The Last of Us Part II: Action and Consequences

Posted June 28, 2020 by Thomas James Juretus in Video Games


There aren’t always a lot of videogames that come along that merit a bunch of discussion beyond a review and the merits of its respective gameplay and presentation. But every now and then we get a game that does merit further conversation, often by raising questions that may veer towards ethical dilemmas or reflections of real life events. A game like Spec Ops: The Line can make you question decisions made during combat situations. The Bioshock series raised multiple philosophical ideas, and even Detroit:Become Human toyed with our feelings on where sentience begins and if any being showing that it’s sentient should be accorded the same rights we value as human beings.

The Last of Us was one of those games, though at times it was more straightforward than most. We understood to a point Joel’s decision to take Ellie across country, even as he outwardly seemed reluctant to do so. For some Joel was a hero, while others may have viewed him as more of an anti-hero, especially in the light of his decision at the end of the game. Seeing that Ellie would need to be sacrificed to create a vaccine to combat the Cordyceps virus that had ravaged the world, Joel chose to preserve that single life at the cost of the many. In that singular action, he consigned the rest of humanity to continue to suffer and risk infection and often horrible death.

As a father, I perfectly understood and empathized with Joel’s reasoning. The journey from Boston to Salt Lake City built a bond between him and Ellie, and though she could not replace his biological daughter Sara who had been killed, she in a very real sense became a daughter in his eyes. With that came all of the parental feelings and responsibilities, and the need to keep her safe. As parents, we all vow to defend our children even at great cost to ourselves to keep them safe from harm. Joel taking Ellie from the hospital in Salt Lake City was the only thing as a parent he could have done, the rest of humanity be damned. After all, wouldn’t we who are parents have done the same? Think about the current pandemic affecting the world. If someone came to you and said they could develop a vaccine to eliminate Covid-19 from the planet, but they need your child’s blood and by taking it would cost her her life, would you make that sacrifice? Could you make that choice?

In that instant, The Last of Us raised itself above other survival horror titles. That choice was something we could identify with, and even cheer for, as we had become attached to both Joel and Ellie, and wanted what was best for them. All other people were secondary in our considerations. We even understood Joel’s lie to Ellie, because it’s something parents may need to do to keep children safe and not burden them with the weight of choices we as adults need to bear. We were fine as they went off to build a new life, even knowing in the back of our minds that the world was still a hellish place to live.

But, we had to know such an action would have consequences. Not everyone would approve of saving one at the cost of the many. It would not be logical, as Spock from Star Trek would readily point out. It is a simple law of physics that every action prompts an equal reaction. We may have applauded Joel’s decision and praised him for making it. Joel became the everyman hero, even deified by some, put on a pedestal from which many believed he should not be removed. But human nature being as it is, we had to know, even if we refused to acknowledge it, that there were bound to be consequences due to that action.

With The Last of Us Part II, we see that consequence unfold in full, brutal force. And that in turn sparks more actions that beget their own consequences. We are pushed along a much darker journey, this not not to save, but to destroy. Hate becomes the motivator, hate born of grief for the loss of a loved one. Again, we as players can empathize. But script writers Neil Druckman and Halley Gross had their own wrench to throw into the works.

Around 2 1/2 hours into the game, Joel and his brother, Tommy, come across a girl named Abby fleeing a horde of infected. They save the girl, and she takes them back to a safe house where her and her friends have camped out. We then find out that Abby has been hunting Joel this whole time. She has been on a mission to unleash punishment for what he has done, and punishment comes in brutal fashion. Ellie arrives moments after Joel is shot in the leg, and is forced to witness his brutal death at Abby’s hands via a Negan-style execution with a golf club. Tommy and Ellie are spared, not so much out of mercy but out of expediency, as Abby is warned others may come in search of them.

In that moment of playing the game, I felt a hatred for a character that rarely has been matched in any other form of entertainment. Even the hatred for Joffrey and Cersei in Game of Thrones paled in comparison. I can’t recall a character that instantly became so vilified in my eyes. So, like Ellie, I wanted to hunt her and her friends down, and make them all pay. There was no other choice. Vengeance needed to be done, and I, like Ellie, was hellbent on doing it, and any obstacles in the way of vengeance be damned.

And so Ellie sets off for Seattle, but not alone. She’s accompanied by friend and significant other Dina, who wants to show her love for Ellie by giving her support in her dark quest. Ellie doesn’t care who Abby is or why she did what she did beyond knowing how to find and kill her. This leads to encounters with the Wolves, a human faction that has basically established themselves as the local authority in Seattle, with their mission to preserve their own and kill all trespassers without question. Eventually Ellie also encounters the Seraphites, a religious cult battling the Wolves and also killing any strangers. These human factions prove as daunting as dealing with the various types of Infected, and Ellie and Dina must kill all enemies without hesitation, to both preserve themselves and to carry out Ellie’s mission of revenge.

In the course of the journey, Ellie discovers that Dina is pregnant by mutual friend Jesse. She now realizes she cannot risk her friend’s life or that of her unborn child, and leaves her in a theater that is secured as a safe haven. Ellie continues on her mission, and in taking out Abby’s friends she makes a discovery: That Abby was a Firefly and was at that hospital in Salt Lake City. She now knows why Joel was killed by her, but that doesn’t deter her from her mission. Even as we discover the reason, we still as players want vengeance on Abby. After all, she killed our hero. For that, she must pay.

And so we as Ellie wreak a bloody path, tracking Abby down to an aquarium by the shore. It’s here Ellie commits what may be her most disturbing murder when she kills Abby’s friend Mel, only to discover afterward that Mel was pregnant. In that instant, we see Ellie react in horror, realizing that she just doled out what she was trying to protect Dina from. We feel that twinge of conscience at should we really do whatever act to accomplish our vendetta, even if it costs bits of our soul and our own humanity. Ellie returns to the theater, only to find Abby there.

And it’s here where Druckman and Gross flip the script. The confrontation doesn’t play out. Instead, we are put in the shoes of our hated character, and forced to see things from her side. At first, I felt the urge to resist. Like our site’s fellow writer Cody Rostron (go read his editorial for his take on the game), I couldn’t muster up any sympathy for Abby. But unlike Cody, my views changed the more time I spent with her. Now my brain and my feelings were in conflict. And that’s the issue with vengeance. As long as we choose not to understand the other side, hate makes it easy for us to choose our actions. It’s easy to hate what you don’t understand, and that makes it easier to kill what you hate.

But once you begin to understand, there come questions. Doubts arise as to the righteousness of your course, and regrets can surface over the decisions you’ve already made. But you can’t alter what has been done. The game, like real life, has no time bending techniques. Those you’ve killed, rightly or wrongly, stay dead. Your sins have been committed and cannot be undone. Only through future action can you hope for some sort of forgiveness at best. But that’s not how human nature always works. Again, we need to realize there will be consequences for our actions.

And those consequences will likely not be in our favor.

As we journey with Abby, we see her relationships with her friends. we understand her grief and need to avenge the death of her father, who died at Joel’s hands in the hospital in Salt Lake City. We even learn that her father was questioned on the morality of sacrificing Ellie for the sake of the vaccine, and could he make that same choice if the subject in question was his own daughter Abby. Abby nobly states that she would make such a sacrifice. Brave words, maybe even admirable ones, but we know they’re empty since there’s no risk to her. She’s not the one on the proverbial chopping block, Ellie is. Abby is placed on the same quest as Ellie undertakes later, needing revenge on the one who killed someone she loves. Again we can empathize. After all, wouldn’t we ourselves wish vengeance on someone who would murder one or both of our parents? At the very least, we’d need justice to be served, whether it be through a jail sentence in a civilized society or at the end of a metal golf club in a more savage world.

And so, much to our discomfort, we find that our perceived hero Ellie and our perceived villain Abby are more alike than we want them to be. As we learn and understand, it becomes harder to see this through to its violent end. Some players will hold onto the hate, still wanting Abby dead, no matter what hell she goes through. No sympathy will be given, even when she risks her life to save to young Scars (the Wolves’ term for the Seraphites), a girl named Yara and her transgender brother Lev. Some will bury any guilt after Ellie’s kills Owen and Mel, despite seeing their relationship with Abby.

I couldn’t bury that guilt. It even shook me knowing that I killed their dog, Alice, even though I had to keep the dog from ripping my face off. Especially when I had gone through scenes showing how affectionate the dog was towards Abby, Mel, and Owen, even getting to show a scared Lev how friendly she was with some playtime with the dog. But my actions were done. I couldn’t bring the dog back, or revive Mel so she could give birth to her child. Those lives were lost. Consequences. And yet the mission needed to go forward.

And one mission of vengeance bets another. Ellie’s quest to kill all those responsible for killing Joel sparks Abby’s own quest for wanting to exact justice on those who killed her friends. Hate begets hate, and a violent confrontation becomes inevitable. It’s hard for us to fight Ellie as Abby, yet we must, all the while hoping the two will come to their senses and halt the destructive paths they’re on. Both are wounded as they part, with Abby even showing a touch of mercy as she allows the pregnant Dina to live. But in our hearts, we know that can’t be the end.

When we see Ellie and Dina next, it’s on a farm. Dina’s son is several months old, and her and Ellie live as a couple trying to establish a calm and peaceful life away from the horrors of the ruined cities. We engage in seemingly mundane tasks, enjoying a sweet moment with Dina, finding the baby’s stuffed toy on the tractor, even herding the sheep into the barn. For some this was filler meant to prolong the game, but I’d argue it wasn’t. We get to see in one horrific vision the effects of PTSD on Ellie, as she still cannot let Joel’s brutal death go, despite her seemingly idyllic life with Dina on the farm. She can’t accept that peace that she’s found, and we know that our quest is still not done.

That becomes very apparent when Tommy arrives, still showing the effects of his wounds he suffered at the hands of Abby back in Seattle. Tommy has learned that Abby is in Santa Barbara, California. Dina wants Ellie to leave it rest, and tells Tommy to leave. But the thing about hate is that once it establishes a foothold, it is always there, festering in the dark no matter how deeply you thought you had buried it. Seeing the guitar Joel left her makes up Ellie’s mind, and she risks all she has to give in to her hate. Dina’s tears notwithstanding, she again sets out to finish her vendetta. In Ellie’s mind, and even in ours, we can’t see this ending any other way but in death for one or the other.

Again, this led to conflicting emotions. We see Abby and Lev trying to re-establish ties to the remaining Fireflies. Instead, they run afoul of yet another hostile human faction called the Rattlers. Abby and Lev are taken prisoner. We can’t help but feeling a bit of karma has caught up to Abby here, that maybe she does still require more comeuppance. Yet we know Lev is an innocent bystander here, suffering consequences due to Abby’s actions. We now have a new enemy in the form of the Rattlers, and now feel that they too must pay for their actions. And pay they do when Ellie arrives.

At first things look dire for Ellie, as she’s caught in a Rattler trap. But she makes a brutal escape, and soon finds their compound, where she doles out death to this new enemy faction. Ellie releases their prisoners, only to find Abby has been tied to a post by the shore for trying to escape. Badly wounded, Ellie still continues on, driven by her hate and need for revenge. She finds Abby and Lev, and cuts Abby down. Abby frees Lev, picks him up, and tells Ellie to follow her to where boats are tied to posts so they can escape and go they’re separate ways. In this moment, it feels like maybe Ellie has realized enough is enough. It’s time to end this quest and let the hate go.

But hate is hard to let go. And Ellie can’t shake it, as we as players can’t. Dues must be paid. consequences need to be delivered.

And so the pair engage in one desperate, knock down fight, each determined to see their respective hate through. And then, in that instant where we think this will be it, Druckman and Gross again subvert our expectations with their script. Ellie leaves Abby go, and they both take a boat and go their separate ways. In this instant a ray of hope bleeds through all of the darkness that has shrouded our time in the game. A touch of mercy, a semblance of humanity, triumphs over the hate. The message of vengeance is served without carrying the act out. We don’t know if things are done for good. But at least they’re done for now.

Ellie returns to the farm, but Dina is gone. The house is empty, save for Ellie’s artwork and her guitar. In the final scene, we see the guitar propped against the window, abandoned, as we Ellie walking through the field to the farm’s gate. Her hate, her quest for vengeance, has cost her everything. I couldn’t help but feel sorrow for Ellie’s lost, watching through tears as the credits began to roll. I had been taken on an emotional ride, and it affected me as few games have. One can only hope for redemption in Ellie’s future. Whether a part three will deliver it, well that remains up to Druckman and the folks at Naughty Dog. But until that happens, if it should happen, we’re left to deal with the effects of the game on our own minds and hearts.

Consequences. They can be a real bitch, depending on our actions.

And consequences are, at least for me, the real theme of The Last of Us Part II. The human factions and the Infected are just plot devices, obstacles to overcome as we grapple with the feelings of hate and need to exact revenge. Those feelings are thrown into conflict when the game flips and shows us the other side, daring us to let go of hate and try to understand, to salvage bits of our own humanity in the face of savage emotions and the visceral need to dole out justice in kind. “An eye for an eye!” screams our brain, while our heart knows we should try to aspire to better.

We choose our actions. But we must accept the consequences. And it’s in this that The Last of Us Part II succeeds in making us ponder. It’s in that that makes the game worthy of discussion after the credits roll. And it’s in that that once again, Naughty Dog has raised what could have been just a thrill ride of survival horror to a higher level. and that’s why the game is one of this year’s, if not this current generation’s, best games.

About the Author

Thomas James Juretus