WARNING: IT'S IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO DISCUSS MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS GAME WITHOUT SPOILING LOTS OF STUFF THROUGHOUT AND I HAVE NO INTENTION OF SPOILER TAGGING THIS WHOLE THREAD'S CONTENTS, SO IF YOU HAVEN'T COMPLETED THE GAME, PLEASE GO DO SO FIRST PROCEEDING. ALSO, THIS MAY BE A VERY LONG POST.
Last week I promised to start a thread discussing my general thoughts on The Last of Us Part II after I'd finished the game and organized my thoughts, and a number of you either up-voted that post or otherwise voiced interest. Well I've now completed the game and tried to organize my thoughts...but it's become clear to me that organizing my thoughts about this game will be impossible because I have too many and neither can even seriously try to give voice to them all because it would go on forever, so I'm just gonna write this in a stream of consciousness kind of fashion, running through the first thoughts that come to my mind. I think it'll work out better that way.
The first thing I wanna to do is discuss my two favorite scenes in this game.
My favorite scene was the whole part after Abby and Ellie's first fight where Ellie and Dina are living in the farmhouse and raising J.J. together. I don't know how to put into words how getting to experience that as Ellie, to be able to move around and interact with Dina and J.J. and the sheep and just like simulate leading a normal family life. ...I mean I got to interact with my actual fantasy in earnest in a video game for the first time ever! I mean that's like what I dream of: being able to be a wife and a mom and just lead a normal life that way. Just those simple sorts of things that most people take for granted. Plus I got to be in the one in the kitchen with Dina. (For non-American readers, that's a banal Americanism I just referenced there.) Anyway, I've never seen that in a video game before; like two women starting a family together. Not at all like this anyway. That was really, really special. Honestly, I was crying just about the whole time throughout all of that because even when it got dark, Dina was there to help pull Ellie through. That's the kind of thing that, in real life, pushes people, including dates, away from me. Things like my PTSD and lucid nightmares and depression invariably wind up being too much baggage for others to want to deal with. I try to manage them, but the simple reality is that they still get in the way a lot and my relationships don't last very long as a result. I'm 38 years old now. It's really starting to feel like there is nobody for me and I'll just have to go through the rest of my life alone. I need a minute.
Okay. Anyway, speaking of all this, Dina is definitely my favorite character in this game. I mean Ellie is the character who's personality most resembles mine, but Dina's my favorite character, easily. That's because she gets what real love is. She's there for Ellie almost unconditionally, not just when it's easy and fun. During Ellie's missions, I came to really look forward to her return trips to the theater. The days were grueling and traumatizing for Ellie, but they ended with tender moments of healing that were among the game's sweetest and most powerful moments to me.
All that said, I connected to Ellie most in this story. In that connection, I think needs to be said is that both of my parents have passed away. I know what that is. It's fresh on my mind, in fact, because the anniversary of my mom's death occurred recently and yeah, anniversaries are still quite difficult for me. I was closer to my mom, so that's the more painful anniversary to me. I loved my dad too, but that relationship was even more complex because he was no Joel. (My dad fought in the Vietnam War and never really recovered. He suffered from PTSD and wound up as a sometimes abusive alcoholic. We had our times together, but it was complicated.) The honest truth of the matter is that Joel is a positive father-like figure that I feel like I never really had. For this reason, losing him in this game hurt. A lot. When my mom died, I couldn't sleep for days and could barely eat for weeks. It was all I could think about and I couldn't stop thinking about it. There was a whole stage where I wanted nothing more than someone living I could blame and take my anger out on. If there had been someone clearly responsible, it would've taken an army to keep that person safe from me. So you'd better believe I get where Ellie is coming from here. Personally.
Abby is actually an awesome character too, and her story arc impressed me! I especially adored the whole complex thing that went on between her and Owen and Mel. Her arc is sort of like Ellie's in reverse in a way. Ellie sort of goes from being a good character to more of a villain, while Abby goes from being a villain to being more like a Joel-type character who's driven by her care for a child in Lev, and the whole thing with Owen serves opens the door to that path for her. She winds up as among the most genuinely good-hearted characters in the game. Too good, in fact, for me to relate to her the most. For most of my life I've tended to connect more with either villainous or other very flawed characters in fiction media mostly because I've fucked up and done the wrong things a lot in life and because those characters tend to lose, which has long, long felt like the tendency and trajectory of my own life.
Getting back to where I had been going with my last remarks before getting sidetracked on the topic of Abby though, in spite of feeling like I genuinely understood Ellie's position, I wasn't on board with her decision to leave her new life with Dina and Potato and Ewgene at the farmhouse behind. Part of me understands why she made that decision, but at that point I really, really just wanted to stay there forever and felt really sorry for the longsuffering Dina who has been nothing but unselfish. I think narratively it was the course that needed to be taken to fully get the game's point across, but it still hurt to go through. Dina of all people deserved much better than that. I wanted to stay and try harder to work through.
My second favorite scene in the game was the memory where Joel takes Ellie to the museum. There was a whole period of my childhood when dinosaurs were absolutely my shit. It went from being like whales to snakes to dinosaurs to Godzilla, in that order of obsessions. I read everything I could about them, watched science videos about them (having to fast-forward through the parts about e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n and the Earth being more than 8,000 years old because my parents insisted that stuff was lies), and all but forced my mom to take us to the natural history museum where they had dinosaur bone exhibits and stuff like practically every weekend for quite some time, which we had to make a whole day of each time because it was so far away. (It also helped that they furthermore had an awesome omnimax theater where they'd show short educational films about topics like lava in a way that felt like being on a ride through a volcano. And the planetarium was right there too!) I'd have fun by chasing my friends pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex hunting down some wimpy vegan dinos. And yes, the original Jurassic Park was like my favorite movie for at least a year after my dad took me to see it. And yar, I too was confused about why they were being called "velociraptors" and other technical stuff (e.g. T-Rex vision was NOT based on movement, people). It was thus that I learned about a thing called "artistic license". Anyway, that part brought back all kinds of those happy memories that I loved revisiting.
I also really enjoyed getting to see Ellie pretend to take off into space. When I was a kid, my first career aspiration was that I wanted to grow up to be a train engineer or a train conductor, one of the two. Then I wanted to be a snake catcher. Then I wanted to be a paleontologist for a while and that stuck for years. I once thought about the magic of space travel too, but the movie Apollo 13 pretty much cured me of that particular want. But anyway, what it (the pretend flight in the game, not Apollo 13) conveyed was the idealism of youth. When you're young, you can't wait to be grown because you think you're going to do all these amazing, history-altering things. You dream of things like going on grand adventures and revolutionizing fields of human endeavor (or of devouring your friends). Then you wake up one day to discover that wound up a punch-clock worker instead and have to navigate a horrible thing called r-e-s-p-o-n-s-i-b-i-l-i-t-y and start wishing you were a kid again. ...Okay I've gotten kinda lost in my train of thought here, but where I was trying to go with all that was just to say that it made feel like a kid again for a while and I really liked that.
Those were among the top highlights of the game for me. I was captivated by the experience overall though, not just those standout parts. And I mean including things like the outstanding soundtrack and the basic design of the game. AAA adventure games these days seem to be heavily gravitating toward open-world formats, but this game makes only secondary concessions to such demands, opening up its levels just enough for them to feel more life-like, but not enough to have the plausible potential of disrupting the pacing of the narrative. Retaining this semi-classical type of game design where you have relatively linear levels that are connected by cinematic scenes here at a point in the history of this medium where it's going increasingly out of fashion pushes the balance of control over the player's experience in the direction of the developer's desires, enabling the artists to better tell the story they want to tell on their own terms. I think it works fantastically here! There's a sense of steadily building tension throughout each of the game's three acts that you simply wouldn't get in an open world play format with dialogue trees. I've seen the argument made that perhaps Abby's act should've come before Ellie's. I disagree. After Joel's murder, I needed time to grieve and Ellie's (first) act coming first gave that time. Others have said Abby's story was non-essential and shouldn't have been included at all. I disagree with that too. There's no way that either confrontation between Ellie and Abby would've had anywhere as much emotional weight without us comprehending Abby's perspective. Neither would the game's message be as effective without the presentation of an alternative to Ellie's fate in the form of Abby's course.
That's not to say I liked just everything about The Last of Us Part II though. Most of all, I could've done without the stupid collectibles. You know, the trading cards and Abby's quarter collection. I mean I kinda felt like, okay, I remember what it was like to be young...I remember being into a trading card game called Magic: The Gathering for about a year in high school. I didn't have much money for that kind of thing, but I would steal booster boxes from stores sometimes. (Security measures back then weren't what they are today.) And superheroes are the popular shit today, so I guess part of me buys that Ellie could be into collecting trading cards for such a game. However, I really feel that Joel's death should've marked the end of that because it was a little jarring to find a trading card not too long after losing Joel and hearing Ellie be like "Yes!!" Different people process loss differently and all, but that just wouldn't have been my response. When I lost my parents -- especially my mom -- I couldn't think about anything else for some time. I couldn't play video games or anything. Just nothing that normally interested me still did. So I mean it's a minor and optional and really insignificant aspect of the game, but I thought that stuff like that felt out of place and generally divorced from the mood that the developer's were attempting to craft in the corresponding contexts.
Manny was also an unwelcome addition to the cast of characters for me; my least favorite. Not that there wasn't room in Abby's crew for an Hispanic character, but Manny stuck me as really nothing more than a crude racial stereotype of how Latinos supposedly are. You know, he's a womanizer, he's obsessed with drinking, all that sort of thing. I found it annoying and lazy. I can't help wishing that more effort had been put into his characterization than that.
Okay, so I think many if not most of you by now know that I believe gender identity is bullshit and, to that end, I suspect may be wondering what my take on the character Lev and his arc was. (I'll refer to Lev with male pronouns because he's a fictional character and I figure that if I can suspend my disbelief in zombies and such for the purposes of a game, it then is only fair that I should also be able to suspend my disbelief in gender identity for purposes of absorbing the game on its own terms.) Well...being as Lev's entire character arc is his transness, as in he seems to have no other distinguishing characteristics besides being transgender, it seems very apparent to me that he was included purely in order to convince ignorant, narrow-minded religious bigots like me that gender identity is totes for real. Did it succeed? Noooooooope. If anything, it reinforced my pre-existing opinion that gender identity is simply a crude, anti-feminist way of resisting patriarchal social roles. Lev, it turns out, is male because he has shaved his head and wanted to be a soldier instead of the involuntary wife of a political leader. He is male, in other words, because he wishes to resist forced feminization. (As much only makes me all the more grateful for the game's inclusion of characters like Abby who get to be largely gender-conforming without having to be transgendered.)
One also can't help but notice that, even by the standards of this game's world, Lev's character arc stands out as uniquely dramatic. None of the people who question Lev's gender identity in this game are people, they're monsters. They all want him dead for being trans, including his own mother. I mean even that misogynist asshole who accosts Dina and Ellie for their sexuality is shown apologizing to the latter and gifting her sandwiches. (Get it? "Make me a sandwich" is an infamous refrain of sexist men, so Seth apologizes to Ellie by making her and Dina sandwiches. I found that chuckle-worthy anyway.) The message seems to be that you'd have to be a crazy religious psychopath who'd murder their own kid in cold blood to question gender identity. Yar. Somehow I's not sold by that rationale.
None of this is to say that there's no room for trans-identified characters in video games in my mind! It's all in the presentation, I think, if my love of Okami is any indication. Okami is a game promoting religious faith. I'm an atheist. I don't agree with all the logic presented in the game. But I've still fallen in love with the game anyway owing to its sheer sincerity and the beauty of its vision for the role of faith in the world. I don't have to actually agree with what a game is saying, if it's really saying anything, to love it! Similarly, as I've casually mentioned before, there's a PlayStation 5 game I'm really looking forward to playing in development called Goodbye Volcano High that narratively centers a non-binary character. And the main reason I'm interested in the game is precisely because...it narratively centers a non-binary character! That fact alone causes it to stand out in my mind as likely to feature a pretty unique storyline about a social phenom I remain curious about. I think it's important to retain an open-mind to the possibility of being wrong and continually seek to learn more. And whether or not I ever actually become convinced that gender identity is as real as someone's material sex, it'll still be worth the journey to see the world more fully from the perspective that says it is because it's one I simply don't currently understand very well. It's like with Okami: it's all in the presentation, I think. I just can't help feeling that something more could've been done with Lev as a character than was. The effort with regard to Lev just feels half-assed to me and it in turn adversely affects Yara's character arc too because her entire arc is built around her relationship to Lev.
Overall though, these are secondary qualms. Pretty much all games include some elements that don't sit perfectly with me. I appreciated this game's political even-handedness (I mean if we can think of Fedra as a right wing dictatorship, the WLF as a left wing dictatorship, the Seraphites as a sort of marriage of ISIS and deep green politics*), the efficacy of the way it steadily builds suspense and tension, and it's characters; especially Ellie's centrality and her characterization. Of all characters in video games, I'd say that Ellie is perhaps the one I most connect to. I mean I'm not a teenager anymore, but I was into punk when was one, I know what poverty and hunger are, I know what loss is, I am a loud-mouthed dyke, I hunt for food myself sometimes of necessity, I can relate to often making the wrong, human choices in life instead of the more rational and selfless ones, and I can relate to winding up seemingly alone in the world and to lots of other things about her, some of which I've already described above. And much more so than any of that, I appreciated the game's powerful message about how precious the simple things in life are and that we shouldn't be so anxious to risk them for memories or "justice", however we define it. That just really hit home for me. A lot of the games I love the most have similar themes about the importance of appreciating what you have in life rather than always living in the past or otherwise trying to undo things that can't be undone. It always hits home with me. The delivery here though stood out not just because the other examples are mostly smaller, independently-developed games, but more especially for its not-so-bittersweet-as-straight-up-unhappy conclusion. I mean the fact that Dina and J.J. are gone when Ellie returns after going after Abby a second time and she winds up totally alone in the world...which is pretty much where I am in life right now...and she can no longer even relive her memories of Joel anymore because of the consequences of the same aforementioned decision...yeah, this game's a tragedy straight up, but it needed to be to get that close to where I actually am right now and speak to me that directly and personally.
How would I score The Last of Us Part II on a scale of 0 to 10? I don't know, I don't really like doing numerical scores. Games mean more or less to me at different points in life based on what I'm going through at the time. Some endure more than others. You can be assured, however, that this game will appear in my top 10 of that 50 favorites list we do annually here, faring better than the original. As to exactly where yet, I'm undecided. I'll have to see how the game ages for me between now and then.
*BONUS: Observers of my profile details may have noticed that a book titled Deep Green Resistance appears on my list of favorite books. It's the at-length manifesto of an organization of the same name (not religious like the Seraphites) that calls for the abandonment of modern civilization on ecological grounds. Not sure I agree with all the contentions therein (if you know anything about the organization, you know that it is, in fact, a kind of personality cult), but the arguments are, incidentally, thought-provoking in a way I couldn't resist recommending.