The Last of Us: Part II – A Retrospective

This article contains **SPOILERS** for the ending of The Last of Us: Part II.

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One more time: if you haven’t finished the game, and don’t want anything spoiled for you, please stop reading now!

 

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“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself…”

The Last of Us: Part II is a masterpiece and one of the best games of our generation. It is dark, hopeless and full of despair. It pulls no punches in killing main characters, inflicting pain on the characters it leaves alive and grips you with its story from beginning to end. It mercilessly beats you down for nearly 25 hours and then nests itself in your mind for days after you reach its conclusion. It’s cautiously optimistic and then emotionally punishing at times, leaving you exhausted yet clamouring for more.

Naughty Dog has a way of creating characters and atmospheres that are so vivid and visceral, so real, that you’re sucked into every interaction and invested in every outcome. No line goes to waste, no conversation should go unheard. You can almost feel the dew on the leaves you’re crawling through, or the mud squishing under your feet. But environments aside, it is the characters that have made The Last of Us a shining example of immersion and storytelling. This game rests on the performance of both Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Laura Bailey (Abby) and they both do a truly enchanting job.

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Ellie and Abby

The relationship between Joel and Ellie, from their reserved and apprehensive meeting in part one to their gut-wrenching separation in part two is magical. Much of their story through the first half of this game is centred around Joel’s lie to her about the Fireflies at the end of part one. We see Ellie wrestle with her affection for Joel and the resentment of him taking her life’s meaning from her, even after he’s no longer with her. After relying on each other for so long for survival, the safety of Jackson has allowed her to drop her guard and process some of her feelings. The conversation at the end of the game shows that she even attempts to forgive Joel for what he did, albeit with reservation, but it was a start. Ashley Johnson’s masterful performance brings to life a character that is endearing and frustrating at the same time. She’s analytic and level-headed at times and brashly violent and unpredictable at others. Her real-life facial expressions shine through beautifully on Ellie’s face throughout the game, bringing her to life in ways we haven’t seen in games prior.

Ellie’s relationship with Dina also shines in Part II. Ellie loves her, yet isn’t capable of living the kind of life that Dina wants. Since she was 14, all Ellie has known is death and Joel – and even those fleeting moments of domestic bliss at the farm near the end of the game never really felt …right. Ellie isn’t that type of person, try as she might. She couldn’t let Abby get away, and it cost her practically everything.

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Playing as Abby through the second half was jarring at first, especially after the events of the first several hours, but she slowly became one of my favourite characters in this story. Her character arc mimics Ellie’s so much that it’s hard not to fall for her and root for her redemption in some way, regardless of the hatred you feel for her initially. Laura Bailey’s performance here is captivating. Throughout the story you watch her descend into darkness after her father’s death only to have her slowly climb back into the light through the help of Lev. Even with the weight of the horrible things she’s done weighing on you as the player, you slowly unravel her side of the story and the line between hatred and sympathy for her progressively blurs. Watching everything and everyone she knows get taken from her one by one, then seeing her find a glimmer of hope by finally contacting the Firefly outpost to eventually seeing her emaciated and hanging in the pillars, it’s hard not to feel both sympathy and pity for her. She wants nothing more than to atone for her past sins by helping Lev start a new life, and that makes the ending so much more bittersweet. I didn’t want Ellie to kill her, even after everything that happened, even after Abby bites off Ellie’s fingers trying to escape. I let out an audible exhale when she let her up from the water and let her get away. For Abby, it was a new lease on life, but for Ellie, it was a way for her to try and forgive Abby the same way she started to forgive Joel. That end for both of those characters is something they deserved, but even more it’s something that felt right. Ellie hopefully gains some peace knowing that she could have killed Abby but let her go. Abby gets her second chance with Lev, wherever that leads them.

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It is the last scene that gutted me the most though. After returning to the farmhouse and finding that Dina has left her, Ellie sits down the play her guitar and with her missing fingers, can’t strum the notes correctly. The prompts for the guitar throughout the game have you plucking the first few notes and then she takes over, playing the song. This last interaction, however, has you frustratingly trying to pluck the notes, but realizing you can’t hit them anymore – and then at the point where Ellie would normally take over and play, she simply exhales, puts the guitar down and walks away.

It’s a fitting end. It echoes the fact that no matter how much you want it for her, in this world it seems that Ellie can never truly be happy. Whether through her own actions or the actions of others she always seems to come out on the wrong end. The lyrics to Joel’s song to Ellie resonate with me more after seeing how this story concludes.

“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself…”

Throughout most of the first game, Joel protects Ellie, but flashes of her arrogance and ‘I’ll-do-it-myself’ attitude show through. Even as she tries to distance herself from Joel, they’re always subconsciously attached to each other. When she finally loses Joel, her insatiable desire for revenge costs her most of her friends, Tommy, Dina and her ability to play music.

She truly loses herself.

My hope is that the final scene of the game – which shows Ellie walking away from the farm – is depicting her heading back to Jackson to try and repair her relationship with Dina and Tommy. After all she’s been through, it would be nice to think that Ellie gets some closure, some forgiveness of her own. But the world of The Last of Us isn’t usually  so forgiving.

So until we get a Part 3, I suppose we’ll always have to wonder.

 

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