The Last of Us Part II’s Story Falls Short Because It’s Afraid to Make Ellie a Villain
Warning: This article includes major The Last of Us Part II spoilers. If you still plan to play the game and want to go in fresh, back out now.
The Last of Us Part II is a big game, both in terms of sheer size and narrative ambition. While the original The Last of Us was a relatively simple parable with a perfect endlessly-debatable ending, Naughty Dog’s follow up is a sprawling epic that tries to tackle a laundry list of weighty issues, including loss, discrimination, cyclical violence, and more. So, it’s rather surprising that The Last of Us Part II actually lands with significantly less impact than it’s predecessor. Why is that?
Ultimately, I think a large portion of The Last of Us Part II’s shortcomings can be narrowed down to a single issue – Neil Druckmann and his team at Naughty Dog love Ellie too much, and much like Joel, they’ve chosen to protect her to the detriment of something bigger (in this case, TLOU2’s overall narrative).
Before we go on, I should clarify that I didn’t dislike The Last of Us Part II. As a game, TLOU2 is very tough to criticize. It looks amazing, plays well, and delivers some great level design and set pieces (check out Wccftech's review here). The writing is often fantastic, with many individually memorable or moving scenes, and very few outright duds. TLOU2 certainly starts out on a promising note – the game’s first chapter divides its focus between Ellie, who’s settled with Joel in the relatively secure town of Jackson, Wyoming, and a newcomer named Abby, who’s come to the area on a mysterious mission. While playing as Abby you’re attacked by a large horde of infected, but rescued by Joel and his brother Tommy, who help you get back to your ski lodge home base. Unfortunately for Joel, he’s the person Abby’s came to Wyoming for, and she and her friends manage to get the drop on him. Ellie arrives too late to save Joel and is forced to watch as Abby brutally bludgeons him to death. It’s a gut-punch moment, but exactly the kind of bold choice Naughty Dog needed to make to one-up their previous effort. If only the rest of the game were so ballsy.
Following Joel’s traumatic death, Ellie sets off to exact revenge against Abby, who’s a member of a Seattle-area militia group known as the Washington Liberation Front. I’m sure we’re supposed to feel ambivalent about Ellie’s quest, but right from the start, any attempt to cast a negative light on her actions feels rather half-hearted. Sure, Ellie’s murderous mission would be questionable in anything resembling the real world, but there’s no justice system in Naughty Dog’s universe. Any justice has to be rendered yourself, and the Joel of TLOU2 deserves justice. The gruff, semi-amoral Joel of the original TLOU has been replaced by a downright saintly middle-aged gent who lives in a quaintly-decorated house and doesn’t care about much beyond coffee and being a good dad to his adopted daughter. So yeah, you do what you gotta do Ellie.
Of course, noble goals are easily corrupted in this universe, and The Last of Us Part II does a great job of showing the increasing toll Ellie’s mission takes on her as she shoots and slashes her way through Seattle. That said, TLOU2 always holds back from showing Ellie doing anything that would make us truly dislike her. A moment from this pre-release gameplay demo perfectly demonstrates what I'm talking about...
At around the 16-minute mark, we see Ellie stealthily dispatch of a young WLF member. Ellie’s victim is clearly no hardened soldier – she’s a baby-faced nerd who just wants to play Hotline Miami on her PS Vita in peace. This girl was very clearly designed to elicit sympathy from gamers, and having Ellie callously take her out, like she does so many rank-and-file grunts in the game, may have been a genuinely impactful moment. But that’s not what actually happens. While Ellie holds a knife to her neck in order to get information, it’s Vita Girl who attacks first. Ellie merely retaliates in self-defence, and afterward she winces, swears, and chastises the girl for her “dumb” move. It’s a shocking moment, but Naughty Dog has to make clear that Ellie didn’t necessarily want to kill Vita Girl. Heck, if Ellie’s enemies stopped being so “dumb,” maybe they’d all still be alive! TLOU2 continues to give Ellie these “outs” during important moments – in one pivotal scene, Ellie stabs a pregnant woman to death, but once again it’s in self-defence, Ellie isn’t aware the woman is pregnant, and when she finds out she’s immediately overcome with regret.
The only time Ellie truly crosses the line is when she tortures intel out of Abby’s friend Nora, but even then, whatever Ellie does mostly takes place off screen. The camera focuses on Ellie’s face as she hits Nora a couple times with a crowbar, then we cut abruptly to black. We never actually see what was done to Nora and the following scenes focus on how traumatic is was for Ellie to torture somebody to death. The atmosphere leading up to the killing of Nora is as ominous as possible, this is clearly supposed Ellie’s most violent, debased moment, and yet Naughty Dog does everything they can to undercut it and assure the player that Ellie is still good, actually. Don’t think about what she might have done with that crowbar, let’s just move on! When the excuses and convenient cuts to black aren’t enough, TLOU2 trots out Ellie’s girlfriend Dina to reassure and comfort her (and the player). Dina actually comes off as a lovely person, probably my favorite character in the game, but she’s used cynically as a “get out of villainy free” card for Ellie. Usually when Ellie does something awful, we’re treated to a nice heartwarming, humanizing scene with Dina shortly after.
Now, I know what some of you are probably asking – why does Ellie need to be a villain? Honestly, I’d be completely fine with her remaining sympathetic, provided she were The Last of Us Part II’s only protagonist. A game that focused solely on Ellie processing the loss of Joel and guilt she feels about not being able to sacrifice her life for a cure likely would have been a tighter overall experience. Instead, Naughty Dog goes for the big twist, putting players in control of Abby for most of the back half of the game. At first I was excited about this, as I assumed Abby’s chapters would show us Ellie’s rampage through Seattle from another perspective. Scenes played out in my head -- Abby desperately trying to figure out what was going on as her friends fell one by one and panic spread throughout the WLF ranks. Abby making her way through the aftermath of some random action scene, each of Ellie’s victims now given a face and name. Nora’s gruesome fate actually being revealed. That would have really driven home the point that every "hero" is a villain in somebody else’s story. That violence only leads to more violence. Unfortunately, none of that happens.
While Abby and Ellie’s Seattle missions take place over the same three-day period, Naughty Dog tinkers with the timeline so none of them actually overlap. Ultimately, Abby spends the vast majority of her section of the game not even knowing Ellie is in town. We never get that outside perspective on Ellie’s quest for revenge, probably because she’d come off like a complete maniac. Once again, Naughty Dog lets Ellie off the hook, withholding information that might make you question her actions more deeply.
Instead of complimenting and commenting on Ellie’s story, Abby’s missions feel like they’re plucked from an entirely different game, or perhaps a standalone expansion like The Last of Us: Left Behind. Abby is at a disadvantage right from the get-go – while Ellie isn’t allowed to be truly villainous, Abby is definitely the big bad of the first half of the game. Because they’re afraid to turn the tables, to show Ellie’s actions in a darker light that would make Abby seem more sympathetic by contrast, Naughty Dog is forced to spend the latter half of TLOU2 desperately trying to redeem Abby via other means.
These other means mostly come in the form of Lev and Yara, a pair of teenage siblings Abby makes her project after they save her from a group of religious zealots known as the Seraphites. It’s very hard not to feel compassion for the siblings – they’re former Seraphites themselves, violently cast out after Lev shaves his head and begins identifying as a young man. Lev is torn between his new identity and lingering feelings of responsibility to his mother and community, while Yara struggles to support her brother while dealing with the more immediately-pressing issue of a badly-injured arm that needs to be amputated. The fact that Yev and Yara appear to weigh about 120 pounds combined and mostly fight with crude bows and arrows just underscores how vulnerable they are. These are unique, deeply human characters, and frankly, I would have preferred if the latter half of TLOU2 was played entirely from their perspective.
But it isn’t. The Last of Us Part II’s latter missions are about Abby, first and foremost, and all-too-often helping Lev and Yara just comes off as a way of earning her “good person” brownie points. At one point, another character explicitly calls Abby out on this, accusing her not actually caring about Lev and Yara. Of only using them as a way to ease her guilt and egotistical self-loathing, which was pretty much the conclusion I’d already come to. Abby deciding to help the siblings out of nowhere, when she’s been shown to be violently bigoted against Seraphites up until then, didn’t feel believable at all to me.
Even if you liked Abby more than I did, most of the back half of The Last of Us Part II being devoted to her redemption totally stalls the game’s momentum. Ellie and Abby finally come face-to-face halfway through the game and Naughty Dog leaves you on that cliffhanger for a dozen hours as you’re forced to play through Abby’s meandering adventures. Many have complained TLOU2 is too long, but I think it’s more an issue of structure. That endless wait to see the outcome of Ellie and Abby’s showdown makes Abby’s missions feel like more of a drag than they would’ve otherwise. Again, if Naughty Dog had built sympathy for Abby by showing Ellie’s actions through a new, darker lens, I don’t think the latter half of TLOU2 would have stalled out in the same way. If they had continued to focus on the Ellie-Abby conflict, rather than dangling it like a carrot on a stick, the dual protagonist thing could have worked.
The Last of Us Part II’s issues come to a head when we finally see the Ellie-Abby showdown play out. You’re forced to play through this climatic battle as Abby, which feels completely arbitrary. Both women exist in a similar mushy moral gray zone at this point, so why am I being made to take a side? Maybe Naughty Dog is making an intentional point about the arbitrary nature of violence, but I feel like that’s giving them a bit too much credit. You feel the hand of TLOU2’s creators manipulating you as you’re forced to hunt and brutalize Ellie given they haven’t provided any real motivation to do so. Ellie isn’t a villain, she’s essentially a good person driven to do bad things by grief and guilt. The game makes this point again and again. So why does Naughty Dog force us to hurt her? Just to make us feel bad? Why? There’s a reason a lot of players have a visceral negative reaction to this portion of the game.
I’m sure I still haven’t convinced some of you. I love Ellie too, and seeing her depicted in a truly unsparing, dark way would be tough to swallow, but again, a villain is largely a matter of perspective. A villain can be redeemed. Naughty Dog tries (with mixed success) to do that with Abby! You can’t present a story that purports to show both sides of a conflict if you’re not fair and honest with both. Your redemption story isn’t going to work if your protagonist doesn’t actually require redemption.
Following her clash with Abby, Ellie retreats to a farm to live the country life with Dina and her newborn child. This interlude is wholesome as hell, as Ellie herds goats and flirts with Dina amidst picture-perfect amber seas of grain. It’s also the most obvious example yet of the relationship with Dina being used as a tool to humanize Ellie. Yes, you just fought a boss battle against Ellie, but she has cute individual names for all her goats! She’s still good!
Despite having carved out about the best life humanly possible in TLOU’s fungus zombie apocalypse, Ellie is still haunted by visions of Joel’s death, and tracks Abby to Santa Barbara to finish the job she started. Unfortunately, another group gets to Abby first and Ellie finds her and Lev tied to poles, essentially crucified, on a beach. Ellie cuts Abby and Lev down, and at first it seems like she may let them go, but instead she forces one final showdown. After a desperate battle, Ellie gets the upper hand and attempts to drown Abby in the beach’s shallow waters, until she’s visited by the memory of her final conversation with Joel. Overcome with emotion, Ellie releases Abby and allows her to leave.
This is clearly supposed to be a revelatory, redemptive moment for Ellie, and yet…it fell flat to me. I was not surprised that Ellie didn’t kill Abby after Naughty Dog spent most of TLOU2 assuring us that she was still a thoughtful, empathetic, baby-loving, fundamentally good person just below the surface. Sure, Naughty Dog could have had Ellie kill Abby for sheer shock value, but if you actually pay attention to Ellie’s character and how she’s portrayed, of course she didn’t kill Abby. In that final flashback, we see that Ellie even absolved Joel for what he did at the end of the original TLOU before he died. She’s a regular forgiveness machine! Instead of a true redemptive arc, we get the story of a good person who’s driven to do some bad things by grief and circumstances, but never truly loses her way. That’s fine, but your message about the cycle of violence doesn’t carry that much weight when it turns out your characters aren’t truly controlled or changed by it.
It’s a shame, because The Last of Us Part II is still a remarkable achievement in many respects. Again, the game plays wonderfully and handles some subjects with incredible grace. It’s exploration of loss, particularly that of a parent, is especially heartfelt and true to life (much of what Ellie goes through felt achingly similar to what I experienced when my dad died…zombie killing aside, of course). If Naughty Dog had been content to tell another smaller character-driven story about parenthood and grief, maybe they could have topped, or at least equaled, their previous work. Instead, they tried to reach for something bigger, but couldn’t bring themselves to make players hate Ellie, even temporarily, to drive home their points. The Last of Us made every shot count. The Last of Us Part II has a few too many blind spots.