The Last of Us Part II has sold more than 4 million copies. The original moved over 17 million copies, generating more than $1 billion at retail. It’s rare to find a work of art that is such a big commercial success, and I thought it was worth examining what made the story so moving. The action is intense, grueling, and raw. And the tale matches the action’s intensity.
It was eerie playing a game about a post-pandemic zombie apocalypse during a pandemic, with emergency vehicle sirens going off in the background in real life. One solace was that I played this one together with my middle daughter, Danielle Takahashi, who was too young for such a serious game when the first one debuted in 2013. We put together this video, which she edited. Since the game is such a raw experience, I think it helps to talk about it after you play it, and we hope this story helps you understand it better.
I believe Part II reflects some amazing craftsmanship, riveting cutscenes, and empathetic storytelling. Developer Naughty Dog, its team, and the cast took a lot of risks in this ambitious sequel. As a result, they are getting love from fans, as well as hate for the positive portrayal of lesbian, minority, and transgender characters. The game treats them simply as people — they can be good or bad, in leading or minor roles. These design decisions are sparking heated conversations, something Naughty Dog had hoped would happen (at least in a respectful way).
“What’s happening is what we wanted. People are having conversations,” said Halley Gross, narrative lead at Naughty Dog, in an interview with GamesBeat. “This is inciting debate about good and evil, about how far games can get pushed narratively, about what makes a redemptive person, what makes a redemptive story. As long as people are asking those questions I feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”
Warning: This story has spoilers about the game’s narrative. We recommend that you read this after playing — Ed. This is one of three stories.
The first game’s bookend ending
I played the first game and was deeply touched by the story of the teenage girl Ellie and gruff smuggler Joel — two survivors of the zombie apocalypse who spend their days just trying to stay alive. The graphic violence is horrific, but more often than not Joel commits violent acts in the name of protecting Ellie, and later on it is Ellie protecting Joel. Each duel is like a brutal life-or-death struggle.
The beginning sets up the story. As Tommy and Joel flee the outbreak of the zombie plague in their hometown, they run into a soldier who follows orders and fires at them. Joel’s 12-year-old daughter Sarah is killed.
Some 20 years later, Joel meets Ellie. He has little humanity left, and he might as well be a zombie. Yet he takes on the mission of transporting this 14-year-old girl halfway across the country on the chance that her immunity might provide a cure for the plague.
In her time with Joel, Ellie brings out his remaining humanity. She becomes the hero, co-creator Neil Druckmann told me, by bringing the older man back to life. At the end of the first game, Joel faces the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice someone he has come to love as a surrogate daughter in the name of stopping the plague. It becomes a question of how far a father is willing to go to save their kid.
The scene in the beginning came back to me in the end, like a bookend. Joel couldn’t save Sarah, but he was going to save Ellie, given the choice between humankind or her. After all, in the journey across the country, they came across very few humans worth saving. The world had become a depraved place.
“At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at,” Druckmann told me. “But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally, it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity. When he has that final lie with Ellie, he’s willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line in order to save her.”
It brings back the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, which closes with the lines:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night
This is just a small example of how the game evokes emotions the way great works of art can.
A role model is born
I played the first game with my eldest daughter, and it was good to show her the character of Ellie at a time — even though it wasn’t all that long ago — when we didn’t see many female protagonists who were normal people (neither superheroes nor highly sexualized) and could handle their own. Back in 2013, and certainly before that, launching a game with a female protagonist was considered a commercial risk. That is no longer true, as a number of game companies have made a point of creating lead female characters.
Ellie was a role model for my kids, and my second daughter avidly played through all of The Last of Us as well, as I watched and advised. I think a father and a daughter playing this game together could understand the bond between Ellie and Joel, even if the characters didn’t see it themselves.
Druckmann said the intention was always to have a story with dual protagonists, each with strong arcs that affected the other. It was not just a teenage girl being escorted on a mission by a middle-aged man. When my daughters played, I felt it was good for them to have the agency of being Ellie as she fought back during her crucible moments.
And as we learn over time, Ellie is not someone the haters would call a “sympathetic” character, as she is gay, and her love interest in Part II, Dina, is bisexual. Another major character, Lev, is transgender. Even among the “enemies” and friends, we see Asian, Latinx, and Black characters. This mainstream game is a celebration of diversity, and it recognizes how much the conversation has changed since 2013, when the main thing that was inspirational about it was the recognition of father-daughter relationships.
Killing Joel and the cycle of revenge
In the beginning of Part II, Naughty Dog made the controversial decision of killing off Joel, whose transformation into a sympathetic character is so central to the previous game. It made my heart sink, confirming that the worst enemies are the humans, not the zombies, because of their despicable behavior.
And so I was not at all disposed to like Abby, the character who kills Joel brutally after he has just saved her life. Joel’s death comes so early that I thought it was a waste of a valuable character who had meant so much in the first game. It was as if he were just another zombie tossed aside. Naughty Dog’s decision to build a story of revenge around the death of a beloved character was an enormous risk.
“I thought it was a powerful move. It does a lot of things. One, the audience already knows Joel,” Gross said. “They’re invested in Joel. By having Joel ripped away, you’re immediately put in alignment with Ellie’s goals, Ellie’s anger, Ellie’s need for justice. Immediately you’re in alignment. You understand the weight of this, why this would propel someone forward. But beyond that, it also set up, to your point, this idea that no character is safe in this world. Anybody could die at any point, and often does.”
This game goes out of its way to paint everyone in shades of gray. Ellie and Joel are both brutal killers in the first game, and they remain so in the second game, though they have settled down in Jackson. Now their job is to protect their home from the Infected (as the zombies are called) and human foes outside the walls. Yes, even after a pandemic, more so than today, humanity has to live in a walled-in world, and people like Ellie and Joel must guard those walls. Joel’s killing permits us to wonder: Are these characters who are so violent really as good as we believe them to be?
I was prepared for tragedy. Early on, the previews gave us clues that a tragic event would trigger the journey of the second game. In a trailer, we saw Ellie begging someone to spare a life. But I also saw a preview in which Joel showed up in a part of the game where he was already dead. That was a deliberate misdirection by Naughty Dog.
When Joel dies at Abby’s hands, I was angry. I glanced over at my daughter and said, “I was not expecting that.” But I remembered how Druckmann set up a preview, saying the first game explored love and what you would do for someone you loved. The second game, he said, was about hate, and what revenge you would exact as someone you loved was taken away.
The challenge here, of course, is to make Abby human. She starts out as an inhuman beast, the person who takes away our beloved Joel. Can she possibly be a good person? The game tests our patience and our understanding of people — their basic goodness or badness — and how they change under circumstances of emotional duress.
“I don’t think we ever see our characters in those sorts of binary terms, in terms of good or evil, villain or hero,” Gross said. “Our goal was to create the most multifaceted characters you’ve seen in games. For all of our characters, it was important to show them at both their worst and their best.”
Joel gives Ellie a guitar in the beginning of Part II, and he sings a song that begins, “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.” The guitar provides us with the bookend ending, as by the end of Part II, Ellie has lost herself and everything else.
That guitar also resonates in multiple places in Part II, reminding us of the loss of Joel. The use of flashbacks restores a lot of context to the story, showing why Abby did what she did and how Ellie herself changes.
“This quest for Joel is about righting a wrong that can’t be made right. It’s about living in the past, about reexamining all those moments in your life now with this new context,” Gross said.
It was seeing Joel in these flashbacks, and what he had done to Abby indirectly by killing her doctor father to save Ellie at the end of the first game. It was seeing this happen that made me understand Abby better and what drove her to revenge.
Killing off characters
When Abby finally confronts Ellie for killing all of her friends, Abby kills Jesse and, at least in terms of appearances, kills Tommy, too. That was my biggest problem with the game, that it so casually discards endearing characters in the interest of telling its story. And when Tommy kills Abby’s friend Manny, he is gone with a single shot.
“That’s appropriate to this world. Abby doesn’t have time to mourn Manny,” Gross said, referring to a character who is taken out in a split second by Tommy’s sniper shot. “She can take three deep panic breaths, and then she has to get her ass out of there. That’s the brutality of this world, and that systemic trauma is going to continue to shape who these women are as long as they’re in it, and long after.”
In the past, Naughty Dog never brought itself to kill off beloved characters. In the Uncharted games, Nathan Drake has his brother, Samuel, his friend Sully, and his love, Elena. They do extremely dangerous things, but Naughty Dog lets them survive. The same is true of The Last of Us, where the only major character death is Tess.
Some critics say The Last of Us Part II could have been 10 hours shorter, presumably without requiring you to play through the game as Abby. Naughty Dog set up a study in contrasts, as Abby is the foil to Ellie, and their stories of revenge mirror each other. I understood late in the game that this is the path Naughty Dog committed itself to, and it executed on that vision extremely well. I hate this story that sacrificed characters, but I understand it.
“Whether or not you love all the characters, by the end of the game you understand what drives everyone,” Gross said. “Even if you hate some of the decisions the characters have made, you understand why they felt they needed to make them.”
This can be frustrating until you learn the reason for the revenge killing in the flashbacks — that Joel killed Abby’s father when he pulled Ellie out of the surgery that would have killed her — which makes the dramatic impact so much stronger.
Flashbacks are an interesting tool for a storyteller because they offer a way to learn something about a character who is dead in the present but still alive in your memory. In this case, we’re remembering Joel and what he did for Ellie, and how he lied about it. That lie comes back to destroy his relationship with Ellie.
In these flashbacks, we learn just how much each person has lost and why they are so bent on revenge. Abby loses a father who was prepared to create a cure that could have saved millions. She is also seeking revenge for Ellie’s rampage that killed all of her friends and her true love.
Revenge and redemption
The Last of Us Part II asks if you can get justice and closure without sacrificing your soul. In the case of Abby, she finds Lev, who becomes her only remaining loved one. She finds redemption in her feelings for Lev, who is from the enemy camp of the religious cult, the Seraphites. Lev is a transgender character whose coming out led to condemnation within the Seraphite group. Abby rescues him and his sister, Yara, and they bond together through combat, fighting side by side against all enemies. In one touching part, Lev accuses Abby’s people of killing Yara and Abby declares, “You’re my people.” That is a turning point for Abby. Later on, when Lev asks Abby to refrain from killing Ellie, Abby listens and through that choice is redeemed.
We truly see things from the other perspective, and in doing this, Naughty Dog destroys the concept of an enemy. Manny loses his life to that damned sniper, who turns out to be Tommy, such an otherwise gentle soul.
When Ellie kills Nora, a helpless doctor who saves lives, Ellie has hit a turning point. As a player, you have no choice but to execute Nora in this scene. Naughty Dog forces you to do this because it wants you to feel this transformation in Ellie. She is lost. She is bent on revenge.
“As much as video games have this beautiful ability to give players choice, this is a crafted narrative. This is very much about the beats that Ellie goes through. While we want you to feel an alignment with Ellie, this is about how she goes too far. This is about how she loses control of herself. She loses herself for a long time. It would be disingenuous to give her that choice,” Gross said.
She added, “Building on that point, what’s exciting about the gameplay, about when you’re with Nora or when you’re with Abby on the beach and you really only have one choice — we really only give you one choice. Press a button or don’t. But in an interesting way, it articulates where Ellie is at. Ellie doesn’t have a choice. Whatever’s going on internally, whether or not she has hesitation, she is compelled to continue forward, even as she might know that she should stop, or even as she might know she should stay home with Dina, or even as she might know this will hurt. She has lost herself to this addiction.”
Not even the idea of finding a truly happy life with Dina and their son is compelling enough to override Ellie’s need for revenge. Some scenes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show us Ellie doesn’t have a superhuman ability to kill with no lingering effects. It’s one of several ways the game recognizes mental illness. Naughty Dog splashes some cold water on the idea that heroes are invincible. You can’t mow down people and zombies without being affected by it. It takes its toll and comes back to haunt you, and the writers tell this part in a realistic way. You come to see how the characters are foils, or studies in contrasts.
“With Abby, you see how much she has sacrificed for Lev. You see what a positive impact — not that this is the first time we’re seeing the positive impact of Lev, but we’re truly seeing how she is able to negotiate her ego because of this positive influence, because of this redemption arc. It’s for Lev that she’s able to be a better person, because she can’t do it for herself,” Gross said.
She added, “And then for Ellie, as she’s holding Abby under the water, she gets these flashes of Joel on his porch. Ultimately we realize she’s remembering that last conversation she had with Joel. In that conversation she’s talking about how she doesn’t think she’s capable of forgiveness, but she wants to be the kind of person who can try for it. She wants to be the kind of person who could. In my mind, it’s how Joel is having an impact on her, even after his death. He has this positive impact on her. He’s this example of restraint, of loyalty, of care, of paternal grace in a way. She thinks about all he’s been through, what he was willing to go through for her, and all that she took away from him. It wasn’t going to bring him back.”
Ellie’s quest to Santa Barbara shows us just how far this need drives her into madness and a loss of perspective and humanity. She almost dies, and Abby almost dies, and we are once again so worried that one or both of them will die, as we were in the first game.
Another bookend ending
But Naughty Dog pulls back from that abyss, sparing both of them. Only at the end does Ellie restrain herself from murdering Abby, because in that instant Ellie remembers her final evening with Joel, playing the guitar. Finally, this gives Ellie her chance at redemption, and she grudgingly pulls out of her obsession with killing Abby. Ellie remembers that in her last conversation with Joel, she was prepared to consider forgiving him for lying to her. The idea of forgiveness enters her mind. And while she finds that redemption, it is not without cost. But at least Ellie finds partial redemption and partial closure.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that this game is about hate, but it really is ultimately about love and empathy,” Gross said. “For some people, they can get there really quickly. You have characters like Dina and Yara who can roll with things and find that resilience quickly, and for other characters, it takes bottoming out. What I think is a positive message from this game is, even as it seems like it’s almost too late for Ellie, she still finds a way to make that more productive choice at the end. Her humanity is still somewhere in there, the Ellie we knew at 14 that we loved.”
That guitar strum at the ending reminds us of the beginning, another bookend ending. As she returns home, she finds that Dina is gone. She tries to play the guitar that Dina left behind, but since Abby bit off two of her fingers, Ellie cannot play it.
“We played with different edits on framing and where to start, but the guitar and its association with Joel was always there,” Gross said. “At the end of this entire quest she’s lost her partner. She’s lost her son. She’s lost her sense of community. She’s lost a lot of her humanity. This is a physical manifestation of that level of loss. Her connection with Joel.”
At that moment, as she tries to play the guitar, Ellie realizes that her life cannot return to normal.
In the original, one of the most beautiful moments is when Ellie and Joel come upon a herd of giraffes walking through a city. They get to experience the pure joy of seeing something totally unexpected and misplaced in the ruins of humanity. It interrupts the relentless sadness and moody tone. The sequel has beautiful moments as well, provided by the natural world that has survived the pandemic.
Sometimes it takes the form of notes found near skeletons, where people who died during the pandemic talk about their final moments and their regrets. Another time, you see a seal swim past an aquarium window or a dog play fetch with a stuffed animal. These are reminders that some kind of humanity or natural beauty persists in a world gone awry.
I have mixed feelings about this story. For someone who fell in love with the characters of The Last of Us, the sequel is a heart-wrenching tale. You might see split reactions among fans, as we saw with the ending of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The new characters who come into the story have a symmetry to them. Some are mirror images of each other, and it shows you the different directions you can take with hatred. I hate parts of the story, but they all make sense in the end.
The Last of Us Part II represents the very best of what video games can be. It is right up there with awesome titles like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 that make narrative storytelling the highest form of video game art, in my humble opinion.