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The Last of Us Part II Ellie
image credit: Naughty Dog

Gaming

The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay undercuts its core themes

If The Last of Us wants its players to consider the cycle of violence and revenge, why did it make violence and revenge so damn fun?

The Last of Us HBO series has been in the news a lot recently, and with it has brought mention of the failed film adaptation from the mid-2010s. Recently, game director Neil Druckman said the planned The Last of Us film fell apart because the studio wanted too many big budget, blockbuster-y action scenes, whereas the creators wanted to tell a more subdued, emotional, and contemplative story. Adapting the games into an HBO TV series versus a film will now allow the showrunners to revel in the quiet moments of the story and eschew some of the action sequences populating the games. Seeing as how the game’s story and characters are really what earned it so much praise and spots in fans’ hearts, this decision to cut down on action and ramp up on storytelling makes sense. 

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love the gameplay of the series. The shooting mechanics are great, the real-time crafting really ups the intensity, and the brutality of clicker encounters can make anyone squirm. As much as these games are emotional rollercoasters, they are also really fun to play. And they’re violent games. Very, very violent games. Encounters with various enemies are frequent and compose most of the games’ runtime.

But the games aren’t really about the shootouts and close calls with clickers. The series as a whole is about consequences. Joel and Ellie’s relationship fractures as a consequence of Joel’s decision to prevent Ellie being sacrificed for any sort of cure. Abby brutally murders Joel as a consequence for him killing her father at the end of the first game. And a whole number of consequences abound for Ellie — and Abby — after she decides to get her revenge on Abby. The Last of Us Part II explores this cycle of consequence, violence, and revenge and asks players to consider their violent actions throughout the game. But, if the games want violence to weigh so heavily on our minds, for us to contemplate every violent act we partake in, then why the hell do we kill so many people throughout the games? And — dare I say — why is it so much fun?

Ellie and Abby combine to kill hundreds of wolves, scars, and rattlers in the second game. They’re given various ways to kill those enemies, and each way is brutal and dopamine-inducing. However, each time I played an encounter, I couldn’t help but think that with each kill I was creating another Ellie, another Abby, another revenge-obsessed protagonist of a different story mourning the loss of their loved one…whom I just happened to blow to bits with my homemade pipe bomb. Any number of the nameless, faceless enemies could have an Ellie or an Abby in their life who now will make it their life’s mission to get revenge. Isn’t that what The Last of Us Part II did with the nameless, faceless doctor Joel killed at the end of the first game? He becomes a real character in the sequel and his death sparks the game’s plot to life.

The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog

This is where the games as pieces of art and as video games clash. Both have fantastic stories and characters that could just as easily have existed in any other storytelling medium. It would have gotten heaps of praise if it were an Image ongoing series or been a New York Times-bestselling novel, and I’m sure the HBO series will win plenty of Emmys and Golden Globes and any other awards only rich people in Hollywood care about. The series’ commentary on the cycle of revenge and the violent damage it does is truly profound, but I can’t help but feel like it’s undercut by the incredibly fun, incredibly vicious gameplay. The story the game tells wants you to consider the violence of its character’s actions, but then turns around and rewards you for doing those violent actions.

For most any other game, I wouldn’t put much thought into its violence. I can’t tell you how many kills I’ve racked up across various Call of Duty games, how many Mongolians I slaughtered in Ghost of Tsushima, or the amount of Stormtroopers I impaled in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Violence is a staple in the video game industry, and I fully welcome it. It’s easy to kill nameless, faceless enemies in almost all games because the games don’t ask you to think about your actions or the characters you kill. They want you to kick back and have fun and laugh as you shove your fist up a pig’s ass for the killing blow.

But The Last of Us Part II is different. It wants us to feel guilty for our actions that it forces us to do. TLOU2 isn’t an RPG where you get to make decisions that influence your character’s personality and their story. It’s a linear game that forces you to commit violence even when you don’t want to. During the end game, I wanted nothing more than for Ellie to stay on that farm with Dina and JJ. I wanted her to set her revenge aside when she found Abby and Lev malnourished and near death on that beach. But I couldn’t make those choices for Ellie. The game wanted me to feel guilty for wanting revenge, and then forced me to pursue that revenge until Ellie decides to release her hands from Abby’s throat even though it had been making painstakingly clear, during its 25-hour long story, how destructive the consequences of revenge can be.

The Last of Us Part II is much different than other violent video games as it asks us to contemplate our violent actions, and that’s one of the reasons I love the game. I enjoy when art asks more from its patrons than just to enjoy it. I want to contemplate my games, movies, and comics and discuss answers to the questions they raise. So while The Last of Us Part II may struggle to intertwine the message of its story and its function as a game, I’m glad it raised those questions and I look forward to exploring them more in future installments of the franchise (*fingers crossed*). I just hope Naughty Dog reconsiders its core gameplay so it doesn’t lessen the game’s central message.

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