A thematic examination of The Last of Us Part 2 (spoilers)

Almost a year ago I finished The Last of Us Part 2 and felt an abyss open up in my stomach. I felt like I was falling, falling into the same pit that Ellie ends up dragging herself out by the end of the game. I felt like someone had taken a bunch of conflicting and caustic emotions, shook them up in a pressurised can and shoved it down my throat. I was anxious, I was obsessively thinking about this story. This lasted for days and days. I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it in long-play format but for reasons it never happened. Eventually the nuclear explosion Part 2 created in my mind dulled and softened to an itchy scab. The emotions blunted, and I started to compose and layer my thoughts on the game. I trawled my memories, I made notes during a second playthrough, switching on my game review brain. I went on forums and review sites, watched YouTube videos and listened to podcasts. Many of them negative, many critical and angry. Few were overtly positive, but those that were concentrated heavily on the narrative of the game. I consumed it all, and ended up writing a little article on it as part of a larger post several months after its release. However, 10+ months later, I’m still unsatisfied with myself. I haven’t contextualized or organised my thoughts sufficiently well enough to wrap up my feelings on the game. Hence, this article. This particular story has lodged itself so deeply in my brain, carving up a slice of expensive real estate, right next to Final Fantasy VII.

Recap – spoilers for the entire game here – skip if you like!


Part 1 ends with Joel and Ellie having traveled through a desolate landscape, through so much death, infected and murderous humans alike, and end up at a hospital where the Fireflies, the evangelised militia may be able to use Ellie’s immunity and turn it into a vaccine, a cure. The catch being, which Joel vehemently rebukes, Ellie won’t survive the procedure. In direct rebuttal of Ellie’s choice (she’s unconscious), removing her agency, and in fact, the player’s choice, Joel murders everyone, from the doctors to even Marlene, in order to rescue Ellie vs. the world. Some time later, when the duo have returned to Jackson, Ellie pushes Joel for the truth of what happened at the hospital. Joel, the protective parent, lies, confirming that there were multiple immune people and Ellie was unnecessary. It turns out, she didn’t really matter. Her response of “OK” is hesitant. She has not fully accepted this apparent truth.

In this sequel, the game reframes that final decision. It carefully examines the consequences of our actions and provides a story that is exactly what it needed to be. Not a rehash of the first game, but a continuation. A second part, intimately linked to the first game.

Cut to Part 2, 5 years later. In idyllic Jackson, Ellie, Joel and the residents live their lives forever patrolling for infected, surviving in a post-apocalypse. We are introduced to Abby, a former firefly, who with some friends, has been seeking out Joel ever since he went Rambo in the hospital. Turns out, actions have consequences, and the doctor in charge of Ellie’s procedure (who Joel brutally killed) was Abby’s dad. Revenge arc number 1.

In a horrific scene, Joel is killed in front of Ellie, who is spared. Abby and company depart, job done. Ellie, meanwhile, has started on a depressive downward spiral. Revenge arc number 2. This traumatic event sets the scene for the rest of the game. Ellie is on a revenge mission, killing everyone and everything in her way in desolate Seattle over the course of 3 days, in order to find Abby. This, she believes, is how she will quell her demons. How she will achieve peace.

The player plays through Ellie’s story up to the point where we meet Abby. Abby has the jump on us, almost murders Tommy, murders Jessie and it seems like is about to kill us too. Smash cut, time reverse, back to Seattle Day 1, except this time from Abby’s perspective. We learn about her faction, the Washington Liberation Front. We learn that actually Abby still has nightmares, even after completing her revenge mission. Abby starts to question her loyalties to the WLF and ends up risking life and limb to help out a couple of “enemies” to the WLF – two Seraphites in need of aid. Her journey is tangential to Ellie’s, unaware she is being hunted, but comes full circle (at Owen’s aquarium), where she realises all her friends are dead. She hunts down Ellie and we are back to the end of Ellie’s story at Day 3. A very emotionally conflicted boss fight ensues.

Abby comes out on top, but decides to spare Ellie and a pregnant Dina (Ellie’s girlfriend), following her companion’s (Lev) pleading. Cut to Abby and Lev, positive and moving on, seeking out the Fireflies, just like Owen wanted. Unfortunately kidnapped by a third faction known as the Rattlers, and tortured, Abby and Lev are left for dead.

Enter Tommy, barrelling into Ellie’s life, who has tried to move on, living on a farm somewhere with Dina. Suffering from PTSD flashbacks, she is adjusting to a normal life, but she still can’t sleep. Tommy compels Ellie to seek out Abby, once and for all.

Cut to Ellie in Santa Barbara seeking out Abby. Eventually, she finds her and demands a fight to the death. Ellie comes out on top and… spares her. She has hit rock bottom and decided that revenge isn’t helping her overcome Joel’s death. She heads home and realises that Dina and little baby JJ have abandoned her. She’s lost everything and everyone, heading out into the open wilderness. Abby and Lev’s fate is somewhat ambiguous, but based on the ending scenes, it is expected they did find the Firefly base on Catalina island.

Phew.


Narrative Analysis and Themes

This is a story about pain. It shows us that hurting others doesn’t help us, but helping others actually salves our pain.

Everyone in this game is just trying to deal with their trauma. They’re just trying to quell their demons. Everyone is flawed, and everyone is at a different stage of their mental process. Looking at both Ellie and Abby, they are basically the same arc except lagged by exactly one Last of Us game. Both these characters are flawed and think that revenge is the answer. Joel trained Ellie to be this killing machine, and Abby has trained herself.

Abby has finished her revenge arc and yet still has nightmares. Throughout her perspective, only when she starts to do something productive and helpful, does she sleep better (by helping two Seraphites – one of the many factions in Part 2).

Ellie is at the beginning of her revenge arc. We’ve heard how brutal Abby was, and now we see it with Ellie. She mows down everybody, not looking inside herself for one second. She is an addict, completely lost to her obsession. She tortures people, tortures herself. She is like a dumb missile, destroying everything in her path. She hates Abby for killing Joel, for taking away the chance they had at redemption. She hates herself for not being able to forgive him sooner. She hated Joel for removing the “meaning of her life” to cure the world. Now she has to live, feeling like her life doesn’t matter anymore. She becomes self-destructive. It’s only at the end of the game, hitting rock bottom, that she finally re-contextualises her image of Joel into a positive one. She has accepted that he is dead and there’s nothing she can do about it. She will have to move on, be happy with the fact that at least Joel died knowing they weren’t completely fractured following his decision at the end of Part 1.

Abby is way ahead of Ellie on this mission. She is trying to redeem herself after killing Joel. Going back to the WLF is unsatisfying, she was hoping to feel better but she doesn’t. Enter Yara and Lev. She now goes through her own Last of Us Part 1 where she bonds with a kid for reasons, to save his sister, to save him from this crazy cult. There is direct symbolic imagery here with Abby carrying Lev as Joel carried Sara. Joel couldn’t save his daughter so reframed it on Ellie – she is someone he could take care of and “save”, even at the expense of her own agency. This was his way to redeem himself for not saving his kid. Abby helping this kid is her redemption for her revenge. It is something that she feels is good and feels right. She sleeps better. She is moving on, her persona in the WLF doesn’t fit her anymore and she betrays them. She understands what her boyfriend was trying to say, but she was blinded by this revenge, this hate for the man who killed her father. Her constant nightmare of being too late to save him, this inaction caused her frustration. Moving on, constructively helping someone is how she realises is the positive, healthy way to overcome trauma. 

But then, enter Ellie. Emotionally blinded, a reflection of Abby’s past self. Abby doesn’t want to fight, but the cycle of violence is law. Ellie killed all her friends and so Abby backtracks to the justice she knows – revenge. Except, now she has Lev to set her straight. Her conscience. So she spares Ellie, realising that this isn’t who she is. This won’t help her. Ellie is a broken person and needs to get over her revenge, herself. 

Ellie is spared for the second time by Abby. She now tries to live peacefully with Dina, suffering from flashbacks, her trauma still raw and not soothed. Perhaps time would help, but enter Tommy – a direct inverse of the former characters who didn’t want to leave Jackson. He has lost everything himself and compels Ellie to finish the job. The only thing he has left is his hatred. 

Smash cut to Abby fulfilling Owen’s mission of finding the fireflies with Lev. She is happy, she is positive, this is a person with a positive mental outlook – the world however, does not treat everyone fairly so she is tortured and kidnapped because people suck and tribalism. Ellie arrives and frees Abby but still can’t let go. As she is about to kill Abby, she has the first positive flashback in the entire game. The first sign that maybe this revenge business isn’t a good idea. She stops herself from becoming a monster, from finishing the job. She lets Abby go, heads home and realises how much she has lost. Her fingers, her music, her girlfriend, her former life. All in the aid of obsession. Now, she can finally see how irrational she was being. Now she is in a mental state of acceptance for Joel’s death and can move on. She lays down the guitar, laying down Joel to rest, finally moving on from that part of her life. We see the moth, the moth on the guitar, on her arm. Moths that are a metaphor for looking for the light. Perhaps there is hope yet for Ellie. Where does she go? Who knows, one would think a life not filled with violence. 

One way to bring these story threads together is with the use of music. The Pearl Jam song Future Days is the butter that fills the cracks of each toast particle in this video game sandwich. It is Joel’s song, who teaches it to Ellie. Ellie masters it and it becomes her tune, her memory of Joel. But with each playing, the memory changes. First it is a call to arms, a call to never forget me. Avenge me. And then at the end of the game, it is a sending off, it is broken. Ellie’s new memory of Joel is not to avenge him, but to live. To survive, and move on. 

Gustavo’s haunting soundtrack adds even more layers of emotional resonance to each scene in the game. Whether Abby’s or Ellie’s, each time I hear that guitar twang, those solemn and melodic few notes, I am at once tragic and happy. The true emotional power of the game lies just between sadness and joy. Strong emotions are stronger when encapsulated by more senses, such as sound, which is the easiest one to add in media. This is harder in text, perhaps poetry is better here than the novel with the ability to use rhythm to convey meaning. 

With music comes repetition and with repetition comes cycles. The interweaving music, its cyclical nature from the beginning and at the end of the game, be it the Pearl Jam song that Joel teaches her, or the endless nature of violence, that begets violence. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but violence is the commodity that humanity still trades in today – just watch the news. Clearly, we don’t learn.

I haven’t spoken about the many other characters yet. Joel’s death is the trigger for Ellie to start out on her path of revenge. The death of the first game’s protagonist is brutal and unfair in this unfair world. There is nothing grand about death in the real world. People are killed over nothing. 

Here, Joel’s arc has come to a close. He has started to relax in Jackson, he feels redeemed to some extent that he saved Ellie and yet he he feels guilty for lying to her, still. Like the parent who doesn’t want to tell their child the truth to protect them from the world, Joel wants to hide Ellie from his awful deed. But the truth will out and so Joel and Ellie’s relationship fractures, with flashback sequences throughout the game indicating the chance for hope. In fact, the entirety of the beginning, where Ellie is looking forward to watching a movie with Joel is such a huge thing because it’s the first peace offering between them. Ellie wants to forgive. Joel’s death hurts harder because of this too, to Ellie.

What about other characters? There is Tommy, who wants a peaceful life in Jackson but who’s violent ways are reinvigorated by Ellie’s revenge mission. His character then flips, becoming a demon of vengeance after losing his sight, his wife, at the end of the game. 

There is Dina, Ellie’s partner. In some ways she is an enabler. Aiding Ellie on a mission she believes is wrong and yet needs to go with her to protect her, or at least provide conscience. She is Ellie’s chance of redemption which she ultimately loses too.

On Abby’s side there is her former flame, Owen. Owen who desperately wants to find the fireflies, to run off with Abby, the romantic, to move on from a military life. Abby’s revenge arc shoots down any hopes of their relationship. Obsession destroys everything and everyone around you. 

Yara and Lev are two Seraphites, part of a highly conservative cult that has kicked them out on account of Lev’s refusal of the cult’s tradition, as well as his coming out as a transgender man. They provide an opportunity for Abby to help, while also highlighting the idiotic tribalism that is endemic to human relations. We are all different but we’re all the same. Clearly the depiction of humanity that has survived the outbreak are cold-blooded survivors, with few empaths. 

Video games are a vehicle for perspective. Allowing you to step into the shoes of your heroes and your enemies. In this story, the duality of the video game protagonist is explored literally. Who is right and who is wrong. No-one is truly evil or truly good, it’s just that some people do more good than bad, and vice versa. The Last of Us Part 2, with its complex themes, complex structure, multiple perspective shifting, flashback sequences, and emphasis on character more than any AAA video game, is more akin to a novel than a video game, at least in the ways that one might describe both. Taking this one step further, perhaps its multisensory nature implies it is more like a season of a TV show, with room to breathe for each character, and time for worldbuilding, time for quieter moments, and time for action. Regardless of comparison, it is an epic, in every sense of the word.

The World

The backdrop of Part 2 is a world that is silently tragic. It’s quiet, crumbling and desolate. Its reclaimed territories, its mossy supermarkets and spore-filled undergrounds are reminders about how transient we are. How temporary everything we build is. The muted textures, the rain, the snow, the weather in this game feels oppressive. It no longer feels tamed in this world by science or measurements. It becomes lost knowledge, hard to understand and deadly if ignored. It is a cruel world, a cold one and one that demands you heed it. 

The sound design aids this by amplifying each sound to echo and thrum in the world’s quiet. Ellie pulling a bowstring, firing a pistol, or the sweet, fleshy puncture of a stab wound to the neck, all seem hyper realistic. They are not blunted but emphasised. They demand to be heard. Sound is heavy in this game and it can feel oppressive and claustrophobic, feeding into the world’s sense of unease, of tension. That death waits around any corner. 

The soundtrack’s hollow and meandering plucked strings fill these voids with humanity. But it’s soft and weak. There are no flourishes or rising strings. It’s all plucked and singular. It serves to remind us how small we are in the face of a ruined world. How far we have fallen from building skyscrapers to now only able to journey in their shadows.

What about the gameplay? It’s a highly polished upgrade from the first game. Ellie is faster and more flexible than Joel. Combat is violent to the point where it’s hard to watch. Crafting, stealthing, and interacting with an exceedingly complex A.I. be it human or infected, is all very slick and beautifully interwoven with the arena of battle. Be that an abandoned subway station, a multifloor hotel of death or a hospital at the infection ground zero. 

Resources are scarce. Combat is tense and terrifying. One wrong move and a single enemy will easily take you out. Stumbling upon a group of human enemies is extremely intense and worrying. Taking them all on at once is impossible, but a combination of stealth, clever tactics involving makeshift bombs and traps, lures and silent takedowns turn each encounter into a puzzle to be solved. The enemy AI is off the charts clever, reacting to your every decision with logic. This is by no means a hard game but one can make it so by choice. It is ultra realistic, brutal and messy. 

Wrap-up

Part 2 is unique because it marries storytelling with gameplay to an almost literary level. It uses the language of cinema, the language of video game design, and artfully fits them together, with the result being an extremely emotional, character-driven video game, that demands your attention.

I love this game so much because it is utterly tragic. There is so much sadness here, so many negative and broken decisions being made. It is a grim story, with few rays of hope, but there are still some. Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or David Benioff’s City of Thieves, the deep pain of grief, loss, fear and tension are all on show here. It is not a story for the lighthearted. There is no winner, or loser, no-one saves the world at the end. There is no villain, no monologue. It’s a story where we follow one person’s journey to the depths of mental hell, on a spiral downwards, and just before they are lost, there is a light, there is a crack in their inner hatred, a glimpse of self-love that they can reach out and start stepping onto that upward spiral.

I admit, I regularly suffer from depression. I have so much negative energy inside, so much rage and fear, that when I lose my temper, I can lash out and hurt the people closest to me. While appreciating Part 2 with a critical eye, it also made a personal connection with me. My lowest low is not the end of the world, in fact, others have been lower, and they started to dig themselves out. If I am of sound mind, then surely I can too? And before I lose everyone around me, much like Ellie, before I go that far into the black, I owe it to myself to try to look up, look at everything good I have in my life and hell just be grateful.

Okay, I think writing 3000 words on this has soothed my nerves somewhat. I originally called this article “In defence of The Last of Us Part 2”, but it implies the game is being attacked. For those hating on the game for a variety of reasons, I just wanted to explain the game and why it works. Why certain decisions were made in terms of pacing, character shifting and themes. A story is as long as it needs to be, until the journey is over. So this is me, saying, thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll keep on playing games and writing about them.

M