The Last of Us Part 2 depicts the future, yet it fails to escape its own past.
The sequel feels like a time capsule from 2013, the year the first game was released in real life and the year of the fictional in-game zombie outbreak. The Last of Us Part 2 seems doomed to walk in a well-worn circle, unable to break out of the ever-thickening carapace forming along its skin, just like the victims of the Cordyceps fungus that you fight throughout the game.
That is the game’s central problem, and what makes so much of it such a challenge to get through: This is a story about characters who seem unable to learn or grow, and more specifically, unable to consider the humanity of the people they kill. If you already think violence isn’t the answer to many of the world’s problems, the repeated lesson that killing is bad makes the game almost maddening.
I don’t have any problem empathizing with the people who I’m asked to kill in video games. The Last of Us Part 2 must think I’ll struggle with it, though, since it doles out all sorts of reasons why I should feel regret about the murder spree its characters have embarked upon. But the game’s larger problem is that the characters themselves don’t ever seem able to catch up with me.
What’s worse is that the characterization of Ellie makes it seem like she should also understand this part of the journey. I kept expecting her to grow and turn away from a life of constant violence, but she never picks up on the obvious didactic nature of the game she’s in, even as the designers beat you over the head with a very simple lesson about the value of human life.
Part 2 is a game about not rising above revenge or violent urges in general. It’s filled with characters dedicated to never seeing the bigger picture beyond themselves. Although the game’s backdrop is a global pandemic, and although it reaches toward the idea of larger injustices by depicting two warring human factions — the cult of the Seraphites, and the militaristic Washington Liberation Front — it is really just a story about a teen girl, her damage, and her apparent belief that the only way to get over that trauma is murder.
A lot of murder.
A history of bad decisions
Part 2 opens as Joel, the gruff protagonist from The Last of Us, tells his brother his darkest secret, the secret that may have doomed humanity. After transporting a teenager named Ellie across the country, and learning along the way that she’s likely the only person immune to the fungus, Joel is told that doctors will use her brain tissue to create a vaccine that will keep all living humans safe, but that the process will kill her. It’s a fascinating moral conundrum: What is the value of one young girl measured against the whole of humanity?
And so Joel murders everyone in the hospital, and saves the unconscious and unaware Ellie, with whom he’s formed an unshakable, paternal bond — a bond that leads him to doom the rest of the planet by saving her life. When Ellie wakes up and asks what happened, Joel lies. The doctor just ran some pointless tests, he tells her. But, he says, there are plenty of other immune people at the hospital (there aren’t), so maybe a vaccine could still happen someday (nope, not now).
Ellie doesn’t seem to believe him, but the credits roll regardless. Joel and the player are left with the unsettling knowledge that a lot of innocent people just died, and that more will fall victim to the fungus and the zombies it creates, all so that one very well-loved teen girl can live. Ellie didn’t have a choice in that decision, and neither did the player. You have to go along with Joel on that one in order to get to the end of the game.
It’s a decision that robs the player and Ellie of agency, and the in-game world of a cure, and you better believe it has consequences that didn’t end with the credits on the first game.
Part 2 puts us into Ellie’s shoes. Finally, she has the chance to make decisions for herself, and will perhaps even learn the truth about what happened at that hospital. That would present another interesting, challenging question for anyone: How do you live knowing that your life was bought by dooming the world? How do you have a healthy, mutually supportive relationship with the man who murdered innocent people just to save you? And is there a way to do so that doesn’t involve going on your very own murder spree?
That direction would force the creative team at Naughty Dog to rethink its own parameters, to go beyond the 2013 conceit of The Last of Us, which invited players to question Joel’s motives but nonetheless forced them to enact those murders along with him if they hoped to see the end of the game.
It’s an outdated way to criticize the violence of games, and the complicity of those who play them. Remember 2013? That was the year after Hotline Miami came out, a game with themes that would also appear in its contemporaries — Spec Ops: The Line, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us. The Last of Us Part 2 even includes a Hotline Miami reference, so the writers were clearly aware of what they were doing here.
Those were all games that pushed you to feel bad about all the violence that your grizzled white-dude protagonist visited upon others, often for ill-defined reasons, even though the games themselves gave you no choice. Few games had questioned their own body count until that point, but suddenly, in the early 2010s, they were all reacting to the state of in-game stories in the same way: by forcing the player to do things, and then blaming them for doing that thing, even though the player had no other way to proceed.
The Last of Us Part 2 gives us a grizzled-beyond-her-years white teen lesbian in the lead role, which is a refreshing change, but the conceit remains the same. Ellie can finally make her own decisions, but just like her dear old surrogate dad, she has a propensity for thinking in the short term and prioritizing her own more animalistic needs for revenge and relief from pain, no matter the human cost. And she’ll be dragging the player along with her, because you have no damn choice but to get homicidal, no matter how much the game wags its finger in your face saying how bad you’re being.
The game’s new heroine may give the impression of some larger progressive message, but it’s just a way to change the instruments, if you will. The song itself remains the same.
The gorgeous places you’ll visit (to do your murders)
The Last of Us Part 2 is the latest game that exists at the cross section of shaky moral ideas and an incredibly high level of craft.
The sequel takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Seattle in the year 2038, long after the city’s famous landmarks have crumbled into disrepair, their exteriors overgrown with lush greenery, their interiors crawling with monsters that hunger for human flesh. Meanwhile, various factions of survivors have cropped up, each of them scrapping and murdering one another for territory and resources. It’s all presented to the player with incredible detail and lifelike animation, creating a visually believable vision of a very dire future in which nature is in control and humans are barely hanging on.
Ellie traipses through sun-dappled forests, rides her horse over glittering streams, and explores moss-covered storefronts and sprawling suburban homes. She finds handwritten notes from humans desperate to scrawl something out before they succumb to their own infection, or get overrun by some warring human faction or the violent, infected monsters. She scribbles notes of her own in a journal as well, including lyrics for original songs she may someday set to music with the guitar she gets early in the game — a gift from Joel.
The Last of Us Part 2 luxuriates in depicting the best parts of being alive in a way that’s somewhat rare, even in games with this kind of budget and scope. The game depicts characters falling in love, discovering a well-hidden post-apocalyptic weed stash, and trying to come up with the worst possible puns. Ellie and her best friend (and crush) Dina live in the walled-off area of Jackson County, Wyoming, with a community of human survivors, along with Joel, his brother Tommy, and Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse. They have something close to an actual, relatively safe home during a time when such a thing seems almost impossible, and one night they share a very public kiss during a barn dance attended by most of the community.
Things don’t go well for them after that.
That’s because The Last of Us Part 2 also luxuriates in its depictions of pain, suffering, and death. An older man at the barn dance interrupts the girls’ tender moment to spit at Dina, telling her that she’s a “loud-mouthed dyke,” just like Ellie. Now, if Ellie lost her cool and attacked this guy, I’d get it. She doesn’t, however, so I’m not sure what the moment actually accomplishes, other than to remind us that people are still homophobic after the apocalypse.
Instead, outsiders to Ellie’s “family” are presented as the true danger, and her rampage against them is blood-curdling in its gruesomeness. The previews for the game have already shown some of the graphic violence in store; the one in which the Seraphites try to lynch one of the characters is a good example of the level on which Part 2 operates. It’s going to show you the bad stuff, and it’s going to rub your face in it.
Some of Ellie’s enemies have trained attack dogs, and it’s hard to avoid killing them. Even if you do manage to avoid it, though, there’s eventually a cutscene with a quick-time event that forces you to kill a dog, to hear the animal’s sharp, confused yelp as you smash her skull in with a metal pipe.
That wouldn’t be enough suffering, however. Naughty Dog has to make sure you feel horrible, so you’re later treated to a flashback in which you play fetch with that same dog, scritching her behind her velvety little ears. If Naughty Dog makes you feel bad enough, maybe next time you won’t do ... the thing the game forces you to do?
The Last of Us Part 2 delivers these moments of emotional whiplash over and over again. If you ever feel good, victorious, or strong at any moment while playing this game, just know that you will later be feeling very, very bad, and it will happen very, very soon.
This effect is mirrored in the game’s combat design, which echoes the story’s themes by repeatedly shoving you away from power, and toward fear, uncertainty, and weakness.
The combat in The Last of Us encouraged you to explore an area slowly, scrabbling for resources in abandoned buildings while staying hidden from potential threats. It was always better to attack enemies one at a time, whenever possible. Not much has changed in that respect, although the difficulty spikes are much smoother this time around, making the experience feel a lot less punishing, at least mechanically.
Ellie is a tiny, terrifying gymnast; she’ll leap from a hidden spot in the grass to slice open an enemy’s throat or crowbar their head open, exuding all the cold precision of a lifelong killer. She’s quick and methodical, covering ground in seconds if she has to by jumping, climbing, smashing through windows, squeezing through crevices, and pulling dumpsters up next to rooftops to better traverse less-than-hospitable areas. In houses and structures, she’ll find small caches of ammo and resources that she can cobble together into health packs, trap mines, and so on.
Ideally, planning will always beat passion, as there’s little more satisfying than setting up a couple of trap mines, throwing a bottle at a horde of infected humans to incite their wrath, and letting them walk right into your death cave. A close second would be nailing a silent headshot with the bow and arrow, or perhaps just sneaking up on a series of clueless, shambling infected people and taking each one’s wallet (that is to say, ammo or bandages) as you go down the line, chuckling all the way to the bank.
Ellie’s abilities strain at the seams whenever you alert a group of enemies to your presence, though, so it’s best to avoid doing so. A petite teen girl like Ellie gets her most methodical murdering done by hiding in the shadows, taking on opponents in turn, as opposed to charging into the fray, guns blazing.
Still, Part 2 will sometimes railroad you into a battle with a bunch of opponents who’ll come at you simultaneously, or it will throw a couple of big and formidable enemies your way that can’t be beaten through stealth or cleverness. These moments look cool, since they’re splashy set-pieces, but they almost never feel good to play. Not when compared to the moments in which Ellie can plan out her whole attack from the shadows and then unleash it like a trained, capable assassin.
It’s the rhythm of the game’s narrative, and how it impacts your tactical choices, that keeps you from ever getting the upper hand. Part 2 includes several flashbacks, and the story is often told out of order, so the version of Ellie you’re controlling may not have access to the weapons or abilities you’re used to.
This was annoying at first, but I’d get the hang of whatever new weapons or items I could access within a few minutes. I learned, over time, never to get too comfortable with any of my setups or loadouts before the game took it all away from me. The designers always seemed to want to knock me back down a peg whenever the violence or combat began to feel too good.
It makes sense conceptually. This isn’t a world where things are yours to keep; this is a world in which you find what you can and use it for as long as possible before it breaks or you find something better. This frequent shifting ensures that Ellie stays forever in danger.
Naughty Dog did something fascinating with the game’s difficulty levels, however, giving the player a huge number of options about how they’d like to play. There’s no catch-all “easy mode” or “hard mode,” but rather a collection of settings you can turn up or down.
You can adjust your allies’ health, for example, or increase the number of items Ellie finds while scavenging, while still leaving the enemies just as strong. Or you can go in the opposite direction, and decide you want to fight more able enemies and find fewer resources. If one encounter’s giving you trouble, you can bump enemy strength down right then and there, then change it back once you’ve gotten past the area giving you problems. You can save the game, or load an old save, at any time. This ability to almost roll your own difficulty level makes Part 2 significantly easier to play than its predecessor, if you need, or want, it to be.
It will, however, be just as emotionally draining. There is no accessibility slider for that.
Much of the game’s story revolves around the aftermath of the decision Joel made in the hospital at the end of The Last of Us — not in terms of the big-picture ways in which it affected the entire planet, but rather, the extremely micro ways in which it has affected the personal feelings of Joel, Ellie, and a few other characters, as each of them learns the truth.
The problem is that Part 2 becomes torture to play if you already disagree with Joel’s decision, or, heck, even if you just had some doubts about whether it was the right call. “Feel bad about the fact that you’re doing all of this,” the creative team seems to whisper to you, again and again, describing things I already didn’t want Ellie to actually do, but had no choice in if I wanted the game’s story to continue. I was never given any other options, but that didn’t stop the game’s writing for blaming me for its own story. Would the designers feel better, would I be less complicit, if I just refused to buy or play the game at all?
This game couldn’t exist if Ellie could just let go, or learn to meditate, or find a cognitive behavioral therapy workbook, or something. This is not a story of healthy humans finding happiness and building a community together, nor is it a story about someone who learns to love and trust others again despite experiencing absurd levels of trauma and loss. It is a story of a young woman who learned the wrong lessons from her surrogate father, and thus believes the ends justify the means. And the means will almost always include inflicting violence on others.
Ellie embraces the role of antihero, just as Joel did, and 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. I felt so much hope at the idea of embodying Ellie instead of Joel in this game, but the entire arc she follows was an arc that I easily could have imagined Joel taking instead of her.
That felt disappointing, but not entirely unrealistic. Self-absorbed white teenage lesbians certainly exist, and they’re out there, wearing Chucks and writing mediocre poetry in their journals, just like Ellie does in this game. All the other characters seem like real people, too, even if they might make some shitty choices. But hey, people make shitty choices. It’s kinda what real people do. Part 2’s naturalistic dialogue, bespoke animations, and exploration of subtle body language allow it to cut much deeper when, inevitably, several of these folks die in gruesome, arguably needless ways.
And why? Sure, the real world is brutal and horrific, and this post-apocalyptic fictional world, all the more so. Yet humans can learn and they can change, and that’s what makes a story satisfying, even if it’s a sad one. I wanted these characters to realize and overcome their flaws, to transform in some way, however small. But, again, Part 2 doesn’t tell a story about that. It tells a story about a cycle of violence that no one can escape, and especially not me, the person playing the game. Ellie is trapped, somehow unable to grow, learn, or change, and I’m stuck with her.
A glimpse at a future worse than our present
The writing in The Last of Us Part 2 emphasizes that even the most justified of grievances can grow like a cancer and destroy us, if we let it. That’s the story that the game wants to tell — a story of someone infected by something they don’t have the tools to stop. It makes poetic sense, given that the game is about a brain-eating fungus, as it turns out that Ellie doesn’t need to be infected to turn into an absolutely monstrous killing machine.
But when the game gave me more and more information about Ellie’s opponents, painting them as fully realized humans who also deserved to live, the effort felt wasted. I was already convinced that Ellie was handling things the wrong way, and that Joel had made a terrible mistake in the first game. The Last of Us Part 2 didn’t need to force me to kill a dog in order to get me to see that it’s bad to kill dogs. But, of course, it still made me do that. Just to be sure I really got it. I felt annoyed, not reflective. Like, come on, you think I need this much convincing? Does Naughty Dog think we’re all out here killing dogs, unaware that doing so is a horrific cruelty?
This story seems to think I need to experience ridiculous levels of virtual violence in order to believe that maybe, just maybe, Ellie should have learned a little more about her enemies’ personal situations and motivations before slamming a baseball bat into their skulls.
Playing The Last of Us Part 2, a game that supposes that humans will enact violence upon one another to their dying breaths, is a very strange thing in 2020. Naughty Dog created a world in which people across America react to a massive structural crisis by dividing and disconnecting from others, rather than uniting together to demand something better — not just for themselves, but for the most marginalized people in their communities.
I see a widespread level of selflessness and an intense care for the preservation of human life in the real 2020, in fact, and an increasingly loud demand for a society that meets that need. Our systems have failed, in large part, but individual people remain strong and kind. Things have rarely been worse, but there is hope to be found in the actions of average folks fighting to do the right thing. We don’t need a video game to rub our noses in hatred and violence to know that other people who are just trying to survive aren’t the real enemy.
The Last of Us Part 2 depicts individual people who are instead ruthless, capable, yet self-absorbed, and whose perception of violence is limited to how it affects them and their chosen family members. They are almost unbelievably unable to see the bigger picture. Part 2 ends up feeling needlessly bleak, at a time when a nihilistic worldview has perhaps never been less attractive. Its characters are surviving, but they’re not learning, and they’re certainly not making anything better.
Maybe the most surprising thing that The Last of Us Part 2 offered me was the surety that, while the game was made with great skill and craft, we are actually much, much better than Naughty Dog thinks we are.
The Last of Us Part 2 will be released June 19 on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.