Spoiler alert: I will be discussing the finale of THE LAST OF US and touching on some spoilery aspects of THE LAST OF US: PART II. You’ve been warned.
There’s something magical about video games that use the format to have you confront things about the human condition. THE LAST OF US dropped seven years ago to widespread critical acclaim. I didn’t touch it until last year, but it messed with me in ways that I have a hard time describing. It’s bleak. I mean…it’s really bleak. The world falls to a virus called Cordyceps, a fungus that takes over the human body and is based on the real condition in ants known as Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. Our lead character is Joel Miller (Troy Baker), a man who is forced to watch his daughter die in the opening hours of the outbreak and then live the next ten years as a broken, angry, violent individual just trying to survive. He takes a job smuggling Ellie (Ashley Johnson) to a group called the Fireflies, radical guerillas that might be able to use her to create a vaccine. See, the girl’s infected but hasn’t turned. Problem is that Cordyceps grows all over the brain and she’s very endearing, so when it comes to killing her after hours of both Joel and the player coming to love her you just can’t let that happen.
So Joel decides he doesn’t want to be without her, forcing you to slaughter everyone that could make a vaccine.
The final sequence of THE LAST OF US is one of few that help video game action make sense. These things are violent and ask the player to be violent, but when you wrap that in a character and try to tell a story it becomes complicated as the message might not always match the massacre. Joel Miller is a vicious person, one that lives in a grey morality and has no misgivings about the kind of aggressive actions he must take. Ellie is idealistic and hopeful, bringing light back into the man’s life (and to be honest mine, as at the time I played the game I was in a really dark place). Finishing the game requires dooming humanity to hold onto your own personal sense of fulfillment via violence, and you understand why Joel does this. You willingly and empathetically make the choice alongside him.
THE LAST OF US: PART II is possibly the most anticipated video game of all time, a sequel to a perfect and character-driven story that we all wanted to see the next chapter of. It goes to great lengths to piss you off in the first hour or so of gameplay, with Joel being viciously tortured and murdered by a woman named Abby on a quest for vengeance with her friends. Oh, and it just so happens to make you play as her. You participate in the murder of someone you’ve grown to empathize with and even love. I was pissed and stopped playing for a couple of hours, requiring libation and sustenance to continue without being absolutely in a rage. The game experienced some leaks a few weeks back and people threw fits. I didn’t partake, instead just excited to see how the game played out minus spoilers. Upon watching Joel take a golf club to the skull while Ellie lay screaming in desperation on the floor I lost it.
But I like being wrong. It’s how we learn and grow as human beings.
See, Abby is a fascinating character. The game doesn’t just make you play as Ellie, but rather forces you to split your time between the two women as they each participate in their own cycles of violence. These narrative tracks coalesce into a goddamned symphony of pain, aggression, and participative storytelling in a fashion that left me hollow in the best way. The first game left me with my heart pounding, tears in my eyes and a quietly loving sadness in my soul. THE LAST OF US: PART II is a different beast, one that forces you to feel empathy for the murder of someone you love. Decisions have consequences, and if the first game is a decision then the sequel is the consequence. Each decision is designed to make you reckon with the moral grey areas of morality and question your own for participating, an aspect of gameplay that few stories try to swing for. Abby is fully fleshed out and a completely different kind of protagonist than Ellie, and I want you to know that she’s definitely a protagonist. There’s no character in the game to fully sympathize with outside of Ellie, but the developers at Naughty Dog want you to understand these people.
Beyond all these moral trappings the game is just a masterpiece. It’s stunning to look at, with environments and interactions that feel and look as real as you want them to be. I don’t need to touch on the vocal performances, you know they’re top notch. What I really want to discuss is the score.
Gustavo Santaolalla composed the score for THE LAST OF US and has returned for the sequel. I adored his work in the first game, the music married to the character of Joel in a way that helped it feel alive on its own. In the second game he splits things into different timbres and styles, using elements of Joel to propagate Ellie’s character (she IS basically his daughter after all) while incorporating some new electronic sounds for a youthful and dangerous feel. Abby’s segments feel even further disconnected, more along the lines of an action horror film in ways that remind me of Horner’s score for ALIENS. It creates a sense of cognitive dissonance without the inconsistency in tone, leaving us with a beautiful score. I may or may not have listened to it alone, just sitting on a porch looking at the Kansas wilderness and contemplating the state of the world.
Listen, this isn’t a perfect game and it isn’t as good as the first one. What it is, though, is a story that asks us to think about consequences. We live in an age where consequences affect more than just ourselves and where chickens come home to roost. The first one asked us to empathize with those that put the needs of the few over the needs of the many, even if it’s the wrong thing to do. THE LAST OF US: PART II forces us to look at the results of those decisions and live with them, alone and broken in a desolate world that is slowly crumbling around us. If that’s too real for you then steer clear, but if you’re willing to confront some hard questions then I urge you to pop in the game and see how you feel. I think it’s a flawed masterpiece, and the sheer beauty of it will sustain me for years to come.