The Last of Us 2 is an incredible narrative masterpiece. It’s difficult to put into words the range of emotions that this experience whipped me through, and how it left me feeling scene after scene. I gasped, jumped, smiled, and cried. I found myself hating then empathizing with characters, and likewise, completely siding with others to later question their motives. By the time I came out the other end, the deeply complex character motivation was grounded to my core, and I took on the burden of their affliction. I felt battered and scarred, identifying with characters for the deep pain of their experiences. It’s easily one of the absolute best narrative experiences I have come across.
The writing was extremely clever. They inserted parallels in a way that only enhanced the story, never cheapened. They artfully employed “show, don’t tell” in a way that unveiled information in the most engaging rhythm. And while I was a little hesitant at first to be playing as Abby in the second half, I came to realize this wasn’t just to tell the other side of the story, but to have you feel how complex the situation and people are in this series of painful events. It allowed me to go from initially hating Abby to just feeling hollow and sad for everyone.
As for the gameplay, I found the enhancements and additions to the original title to be sufficient. Yes, it was similar. That’s ok. The prone position added a new dynamic to stealth that I enjoyed, some new weapons kept combat feeling fresh, and hand to hand fighting (and dodging) felt gritty and real.
The environments were truly magnificent. The Naughty Dog artists and designers continue to blow my mind. The joy of gazing on the environments, by itself, is enough reason for a second play through.
And then there is the polish. I always felt immersed into this world. Sure, you can tell it’s linear and “level based” when you run up against the edges of the environments, but there isn’t not much to be done about that.
In the days that followed my completion of this experience I continue to ponder the story. A true sign of a great work of art is when you have a lasting impression. It’s that feeling of when you walk out of the movie theatre and you spend hours rehashing what you just witnessed, and consider the deeper messages. When it comes to The Last of Us 2, there’s a ton of narrative elements one could parse out and overanalyze until the (real) world ends. Here are a few stand outs that really struck me:
- After losing her father, Abby constructs a suit of armor made of muscle. It represents the emotional shell that sprouted the day Joel took her father from her, and hardens over the years. Hiding within, Abby does not allow herself to ever fully open herself to a future with Owen, as her drive for vengeance overshadows her ability to settle into a life that could be. She wanders through existence like a ghost that can’t quite touch the love and potential before her. Once she successfully executes Joel her hardened exterior remains, and her chance of a life with Owen feels as if it is now out of reach. It is only when Abby rescues and becomes attached to the Scar children that she is able to realize where her purpose lies. In the end of our story, Abby sheds much of that armor and strength (both figuratively and literally), and focuses on a future (leaving with Lev to find the Fireflies), not the past (continuing the cycle of pain with Ellie). It’s a rebirth, of sorts, as Abby enters a new phase in her life.
- You start the game as Joel. You then play the guitar and hand it to Ellie. This is the point where the torch is passed from one character to the other. What’s brutal is that in the end Ellie can’t even play the guitar properly because of the fingers she loses in her pursuit of senseless revenge. Ellie has just lost that much more of Joel.
- Much of the story is about a cascade of tragedies, and a vicious cycle of loss at the hands of those seeking revenge. Even Joel’s brother Tommy loses his relationship with his wife due to his obsession with revenge. Abby attempts to break the cycle when taking mercy on Ellie at the theatre, and Ellie and Abby ultimately break the cycle at the beach. It leaves me wondering that, if Ellie had killed Abby on the shore of Santa Barbara, then would Lev later hunt down Ellie and kill her? Would JJ grow up to hunt down Lev? How deep could the cycle spiral downward?