A “The Last of Us – Part II” Tale

This article will be particular, mixing some small creative parts to analysis of the narration latest game by Naughty Dog. If you haven’t played the game, I highly suggest you to not go on with the reading. The Last of Us Part II is a game that needs to be experienced and witnessed with your own eyes. Any review, any analysis or summary can’t be enough to give this title justice: the complexity of the characters, the emotional impact it has on the player is something that can’t and shouldn’t be limited to just reading or watching a review. After this short (and very much due) preface, let’s start talking about the magnificent journey that this game represents. Spoilers incoming!

One step forward, two steps back.
There’s a noose around my neck
And the further I get
The tighter It’s harder and harder to breathe
Can I find a way to cut the cord-rope cord?

I’ve been waiting for dawn
But the light is all gone.
I’ve lost the light
Don’t know if I’m already
Blind…
Can I leave it all behind?

Ellie’s Journal, The Last of Us Part II

Vengeance is a thin line between right and wrong: once you cross it, you get captured in a vortex with no exit, until you finally reach the bottom of it to find out that you are broken by the obsession of it. A treacherous circle that leaves only pain around it, for everyone involved in it, directly or indirectly. An act of vengeance inevitably starts a new one, an endless loop of blood and despair with no chances to get out of it as a true winner. One step forward, two steps back.

The concept of vengeance is exactly what gives birth to The Last of Us Part II, a concept that has been used and abused time and time again in the history of entertainment, but for how scholastic, basic and classic as it could be, the story of the characters narrated in the game is far from being trivial. Naughty Dog manages to render a basic story as the desire of revenge against someone else something unique and, with all the powerful emotional component, overwhelming.

During the story arc of Part II vengeance will be the main reason of the actions of the two characters that we are going to play, Abby and Ellie, and we will see with our own eyes how the consequences of a personal vendetta involve everyone around you, including (and especially) the people who care about you. The dramatic events during the end of Part I were always meant to bring some consequences on our loved characters. The massacre committed by Joel in the extremely selfish attempt to save Ellie’s life and condemning the whole humankind to suffering and extinction, hits back in the worst possible way for him: he is tortured and killed by Abby, the daughter of the surgeon that was doing the surgery that would have killed Ellie to develop a vaccine. Joel’s egoistical rescue is disliked from the same Ellie, as she would have preferred to sacrifice her life for a greater good to give meaning to her life: this secret eventually ends up deteriorating the relationship between her and Joel but despite this, witnessing the battered body of Joel as he gets killed completely breaks her. But the light is all gone, I’ve lost the light.

As predictable, Abby’s revenge triggers more violence: Ellie heads to Seattle, where she butchers everyone that gets in her way, with no hesitation and without any kind of regret. Life has been harsh with Ellie and mutated her in the cold-blooded assassin that we play, and we change with her as the story goes on. Killing other people in this game feels extremely real and you can feel the burden that grows in your hands as you go through, while nothing can make Ellie stop from looking for vengeance, not even knowing that Dina is pregnant and that she is in great danger for this: she knows that Joel would have done the same for her, and so she goes on in her bloody and deadly quest. Only the acknowledgement of having killed a pregnant woman, Mel, makes her feel some kind of regret, in one of the strongest scenes of the game (and there are many, many more) that shakes the heart. The killing of Owen and Mel inevitably generates another quest for a vendetta: Abby eventually finds Ellie, Tommy, Dina and Jesse, with the latter losing his life to her. Jesse’s death indeed, is one of the example of how The Last of Us is never theatrical throughout the entire game: everything that happens doesn’t need the classic techniques of the theatre or of a film, but every event feels extremely real and enhances the fragility of life itself. There’s a noose around my neck.

When the game gets to this climax the player feels that the game is about to end, but the reality of facts is that is not even halfway through the game. How did we get at that very moment of desperation? Is Ellie facing a heartless killer, or is there something more under that figure that killed Joel? This is when Naughty Dog decides to make us find out who Abby really is, who are the people around her and her firm strength of will that shares with Ellie, only with a different development process. We find ourselves playing as Joel ‘s killer and we find so much more than just hate towards here, by finding a sweet girl that hides herself behind a tough appearance that has seen her entire life destroyed by a man that selfishly decided to save a single life of a little girl by killing dozens of people that were actually trying to do good. Joel was our hero but at the same time he was the exact opposite for someone else: he wasn’t a good person and he definitely deserved to die for what he did in his past. He was indeed changed by Ellie, though, and he was actually trying to redeem himself from his past mistakes, and that’s what makes everything emotionally devastating. It’s harder and harder to breathe.

Abby has friends, a lover: behind that exterior grumpy and ruthless appearance she has a good heart and we see this multiple times as we play as her during the game. As her story proceeds, we can see as she starts even doubting about what she ended up doing to Joel: she didn’t just kill him, she tortured him. It was the violent satisfaction of a vengeance that haunted her in her dreams night after night for all of her life, and maybe she went too far and starts questioning it inside of her; and yet, in that brutal moment, she still finds the good within her to spare Ellie and Tommy because they weren’t the ones she was looking for. Ellie probably would have never done the same for her, Joel definitely not. As we discover more about Abby the change in our hearts from hate to love is gradually accomplished, as we fight as hard as we can to save her from the dangers she runs into. Abby lost everything because Ellie and Joel: her father, her friends, Mel and Owen, everything she ever cared about is gone, now. When we realise the bitter truth, we start dreading for the moment when Abby will eventually find Ellie and what might happen to them. Can I find a way to cut the cord-rope cord?

That moment will eventually come and the player will find himself surrounded and overwhelmed by doubts, extreme emotions and the shock of having to witness two characters that he/she learned to care about fight each other to the death, having the control of Abby: the player doesn’t know what is going to happen next, but there’s nothing that can be done, and the fight inside burns harshly. “I don’t want to kill Ellie”, but at the same time “I don’t want Ellie to kill Abby, she doesn’t deserve it after all” are the only things that come to mind, but the player is helpless and all he/she can do is to keep playing and witness the scene, as the heart stormily beats inside the chest. There’s a noose around my neck.

Abby prevails in the end but she still spares Ellie’s life, making us all question about the good and evil dynamics within the world of The Last Of Us. For the second time, the time skip at the end of the clash in Seattle will feel as the end of the game, but this is not the case. Ellie found a new family with Dina and her son, JJ, but she is broken inside, devastated. She can’t sleep, she can’t eat. She can’t live if Abby, the person who took Joel from her life, lives. Not even the love of Dina and JJ and the prospect of a quiet and peaceful life can make her feel better, can make her move on. That’s when she embarks for another journey to finally complete her vengeance following an information that could be false, following a lead that could just be a dead-end, but she does it anyway, risking to lose everything that she loves. Can I leave it all behind?

When Ellie finally finds Abby again she is about to die from the hand of some slavers, and yet she frees her, not as an act of kindness but because she wants to fight to the death with her. She wouldn’t have been satisfied if she had killed her while she was helpless, tied to a wooden pole. Also, the Abby we find in front of our eyes is completely exhausted, after two months of imprisonment, and not capable of sustaining a fight; Ellie herself is severely wounded, but yet she insists in her quest. The fight between the two of them is all game-play and not a cut-scene: this time, we fight as Ellie. The struggle between the two of them is raw, burdensome and shocking: we all know what is going to happen in the end this time, but the mise en scene is astounding. Ellie spares Abby but she’ll probably never be able to find peace of mind again. I am not allowed to be happy.

The finale is about to come for real this time, and it is a bitter one for Ellie: the house where she and Dina were living together has been abandoned and they have left her. Her room, though, is still there: the guitar that Joel gave her is still there. As she tries to play it with two missing fingers, a sobbing and maimed version of Future Days, taught to her by Joel, starts the last of the several flashbacks in the game, and it will be even the last conversation that Joel and Ellie will ever have before Joel dies. One last touching moment before everything is taken away from them, before Ellie has the chance to forgive Joel for what he did to her. Despite everything, Joel was her light, he was an extremely important figure in Ellie’s life. A man that did everything he could to protect her and to save her, even at the cost of humanity itself, even though Joel did it for himself because he knew that Ellie would have gladly sacrificed her life for the cause. Between highs and lows, the two of them were deeply bonded to one another and having to move on without Joel is just something that Ellie is not able to do.

Ellie: I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered. But you took that from me.
Joel: If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment… I would do it all over again.
Ellie: “I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But I would like to try…”
Joel: I’d like that.

The Last Of Us Part II

This is The Last Of Us Part II. A game that doesn’t use blacks or whites but where everything is just grey. No character is good or bad, but each one of them has infinite facets that are painted by the reality of the world that they live in. This time there aren’t characters that act as pure villains, such as the cannibals and the human hunters that were presented in the Part I. In spite of a predictable and basic plot the strength of the game lies in its ability of staging the events, that are always able to surprise and shock the players, even when they predict what is going to happen. The plot might be scholastic, but the narration is the most powerful element of the game as you experience it by playing it. The stories that you find across the map, the fights between different factions, the pain that the characters experience is all something that enhances the ability of understanding how harsh is the world they live in, and a mere summary of the plot isn’t simply enough to understand the message that the game means to deliver to those who play it. The Last Of Us Part II is a journey on a roller coaster of feelings, between fast-paced sequences of game-play that asphyxiate the players with constant pressure and emotional burdens that changes them as the characters grow and change, too. While I was playing I felt several times the need to stop playing, as what was happening on screen was simply unbearable: when a game makes you feel that way and not for the wrong reasons (as it could be just the game being boring or not funny), it means it holds some special value. And trust me, if you found the way in your heart to get close to these characters and these stories, there is no way you won’t be changed by this game: you will cry, you will suffer and you will have, eventually, to move on as well. The Last Of Us Part II was definitely the most intense gaming experience I have ever had in my life, and it will probably be like this for many years to come. And I can’t wait for a Part III.

If I ever were to lose you,
I’d surely lose myself
Everything I have found here
I’ve not found by myself

Pearl Jam, Future Days.

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