty Dog took the time to put a tale behind every family, every store, and every room.
It would be pretty boring if you didn’t experience some of the dangers that made this world, though. The real challenges of the game are the groups of creatures, soldiers, and guards that you’ll need to sneak or shoot your way past.
The game tries really hard to unnerve you in these situations, but certain things trip it up. You’ll kill lots of people, people whose friends will wail out their names upon discovering their bodies. You’ll murder folks who are subdued and no longer a threat to you. You’ll even have to kill a dog or two. Now, I know these details were added to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t really work. After hearing baddies cry out, “Oh no, they got Omar!” about a dozen times in one play-through, I found it more funny than sad. After getting my face ripped off by an angry German Shepherd a few times, I was more than happy to reenact Old Yeller. And when a tense and lengthy stealth section went south because some fucking guard randomly turned around just as I was about to pounce on him, I was glad — glad, I tell you! — to disintegrate the fool with an explosive arrow. God, that shit pisses me off.
It’s all very Peckinpah, and the gorgeous, lifelike graphics slam the carnage home with maximum detail, but the simple human desire to beat the game overrides any personal or spiritual misgivings that the imagery is meant to provoke. As the game’s final trophy says, you do what you have to do.
But is it really what Ellie had to do?
In my first play-through of this game, I counted at least three instances when Ellie crossed dangerous lines, and completely without need. At times, I wondered if she even cared about living anymore. Having been robbed, as she sees it, of her purpose, she’s come to lead an aimless existence. As compared to her peers, Ellie comes off as shiftless, irresponsible, even trashy. Although we’re stuck with her as our main protagonist, the sad truth is that Ellie is kind of a mess.
Consider Ellie’s qualities, especially in comparison to the (slightly) more respectable Abby. Abby is rigid. Ellie flows. Abby follows the rules. Ellie follows her thoughts. Abby embraces structure and schedule. Ellie forgets to change clothes. Abby’s body is a temple, and she sets goals to improve it. Ellie gets smashed and tokes up. I suspect that Ellie would abuse other substances, too, were they available.
I think that upon learning the truth about Joel’s encounter with the Fireflies, Ellie’s emotional development stalled. Her future was erased, stolen, so she became mired in the past. She tied her own destiny inextricably with Joel’s, and all her actions from that point on became about him as well as herself.
So Joel’s death begins a continuous spiral of destruction, repeated by recklessness and hate, as Abby and Ellie tear each other’s lives to pieces. People are tortured, pregnant women are killed, and in time it becomes plain that there’s just no saving these two: you’ll begin the game rooting for Ellie, and then switch to rooting for Abby, and then stop rooting altogether. There was a point in their first major clash when I had to hammer the Square button to make Abby choke Ellie. As Ellie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to slide to the floor, I felt the urge to drop the controller and save her. I wanted them both to just stop. The game would have caused me to lose if I’d done that, though, so I hammered on, feeling a little defeated about it.
This clash seems to end on a merciful truce, and the game continues, apparently months later, in an idyllic scene suggesting that Ellie and Dina could actually live happily ever after. News of Abby’s resurfacing, however, opens the old wound, and Ellie, again, throws a good life away for the sake of revenge.
It turns out that Abby and her friend Lev, while searching for a rumored Firefly base in Santa Barbara, have been captured by a gang called the Rattlers. Now, up to this point, the game has been pretty even-handed about its characters. It’s been fair about showing both their flaws and virtues, but when it comes to the Rattlers, there’s nothing good to show. These are irredeemable bastards who keep slave labor and taunt the infected for fun.
So when Ellie discovers Abby tied to a pole and left to die, I couldn’t help but think of the climactic reunion of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in “Felina.” In that instant, hate, history, sadness, and sympathy all intertwined in a low, pitiless place. It was an emotionally hefty scene that The Last of Us Part II succeeds in evoking.
Ellie cuts Abby free and leads her to a motorboat where salvation awaits, but then, she fucks it all up again, and demands another showdown. It’s a jaw-dropping moment. In spite of Abby’s miserable state, after all she has already suffered, Ellie refuses to let go. As a player, I felt betrayed — I now had to follow Ellie down this awful pit, all the way to the bottom. There is some hope to be grasped in Ellie’s sparing of Abby, even if it’s a symbolic gesture of forgiveness for Joel, but when she returns home after the encounter, she finds that the price of revenge was very high indeed. Almost everything she valued is now gone, but it feels appropriate and just. As Ellie trudges off for greener pastures, we can only hope that she has learned a lesson.
This whole Santa Barbara sequence is a pretty ballsy move on the part of the writers. Not only does it defy the game’s established plot structure, it unapologetically strips Ellie of all heroism, and reveals her as the lost soul that she is. After everything I’d already experienced in the game, I was tired of all the killing. I was disappointed in Ellie for pursuing further death, and the gameplay almost felt mechanical. When the fight on the beach began, I got the sense that Ellie was as exhausted as I was, and was only acting out of a desperate need to believe that her personal crusade still mattered.
I know that sounds grim, but I’m actually pretty pleased about it. I’ve played hundreds of violent video games, from Doom to Smash T.V. to Grand Theft Auto, so for Naughty Dog to make one that makes me feel something must be commended. They managed to sidestep the deadening effect of continuous video game violence by way of great writing and direction. The story could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead, but as a video game, it’s presented in a way that makes it fresh. Since it’s lengthy and well-told, we get to know its people on an intimate level, and a slow-burn effect takes place, much as it does in today’s Peak TV series. After spending so much time with Ellie, I couldn’t help but feel sad as she descended, although I was, in essence, the one making her do it. There’s a peculiar sense of tragedy here.
Sure, there’s been some backlash about the story, and the decisions Ellie makes, but it’s not esoteric video game backlash, it’s a fundamental fan backlash, the sort usually reserved for pop culture phenomena like Lost, The Prisoner, and especially Star Wars.
“That’s not the way my favorite character would act! This is bad writing with poor character arcs! These people have ruined the franchise!”
Yeah yeah yeah. Well, sometimes artists have different things to say than what we might want to hear. Get used to it.
Now, I can’t say I’m not guilty of impugning a video game for taking its story in a direction I didn’t care for. I was appalled at Metroid Other M when I saw how it perceived the character of Samus Aran. In every Metroid game before it, Samus was a bounty-hunting badass, cool as a cucumber, all business and tough as nails. There were moments when rays of pain or empathy shone through her icy shell, but they were brief and restrained. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good Terminators, or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Samus was a killing machine with a good heart, and I loved her for it.
But no, Yoshio Sakamoto had a different idea. He decided it was time to knock Samus down a peg, and present her as as typical anime heroine: self-absorbed, bratty, and due to be subjugated. Now, I know that it’s anime tradition that the tough female character must be brought low at some point, so when I heard that a story-heavy Metroid was being developed by Team Ninja (makers of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball no less), I should have expected this. I also reminded myself that this was an origin story, meant to reveal how a distrustful war orphan became the alien-slayer I admired. It didn’t work, though. I just couldn’t stomach it. The treatment of the character was too off-putting, and to this day, I haven’t played a minute of Other M.
This isn’t fair to the game or its creators, of course. Why should my preconceptions about a fictional character enter into my judgment of the product? For all I know, the game might actually be a lot of fun. What I have to realize is that every great hero, fictional or not, is flawed, and has said or done things that would damage their mystique. That’s why we should never meet them, as they say.
So, if this is who Nintendo says Samus is, all I can do is grow up and accept it.
Yeah. Grow up. Right.
A coda: I actually really like it when my favorite characters do wild things. I’m totally serious. Whenever a Peak TV protagonist, following hours of rational, restrained behavior, just flips out and does something completely off-the-wall, I get a big smile on my face.
I smile because I see these moments as sober reminders that these are not statuesque idols holding the world together, but little human beings flailing to make sense of it. There’s more to them than the heroism that the story requires. Being the rock wears on them, just as it would anyone we know, and at some unexpected point, the death drive spills free, to the consternation of everyone who depends on them — their fans most of all. It’s provocative, thrilling, and it sounds a note that most of us, in our grasping, success-driven culture, are hesitant to acknowledge. To espy the Unspoken Desire is, I feel, the purpose of all drama.
And that’s the success of The Last of Us Part II, really: that it brought believable adult drama into the realm of video games. Its material may be derivative, but by banking on realism, it moved people, shocked people, and hurt people nonetheless. It also got them talking, though maybe not about the things Naughty Dog was expecting. Most impressively, the game revealed some of the ugliness we face in reality, an unpleasant but necessary deed that only the greatest entertainers can pull off. In accomplishing this, video games have truly turned a corner as a medium, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of hardware is due to bring. They have a hell of a standard to live up to.