One year ago today, Naughty Dog’s long-awaited sequel The Last of Us: Part II debuted. What was briefly a glorious moment in the gaming community at large quickly devolved into a mud-slinging mess. Reaction ranged from the totally appropriate disappointment and demand for refunds to the wholly unhinged death threats and series of multi-phobic slurs aimed at the Devs, the actors, and journalists. Anyone remotely involved with The Last of Us: Part II was fair game, and it was open season, especially if someone dared defend or praise any aspect of the game on websites or over social media channels. Surely the stress of the COVID pandemic and the shock of the game’s brutal narrative had a part to play in all this. Surely a year’s worth of time has helped to heal all wounds and now cooler heads have prevailed, right?
I’m sorry to say that the world of The Last of Us: Part II isn’t all that different from ours when it comes to the depths to which we humans will sink just to hurt each other, even if we’re ultimately hurting ourselves. So despite the fact that the game won hundreds of awards in 2020, some folks are still so upset by the game’s very existence, the fact that Naughty Dog dared to tell the story that they did in the way that they did, that they’re still taking aim at its legacy one year later. Unfortunately, that says a lot more about the supposed fans than it does the game itself. We’ve written extensively about the game’s focus on empathy, the uncomfortable shift into the enemy’s perspective that was a trailblazing approach to storytelling, and its perfect ending. Alas, all that effort wasn’t enough to bring some folks around.
So, with that in mind, we’ve put together the worst of the worst takes on The Last of Us: Part II that are still being fired off a year later.
“It’s the Worst Game Ever and No, I Haven’t Played It”
This category of criticism is my absolute favorite of the bunch. Nothing saps the credibility out of your argument faster than the words, “I haven’t played it, but…” You need to have laid hands on a video game, or, at the very least, watched a thorough playthrough to get a sense of it before you have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticism. Second-hand knowledge, making assumptions based on the rumor mill, or just repeating what you’ve heard from others with no thoughts of you’re own, yeah, that’s not cutting it. And yet “I haven’t played it, but…” remains one of the most common phrases I hear out of the mouth of haters when the conversation turns to this game.
Admittedly, most of the people who started a playthrough of The Last of Us: Part II and then gave up did so after one particuarly specific point. You know the point I’m talking about, but I’ll lay it out here anyway: It’s Joel’s death at the hands of Abby. That’s it. That’s the moment that caused untold numbers of people to put the game down out of anger, hurt, sadness, frustration, whatever, and never pick it up again. However, that moment also apparently gave those same people carte blanche to trash the rest of the game, sight unseen, often without any specifics for fear of admitting their own vulnerability.
I get being angry at that moment; you’re supposed to be. I get being upset with developers for that specific decision; I wasn’t too pleased with it either. But to deprive yourself of the rest of the game and lock yourself into a spiral of hate not only misses the point of the game itself but does needless irreparable harm to you, dear player. Because the rest of the game asks simply, “What if we had met Abby first? What would our perspective look like then?” you are missing literally half of the story if you opt out at the first sign of unpleasantness. Ironic, that, because Joel, widely seen as the hero of the series, wouldn’t have quit, he would have soldiered on.
“Joel Never Would Have Made That Mistake”
Part of the issue with TLoU2 haters is the near deification of Joel. To be fair, in The Last of Us, you’re presented with a playable character who’s not invulnerable but is a total badass. Joel survived the initial wave of Infected, but sadly his wife and daughter did not. That hardened the man, turned him cynical, the better to weather the brutal new reality that is the post-apocalypse. Along with Joel’s brother Tommy, who’s kinder by intentional comparison, and Tess, a ruthless hardass equal to Joel himself, the hero of our story becomes a smuggler, ferrying just about anything (and anyone) across the inhospitable landscape. That’s where we meet Joel when he agrees to spirit Ellie off to the Fireflies, but it’s not where Joel’s journey begins nor ends.
Once upon a time, Joel and Tommy were members of the Hunters, a brutal survivalist group known for ambushing, killing, and torturing “tourists” in their territory for supplies and information. Great group, that. And yet it’s Joel’s time in the Hunters and the Smugglers that’s given him the tools of the trade he’ll need to keep Ellie safe on their trip west. At the end of that trip, Joel, unchanged, would have simply handed Ellie over to the Fireflies, collected his payment, and returned to the life of a smuggler. The entire point of that journey is that Joel came to care for Ellie as a surrogate daughter, to the extent that he killed damn near everyone in that hospital — armed or not, militia member or not — just to keep her safe. Sure, that’s heroic from the point of the player who just spent untold hours escorting both Joel and Ellie to safety, but in the wider world of The Last of Us, Joel is a straight-up viallin.
Joel has, through the players’ hands, murdered tons of folks by the time The Last of Us: Part II rolls around. Indirectly, by depriving the world of the potential cure locked up inside Ellie, he’s responsible for countless more deaths. That’s the crux of the conflict between Joel and Ellie throughout much of the sequel and in the spaces outside of it; we only learn how Ellie found out about this fact, and how she felt about it, towards the end of the game. Sure, getting the cure would have killed Ellie but saved humanity; Joel chose to save Ellie instead, even if that’s not what she would have wished for herself. But the point of the sequel is that Joel is a man who has aged, who has softened, who has come to grips with his violent past and hopes to find a way towards a more peaceful future. You can sense as much by exploring Joel’s room, taking in the hand-carved guitars and sculpted depictions of nature, done with an artist’s hand that’s been washed free of blood, as best as it can be anyway.
But the hopes of becoming a better person doesn’t mean you can escape the sins of your past forever. Abby’s final confrontation with Joel at the beginning of Part II is the direct result of Joel’s own actions at the end of Part I. Does Joel make a mistake in letting his guard down around Abby and her party? Yes. Does it cost him his life? Yes. Was it still the right decision made by a man hoping to foster community and help out people in need, with the aim of washing his prior sins away? Yes, again. But that’s not what people stuck in the past, in their own version of The Last of Us, want to hear. If you want a version of Joel who never learns from his mistakes, who never grows, or ages, or matures, who never tries to do better, I kindly invite you to pick up Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series and blast away infinite enemies as the perennial super-soldier Nathan Drake.
“Only SJWs Praise This Game”
First of all, imagine thinking that so-called “social justice warriors” praising a game is a bad thing. That likely means that the game in question features positive portrayals of people outside the typical norms seen in pop culture, people along the LGBTQ spectrum, people of color, people at various points of the spectrum of mental health, and folks whose disabilities prevent them from fully accessing and enjoying most games. If ever there was a complaint that was actually bald-faced praise, it’s this one.
And yet, I could see critics having a point if The Last of Us: Part II had shoehorned in “wokeness” simply for the sake of doing so in an attempt to stay relevant within socially progressive communities. Except … the story doesn’t do that at all. Ellie, who’s in a same-sex relationship with Dina, goes on a bloody quest for revenge, leaving behind everything she should hold safe and sacred in order to exact vengeance on those who have wronged her. If you swapped out Ellie and dropped in any straight male protagonist from any number of video games, TV shows, and movies over the last century, the same people who decry the so-called “SJW agenda” would be all well and good with the revenge story; they’d probably even praise it. But hold on, it gets worse.
When the game’s character Abby was revealed, her appearance, coupled with some leaks that revealed the existence of a trans character within the game, brought the transphobic folks out of the woodwork. Abby’s not your typical female video game character. She’s built like a truck and hits just as hard, her childhood portrays her as more of a stereotypical tomboy than anything more classically “feminine,” and even her sex scene didn’t, how shall we put this, “confirm” anything one way or the other. But it’s later revealed that a completely different character, Lev, is actually the trans character. The Last of Us: Part II goes out of its way to include a trans man’s story as part of the narrative, folding in specific cultural and community stigmas to that effect, but Abby took the brunt of gamers’ transphobia simply because she looked the part and was an easy outlet for their anger over Joel’s death. And while it’s perfectly valid to argue the merits and shortcomings of the way Lev’s story and the character himself are handled in the story, the fact that Lev exists is not grounds for dismissing the charcter or the whole game in general.
It’s unfortunate that the characters who most speak towards breaking out of the cycles of violence, which are either self-inflicted or forced upon them by external factors like militant groups, are also the ones most targeted by those looking to spew hate wherever they can. But when people stop listening to your criticisms, such as they are, what’s left to do but just ignore reality in general?
“TLoU2 Isn’t Canon”
Not that I’m ranking these “arguments,” but this one would have to be my second favorite. Whole subreddits have sprung up around the idea that, because a certain subsection of the fanbase disagrees with the decisions made in The Last of Us: Part II, the sequel no longer exists within the franchise’s established canon. I’m all for fans keeping their own head-canon and even sharing it with others; fan-fiction is also a creative way to get involved with some of your favorite IPs. But to pretend a whole-ass game no longer exists because you’re mad at it is not only childish, it’s a habitual practice that also has dangerous real-world implications.
We humans are an odd sort; my fellow Ameicans, odder still. We have a habit of ignoring what’s happening around us as long as it isn’t in our faces or directly impacting our daily lives. Once that switch flips and we’re inconvenienced by that very same thing we’ve been ignoring, it’s suddenly all we can talk about and someone else needs to fix it immediately. We will make up imagined realities out of whole cloth if it simply makes our day-to-day a little smoother for us, even if it inconveniences, impacts, or impedes others. Living in a fantasy world seems like a harmless enough idea when it’s only a few people who are outside the norm, but when it’s thousands, millions, teeming masses who opt for ignoring the obvious, blind to what’s literally happening in front of them … that’s about as scary as it gets. It’s ironic that that mob mentality can be seen in the obvious corollary in zombie pop culture, from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, and from the Freakers of Days Gone to the Infected of The Last of Us, the mindless followers traveling in hordes, lashing out at the slightest provocation, and doing as your neighbor does without a moment’s thought. I honestly wish I was exaggerating the similarities between these fictional monsters and their real-world equivalent, but the very real COVID pandemic has shown that we’re not all that far off from the post-apocalyptic fantasies of our contemporary culture.
If it makes you feel better to believe that Joel is still out there killin’ and grillin’ and tunin’ guitars, that’s cool. I don’t want to take that from you. But at the same time, your head canon doesn’t give you the right to target members of the community who are interacting with the world as it actually exists.
“The Worst Ending of Any Game. Ever.”
This criticism gets leveled at a lot of pop culture productions: Movies, TV shows, video games, books, you name it. It’s as if there’s a race to the bottom for so-called fans to tear things down and label them in the extremes of the 1-star worsts and the 10-star bests. The reality is, of course, subjective, and the finall tally will be somewhere in the middle once it’s all averaged out. Game endings are also entirely personal; what might have impacted me in a meaningful way might have been a snoozefest or a cheezy copout for someone else. But anyone who seriously considers the ending of The Last of Us: Part II to be “the worst ending of any game ever” either needs to play at least a few more games or is deep into their own aforementioned delusions.
If we never see The Last of Us: Part III, I for one will be a happy camper. Part II ended pretty much the only way it could. If the intent was to show two women who were two sides of the same coin, both of them caught in a never-ending cycle of revenge, both of them realizing that that pursuit was a dead end, then it would have been disingenuous to have either Ellie or Abby emerge “victorious” at the end of it all. Both of them suffered Pyrrhic victories of their own making. That ending, seeing each of them walk away to their separate corners, their own versions of sanctuary, is certainly not a happy one, but it is a satisfying one.
Imagine for a second that Ellie had “won” and killed Abby. What would that get her? She would still arrive home to find Dina and JJ packed up and gone, and she’d still have two fewer fingers left to play her beloved guitar. Would fans who hated Abby have been happy with this result? Maybe, but the truth remains that nothing else would have changed for Ellie, and Joel wouldn’t magically return to her. In fact, with the weight of the sin of yet another death on her soul, Ellie may not have been able to think back on her final conversation with Joel in a way that let her find some peace at long last. And if Abby had killed Ellie? Forget about it. The fandom would still be on fire to this day. And yet, nothing in the game would have changed; Abby and Lev would have rowed off into places unknown with just a little more weight on their consciences than before. Does that really sound like a better option?
I’ve written plenty about the ending of The Last of Us: Part II and no amount of arguments, well-reasoned may they be (though I’ve yet to see any), are going to sway my opinion much. I rarely liked what Naughty Dog was asking me to do in the game, be it delving into the depths of ruined buildings to fight hordes of monsters and the Rat King or stepping into the shoes of a brutal murderer to learn her life’s story, but I count myself better for giving myself over to the experience. The ending of The Last of Us: Part II is the culmination of all those little moments throughout the game(s), throughout the franchise. It’s profound, it’s provocative, and it will stick with me for a long, long time; it simply couldn’t have ended any other way.
Thankfully, the hate for The Last of Us: Part II has been reduced to a few shadowy corners of the internet. It seems to lurk in the same areas as the folks who wake up screaming about Star Wars: The Last Jedi on a daily basis. I’m happy to say that the vitriol, though it still exists a year later, is quieter now while it’s just as hollow and baselss as ever. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find an outpouring of praise and support when Naughty Dog shared their own anniversary celebration for the game over Twitter:
Maybe there’s hope for humanity after all…
The Man of Steel has never flown higher than a film that forced him to contemplate his human desires.
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