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This article contains key story spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II, so read on at your own risk.
I'm currently, finally, playing through The Last Of Us Part II. And oh boy, do I have a lot of thoughts.
The Last Of Us Remastered was the first game I ever played on my second-hand PlayStation 4, and it quickly became one of my all-time favourite titles. Travelling across America with Joel and Ellie was an unforgettable experience, one I tend to re-live at least once a year.
What keeps me coming back to the Naughty Dog masterpiece so often? It's certainly not the gameplay, which I think is actually a bit dull in... several places. It's because of the consistently excellent writing and performances throughout the 20-hour story. In short, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deserve every single bit of praise heaped on them for their performances in The Last Of Us.
I always knew that these were flawed characters, obviously. Flawed, but so damn engaging. Joel in particular was deeply selfish and basically the villain of the piece. The question of whether or not Joel was "good" or "bad" has been argued so much over the years and I'm not looking to rehash it. I think he's clearly not a good dude - but I still loved him as a character. Most of us did, right?
I just enjoyed being with him. Ellie too! I loved the playful banter as they picked through the rubble and ruin of long-abandoned cities. Hearing Joel describe his love of coffee to a baffled Ellie. Watching Ellie attempt to explain a violent arcade game to a bemused Joel.
I loved watching their relationship deepen to the point that Joel, in one of gaming's most divisive endings, straight up murders the closest thing The Last Of Us had to "the good guys".
Which of course brings us to Part II. When the game was finally announced, fans were delighted - mostly because they were excited to see those two characters together again. To see how their relationship had evolved since Joel had done what he did. To see what new adventures one of gaming's most celebrated duos would embark on next.
But that's not what The Last Of Us Part II is. It's not another road trip for Joel and Ellie where the two get to travel across America and examine their relationship while fighting monsters and cannibals and other blatantly evil human survivors.
Oh man, that's what I wanted more than anything. I wanted so badly for The Last Of Us Part II to give me more of the same, because I wanted to spend more time with those characters. With that dynamic. In hindsight, I feel kind of dumb for ever thinking that's what the game could be.
The Last Of Us Part II was always going to deal with the fallout of what Joel did to the Fireflies to "rescue" Ellie, and most of us somehow convinced ourselves that the worst of that would be... an emotional conversation? Come on. I hate that it happened, but Joel was always going to have to die.
And so he dies. Within the first few hours of the game. Joel is savagely beaten to death right in front of Ellie as she begs for his attacker to stop. A lot of people are angry about this particular plot point... at least if Metacritic user scores are anything to go by. Then again, a lot of folk seem angry about the fact that Joel is "replaced" by a bisexual Jewish woman. People have issues, clearly.
I certainly wasn't angry, but I was upset. Probably even a little disappointed at first. A part of me was still expecting another big emotional Joel and Ellie adventure where the two got to work out their problems over the course of an epic journey. Maybe Joel would die at the end - but at least he got to be a major part of the game. Maybe even seek redemption along the way.
Instead, he's out of action before the game has even got going... and as much as that wasn't what I wanted to go down, I'm glad it did. It's shocking and brutal, and pretty much the only thing that could have happened to send Ellie off on her cross-country murder quest. The two have an unbreakable bond, as the game reminds us several times over the course of the story.
In losing Joel, we got to spend time with great new characters like Dina and Jesse, allowing us to see both Ellie and her late father figure in new ways. They'd discuss things Joel had taught them over the years. I dug those little reminders of him, and liked that he spent his final years as a pillar of the community he and Ellie helped to build.
Then there are the flashbacks that actually feature Joel and Ellie together again, and I find these scenes absolutely fascinating. This is Ellie's memory of Joel, and she paints him as a flawed yet ultimately decent man who would do anything for her. He teaches her guitar. Helps her learn to swim. Goes on patrol with her. That playful back and forth that I loved so much from the first game was there.
Take, for example, the flashback in which Joel takes Ellie to an abandoned museum for her birthday, in what I think might be the game's best scene. It's certainly my favourite scene. This is what those of us who were so invested in the original game wanted to see: Joel and Ellie, together, safe, and happy.
This entire scene, in which Joel absolutely dotes on the younger and more optimistic Ellie that we all remember, breaks my heart as much as it brings me joy. But it could only do that because I knew Joel and Ellie's time together was done.
The museum, and to a lesser extent the other flashbacks, essentially gave me what I wanted the entire game to be, while definitively reminding me that could never happen. Joel made his choice, and he suffered for it. It had to be that way for The Last Of Us Part II to work... but at least we got glimpses of the peaceful life with Ellie that we wanted him to have - made all the more poignant because we know from the beginning of the game that life comes to a violent end.
We then spend the next half of the game playing as a character with a wildly different perspective of Joel. More controversy. We're reminded that he tore lives apart. We're forced to walk a mile in the shoes of someone directly affected by just one of the awful things he did. We live through a story in which Joel is, undeniably, the villain. It asks us, like Ellie, to face up to who Joel was and consider if we're okay with it.
It's deeply uncomfortable stuff, and it occasionally lays it on just a little thicker than I would have liked... but I ultimately came out of it feeling pretty much the same about Joel as I had before. The difference was that I felt way less okay with what he - and by extension I - had done to save Ellie.
Through Ellie and Abby, we see both sides of a character that is near-universally loved by a vast swathe of gamers. It's just that accepting he was actually kind of a monster seems to be hard for a lot of people. I get that, but that's all part of what makes the game such a success, at least for me.
I've found Naughty Dog's latest effort to be brutal, challenging, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once. From Joel's death comes the idea that we can face up to the worst parts of ourselves and learn to accept them. The idea that we can be better, and do better than those that came before us. The idea that love, hope, and empathy can ultimately overpower hate and anger.
To me, The Last Of Us Part II is a resonant and timely piece of work in today's challenging times. It certainly might not have been the sequel I expected - or even wanted - but it's the one I needed.
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