That’s their story and they’re sticking to it

This post is less a review and more just my thoughts on The Last of Us Part II and will include spoilers for the first game, the second, and for the Mass Effect games.

The first time I played Mass Effect 2, I did not have a good time. I remember feeling angry about Shepard’s circumstances at the beginning of the game and carrying that anger through perhaps my most renegade playthrough to date. I disliked the missions, I disliked the new companions, and I disliked Shepard’s role in all of it. It was, however, an intensely emotional experience—which is how I felt most of the way through The Last of Us Part II.

I did not like the story, I really didn’t (want to) like playing Abby, and when the confrontation between Abby and Ellie came, I couldn’t quite believe I had to play Abby’s part—which meant attacking and possibly killing Ellie. Wasn’t Ellie supposed to be the hero? Perhaps not, but more thoughts on that later.

I went on to finish the game and then had to sit a little while, credits rolling, while I absorbed the entirety of what had happened over the previous thirty-six hours. The enormity of it all—and the unexpected turns of a story I’d sort of been expecting, but really hadn’t.

Let’s flip back to Mass Effect for a moment. When the third game came out, I preordered. Despite having had a hard time with the second game, I’d enjoyed it overall. I understood the story. Also, the stakes were high. I had to save the galaxy and the third game would provide the opportunity to do that.

Did I expect to die at the end? I can’t say that I went into it all knowing Shepard would be tasked with making the ultimate sacrifice. But given that I was in tears before the end of the opening sequence, I wasn’t at all surprised by where the story led. And when the time came, I said my goodbyes with a lump in my throat and did what needed to be done. Then I sat back, stunned by the reaction of seemingly every other fan of the franchise. They hadn’t loved it as much as I had. In fact, they’d hated it. Apparently, no one else had been playing the same game I had. No one else had expected to have to die in order to save the world.

And so BioWare released an update—and that made me sad. As a writer, I know the pain of having an audience not quite appreciate all the nuances of a story. I’ve weathered critical, harsh, and outright indelicate reviews. At the end of the day, though, I always say the same thing. It was my story and I told it the way I wanted to tell it. While I regretted that not everyone enjoyed it, I couldn’t have told it any other way.

I did play Mass Effect 3 again, with the new ending, and couldn’t honestly see much difference. I remained annoyed, however, by the fact a new ending existed. That a writer (or team of them) had been bullied into softening their view. There is something to be said for providing hope and for appeasing fans—especially considering the money at stake. But I can be righteously furious in my own little bubble. My opinion costs nothing. It does bring me to the point of this post, however: my absolute admiration for the writing team at Naughty Dog and the story they chose to tell with The Last of Us Part II.

Here’s where the spoilers get real, in case you’ve braved the post to this point.

Going into Part II, I expected to be dealing with the fallout of Joel’s decision at the end of the first game. Ellie poses a question and Joel gives an answer that doesn’t quite work. It’s closure, but not. A chink just wide enough for Ellie to slip through, which she does in the flashback scenes sprinkled through the first half of the second game.

My favourite flashback. I cried throughout this sequence.

I loved these scenes because they gave me more time with Joel. They were heartbreaking, of course, but also provided a much-needed window into Ellie’s psyche. It’s easy to forget she didn’t grow up on a diet of TV and video games like the rest of us. That she basically spent her childhood fighting zombies for real. And drifts into adulthood knowing she might have been the key to saving it all, if not for Joel. It’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry, but especially for a young person.

So, I got her anger and her inability to just let it go. I didn’t like it, though. I hated that Joel was dead and that the only way he could continue to exert a dubiously balancing influence on his substitute daughter was from the grave.

When the story switched to Abby’s POV, about halfway through the game, I immediately guessed what was up. We’d find out why Abby had killed Joel and it’d be something that would make us stop and think. It’d be another balancing sort of thing, with the weight on each side planet-sized. That, right there, was one of the hallmarks of this game. The emotions were huge. One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of YA fiction is because of the drama, but if you’re going to write about young people, you need to make it hurt, all of it. I remember how big my emotions were when I was that young. I remember feeling as though my heartbreak could rend the world. Throw in a zombie apocalypse and it just might have.

Let’s just burn it all down.

Abby’s point of view was compelling, and despite a nagging sense of loyalty to Ellie (and Joel), I actually did kinda want to kill Ellie by the time she and Abby faced off in the theatre. It was weird, rooting for the other team, and seeing the character I’d thought of as the hero of the story reduced to a ranting, psychopathic demon—one I was actively afraid of. It was… very weird. But also revolutionary.

Ultimately, Abby spares Ellie, and this is where the story twists back on itself in a way I have NEVER seen before. If Abby had killed Ellie, she’d have signed her own death sentence. Because when Ellie is compelled (in the last chapter) to head back out and hunt for Abby, she ends up saving Abby’s life. WTF!?! I know.

Honestly, this is the ending I wanted. I didn’t think I was going to get it, and apparently Neil Druckmann hadn’t planned on delivering it. But when they got to that part of the story, they realized Ellie killing Abby wouldn’t serve Ellie’s character as she had developed over the course of the game.

I agree, 100%, and I’m so grateful that this ending stands, despite the backlash from disappointed fans. Would I have felt differently if Ellie had killed Abby? Would I have been disappointed? Yes. Absolutely. But I’d have respected the creator’s choice to leave me feeling like crap—as though this world isn’t worth saving—because it’s their story. Also, going into this, you had to know it was going to be dark. I mean, the first game…

Additionally, the ending we are given in Part II turned my confusion regarding my feelings toward the game into something more than respect. Let’s call it admiration.

The Last of Us Part II is a beautiful game. It’s as difficult to play as the first one, but in a completely different way, and that’s what makes it work so well. It’s not the same story told again, with new characters trying to save the world. Which, really, wouldn’t have worked, because Joel’s not trying to save the world in the first game, either. He’s drifting through a post-apocalyptic wasteland looking for ways to die until he discovers a reason to live.

If there’s one carry over from the first game to the second, it’s that: Ellie is drifting. She’s consumed by her rage, her guilt, and her need for revenge. The question remaining, I guess, is this: does she find her reason to live?

I don’t think so. What I do think she finds is the impetus to try, however. To look for that reason. And if the series continues, that would be the game I expect to see next.

p.s. I played Mass Effect 1 and 2 again before playing 3 for the second time, and in the context of the larger story, ME2 worked a lot better for me. Consequently, I very much enjoyed the second chapter, in particular the relationship my Shepard formed with Jack. ❤

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