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Like Father, Like Daughter; TLOUP2

Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us Part 2 © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Cycles of Violence in The Last of Us Part 2

History repeats itself. This simple phrase is both a cautionary tale, a certainty, a promise, and a warning. Eager players recently revisited The Last of Us Part 2 with a Remastered version of the game and a new play mode to explore. Replaying the game four years after its initial release is an opportunity to reflect on the themes in this masterpiece; a tragic tale of violence as a birthright, and inherited trauma, too long passed down. 

A History of Violence 

The Last of Us Part 2 was released in summer 2020, during the surging stages of a global pandemic, the ramifications of which are still felt in our everyday lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, a game about a global pandemic released during a global pandemic was… controversial to put it mildly, but not for reasons one might expect. That game takes a big swing with its narrative structure; in the first half of the game you play as Ellie, Joel’s surrogate daughter, seeking revenge for those responsible for this death. 

The second half of the game then puts you in the shoes of Abby, the woman behind Joel’s exit from this world and who dealt the death stroke. Neil Druckman and co-writer Haley Gross were asking the audience to consider both sides of a violent act, and forcing you to play as Abby put a much-needed face on the consequences of Joel’s choice; after all, Abby was a daughter, too.

While the game has gone on to be considered a masterpiece, in the early discourse of the game, reception was polarizing. A November 2020 article from Forbes described it as a beautiful, terrible, unnecessary sequel. Claiming the writers “mangled the story,” the article written by Erik Kain, lambasted the game as “… a too-pretentious-by-half story of nonsensical revenge and relentless violence. It masquerades at depth and meaning but fails to deliver either.”  That particular article goes on for a mind-numbing six thousand four hundred words, few of them considered for more than the time it took the author to clack the keys. 

But the author’s sentiments were hardly unique; a 2020 article from ArsTechnica written by Kyle Orland described the game as a less confident, less focused sequel that “… can’t seem to decide if it wants to continue the core story of the first game or pull the camera back to provide a wider view of a fallen world still ravaged by the threat of the zombie-like Infected.” NPR called it “A Gut Punch That Just Keeps Punching” in their June review of the game that same year. And so the most soap-boxy of the zealots cried out, over and over, for months after launch. 

A more thoughtful review from The Washington Post titled “The Evolution of Ellie” was released in July 2020, and spent its length examining the character of Ellie in depth. Per a quote from that article “You’re going to have to do some horrible things to survive and to go on this journey of retribution,” co-director and writer Neil Druckmann told The Post. “It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.” The writer of said article, Elise Favis, added: “Nor does it mean Ellie isn’t capable of change.” Character change and growth is perhaps what Naughty Dog is most well known for, seeing Joel’s circular journey from doting father, to forlorn smuggler, and finally surrogate father is perhaps the most cathartic part of the journey; Ellie is more of a passenger on that journey for most of the first game.

Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us Part 2 © Sony Interactive Entertainment

No Place for Good Men in this World

Joel has lived a long life, longer than most in this alternate timeline that mirrors our own. A ruthless survivor, he’s done things he’s not proud of, but won’t apologize for. “So, uh, you fill a lot of innocent people?” Ellie asks Joel moments after surviving an ambush. Joel merely grunts in response to which Ellie infers “I’ll take that as a yes.”

The pair are now trekking through a city openly hostile towards them. Joel sounds tired when he replies “Take that however you want.” We know precious little about Joel from the time before; he worked as a contractor, he is separated, and he is a good father. But twenty years pass between the prologue and the first chapter of the game, and those decades are riddled with untold stories about his morally ambiguous journey. 

There isn’t a place for passiveness in the world of The Last of Us. Throughout both games, but especially in the sophomore installment, both Ellie and Joel come across dozens of notes from previous survivors; many died in their homes waiting for help to arrive. Others took their own lives at their lowest point. Some were betrayed by those closest to them. But in almost every case, their lives ended violently. 

And the message is chillingly clear; it is a kill-or-be-killed world, compromise your morals, or die, there is no room for second-guessing. This mentality is at the very root of The Last of Us franchise. Joel’s greatest act of love in the final moments of the first installment of the franchise, ruthlessly killing the doctor (later revealed to be Abby’s father) who would have euthanized Ellie for the sake of developing a vaccine for the Cordyceps-based contagion. This death is the catalyst that will set Abby on her course, the first spark that lights a fire that will soon rage out of control, and threaten to burn the lives of both characters to the ground.

Another Chance at Being a Father

When Ellie is first introduced in The Last of Us Part 1 she is green and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Having grown up almost entirely within the relative safety of the walled Boston compound, she has an innocent naivete that helps balance the overly dour Joel. Time spent collecting worthless trading cards is well spent, a reminder that there was a cheery world before the bleakness that is these characters’ everyday lives. 

But time marshalls on and things change; Ellie’s once hopefulness has been washed away by the gray malaise that has slowly painted the world-weary occupants in the same color. An early sequence of the game shows Ellie and Dina in a snowball fight with some children, which functionally reminds the player of a young hopeful Ellie before setting out on her defining journey.

The most influential person in Ellie’s life up to this point has been Joel, and as noted above, Joel is a violent man. Perhaps not surprisingly Ellie’s need for retribution will lead her west to Washington state, where she will act as grim reaper for hundreds of survivors, and scorch every inch of earth between Seatle and Jackson. Ellie is, in many ways, still naive. Though battle-hardened she has, in effect, moved from one compound to another, swapping Boston for Jackson. 

While the latter is an idealized communist community, she knows very little about the outside world beyond her four walls. Jackson is full of merchants and vendors, but Ellie is a warrior, her trade is death and she has learned well from her surrogate father/mentor. At the midpoint of the second game, the Jackson crew has made the hard decision to return home, but only after having killed every single member of Abby’s crew. Well, not all, it would turn out. Abby returns moments before the start of their return journey, confused and full of rage, she cries “We let you walk live, and you wasted it.” 

By wasting it, what Abby means is the debt was settled, an eye for an eye. Joel killed Abby’s father, and she killed Joel and was satisfied to let the past die with him. But for Ellie, who never dains to ask the reasoning behind Abby’s wrath, the player is just as lost as Ellie is up to this point. We don’t know what Abby has been through; we don’t yet understand the trauma of discovering her father’s dead body or spending years tracking down dead end after dead end, only to finally stumble across the father of her sorrow in the form of Joel unwittingly in a snowstorm, a blinding white out to hide her true intentions.

The player can’t yet understand how Abby’s time with Lev and Yara has given her a new understanding of her previous enemies, and the journey of self-discovery and growth she has been on because at this point in the game, the player hasn’t yet experience it themselves. Ellie’s present is Abby’s past, and Ellie has not yet seen the consequences of her actions, the way Abby has. In that way, Abby is like an older sister, desperately hoping to confer wisdom on an unreceptive child in the form of the naive Ellie. 

Ashley Johnson as Ellie, Troy Baker as Joel in The Last of Us Copyright Sony

Dark Reflections 

Part of the first game’s brilliance was its use of dark mirrors as the game evolved. Ellie’s friend Riley is a mirror for Ellie, who but for the circumstances of her birth would succumb to a bite that Ellie survives. Riley is whip-smart and capable, just like Ellie, but also reckless. The DLC featured Riley, The Last of Us: Left Behind, which mostly centers around a trip to the mall, something that kids growing up in the period of the show would never have balked at, but this desire to just have a little fun would be her undoing. Interestingly the DLC does not require Ellie to kill Riley, and while Riley’s final fate is undeniable, the DLC doesn’t end with Ellie’s loss of innocence; that will come later. For all we know, Ellie left her there in the mall, where she still haunts the empty shops, searching for Ellie.

Bill and Frank are mirrors for Joel and Tess, partners and occasionally lovers. As written in the game, Bill is a paranoid curmudgeon, who builds up walls to keep others out and is destined to die alone; a fate Joel would most likely have suffered were it not for Ellie coming into his life. A later game mirror for Joel in the form of David is presented, not like the apocryphal preacher as presented in the then HBO now MAX’s parallel episode. 

From his scraggly beard down to his sun-faded jacket, David is meant to represent Joel. Unlike Joel, David is encouraging, praising Ellie’s ballistic skills in a way Joel has never done before; a way that is disarming to both Ellie and the player, which makes the reveal that David is, like the infected, possessed of a cannibalistic hunger and need to feed, all the more alarming. 

Sam and Henry are perhaps the most literal examples of Joel and Ellie’s doppelgangers, a cautionary tale. Sam is stern with Henry, not even allowing him to carry a toy that might slow him down and put his life at risk. The world these characters occupy is dangerous and when Henry is bitten and soon turns, Sam ends his own life, graphically and in full view of Ellie. Sam failed in his duties to protect Henry and if Joel likewise fails to protect Ellie, he too may cease to find a reason to go on, the last good thing in his life taken from him. 

Of course, Abby and Ellie are for all intents and purposes, twins; both have lost a father figure in their lives, violently. Both have a strong sense of loyalty and community. Both experience nightmares from the deeds they have done in the name of justice, compartmentalizing their grief in a way most unhealthy; sadly there are no therapists in the world these heroines call home. Abby’s found family is, likewise, a reflection of Ellie’s: Dina is pregnant, just like Mel. Owen, Mel, and Abby are caught in a love triangle, just like Jesse, Dina, and Ellie. Issac and Maria are both stern leaders that don’t suffer insubordination. Even Jackson and the WLF compound at Washington stadium are both thriving communities with a strong value on mutual prosperity.

Over and over again, the game holds up a looking glass at the central protagonists and says ‘See, you’re not that different.’ This did not go over well with a small population of the gaming community who were uncomfortable with the moral web the game was weaving, and the uncomfortable question at the core of the sequel; when is violence justified, and how does it end?

When Fandom Goes Too Far

In November 2020, Entertainment Weekly interviewed Neil Druckman about the then-forthcoming remastered game; early trailers for the follow-up sequel were intentionally misleading to preserve the game’s biggest twist, Joel’s death. Fan response was intense, ranging from praise to death threats leveled at Druckman as well as other members of the cast and crew, including Laura Bailey, who played Abby.

The worst of these threats were passed along to the cast or crew so that they could take precautions. In a tearful admission on the recently released documentary titled “Grounded II: Making The Last of Us Part II”, released through their YouTube channel, Naught Dog alum  Bailey related that these threats extended to her young son, born during this period. “It was rough.” With sobering clarity she relates how the experience taught her to keep a distance, though a distance from what exactly is left ambiguous; perhaps fans, perhaps comments, social media, maybe all of it. 

Druckman himself was bombarded with hundreds of negative comments. Screenshots posted by Druckmann on his Twitter account run the gamut from anti-semitism and death threats to transphobia and more. “I hope that a real fan will kill you,” one message read. Remembering that, at the time Druckman was, like the rest of the world, self-isolating due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he slunk into a deep depression. 

In that same Entertainment Weekly interview from November 2020, Druckman appears to have turned the other cheek, noting through email “The release of The Last of Us Part II was a deeply emotional experience for all of us at the studio…but in the years since its release, we’ve been continuously blown away by the outpouring of love, support, and acclaim for a game that means so much to Naughty Dog.” While admirable that a seasoned veteran like Druckman could react with such grace under the withering barrage of an at times relentless online community, it’s lamentable that he even has to. Fandom has a dark side, emerging from the shadows with increasing regularity.

Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us Part 2 © Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Cycle Continues 

Much like tesselations in nature or fractals in mathematics, this cycle of violence repeats even on an AI level in the game. “The NPCs are named so that you know these people have relationships.” said co-writer of the game Haley Gross in a recently released documentary about the making of The Last of Us: Part 2

Game designer Kurt Margenau would explain in the same documentary.“They want to get revenge on you. It’s this little loop of the whole premise of the game.” Like a bloodhound that has a scent, the NPCs seek out the players in the game avatar to dispense justice. “ I just killed their friend and they want to kill me now.” It’s part of the programming of this sophisticated AI; revenge is part of their code. Or as Haley put it so elegantly “There’s a cost.” 

In a late cutscene during Abby’s journey, she seeks out Owen, her on-again-off-again lover at his safe haven, a boat harbored in an aquarium. Restoring the boat has been Owen’s goal for the length of the game, always at harbor, the boat is a metaphor for being stuck in one place, moored in turbulent waters, unable to set sail. Rather than comment on Abby’s fresh wounds and rope burns, which for these characters amounts to another Tuesday, Owen relates a heartwrenching story about an encounter on patrol where an old man on the wrong side of a two-sided conflict with Owen’s unit, refused to pick up his weapon and fight back. 

Owen experienced a profound moment of catharsis, looking down at this brow-beaten pugilist:“.. he’s old and tired. He was just ready.” Ready to die, is the understanding. Owen has glimpsed what no one else in the game, so far, has seen; how violent cycles end, with an unwillingness to continue.  Owen expresses what to some degree the player might be feeling by this point. “I am tired… I don’t want to fight about land I don’t give a fuck about anymore.” 

Unfortunately, there are no neural sides in this particular war, and Owen’s complacency will fall on Abby’s deaf ears. “Should I go find the people that killed my family? Cut into them? Torture them?” Owen asks of Abby, moments before their misaligned anger morphs into a violent fit of passion. Owen is asking what the player should be thinking at this point… how does the cycle ever end?

Children born into violent homes often perpetuate their parent’s violent tendencies, doling out the same punishment inflicted on them in a seemingly endless cycle. In an article from healthychildren.org titled ‘Childhood Exposure to Violence’, taken in part from the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics, the cycle of violence is laid out in gruesome clarity. “…children exposed to violence learn to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. Others seem to become desensitized to violence and the pain and distress of others.” This description is about as apt a description of Ellie as it is of Abby, twin links in this endless chain. 

No Return and New Horizons

In perhaps an inadvertent bit of irony, the remastered edition of the game includes a new play mode called No Return; a rogue-like survival mode that throws gamers into familiar settings from The Last of Us Part II while allowing them to play as notable characters, each one offering a unique skill set. In this way, the game is not necessarily unique. Another recent game to include a roguelite mode is God of War: Ragnarok, which recently released a free DLC called “Valhalla” which allowed players to guide Kraytos through this narrative, roguelite epilogue to the main game. 

Unlike “Valhalla”, the optional “No Return” mode has no story elements; it is a challenge mode where the only objective is to survive. In another twist of irony, that is the default view of most of the protagonists in the world of The Last of Us, where survival is not given, or as members of the Washinton Liberation Front often use as a salutation “May your life be long; may your death be swift.” 

A fun but perhaps unnecessary addition to the game, possibly a substitute for a then-planned, since canceled multiplayer installment to The Last of Us franchise, the untitled installment sometimes called The Last of Us: Online. In a December update on the Naughty Dog blog, Druckman wrote “We’ve made the incredibly difficult decision to stop development on that game.” Later in the article, he elaborates “To release and support The Last of Us Online we’d have to put all our studio resources behind supporting post-launch content for years to come, severely impacting development on future single-player games.” 

While Druckman himself has mentioned through various outlets, including the Grounded 2 documentary, that he has a story in mind for a third installment in the franchise, perhaps a DLC like “Left Behind” but featuring Tommy, left battered and broken at the end of the second game, as a studio it seems clear Naughty Dog has their sights set on the horizon, with more titles in new franchises soon to follow, a new frontier for the senior studio. 

Some Wounds Never Close

The Last of Us Part 2: Remastered is a powerful condemnation of violence in a world where violence is all too common; a lesson that has been learned and forgotten since the world was young. Is violence part of our DNA, a dark legacy we are doomed to inherit, or is it conferred, like a bite, through the savage acts of desperate survivors, doomed to repeat themselves over and over again? That is the question at the heart of the game, and it’s up to the players to decide for themselves. 

The Last of Us Part 2: Remastered is available exclusively on PlayStation.

Check out this amazing, behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Part 2

Grounded II: Making The Last of Us Part II Naughty Dog Full Documentary

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

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Omid Rad is a freelance writer, movie lover and overall geek.