* Spoiler Warning: I was finally able to write a piece about the emotional impact that the Last of Us: Part II had in me when I first played the game last year. Because important plot points are discussed, if you haven’t played the game yet, it would be best to avoid this piece in its entirety as spoilers await!
Much has been said and written about The Last of Us: Part II. Arguably, the greatest looking game of the PS4/Xbox One generation, a masterclass in audio/visual presentation, and 2020’s game of the year. Naughty Dog’s masterpiece also angered a lot of individuals. Some were angry because they felt that the game had a political agenda, and others because the story didn’t go the way that they hoped it would.
Personally, as a storywriter myself, I loved the game and its writing. I could see that Naughty Dog was trying to evoke a strong emotional response from players, and in my opinion, the company succeeded. Even those who hate the game, seem to do it with a fierce passion, which is a testament to how angering, and powerful the decisions made by the writers of game’s story were.
Naughty Dog Preyed at One of my Biggest Personal Character Flaws
I have trouble forgiving people when they commit offensive crimes. Every time I read the news about a robbery or murder, I honestly wish that the perpetrators are swiftly caught and sentenced to either life in prison, or if they murdered an innocent victim, the death penalty. Ironically, I am a Christian, but I truly lack Jesus’ turn the other cheek, and forgive your enemies quality.
I don’t know why this is, my mother was almost a Holy Woman in her devotion to Jesus’ teachings, but I always felt that justice in the way of the “eye for an eye” law was the rightful thing to implement in order to create a better world.
When I was little, if someone bullied me, I would fight back. If someone did something ill to a friend, I would fight back. This led to many principal office visits, and suspensions. Even as a competitive Tae Kwon Do fighter during my late teens and early twenties, my style was more aggressive than most in that sport. If I got hit, I want to get the other guy back…hard. I would not think about scoring points, I just wanted pay back.
The Last of Us: Part II did more than any piece of art, be it a book or film to draw ire, and the need for glorious – if bloody – thirst for revenge within me. After Joel was murdered in cold blood, I wanted nothing more than to enact swift and proper justice to Abby and her “Evil Crew” of friends.
Joel Might Have Been Bad Man, But He Was “My” Bad Man
I despise criminals, and murderers in real life, but I loved Joel. You see, there is a good argument that Joel is both, a criminal and even a mass murderer. Ironically, while walking in his shoes in the first game, I didn’t see him as such. Joel was good man, a law-abiding citizen who witnessed how the military (government) viciously killed his daughter right in front of him. The experience alone, would drive any parent to hate the government, and any branch involved with it (including the military) thereafter.
So, when Joel shot down/killed military men while escaping government-controlled areas, I justified the action as retribution for his daughter’s murder, and a sign of heroic rebellion against the “oppressing machine”. When Joel shot down bandits, and scavengers, I saw it as Joel doing a favor to mankind by ridding the world of criminals who made a living preying on the “weak”, which in a world of firearms are those without guns (and with a numerical disadvantage).
In the end, and most consequential to Joel’s fate in The Last of Us: Part II, when he wreaked havoc within an entire building by mass murdering doctors, scientists, and firefly enforcers, I saw it as an act of heroic desperation. A man trying to save his new “daughter” figure in Ellie from a cult of ‘nut jobs’ hell bent on a making vaccine at the cost of her life. A vaccine that wouldn’t really work anyways.
To me, at least, Joel was a tragic hero.
Being a Good Person Led to Joel’s Death
If you listen to most complaints about The Last of Us: Part II they revolve about the “quality of the writing”, which I find odd, given that these same individuals found little to complain about other games that have true irrational plot devices within their stories. One of the popular takes by these individuals is that Joel was too trusting of Abby, and that his character in the first game would have never trusted her, as Joel was the ultimate “survivor”.
To that I say: Bollocks! Joel was “Joel” from the moment that the first game started, right up to his gruesome death. Joel was a survivor, indeed. However, you are what you are, especially in stressful situations, instinct will kick in. Before the world went to the literal dumpster, Joel was a single father.
The fact that he never talked about his wife leads me to believe that she died before her time, either by sickness or an accident. Therefore, I will assume here that he was more protective of his daughter than most fathers are of theirs. He was a caring single parent. That’s who Joel was at his core.
After Sarah’s murder, whether he was protecting his brother Tommy, or Tess (who might have been his lover), Joel was always accustomed to having someone to protect, or to fight for. This was likely one of his biggest driving forces to live while he silently grieved for his daughter.
Joel is an introvert, who doesn’t like to talk about painful experiences (His wife, daughter, Tess, etc.), his harsh treatment of Ellie early, is just a self-defense mechanism of not wanting to let her in, because she reminded him of his daughter, consequently, re-awakening the pain of losing her, and consequently the fear of getting “attached” again.
Still, a true “Survivor” would have dumped Ellie at the earliest opportunity. Protecting someone in a world full of armed bandits, and clickers, is a sure way to handicap yourself. Yet, Joel – despite his resistance – didn’t abandon the girl, and grew to love her as a daughter. He was a grieving father, who found an orphaned girl to fill a hole in his heart in Ellie
Ellie herself, in need of a parental figure filled Joel’s emotional gap perfectly. Our time with Joel in the first game has him working as a smuggler, which is illegal under the game’s martial law of his quarantine zone, but at the same time, why would you follow government rules when that same government murdered your daughter? Given this, and his post-apocalyptic surroundings his ‘illicit’ acts do not make him a bad person.
During our playtime, Joel didn’t murder anyone that did not deserve to have it coming to them, even his Military victims. This outfit was hunting him down, he was only protecting himself, Tess, and Ellie from his natural enemy. He didn’t ambush a poor family, didn’t rape any defenseless woman, or even engage in the act of robbing innocent people. Joel was smuggling Ellie, and he took care of the opposition, all which were not innocent parties by any stretch of the imagination.
If we wanted to get technical, we could say that the soldiers he killed were only doing their job. This would be true, but knowing about his daughter’s murder at the hands of soldiers, and the fact that these Soldiers knew that part of the job description involved the likely risk of getting shot at, then Joel, placed in a kill or be killed scenario against armed men who were effectively ‘hunting him’ down had a right to kill these armed enemies in self-defense, just as these men had a right to kill him while following their orders. Technically, this does not make either the soldiers or Joel “bad men”. The soldiers were willing to kill in order to follow their orders, and Joel was willing to kill in order to survive.
Clearly, one thing that we know, parting from the fact that Joel was an exemplary father (and citizen) before the outbreak, is that Joel is likelier to save a young damsel in distress during a life-or-death situation because of his paternal instincts than he is to leave said damsel to her fate. This is how he fell into Abby’s grip.
Given the extremely high stress circumstances in which Joel and Tommy run into Abby, no one can fault Joel for saving the girl, and consequently, proceeding to follow her to her shelter.
Was Joel Too Trusting?
In hindsight, which is always 20/20, one could say – if one wanted to pick at straws in order to find a “flaw” in the game’s standard setting writing – that yes, he was too trusting. However, if you ask me to tell you last week’s lotto winning numbers, I will deliver a precise answer too. Joel trusting Abby went according to his character when one places into the proper context Joel’s living conditions at that time. His mental state being a traumatized overprotective parent of two daughters (one he lost tragically, and a foster one he cared about deeply), and the fact that he met Abby in rather unique, if strenuous, circumstances all contribute to his downfall.
Let’s discuss Joel’s living conditions at the time in which he was captured by Abby and Friends. Joel was no longer a rugged survivor engaging in “illicit” acts. Instead, he was back to being a model citizen (which is the man’s true nature). He is back to his carpenter ways, and does go out on patrols with Tommy, but only to keep the surrounding areas from Jackson’s community free of infected “zombies”.
Joel is performing a security role for the community. In these Patrols, the game lets us know that Joel actually has built a habit of trading with “Caravans”, which means that his meeting with Abby is not the first time that Joel engages in a friendly manner with strangers from outside Jackson’s community. Joel’s war now is with the infected, and has mellowed quite a bit from his “smuggling” days.
When a patrol goes wrong – thanks to a blizzard – and he (along with Tommy) runs into a building and a horde of infected – and consequently into Abby who is trapped that building herself – there was no reason for Joel to think, that the girl, who could have been his daughter, (age wise) had any ill intent towards him. Joel is a survivor, not a seer.
His instinct dictated that he tried to save the girl and given the situation (infernal wintry blizzard and a hellish horde of infected) the thought that Abby (the girl he had just met by chance) had trained for years, and travelled hundreds of miles just to murder him in revenge for her father’s murder was nonexistent. I mean, what are the odds?
Joel was just as surprised as Tommy was when the realization that they had walked into a very bad situation sunk in. Trapped in a manor, surrounded by Abby and her friends, it was just too late for either of them to do anything about it.
In all likelihood, and not that it mattered in the grand scope of things, Joel probably didn’t realize that Abby’s grudge was about the fireflies at first. He had pissed – and killed – plenty of people from different factions, he had to assume at that point that more than one person in the world wanted him dead.
I could explain other so called “Plot holes” and “Bad writing”, but it would take dozens of pages to do so, thus I picked one of the more popular ones, and clearly, from my point of view, Joel acted out exactly as I expected him to do under the circumstances in which he ran into “damsel in distress” Abby.
People acting on instinct do not think, they react. Joel reacted to Abby’s plight like his character and conscience dictated him to act. Unfortunately, it led to him to an ambush by the girl and her friends. Rest in peace Joel.
What His Death Meant to Ellie
Moving on, the one thing I have to assume that the Last of Us: Part II succeed at – by killing Joel in the brutal and vicious manner in which he was ‘offed’ – was in angering gamers everywhere. Abby remains hated by both, people (a great majority at least) who loved the game, and those who claim that the game was a “travesty” and a crime against “all that is good” in video games.
Every time Neil Druckmann (the game’s director) reads some inexplicable rant from a gamer hating Abby, and consequently, hating Naughty Dog for killing Joel, and for not letting Ellie enact her revenge, he must smile in joyous pride at what he accomplished.
Final Fantasy VII’s Aerith murder scene was iconic, but it wasn’t brutal. It was sad, and maybe my 13-year-old self did get teary eyed, but in no way did I ‘lose it’ or even felt compelled to go in passionate rampage to seek and destroy Sephiroth.
Obviously storytelling, visuals and voice acting have improved by leap and bounds since those days. I felt more despair, anger, and hate directed at a video game character at the prime old age of 35 than I ever did at any other villain in any other game that I had ever played at any other age. It must be noted that I have been playing video games since I was four years old.
That statement is not a knock-on Final Fantasy VII. Twenty-four years ago, Square’s most popular title was the king of video game storytelling and a standard setter. But since then, budgets have only gotten bigger, and games more cinematic. With more money, actual professional writers arrived to the industry and that’s how we got game series’ like Sony’s The Last of Us topping the sales charts, and video game critics’ award shows everywhere.
FFVII was written at Squaresoft by game developers who had an aptitude for creative writing, but were far from Hollywood caliber writers. That previous sentence was common of the medium’s early days. By contrast, The Last of Us: Part II had Neil Druckmann and an actual Hollywood writer in Halley Gross. It showed.
Druckmann crafted one of the more believable, relatable, and yes, lovable characters that this entertainment form has ever seen in Joel Miller during the first game’s run time, and for a few hours in the sequel…and then he killed him in the most brutal manner imaginable. His goal? To get me (and the world) to hate Abby and her friends with a deep burning passion. In turn, this hate would propel me to follow Ellie in her quest to enact her ( and my) revenge, or better yet: My sense of justice.
He succeeded. Druckmann and Gross tapped into my deep rooted “eye for an eye” view of life. A view that I had never come to question, or even given deep thought to, until I walked in Ellie’s …and yes, Abby’s shoes in the Last of Us: Part II.
In First Game I Was Joel, but in Part II, I was all Ellie, Until I Wasn’t…
I must note here that the impact of Joel’s death in me is not solely reliant on the game’s wonderful writing. Naughty Dog’s superb visuals (the game has the best-looking character models yet in a video game), and the talent of the voice actors behind the characters helped to immerse me into the TLoU’s plot in ways that no other game or series has ever been able to pull off.
Watching Ellie’s agonizing facial expressions and listening to her screams of horror and despair as she watched her paternal figure bashed to death with a golf club was life altering. I was able to deal with Joel’s demise fairly well (apart from the few anger filled tears), but only because I knew that I would eventually get my retribution on Abby through Ellie’s hands.
Revenge, retribution, justice…it was all the same to me, and Ellie from that point on. And thus, The Last of Us: Part II set me on a 16-20-hour collision course with evil Abby. In those hours, I did get to enact my satisfying, and violent vengeance on all of Abby’s closest friends. The ones who had helped her get to Joel.
Terrible things happened in the process, including the murder of a friend of Abby’s who was pregnant. That one death in particular felt strange. Ellie, like Joel, is not a murderer of the innocent. The pregnant woman, Mel, was not innocent. She had a part in killing Joel, and if it had been up to her, Ellie would have died right beside him too. However, the creature inside Mel’s womb was innocent of any wrongdoing, and that particular realization hit Ellie hard.
Ellie at that point understood, what I, as the player did. That Abby and Co. Had killed Joel in revenge for Joel’s mass murder of the Fireflies and of Abby’s father in Salt Lake. That realization did not, in the least, diminish my desire to see Abby brought to justice/death by Ellie’s hand. If I had to choose between killing a score of Fireflies or to let Ellie die by their hand, I would have killed the score of Fireflies just like Joel did.
The death of Mel’s unborn baby, however, showed that perhaps whether intended or not, innocents are bound to suffer when caught in the midst of the ‘guilty’s’ vicious quests for revenge. After all, those people who Ellie killed all had friends, families, and perhaps even children of their own, people that would suffer as a direct result of her search for ‘justice’ and inner peace.
In the end, ironically, revenge is all about wanting peace with oneself. Ellie’s quest for revenge was deeper than most because not only did she hate Abby, but she hated herself also for not being able to end on good terms with the person that she loved the most in Joel. This in turn made her hate Abby even more as she blamed her for her lack of closure with Joel.
While I was on board with the whole “let’s kill Abby” vibes, Ellie’s bigger struggle was within herself. Forgiving herself for how she treated Joel in his last days would prove to be much more difficult than either killing or forgiving Abby. In some ways, Ellie’s inner trauma is what drove her hatred and need for revenge against Joel’s murderer.
Every Step That Ellie Took Towards Abby Was an Emotional and Physical Struggle, Everystep Abby took towards Ellie Was a Process of Patient Understanding …
The Last of Us: Part II has two climatic moments. Both are in the late stages of the game. The first is the confrontation between Ellie and Abby, in which ND made me face Ellie as Abby. To me, this was ND’s big gamble, the writers had built anger and hatred within me towards her (Abby) character, and when the moment of truth came, the moment that I thought I would get to deliver justice through Ellie, I was forced into Abby’s shoes.
It was a maddening event, and it did anger me in the heat of the moment. In fact, I did let Ellie kill Abby a few times just because I thought it was unfair that in the key battle of the game I was in Abby’s shoes and not in Ellie’s.
At that point, I had played as Abby for roughly the same amount of time that I had as Ellie. I learned to understand Abby’s reasoning for killing Joel and was even able ‘justify’ Abby’s actions by placing myself in her place. However, Joel was my favorite character in the game (maybe even my favorite videogame character ever), and Ellie was not far behind. The moment Joel died; my mind instinctively decided that Abby had to pay.
I did not care that Abby was a better person than Ellie. Ellie is not a bad person, but I don’t think she would have let Abby walk away from that first confrontation at the theater. By contrast, Abby forgave Ellie’s life twice, the second time being an almost ‘turn your cheek moment’ because Abby had every right to kill Ellie, after Ellie had murdered her friends. Abby was a ‘saint’, and yet, I wanted her dead.
Like I said, my personal flaw is letting go of grudges.
Ellie’s Revenge Final Round
I couldn’t have been happier when Ellie decided to go to California in pursuit of Abby. Even when it didn’t seem like the smart thing to do. All I cared for was that I would get the revenge that I so sorely needed, and that would be my “happy ending”.
Druckmann and Gross had crafted a meticulously deep revenge story, and I was ready to finally deliver Abby to her maker. At this point, Ellie’s issues were clear to me, she understood Abby, even identified herself with Abby’s plight. Both sought revenge for their murdered fathers, after all. Ironically, just like me, Ellie had difficulties letting go of grudges, and her biggest grudge was with herself.
Ellie hated herself because she couldn’t make up with Joel before Abby suddenly took him away. Obviously, Ellie had a every reason to hate Abby, but after killing her enemy’s friends (possibly inflicting even greater emotional pain on Abby than Abby ever could inflict back on her), and being “forgiven” by her, Ellie had to know that her crusade was not about Abby, but about herself. Would killing Abby help her to deal with her trauma? Yes, at least at first, but in reality, killing Abby wouldn’t really help her to forgive herself for the unresolved issues with Joel. Worst of all, killing Abby might have actually only served to amplify Ellie’s feelings of guilt given that she was a good person herself.
Thus, after Ellie fights her way through the vicious slaver ‘Rattler’ gang, I had a heavy sense of burden and emotional exhaustion. The Last of Us: Part II had been an emotionally draining roller coaster for both Ellie, and myself as the player. As I approached the final confrontation in that beach, I actually broke down in tears.
My tears were of anger, and sadness, but mostly, my tears were of shame. Abby who was the perfect picture of strength (she was built like an elite CrossFitter woman), was tied to a pole, and emaciated to the brink of death.
Being that the Rattlers were a brutal slaver gang operating in a world devoid of any type of law enforcement, it is safe to assume that Abby, and Lev (A minor under Abby’s protection) had been victims of both psychological and physical torture in every way imaginable.
Abby was a broken woman, and I cried over the fact that I still wanted Ellie to enact revenge over this woman, even though I knew it was wrong. I couldn’t forgive Abby, not after walking in her shoes, and not even after Karma had touched her in a way that had destroyed her.
Thus, when I engaged Abby as Ellie in a final confrontation, I was filled with confused emotions (Abby killed Joel, she had to die, I hated her, but maybe I didn’t hate her as much as I thought) and despair as Ellie struggled to drown her in that beach.
As the fight progressed, Ellie ended up losing some of her fingers (Abby bit them off) as their battle was as primal and as savage as a fight for survival could get, I couldn’t hold back my tears in the midst of the whirlwind of emotions that I was living through Ellie’s avatar.
Losing her fingers was symbolic. Her most powerful connection to Joel at that point was achieved through her play of the guitar. An instrument that Joel had gifted her, and a skill that he had passed on to her. The ability that allowed her to connect back to his memory would be lost forever.
Naughty Dog wanted to illustrate how Ellie in her quest for revenge lost everything, even stuff that she might have taken for granted. At this point in the story Ellie was just as broken as Abby, and I knew deep down that despite the violent nature of that final confrontation, Ellie would do the right thing, even if I could not. I never forgave Abby for killing Joel, and the game made feel ashamed for my inability to do so.
The Last of Us: Part II tested my deep sense of ‘eye for an eye’ justice, and whether I could cross the line between what was morally right, and wrong in order to let go of what at that point was a misguided concept of what “Justice” actually was, or by contrast, to go full ‘dark side’ in order to embrace Ellie’s revenge.
In the end, I broke down in tears because while I was angry at Abby for killing Joel, I was actually angrier at myself for not letting go of the grudge. Even though I had walked in her shoes, and she was, by my own estimation an incredibly good person, I wanted Ellie to do her in, Joel had to be avenged.
If The Last of Us: Part II has any Flaws, These are not Present in its Storytelling
No game has ever drawn such a powerful emotional response from me. In that sense, Naughty Dog, in my opinion, accomplished exactly what it set out to do when it crafted The Last of Us: Part II.
The game drove me my anger to the point of hatred, and it fueled my quest for revenge. Then it flipped the script on me, when it placed me in the shoes of my enemy so that I could see that my ultimate foe was an even better person than – not only Ellie – but myself. Needless to say, The Last of Us: Part II forced me to ask questions about my own sense of justice and morality.
The result of Naughty Dog’s experiment in regard to my experience with the game, was that – even though it pains, and shames me to admit it – my sense of justice (and my inability to forgive when I have been wronged) got the best of me. I was willing to turn into the villain in order to enact my justice if that is what needed to be done. Because I shared and related to Joel’s, and subsequently, Ellie’s point of view, I could easily justify the reasoning behind my desire to kill Abby as ‘justice’.
I salute Neil Druckmann and Haley Gross, their wonderful writing unearthed my biggest character flaw. I understood Abby, but I was never able to forgive her. I don’t think Ellie did either, but that did not keep her from doing what was right.
In the end, Ellie did start a process of healing. Her process started, ironically, in the midst of her fight with an image of Joel at peace in one of her late memories of him. The image forced her to release Abby from her grip, just as she finally subdued her and was drowning her out from the living .
This scene with Joel is later further expanded upon when Ellie returns to her house, and finds that Dina, and her baby are gone. Perhaps, the last sign that her quest for revenge had lost her everything that she had held dear in life.
In this scene, Ellie finally makes peace with the fact that not all was wrong between her and Joel. That maybe Ellie had a reason to forgive herself. Before he died, Ellie had expressed to Joel her pain (and anger with him) for not letting her “sacrifice” herself for the good of humanity, and Joel had doubled down on his stance that he wouldn’t have changed a thing in order to save her.
Joel loved her, and even though Ellie couldn’t forgive him in time before his death, she did let him know that she would “like to try” to forgive him, because she loved him. Neither said the word ‘Love’ in that scene, but somethings you don’t have to say, the visible pain on both of their faces showed that they were going through a rough patch in their ‘Father/Daughter” relationship, but there was love between them.
Joel died knowing this, and that would have to suffice for Ellie to go on living her life. Ellie walking away from Joel’s watch, and guitar also hinted at her decision to move on from the painful memories and into her future. Joel, in essence, gave up his life for hers, he wouldn’t want her to sulk over things that she could no longer change.
A happy ending? No. But The Last of Us franchise was never meant to be happy, or even satisfying in its conclusion. It was meant to deliver a powerful and emotionally charged story, and that my friends, it did.
Agree with the author? Couldn’t disagree more and are frothing at the mouth to tell him? Leave a comment here, on Facebook or send an email and make sure to follow Never Ending Realm on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!