This article contains major spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2
At Paris Games Week 2017, Sony debuted a new trailer for The Last of Us Part 2. In that trailer, two grown men pin down a teenage girl and shatter her left arm with four blows of a hammer. Looking back now that scene was an early warning of the violence, cruelty, and lust for revenge that form TLOU2’s only successful narrative theme.
Given the subject matter the presence of violence isn’t unexpected nor a problem in itself, but in TLOU2 it’s exacerbated both by the game's 'realistic' visual style and by how deeply personal it all feels. Stealth kills are lengthy processes highlighted by physical exertion - the camera pans round to show a protagonist’s face contorted with effort and the pain and confusion of an NPC gurgling through their final breaths. In gunfights, fallen enemies scream in pain as their comrades desperately call out to them by name. Dogs whimper over the corpses of their fallen handlers before lunging at your throat a few seconds later.
I could point to any of a dozen instances that had me grimacing at my screen while I played TLOU2; trapped animals straining in fear and pain against barbed-wire traps; haunting allusions to torture; excruciatingly slow acts of physical violence that the player is forced to perpetrate. What matters more is the effect of this on the game's overall atmosphere, and the moments that aren’t supposed to be unpleasant; conversations or flashbacks intended to add a little humanity are underwritten by the player's expectation of the next heart-wrenching or stomach-churning moment. Those reveals don’t always come but do so often enough that the overall experience becomes a kind of exercise in delayed unpleasantness, where every moment that you’re not committing an act of horrible violence you’re wondering when the game will next force you to do so.
Ellie’s story is one of revenge for an injustice that Naughty Dog spends the entire game obfuscating, before using the final cutscene as a crutch to explain the violence that it results in. Ellie’s estrangement from Joel is a central aspect of her entire narrative: it is considered from the perspective of both characters from the opening, and is revisited in detail on multiple occasions. Eventually we come to understand that Ellie is disgusted by the choice Joel made at the end of The Last of Us, and the pair have barely spoken for two years leading up to this story.
Nevertheless we are supposed to accept that, in the wake of Joel’s death, Ellie would make a several-hundred mile trek to enact her revenge on his killers. But at no point on her months-long journey does she appear to reflect on what that might mean: when she arrives in Seattle and the killing begins, she is apparently horrified by the violence that results. When she condemns one character to death and then beats information out of her, or when she unknowingly kills a pregnant woman, her trembling hands and thousand-yard stares are meant to instil in the player a sense of guilt and remorse. But this introspection never reared its head on her months-long journey from Wyoming, and is never granted to the dozens of grunts that are killed elsewhere.
Ellie’s bloodthirsty story forces acts of violence into the players’ hands with minimal motivation, condemns those players for their violence only when convenient to do so, and then moves on to the next entry in a long list of premeditated murders.
While Abby features in many of the game’s most egregious acts of violence, her story is less steeped in that violence than Ellie’s. Unaware of the incoming vendetta, her motivations come from a long-running war with a rival gang and her complex relationship with a band of friends. While neither arc is faultless, this section of the story dwells on violence with more nuance than elsewhere in TLOU2, examining the various sides of this conflict showing both gangs committing the most horrific acts against the other.
This also acts as an explanation for Abby’s crusade against Joel, the man who, in killing her father, denied the world a cure for the infection. Her approach is by no means perfect, but she limits herself to taking an eye for an eye: a far more restrained approach to justice than anything else we see in this world. While Ellie’s story is fuelled by rage, Abby’s exists in a more grey moral space.
Until, that is, we reach the Battle for Haven, a moment of cheap catharsis in the midst of an otherwise slowly-unfolding tragedy. Intended as a major push to acquire peace in Seattle, it quickly dissolves into an assault on the senses that the audience is encouraged to revel in. By the time the battle arrives, Abby’s relationship with her allies is in tatters, and the former foe by her side means that you are everyone’s enemy. For Abby to survive now means that everyone else - whether friend or foe - has to die, despite the efforts that the game has gone to to show both factions at their best and worst.
This is hard to get your head around. Naughty Dog spends time, a lot of time, establishing that these two gangs have their atavistic and brutal elements but that they're also trying to rebuild the world and do help others. Both groups are involved in some heinous stuff, but are also collectives trying to survive in a heinous world. It's building some interesting questions around moral relativity and then... you just blow 'em all away. One of this world's more interesting human elements becomes little more than a shooting gallery in which you can almost hear the developers cheering you on. Morality, schmorality.
TLOU2 is a game with many themes. The post-apocalyptic setting touches on the nature of our societies before and after crisis, what is lost and what lingers and what new rules we build our lives around. The first game's core of the 'found family' remains as the foundation-stone for all that transpires. The game's marketing focused heavily on Ellie and Dina’s relationship, bringing in contemporary conversations about LGBT+ representation.
Throughout the game, however, these themes are abandoned in favour of returning to the chase, of sating some imagined bloodlust.
Ellie’s relationship with Dina is haunted by the spectre of the latter’s male former partner, forcing her to be absent for swathes of the narrative. Later on, after Ellie has been responsible for the destruction of Abby’s dysfunctional adoptive family, she rejects her own, abandoning Dina to return to her hunt for Abby. At times the game doesn’t seem particularly interested in the world it has created; characters who feel like they should be major players soon consigned to flavour text or removed from the narrative without any meaningful personality beyond their cruelty or hunger for power.
Worst of all, TLOU2 is not even prepared to condemn the violence it spends so long punishing Ellie for: when she decides to abandon the new life she has built, we learn - through a confusing flip-flopping between forgiveness and bloodlust - that Ellie’s entire vendetta has been driven by a conversation with Joel that is hidden from the player until the end of the game. Intended to explain all this bloodshed, the reality is a scene that’s both an unsuccessful attempt at redemption and one that ducks any responsibility for the blood on the players’ hands.
With all of those ideas gone, nothing remains but violence. That violence permeates the entire game, poisoning every moment with the idea of more violence to come. Repeatedly, the game’s most interesting ideas are abandoned, its most important themes passed over so that more bad things can happen to its central cast, and the developers can remind you that killing that a named character in a cutscene is bad while letting you dispatch hordes of nameless NPCs without a second thought. TLOU2 so desperately wants to say something meaningful about its big themes, but amid the violence and cruelty and shouting never finds time to spit it out.