The highly anticipated sequel to one of the most acclaimed videogames of the previous decade, The Last of Us Part II, was released in the middle of May amidst a controversy regarding the game developers, Naughty Dog. The task of giving a satisfying sequel was an uphill battle to begin with, but news that programmers working on the game were encouraged to work till they burnt out and leaks of the narrative made it even worse for Neil Druckmann and the company. There is evidence of the creators being brazen in the face of some backlash, even as far as Druckmann claiming that this game was “more divisive than the first game”, but they clearly could not foresee the overall mixed reception to the game that critics had claimed to be the game of the year.
While most (even valid) criticism of the game heavily disapproves of the narrative choices, which are accused of being done for “shock value”, they seem to have more of an emotional reaction to the “disappointing” narrative than a critical evaluation. A narrative analysis of the game is called for to shed some light on the choices Druckmann made for The Last of Us Part II. This article presents the argument that the gameplay is an anti-western narrative.
Part 1: Jackson County: the watering hole in the new frontier.
The Last of Us Part II explores the consequences of Joel killing Marlene. What was seen as the actions of a father figure protecting Ellie’s life by all means necessary in the previous game is now explored as a selfish act that destroyed not only everyone else’s life, but his own as well. Ellie holds Joel accountable for denying the world of a vaccine that could potentially return things back to normal until the end of his life.
Jackson County has transformed into the closest thing to a normal civilisation found in the fungi-riddled America. Through dialogue and small details like entries in the logbook, we sense that the small faction huddled behind the dam walls has become a watering hole for stragglers. Accepting stragglers into the community and helping travellers restock, we sense the return of humanity among our characters. This particular detail explains the “out of character” act of Joel and Tommy revealing their identity to the Wolves (members of Washington Liberation Federation) that some players criticise. For Joel and Tommy to offer help to a band of people may be unheard of back in the first game, but in The Last of Us Part II they have transformed from smugglers looking out for each other to being part of a community that has the means and resources to help others. It is safe to say that the Jackson County we see and, by extension, our characters, have mellowed.
This peace is disrupted by Abby and her friends. The intrusion of ex-fireflies can be interpreted as the point of attack, the “raid by the others” in a western narrative. By sneaking into the peaceful community and killing Joel, Abby unwittingly set the stage for a revenge saga. We, the players, clamoured for the death of Abby who, at this point in the game, is the antagonist in the hands of Ellie. With a Spaghetti Western-esq soundtrack, revenge as the premise and a setting that’s as desolate and hostile as the land beyond the frontier, TLOU2 clearly defines itself as a Western narrative unlike the first installment (which was a road narrative).
Part 2: “F*#k Seattle!”: Ellie’s pursuit in the warzone.
After a painful segment in which she explores Joel’s possessions after the funeral, we see Ellie set out for revenge. Instead of a western or neo-western similar to Wind River (2018) or Sicario (2015), we are presented with an anti-western narrative that questions her quest at every turn rather than glorifying it.
After Tommy ditches Ellie to pursue his revenge on Abby all alone, Ellie forms a rag-tag group with Dina and Jesse; a team decimated by their own volition. Even the (arguably) second-most justifiable drive for revenge in this narrative is penalised: Tommy loses his eye as well as severely maiming his leg. Jesse unceremoniously gets shot in the face and denied the chance to see his child. We learn that Dina, along with Ellie, is carrying a bun in the oven, and not only does she lose the father of her child, but escapes death by the skin of her teeth. The group of rangers that set out for vengeance are rewarded with pain and brutality instead of a gratuitous victory, and our protagonist, Ellie, suffers the most for her actions.
Blind to the war that is happening around her to the point where she becomes the catalyst for it, Ellie’s pursuit for revenge sets Seattle on fire, literally. It is during ‘Seattle Day 2’ that she achieves a significant “accomplishment”: her second major kill of the quest. Chasing Nora down into spores-ridden tunnels, Ellie corners her and finally has cathartic revenge over one of the perpetrators. This iconic cutscene/quick-time event raised some eyebrows, making us look at Ellie in a new light. When she returns back to the theatre, we do not see John Wayne returning back to the ranch with pride. Instead, we see Ellie shaken to her core and borderline repulsed by her actions. Sure, Ellie has killed countless people in both games combined, including Jordan (another exfirefly), but Nora, unlike others, was brutally tortured for more personal reasons than survival. Thanks to Ashley Johnson’s outstanding performance, we see a wounded and battered Ellie experience inner turmoil over her actions. She realises that she has crossed a line and lost her innocence. Ellie unwittingly becomes as morally ambiguous as Joel, tarnishing the idolisation of her, Joel and the quest for vengeance itself.
Following through on her quest, Ellie ends her third day in Seattle by killing Owen and Mel, which further calls her motives into question. The revelation that Mel is pregnant not only questions the morality of revenge but also draws parallels to Dina. Even though Owen and Mel’s deaths by Ellie’s hands were the result of survival instinct and reflex, the reveal of Mel being pregnant only throws more shade over Ellie’s quest. The emotional weight of her actions pile up on her at this point, and yet again she engages in the question of “good vs. bad”. When Abby storms into the theatre, we see Ellie lose Jesse, Tommy get permanently crippled and witness Dina almost get beaten to death. All the pain they experience weighs on Ellie, as she is the instigator of this entire fiasco.
Part 3: Ellie: “She’s pregnant.” Abby (with a knife to Dina’s throat): “Good.”
By dedicating half the gameplay to Abby, Druckmann only partially succeeded in what he intended to do. For most players, killing the most beloved character of the franchise in the most gruesome way possible—with Ellie begging for it to stop—was too far. Therefore, presenting Abby as the secondary protagonist was not received well (“the gall!” I remember exclaiming when I played the game).
What Neil Druckmann did succeed in, however, was inducing empathy for Abby (even though he failed at creating sympathy) and exploring an interesting “what if” scenario: what if Ellie succeeds in her quest?
Well, Abby succeeded, and all that resulted was the world around her burning down. Abby exacted revenge on Joel for killing her father, the last surgeon in Fireflies’ station at Salt Lake City. The similarities between Abby and Ellie’s character arcs are too uncanny to be a coincidence. By examining Abby’s narrative closely, it is possible to explore what lies ahead of the road that Ellie took.
After the death of her father, Abby dedicated four years to preparing for revenge. She had joined a new faction of soldiers, Washington Liberation Front (WLF), after the inevitable dismantlement of Fireflies. Vengence has rotted her to the point that Owen’s suggestion to let go and settle down at Jackson County is shot down in the blink of an eye. Even the fact that Joel saved her from the infected does not stop her from exercising blind rage. The change in perspective helped make a valid point about consequences, although the narrative does not stop at “Joel = Bad”.
The event at Jackson County alienates Abby from her friends; their relationship was never the same after she got what she wanted. The vengeance in Abby holds her back from having a peaceful life with Owen, and just when she could start a new life with him, we see that Mel is pregnant with his child. This event, along with the war with Seraphites that rages around them, had made Mel detest violence and not want anything to do with Abby and WLF anymore. When she comes across Lev and Yara, Abby launches into a redemptive arc. The irony of Abby conforming into the same arc as Joel in Part 1 is to be noted here.
However, her quest for redemption is hindered by the consequences of killing Joel. The group are in Seattle and are driven by retribution. Jordan and Manny get killed by Tommy and Ellie respectively, Yara gets slaughtered by the hands of her fellow WLF soldiers and Mel and Owen are killed by Ellie. Unlike Joel, Abby fails to realise that she instigated the fire that burnt Seattle to the ground by her parental compassion for Lev. Unhinged by her turmoil, Abby inflicts critical damage to Ellie’s posse. She kills Jesse and severely maims Tommy. The fact that Dina is pregnant fails to invoke mercy; only Lev’s appeal stops Abby from killing Dina and Ellie. This not only draws parallels to how Ellie restored humanity to Joel in the previous game, but in retrospect also defends Ellie’s choice at the end of this game.
Abby is also denied a glorious ride into the sunset. By getting captured by Rattlers just after seeing a glimmer of hope, that hope of returning to the last band of Fireflies is squandered. It is only after three months of brutal slavery and near-death on a cross that she sets off to pursue an uncertain future under the teal sky.
Part 4: “I cannot let you leave”: Closure on the shore.
We revert back to Ellie’s perspective, three months after Seattle. Ellie and Dina move into a farm, away from the frontier. With “Buddy Potato” JJ in their arms, we see our protagonist lead what seems to be a peaceful life. The endearing use of the “Buddy Potato” song and dancing around to Crooked Still’s “Aint No Grave” feels like a peaceful ending that is as close to happiness as they can have. However, Ellie’s PTSD episode inside the barn shatters this mirage. The ghost of Joel still haunts her as the feeling of helplessness attacks her in waves. Thanks to the crucially placed flashback to the last night Joel was alive, we see that her deeds were driven by something deeper than “an eye for an eye”: closure. All it took was a visit from spiteful Tommy to reignite the flame for revenge.
Despite Dina’s appeal, Ellie heads back beyond the frontier in search of Abby, squandering the myth of a happy ending that’s propped up by the Western genre. The second attempt at revenge proves to be even more punishing than the first. Her path did not pan out to be a straightforward revenge saga yet again. Walking into a trap set by the Rattlers, she learns that Abby is captured and enslaved by the new faction she runs into in Santa Barbara. Ellie, who has turned feral from her past, sets out to save Abby and in doing so literally brings the roof down on top of the enslavers. We are led to believe that Ellie has grown past her darker self as she helps Abby and Lev get off the wooden post on which they were tied up and left to die.
However, when Abby and Lev are about to sail off, we see that Ellie is conflicted between saving them and killing Abby. With a knife to Lev’s throat, Ellie demands that Abby fight her. In the gruesome battle that follows, we see Ellie finally get to drown the sole perpetrator of Joel’s execution, but she stops. As an anti-western narrative, our protagonist chooses to forgive rather than get her revenge. Remembering her last conversation with Joel, she learns from herself what happens when she feeds the wrong wolf inside her. After the events of the first game, we learn that Ellie was furious with Joel’s decision to save her instead of letting the fireflies find a vaccine by performing the surgery that would have inevitably ended her life. Ellie went on to let anger define her instead of the love she felt for him. The last few years with Joel were full of avoidance, blame and hatred. However, it was in their last conversation that Ellie had finally decided to let go of her anger and try to love again. It is this promise of letting go that finally stops her from hitting the last nail on Abby’s coffin.
This enlightenment, however, does not come cheap: she not only loses two fingers in her fight with Abby, but also her shot at a peaceful life. Ellie returns to an empty farm and realisies that Dina had stuck to her word of not wanting to wait in the perpetual agony of losing Ellie to her quest for revenge. She walks through the empty farm, which is devoid of any evidence that Dina and JJ were ever there. Only her stuff is left untouched in the house. She picks up her guitar and tries to play “Future Days” by Pearl Jam. Not only do the lyrics drive home the loss that she deals with as a result of her actions, but her inability to play the song correctly is even more saddening. We see Ellie struggle to play the song Joel performed for her without two of her fingers. The slightly off rendition of the song only rubs salt in the wound.
It may seem that Ellie has been punished more than Abby for her revenge quest, but the narrative seems to not penalise individual acts but rather the intent behind the characters’ actions. By not attaining her want of killing Abby but addressing the need for closure, Ellie has taken her first step towards healing far earlier than Abby, who at this point has lost almost everyone she cares about. The last shot of the game where Ellie leaves the barn is not one of sorrow, but a bittersweet ending where there is hope for Ellie to heal from her losses.
By having both playable characters go off into an uncertain future, we witness the end of an anti-western take on a revenge saga. Both characters head into ambiguity and only learn to let go of their vengeance. Any attempt at revenge only results in punitive outcomes, and therefore The Last of Us Part II is a well-developed anti-western narrative.