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The Last of Us Part II: All Pain, No Gain

The Last of Us Part II's Ellie sitting shirtless with a bruised and wounded back

The Last of Us Part II is one of the most subversive video games I’ve ever played.

As you may have read or heard, TLOU2’s post-apocalyptic story doesn’t attempt to placate fans of the first game: this is a brutal story set in a brutal world. But rather than developing the story and gameplay as separate halves, Naughty Dog buttressed TLOU2’s painful narrative with equally painful gameplay. The result is a game that goes against the grain of traditional triple-A design by actively disempowering the player.

All Pain

During the seventh generation of consoles (2005-2011), big-budget games largely focused on empowering their players. In Halo 3, we jumped into the shoes of a fearless super-soldier to single-handedly save a galaxy. Gears of War’s world was under siege by monstrous creatures, but with enough machismo and wise-cracking, humanity would prevail. Even Call of Duty’s threatening and oppressive large-scale shootouts generally emphasized how one soldier could turn the tide of battle.

But Naughty Dog allegedly spent more than all three of those titles combined (~100 million) to create a game where player rewards are sparse, combat is nauseating, and true “victory” is unobtainable. The game’s director, Neil Druckmann, even said that the dev team didn’t use the word “fun” while developing TLOU2’s combat. Having finished the game, I wasn’t surprised to learn that.

I beat TLOU2 on hard mode, and for me, the minute-to-minute gameplay was overwhelmingly tense to the point of becoming exhausting. I spent most of my time in the game’s combat areas sneaking around in tall grass, quietly dispatching enemies, and hoping I wouldn’t be caught. But thanks to smarter AI and farther fields-of-view, the stealth approach isn’t always tenable for very long in TLOU2. The game also features mandatory non-stealth sections that force you to hold out against hordes of infected.

While this might all sound like fun on paper, TLOU2’s gameplay restrictions ensure that, for the most part, it isn’t. Fighting off a swarm of infected is nail-biting when the game only allows you to carry a handful of bullets for each of your weapons. Sneaking around blind infected enemies is harrowing when hastening your footsteps even ever-so-slightly could lead to an impromptu removal of your throat. Even late-game, when player upgrades are plentiful, TLOU2 goes out of its way to emphasize that death could be lurking around every corner.

These punishing gameplay systems were also present in TLOU1. But TLOU2 takes its disempowering gameplay a step further by interweaving it with an increasingly demoralizing narrative.

Spoilers ahead.

No Gain

TLOU1 is a road trip story about the growing bond between an unlikely pair of survivors. As a post-apocalyptic tale, it has moments of horror and despair. But despite the game’s darkest moments, there’s a lingering sense of optimism — that Ellie and Joel have a future, and that their respective futures might be better together. At journey’s end, the bond formed between these characters is so strong that, for many players, it justifies Joel’s decision to save Ellie and effectively doom humanity.

But where TLOU1’s tender moments prevent it from falling into a well of despair, TLOU2 dives in head-first. Ellie is hell-bent on revenge, and the game asserts that this is a path of mutually-assured destruction. Your rewards for playing through the first half of the game include the death of a loved dog, a pregnant woman, and countless other (mostly) innocent souls. Yay, video games! But note that Naughty Dog isn’t condemning you, the player, for participating. TLOU2 is a linear game, so the point is to showcase the futility of vengeance and targeted violence.

Occasionally, amidst the blood and tears, TLOU2 does offer moments of levity and hope akin to the first game. There are several flashbacks to heartwarming daughter-father moments between its protagonists. There’s also an unlikely alliance that develops between Abby and Lev that mirrors the loving bond formed between Joel and Ellie in the first game.

But even though TLOU2 has glimmers of hope, it’s largely an oppressive experience. There’s a sense that the story leaves Ellie in a worse place than we found her. Even Abby’s redemption arc ends ambiguously: our last glimpse of the character sees her starved, beaten, and broken, rowing a boat away into the mists. Granted, Abby isn’t alone — she’s with Lev, a character who is arguably responsible for her newfound clarity of purpose and direction.

When Abby and Lev fade away into the mists, alive, many players’ gamer instincts will likely see the potential setup for a sequel. But now, knowing what The Last of Us’ characters are forced to endure, perhaps we’d be better off without one.