A few days ago, a post on this sub was dedicated to the gameplay of The Last Of Us 2, so I thought that I would make a post dedicated to the other half of the equation and arguably the more important one than that: the narrative.
Much has been said already about it, the loudest voices being negative in ways I don’t think I need to repeat here. Common criticisms include that the story is badly paced, that Joel deserved better, that characters like Joel broke character for things to happen, that the ending is unsatisfactory and even contradictory to the game’s message, and that that message (revenge is bad, violence is bad) has been told too many times and that the game can’t say anything new about it.
Let me start out by saying that I resoundly disagree with all of those points in ways I will elaborate upon in this post. I don’t think the game is perfect, neither in gameplay nor narrative, but that these criticisms come from a place that misreads (let's use that word?) the game, the role of the player and (in my mind) even the point of games as a narrative medium.
xQc, in a tweet, put it like this: “ALL OF YOU OVER-ANALYZING PSEUDOINTELLECTUALS NEED TO STOP TRYING TO JUSTIFY AND DEFEND THE LAST OF US 2 ENDING. IT FELT UNEVENTFUL, INCONCLUSIVE AND HOLLOW. THE GAME IS GOOD BUT THE KEY MOMENTS WE'RE BAD, JUST FACE IT.” As an over-analyzing pseudointellectual by trade, I feel like I am being called to action, so lets start with the most important piece of the puzzle that many players seem to have misread seven years ago, the ending of the first game.
I won’t plaster this post with narratological theory, but I want to mention the importance of focalisation and perspective in any narrative, but especially in The Last Of Us games: The most crucially important thing about the ending of the first game is that you take control of Ellie in those final moments, not Joel. In that epilogue, there is no meaningful gameplay but a short walk and a short interaction with a fence. So why that decision to play it as Ellie?
Well, it's the only time in the game you see Joel not from the third-person camera or through the cinematography of a cutscene, with one exception: the beginning as Sarah. There, you see Joel as a caring dad being forced into his most separate form of himself, and that focalisation transitions from Sarah to Joel through him holding her in his arms: the camera stays behind Sarah, but since she can’t move, you are effectively controlling Joel and thus the movement of both. At the end of the intro, you are fully in control of Joel, having lost Sarah. The ending reverses that trajectory of focalisation: in the surgery room, you pick up Ellie like you did Sarah, before you see the last moments of that game through the eyes of Ellie. Precisely because of that shift in perspective there exist also a shift in empathy, as you are allowed, just then, to realise just how broken, sad and lonely of a man Joel is from a ‘distance’ (both in terms of narrative and cinematic focalisation). He talks about Sarah, allows himself several moments of weakness that we see for the first time since the intro; For almost the entire rest of the game, the screen would smash-cut to black and fast-forward by weeks anytime anything traumatic happens to Joel and before we can see him process these events, be it the death of Sam, David’s murder by the hands of Ellie, or Joel’s near-death experience. To “survive and endure,” to Joel, is to swallow these emotions and move on, and the camera and cinematic edits themselves mimic that mindset, which indicates just how much the narrative focalisation is done through Joel and his perspective, so any explicit breaking of or moving past that perspective changes the entire meaning of the narrative; or rather, the way it tells itself.
That shift to Ellie, in the final moments of the game, makes us as the player and Ellie both reflect back on Joel and all the things that he does in the game, especially the violence, in a different light. The choice in focalisation and perspective "forces" us to empathise with the character much more than we would without that attentional bias, so removing that bias is crucial for recontextualising character and narrative alike. Folding Ideas talks about this excellently here (timestamp 3:40 for people on mobile): https://youtu.be/sWxCBZ2xFGw?t=220
And the second game, seemingly knowing what the ending of the first does in effect and affect, digs so much deeper from there. By expanding on that idea with Abby, and with non-chronological storytelling, it breaks with a continuity in perspective constantly and repeatedly. Even more than in the first game, the bulk of the character development must be intuited on part of the player by ’reading’ the performances of the characters rather than seeing that development happen explicitly. That ties back into the misunderstood central theme of the franchise, which is not „violence is bad, revenge is bad, people who do either are bad“, but that there exists humanity in violence and vice versa, but that it‘s difficult to see that humanity for all the blood unless you are given the privilege to see the human behind it. That’s why it’s not contradictory that neither Abby nor Ellie die at the hands of the other, but fully part of that level of meaning-making done by both games: Only through perspective can we make sense of actions, whether they be kind or violent. It’s just that much easier to accept a kind act as an expression of humanity than a violent act when you are not allowed access to that perspective.
The game plays with that so often, especially when you play as Abby: Mechanically, Abby is much closer to Joel than Ellie (as evidenced primarily by her use of hand-to-hand combat and shivs and how this balances encounters, but also things like the sniper battle that is very reminiscent of the one at the end of Summer in Part 1); narratively, her arc from the WLF's to her care of Lev to ultimately searching together for the Fireflies mirrors Joel's story from the first game more than anything we've seen of Ellie, and when the camera first 'arrives' in California, it films Lev's shoes as a misdirection to make us think it's Ellie (who wears the same, or at least very similar, shoes), making that mirror image quite clear. (Interestingly, in a move that I can't quite fit into this analysis, is that the boss fight against Ellie in the theater is such a close mirror mechanically and 'emotionally' to when Ellie fights David in the first game; maybe someone smarter than me knows what to make of this.)
I think too many are more invested in what they think of the characters than what the characters are. It‘s not about whether Joel, Ellie or Abby are good or bad, whether Joel did factually doom humanity or not, or whether the WLF/Seraphites/Fireflies/Jacksonites/Rattlers are right or wrong; it’s that to people on the outside, these people’s goals and actions can seem disagreeable. We like Joel and Ellie because we spent time with them, others want them dead because they did not.
Let’s take Tommy as a prime example of that idea: As a player, you probably like Tommy, even if you’ve never played as him. He seems nice, caring, a man of family and community. But almost all the trauma that happens to Ellie in that game is because of Tommy: Abby goes to Jackson because she tracks him down rather than Joel; in his trusting nature, he tells Abby first his and Joel’s name (which, if you look at Abby’s reaction, causes her to pause, reconsider her plans to infiltrate Jackson to instead lure them both back to the other WLF’s); he gives Ellie ‘ethical cover’ to follow him to Seattle and thus a reason she can point to other than her personal revenge for seeing her mission through; he is partly to blame for the map being left behind in the aquarium and he is fully to blame for Ellie’s decision to abandon Dina and go to California. We never get to see what Tommy did as a Firefly, never get to see what he did to the Wolves he got to, all we see is him in very specific moments through a very specific lens, and it takes a lot of (guess) work to know exactly just what kind of a person Tommy is, and what motivates him. His relationship to Maria, for instance, looks everything but perfectly stable even long before any real drama started.
In the intro to the first game, Tommy wants to save a family in need while Joel just puts the pedal to the metal. This is who these two people are shown to be: Tommy is optimistic, trusting and helpful to the point of being naive; Joel is selfish and puts his own survival above everything else. Tommy believes in community, Joel in the self. This changes. Even without the flashbacks of the second game we know that this changes from the ending of the first game. Joel risks his own life to save Ellie rather than to walk away, as he so often said he would do, and as he has done with people like Tess. He tells Ellie for the first time about Sarah and takes up Tommy’s offer to join him in Jackson. In the second game, before he dies, we see him play a song for Ellie about how much he cares about her and make one of the stupid jokes he hated hearing in the first game. We hear about him fighting a bigot who insulted Ellie and we see him helping a woman (Abby) in need. Joel has, in other words, become a man of community — maybe not necessarily gentle, but gentler, kinder, more trusting. That‘s Joel‘s character arc of the first game, paid for in the blood of others. That‘s the same Joel we see in that ski lodge: He doesn‘t even really insult his killer, as he would have in the first game, he asks whom he wronged and then takes his death more-or-less in strides (‘say your speech and get it over with’). Joel has seen character development, but being kinder and more trusting is not necessarily the best thing for survival in this world if that change comes after a trail of corpses.
So saying that Joel would have never told Abby his name is (a) false because it’s Tommy who (carelessly?) tells her their names first and (b) does not account for four years of peace time and change of character that happened mostly off-screen, and the few glimpses we get of Joel through flashbacks show just how much he has changed in those four years, dropping his forced resistance to emotions to the point of crying in front of Ellie because of an announced attempt at reconciliation (i.e. a reconciliation at least two steps removed).
Judging by online discussions, many mistake (uncharacteristic) ‘character weakness’ for ‘weakness in writing.’ Joel’s “weakness in character” is him dropping his hardended survivor shell he has built up after losing his daughter. He becomes more human and humane, and in turn loses much of that brutality which allows him to survive for so long. He essentially sacrifices his life because he stopped to be a monster in a world that rewards inhumanity with survival. This is a much more noble (and in-character) death than most seem to realise. Joel has gained humanity but lost his life because people like Abby were not allowed to see him develop in that way. His death is the logical conclusion to even just the character development seen in the first game. The cruel twist in TLOU2 is that character development towards the more objectively good makes you worse at surviving this world. That’s bleak, but consistent writing. In that final confrontation with Abby, Ellie for the first time in months remembers Joel not in his death, but at his most human moment, and that brief reminder is enough to make have her regain her own humanity when it was about to be lost forever, and to recognise Abby’s in return.
“Future Days,” the song that Joel teaches Ellie, represents that development fully: First, it’s Joel singing it to Ellie, which means that he would have lost his self if he had let her die in that hospital (bleakly, it was him finding his own humanity at the expense of humanity’s survival). Then, when Ellie sings it after Joel’s death, it is a sombre reminder where her path will lead – the lyrics are still stated in the hypothetical (“if I were… I’d surely…”), so there is still hope. Then, in the last scene, she can only play half the song with half of her fingers missing; no lyrics, half of the notes swallowed: she has lost him, and she came close to losing herself, but there is still something left.
Edit: When i realised that Manny's dirty "three fingers are all you need" joke was foreshadowing I groaned.