There are massive spoilers for the game below. Don’t read this unless you’ve finished the game through to the credits.
Having finished the game, I’m only just now starting to see all the articles and videos containing let’s charitably call them “criticisms” about The Last Of Us Part II. There are plenty of things about the game to legitimately criticize and discuss (sadly I have no knowledge of where honest discussions of video games can occur with relative safety on the Internet anymore, or in real life for that matter), but I’m seeing a preponderance of what I’ll charitably call “shallow interpretations” of the game. So I feel like I have no choice but to try to push a little bit of what I’ll charitably call moderately reasonable or at least alternate viewpoints onto the Internet to balance the scales a little bit.
First I’m going to start by paraphrasing some of the common criticisms I’ve heard of the game, and respond to them.
I’m aware that I’m technically responding to “straw man arguments” (that thing where you describe your interpretation of your opponents’ argument and respond to that, as opposed to responding to their actual arguments-you know, the basis of every tweet ever), but I’m just doing this for the sake of convenience.
“The game pretentiously tries to make the player feel bad about committing video game violence.” I saw this espoused mainly from a Jimquisition video, but I’ve also seen it referenced elsewhere. (I don’t know why I clicked on a Jimquisition video, it was a moment of poor impulse control. Normally I think of him as Random Intentionally Obnoxious Clickbaity YouTuber #4561.)
All I can say is that I never felt the game was trying to send that message, and I have no idea how anyone came to that conclusion. The only thing I can figure is someone said it once, and other people thought it sounded like a particularly smart critique, so they started repeating it.
I personally never felt bad about shooting, strangling, or beating up any of the video game enemies. I usually compartmentalize and mentally separate “story parts” from “game parts.” Game enemies were never (or rarely) part of the story for me. I didn’t care for the dog enemies very much, but that’s mainly because every time I hear a video game dog yelp in pain, I wonder how they obtained that sound effect.
I did feel bad about some characters’ actions during some elements of the story. For example, I felt absolutely horrible about what Ellie did in her last fight, and if I’d had any control over her, I absolutely would have made her sail away in that other boat. (I’m sure that was by design, and simply indicates that I’m a relatively normal human being with relatively normal human responses.) In those cases I felt bad for and/or about a character. I, myself, didn’t feel bad.
So, if the game was meant to make me feel bad about video game violence, it failed spectacularly. But it wasn’t.
The game definitely does make a point of humanizing “the others” in its story in many different ways, to the point of potential discomfort. I suppose it’s possible to interpret that as an anti-violence message, or an anti-violent-video-game message, but that doesn’t ring true to me. To me, it’s more of an anti-fanaticism message. “In these turbulent times” when it’s socially acceptable to turn everything into a dehumanizing us-versus-them argument, I suspect there might be a lot of people-particularly younger people-who are uncomfortable with a story that takes pains to humanize the “them,” people who might push back against that message.
“Naughty Dog mistreats their employees.” This was mentioned a lot (I mean a lot) in that Jimquisition video, and it was one of the vague controversies I remember seeing before the game came out.
In short, I don’t have any comment here because I believe that’s an entirely different subject that’s outside the scope of a game and/or story discussion. I mentioned in my last post that I have no difficulty making a moral distinction between art and artists, or in this case between games and developers. (I’m personally against “crunch culture” and would recommend avoiding working anywhere that mandates it.)
“Joel would never…” I’ve never seen anyone actually say this, but it’s a common point that defenders of the game react to. The argument is basically that Joel is too smart to get killed. (The game begins with Joel, the anti-hero of the first game, getting killed, which drives the rest of the story.)
It’s understandable that fans of the first game wouldn’t particularly enjoy their favorite character getting killed, but I never felt this part of the story was inauthentic, meaning that I never felt Joel made a contrived mistake to serve a fixed plot point. I, as the player, knew he was walking into a trap because I had already deduced Abby’s intentions, if not precisely, then certainly on some level. But Joel appeared to have no way of knowing anything was wrong until he said his name, noticed the room’s reaction, and became defensive. By then, it was too late.
Abby, presumably, also noticed Joel’s danger sense kick in and within seconds took the appropriate action to neutralize him before he became a threat or escaped. Which also appeared to be true to her character, and a subversion of the “villain giving a big speech before doing the bad thing which gives the hero time to escape” trope.
The point is, I was shocked and hurt by what happened, but I never felt any need to deny the reality of it, which, to me, is successful storytelling. It also didn’t feel like it was done for shock value. It served the story, and became a touchstone for the rest of the game.
By contrast, I did deny the reality of the scene where Ellie and Dina escaped captivity after tripping that landmine.
That was an example of a story moment where the bad guys made a lot of idiotic contrived slow-motion decisions that left Ellie and Dina (ie. the player) plenty of time to escape certain death, simply because she’s the protagonist and it’s a video game. It was a very exciting moment, but if it had been honest storytelling, our heroes absolutely, positively would have died in that scene. Suspension of disbelief was required. I felt none of that in Joel’s scene.
I should also add that I went into The Last Of Us Part II with zero expectations that Joel would play any significant role. My only foreknowledge of the game came from the 2018 E3 demo, which clearly showed that Ellie would be the main character. I always got the strong sense that the game would be “passing the torch,” so to speak, to Ellie. It felt completely natural to write Joel out of the story. My only real surprise was that it happened so fast and so soon in the game.
“I hate Abby so much, and I couldn’t wait to kill her, and I hated playing her for half the game, and I hate that Ellie let her go at the end.” I only heard this head-scratcher secondhand from defenders of the game, until I read this somewhat AI-generated-sounding article in (weirdly) MMORPG.com which unapologetically contains this exact viewpoint. (Side note: MMORPG.com really needs an editor.)
I just don’t even know what to say about this one. I live in a totally different world from those who hold this view. To say that the entire point of the game’s story was lost on such a critic, and therefore there’s no hope for the future of humanity because of it, is a massive understatement.
I loved the Abby character, from the very beginning, even knowing pretty early on that the game was probably showing us “the villain” and making us control her. As a fan of stories, nothing is more exciting than a fully fleshed-out, humanized antagonist with believable motivations that you understand and sympathize with. Even more exciting are two characters in Ellie and Abby that could be both protagonists and antagonists at different times, depending on your viewpoint.
By the end of the game, I liked Abby more than Ellie, which I take to mean that I was on the same wavelength as the writers, because I’m quite sure that was intentional. When we went back to controlling Ellie in Santa Barbara, I felt disappointed and missed Abby terribly. I found Ellie’s behavior in Santa Barbara abominable, horrific, twisted, and monstrous, until the very end of that last fight with Abby, when a small glimmer of humanity returned to Ellie. I was so thankful for even one small step in the right direction after an entire game of trauma-induced bad decisions that I was moved to tears.
“Generic Liberal Agenda Rant Blah Blah.” I have heard (though again, I haven’t seen a single person actually saying this firsthand, and am thankful that I don’t know where these people even exist) there is a lot of criticism from “the usual quarters” on various aspects of the game’s “liberal agenda.” I’ll just say that I personally have nothing but praise for the game’s representation of gender identity and sexual orientation, but since I’m not part of those communities, it’s not really my place to judge or comment.
“Confusing Story Structure.” Lastly, I’ve seen a few criticisms of the “confusing” story structure: The different viewpoints, and the non-linear flashbacks and so on. This was a criticism in that MMORPG.com article above (“the story was fine, but the story_telling_ was bad!”), and I think Jimquisition mentioned it too. Personally I had no difficulty whatsoever following the story timelines, and understood the narrative reasoning behind it, with one exception: I did wonder why they chose to show Ellie’s viewpoint for three days and then Abbie’s viewpoint for three days, as opposed to alternating days one at a time. I feel like they must have tried telling the story that way and found it wasn’t as impactful, or perhaps there were level design reasons.
My Main Criticisms
Before I start, I want to make sure it’s clear that this game is fantastic and everyone who owns a PS4 should buy it and play it and marvel at its beauty, then spend hours and days and weeks thinking and reflecting on the powerful and complex messages delivered by the story. It’s a particularly relevant game “in these turbulent times” because of the way it holds up a very dark mirror on fanaticism and obsession, and it’s both hilariously ironic and depressingly sad that the game itself has been creating factional hatred.
My biggest criticisms of The Last Of Us Part II revolve around the gameplay (as with the first game, actually). There were so many times when I found myself sighing because I had to search through yet another wrecked, empty building to scavenge for supplies before I could move on to the next area. It was exactly the same every time: Run around the perimeter of the space and look for a “triangle” symbol to pop up on the screen.
Scavenging was tiresome in the first game but there seemed to be a whole lot more in the second game. Sometimes it was nice to have a little down time between combat encounters (particularly when you’re recording your thoughts about the story as you go), but it was always tedious and went on too long. The spaces seemed a lot bigger than the first game. You could never see where to go at a glance, so you always had to comb over every inch of every space for what seemed like hours on end. (Often in the dark, using a flashlight.) It felt like a walking simulator in those moments, crawling through entirely static scenes like you were in some kind of 3D model viewer. That’s not my favorite kind of gameplay.
I was constantly frustrated by the control system. Naughty Dog likes to do the Rockstar thing where they make up their own controls that they think are better than the “industry standard” controls. I never liked the selection menu system in the first game and it persisted into the second game. You have to play the game multiple times and practice a long time to learn and internalize the control system to get the most benefit from it. (It was even more complicated for me, because I also used a XIM APEX mouse-and-keyboard adapter after my thumb got too sore to use a controller anymore.)
I can’t even tell you the number of times I hit my “aim” button thinking I was going to bring up one weapon, when I had somehow, inexplicably, accidentally selected a different weapon that was thoroughly useless for the situation. (I think it was because tapping R1 cycles quickly to the next weapon in your list, something I don’t remember in the first game and I somehow did accidentally all the time.)
Not to mention the general sluggishness in response time to most actions because of animation locking and “realism.” The game devolves into a hectic shooter sometimes (ie. always) but it insists on its own set of shooting rules. There’s a huge delay when switching weapons and during reloading times, and aiming is a big challenge. Most times I died it was because I couldn’t get the game to catch up to what I wanted to do fast enough. It’s fine to get killed because you did something wrong, but it’s incredibly frustrating to get killed when you know exactly what you should do but the game’s controls and systems stop you from doing it.
Thankfully, lest I leave you thinking I thought the game was nothing but problems, The Last Of Us Part II was a whole lot better at checkpoints than the first game. Most times, you only had to go back a few seconds after dying, rather than back to a starting point minutes back. That was huge for me.
I also felt like the sequel was a little more forgiving about letting you run away to hide than the first game. It was possible to reset and regroup if everything went to hell, which was something that I found difficult or impossible in the first game. Overall I found the combat slightly easier than the first game, on the Moderate difficulty setting that I played. It’s possible that’s just because I had the first game’s experience under my belt.
In terms of story, I can’t think of very much that I didn’t relish and/or cherish. There were several times when the story pacing felt very slow, but admittedly it could have been because I was sometimes impatient to see what happened next.
I mentioned the one contrived situation above where Ellie and Dina escaped what should have been certain death. I feel like there were quite a few instances where Ellie should have died but escaped by some trick of luck or someone letting her go. Despite that, she never reconsidered her path, which I, the player, as an adult of somewhat advanced age, thought was imbecilic. But I let it slide because, for a teenager who believes to their core that they’re morally superior and physically invincible, it didn’t feel out of character. It occurs to me that my viewpoint of Ellie was probably best expressed in-game by Maria. “I’m angry about this, and it’s suicidal to run off, but I know I can’t stop you, so here’s the only thing I can do to help you not die, because I really hope you come back.”
P. S. After writing all of this, I randomly encountered this video from “Girlfriend Reviews,” a channel where I have found high-quality content more than once (despite the clickbaity name and thumbnails), which very eloquently and succinctly summarizes the gist of what else I might write about this game: