Naughty Dog / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II.

At the end of the bestselling video game The Last of Us, the player does something unspeakable. Living in a world overrun by zombies after a mutated fungus infects most of Earth’s populace, you play as Joel, a survivor who’s guiding a teen girl named Ellie across the country in search of civilization. The duo finally reaches a team of doctors who hope to use Ellie’s immunity to the fungus to develop a cure. But when Ellie is unconscious on the operating table, you learn the terrible news—a cure can come only at the cost of Ellie’s life. So rather than let her die, you slaughter everyone in your path.

It’s Joel, the character, who decides to kill the doctors, escape with Ellie, and later lie to her about what happened. But it’s you, the player, who executes the plan. A simple nudge of the controller sets things into motion, and the only way to finish the game is to shoot your way out of the hospital. When I first played The Last of Us, in 2013, my heart was in my mouth for the entire final sequence. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, but I was more chilled by the fact that I understood Joel’s actions. After my many hours of playing alongside Ellie, allowing her to die seemed even more unthinkable than mass murder.

The power of The Last of Us hinged on that connection between player and character, between simple gameplay and deeper intention. As video games evolved over the decades, they struggled to bridge the gap between their ever more complex storytelling and the relative straightforwardness of gameplay—a conflict dubbed “ludonarrative dissonance” in the industry. Essentially, how do you tell a resonant tale with proper character development when the game you’re creating mostly involves running, jumping, punching, and shooting people? The ending of The Last of Us made Joel’s history of violence a feature, rather than a bug, and in 2013 that felt revolutionary—the player wasn’t being rewarded for killing their way to the ending, but instead being asked to think about how they’d gotten there.

Now, seven years later, comes the much-awaited sequel, The Last of Us Part II, an epic blockbuster that tries to reckon with the consequences of Joel’s choice while also delivering many more hours of zombie-fighting gameplay. The title is full of plot twists, tense action sequences, and loads of bloody violence—the worst instances of which are once again unavoidable. The Last of Us Part II is an even more ambitious treatise on video-game moralism than its predecessor, but more often than not, the lesson it’s trying to impart is one the player has already learned. The first game took a well-known genre and tilted its perspective, so that players could consider its grim underpinnings. Part II seems to have the same mission, but by upping the ante, it gets caught up in the very cycles of violence it’s trying to critique.

The Last of Us Part II argues that Ellie is trapped—she must continue her mission to avenge Joel, because the player is controlling her and because any video game demands a mission. (Naughty Dog)

The first half of Part II follows a grown-up Ellie, who is now living in a developed settlement of survivors with Joel. Early on, Joel is captured and murdered by a militarized strike force, spurring Ellie to cut a bloody swath through an overgrown Seattle as she hunts for Joel’s assassin, a soldier named Abby. Halfway through the story, they come face-to-face—only for the game’s point of view to switch to Abby, who’s revealed to be the daughter of one of the doctors Joel killed. She was exacting her own revenge and continuing a cycle of killing that will seemingly never end for the Last of Us franchise—at least not so long as these acclaimed games keep setting record-breaking sales numbers.

The game’s meta argument seems to be that these cycles of vengeance are fated, or programmed, if you will. As a character, Ellie is trapped—she must continue her mission to avenge Joel, because the player is controlling her and because any video game demands a mission. At first, her mission is tolerable because it mostly involves killing the undead, but once Ellie finds the humans she’s chasing, pure brutality is demanded of the player. In one pivotal scene, Ellie has to beat someone to death to get valuable information, and the game makes the player press a button to land every single blow. Horrified, I set my controller down and watched the screen for minutes to see whether I could avoid this task entirely; eventually, it was clear I couldn’t.

I hated this moment with the same fervor that I had loved the conclusion of The Last of Us. There, Joel’s awful decision was perfectly in character, and I was disturbed by how I, the player, had come to fully inhabit his scripted mindset. The final sequence felt like a crucial, universe-expanding moment for gaming, much like the ending of BioShock a few years prior (when it was revealed that all of the main character’s actions had been programmed into his subconscious, a clever piece of commentary on the inevitability of game design). Playing through Joel’s predetermined ending somehow made me feel culpable, which was a genuinely unnerving but profound experience. But Ellie’s turn to total darkness in the sequel felt flatter—it felt less like a natural move for her character and more like a way for the game to make some larger philosophical points.

When interviewing the game’s creators, David Ehrlich of IndieWire made a fascinating observation on this shift between the first and second games. “In The Last of Us, our alignment with Joel compels us to justify his actions as he murders innocent people to protect Ellie,” he wrote. “In Part II, it feels as if the characters are trying to wrest control back from us.” As a player of Part II, I’m still stuck with Joel’s perspective from the first game; I understand exactly what he did and why he did it. Even though I’m playing as Ellie in the sequel, it’s hard for me to fully grasp her confusion and survivor’s guilt, and the directions in which her extreme trauma leads her.

That exploration of the disconnect between player and character is a drastic shift from the first game, and certainly Part II’s most ambitious concept. The player has to deal with shambling zombies, but also explore Abby’s militarized life and confront a faction of bow-wielding religious cultists. All these different characters and communities are consumed by the kind of postapocalyptic stress that usually leads to conflict. The game is trying to answer the question of why the genre is so infused with violence by making the player shoot, stab, and strangle their way through area after area, all filled with enemies who are suspicious of trespassers. But it becomes monotonous: There were many times in The Last of Us Part II when I had to turn it off and take a break from the unrelenting bleakness.

The game possesses plenty of thematic power and features quieter sequences of grace and tranquility. But it makes the overarching point about violence begetting violence over and over again, culminating in a final battle that feels as though it might go on forever. The gaming industry will likely grapple with many of these ideas for the next few years, asking to what extent it can tell compelling stories when the strictures of big-budget gaming often demand constant bloodshed. But by making so much of its action punishing rather than rewarding, The Last of Us Part II makes a convincing case that it might be time to search for something new.

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