I’m not going to go on about how Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the greatest games ever made. Honestly, I never know exactly how I feel about it. It has some serious issues (I, for one, could have done without the entire second half of that game). But when I saw that it won Game of The Year at this year’s Video Game Awards, my only thought was, That’s fine. It felt right enough. Not a strong stance, mind you. But it felt right enough to me. I can’t think of another title released this year that I felt deserved the honor any more.
Given the whole polarizing review fiasco about this game around its release, I have no doubt that many of you still goddamn hate Part 2. I am principally fine with that. Sincerely. But, truth be told, a lot of players (and people who never played it at all) are hating on it for the wrong reasons.
Before we go any further, yes, I’m gonna be talking about that scene. And actually just about everything. So, be forewarned, spoilers for the entirety of The Last of Us Part 2 (as well as the first game) from here on out.
Not A Hero
If you’re still sore at Naughty Dog or Neil Druckmann about Joel dying, I do not understand you. I try my best to empathize, but I think there’s a fundamental difference in the way we consume fictional media. Yes, I played the first game too. That first game is in my top ten for sure. But Joel is a goddamn asshole. He murders, tortures, steals, and murders tons more. The last thing you do is sacrifice humanity’s last chance at a cure for the world-ending zombie outbreak for your own adopted daughter. Joel is selfish and violent, and yet you’re meant to have battling feelings about his actions because his motivations are based in fatherly love. He is not a hero, he is mercilessly a father.
Pretty classic anti-hero shit. I love anti-hero shit. I love moral ambiguity. And I love it as much when a piece of media succeeds in making me feel bad as much as when it succeeds in making me feel good. That seems to me like objectively effective storytelling. And I don’t feel like the story owes me any certain path or outcome. I just want the story to make sense so I can appreciate when it has the capacity to be powerful. That’s Game of the Year stuff.
Joel’s death makes sense. He was bound to make enemies, and the fact that it took him around 25 years of hobo rampaging across the continent for it all to catch up with him is a miracle. And this particular enemy, Abby, has great reason to despise this man. To close off the final act of Part 1, Joel stabs her father in the throat and annihilates the Fireflies, single-handedly stripping away her entire life. What’s more, he deletes humanity’s last chance at a cure for the zombie virus.
My point is, these are not the actions of a hero. He does this to save his own family above all the world.
You know, actually, I totally get it. Neil Druckmann himself has stated that when asking players if they would have repeated Joel’s actions, parents unanimously agreed they would do it. Among non-parents, answers were divisive. As a non-parent myself who values family above all else, I could not exempt myself from the possibility. If I’m being honest with myself, I fully expect to. That’s my adopted teenage red-headed stepchild and she deserves the world. AS IT IS.
The reason the first game managed to resonate with so many people is because, despite Joel’s absolute ruthlessness, the story still manages to get us empathize with him. He does gruesome things that (ideally) none of us will have the displeasure of doing ourselves. But the reason he follows through with his actions is for the sake of love and family. Those are universal themes to which we can all relate, I’m sure. The whole post-apocalyptic scenario is merely the context where we get to explore the limits of morality. Given this extreme fantasy scenario, to what lengths would you go to save your family? What even constitutes as family? Is it morally righteous to obliterate people who mean to save humanity if it means saving your surrogate daughter? And dude, I dunno, but I’m learning about myself when I think about what I let slide here.
My point is, Joel was never meant to be a hero. He was designed to be a mirror for us to reflect upon what we really believe is morally good– by means of extreme violence. On top of that, the second game attempts to expand upon these reflections when we see how Ellie has inherited his penchant for violence as his daughter. If you stuck with the game for any amount of time, you probably noticed she isn’t doin’ so hot. Her revenge quest wears her down far past the Ellie we knew in the prequel, only seen momentarily in some of the games flashbacks. It isn’t until the very end, when Ellie has learned forgiveness, that she breaks the cycle of misery and violence inherited to her by her father.
Another thing is, I don’t care if you disagree that The Last of Us Part 2 deserves the title of Game of the Year. “Deserves” is much too strong a word for my lack of conviction. Many have offered up the Final Fantasy 7 Remake as the true winner of 2020. I’ll buy that at face value. But can we instead talk about the many other problems this game had? Like the clunky pacing at the beginning of the game? Or the entire second half? How Abby’s whole section had absolutely nothing to do with Ellie’s hobo rampage? Or how much less interesting her gameplay was without the emphasis on stealth mechanics? I just want more than, “This game sucked because a fictional character I liked is gone now.” This says next to nothing to me about the actual merits of the game’s narrative or storytelling abilities.
Anyway, I’m Sorry
The year is almost over and I am tired. We’re all tired. I want to apologize while I’m at it. I’m not sure how strongly I feel about anything I’ve said. Or anything at all by now. Mainly, I’ve been cranky as hell. I can be the community speed bag if you need me to be. And I’m not going to think about any of this anymore because, admittedly, the absolute strongest feeling I had was when The Last of Us 2 was announced Game of the Year. I glanced over very briefly to the screen and away again, at my phone, on Twitter, just before I thought, “That’s fine.” And it was.