Warning: Massive spoilers herein, for everything in The Last of Us Part 2. Turn back now.
One of the weirder things about The Last of Us Part 2 is the structure of its story. The game repeatedly breaks up Ellie’s revenge-fueled rampage through Seattle with flashbacks revealing details about her relationship with Joel. As Ellie searches for Abby and the rest of her friends in the aftermath of Joel’s murder, we learn more and more about Ellie’s state of mind–and often have the whole story recontextualized in the middle of playing it.
The Last of Us Part 2 messes with your understanding quite a bit, and not just by shifting perspectives in the middle of the game to expand on the character of Abby, the focus of Ellie’s revenge obsession. The developers also hold back critical information that informs Ellie’s motivations. Those flashbacks repeatedly change our perception of Ellie by introducing new information, and the game treats them as plot twists that upend our beliefs about her and her quest.
Those alterations in what we know about Ellie can be jarring and confusing at times, in a way that feels like it doesn’t always serve the story. Why would developers hold back our understanding of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, if it’s the driving force behind everything she does? Why would the game create gaps in our knowledge of what Ellie knows, when she knows it, and how she came to know it, if it wants us to understand her and relate to her as a character?
It’s hard to see why Naughty Dog would design The Last of Us Part 2 this way–sacrificing a deeper understanding of Ellie’s mental and emotional state at the start of the game in order set up a big reveal at the end, unless you consider how the game is trying to make you feel, not as an audience to the story, but as a participant in it. The game purposefully clouds your understanding of Ellie because Ellie is the villain. The Last of Us Part 2 wants Ellie’s role in the story (as well as yours, as the player), to be its big twist–but it’s one that comes at the expense of developing and understanding Ellie’s character.
Say Hello To The Bad Guy
TLOU2 kicks off with Joel revisiting his decision at the end of the last game to kill the Fireflies in order to save Ellie from them. Joel didn’t just remove Ellie from the hospital in Salt Lake City where the Fireflies intended to use her immunity to try to find a cure for the cordyceps infection–he murdered Marlene, the head of the Fireflies, and the doctor who was to carry out the procedure. Joel tied off the loose ends to ensure the Fireflies would never come for Ellie again in an attempt to make a cure.
It’s a horrific decision on a lot of levels, and one that left The Last of Us with a lot of fascinating nuance for its characters. Joel lied to Ellie about what happened, something it seemed clear at the time she suspected. The Last of Us Part 2 deals with the consequences of Joel’s actions in a way games usually don’t as his decision comes back to haunt him. Regardless of how you feel about Joel, he’s a guy who Had It Coming to a huge degree. Ellie might feel justified in going after Abby for revenge, but Abby felt just as justified in going after Joel. If other characters in The Last of Us deserve death for their actions, Joel certainly does.
But at first, The Last of Us Part 2 purposely obfuscates how much knowledge Ellie has about Joel, and you assume she doesn’t know what he did to the Fireflies, and therefore, why he was murdered. That makes it easier to get behind Ellie when she goes after Abby–in Ellie’s mind, we assume, Joel’s murderers had no justification. When Dina speculates about who Abby and her group might have been and why they might have been after Joel, Ellie replies that Joel “crossed a lot of people.” Most of them, however, were smugglers, criminals, fascists, and cannibals. They were Bad Folks, in other words, and as we progress into Seattle Day 1, we see that Ellie figures Abby is one of those as well. The story sets up dramatic tension by letting us in on more information than Ellie has. We expect that Ellie learning the truth about Joel could change her feelings, and maybe even her actions.
The game slowly changes that equation, though. Flashbacks reveal that Ellie has been troubled by the events in Salt Lake City, which damaged her relationship with Joel. After the scene with Nora during Seattle Day 2, when Ellie is at her most brutal, we learn the truth: Ellie discovered Joel killed the Fireflies years before the events of the game. She’s been operating this whole time with the knowledge of how Joel wronged these people–and it didn’t change her mind or her actions. When Nora recognizes Ellie as immune to the cordyceps infection, it’s instantly clear that any doubt Ellie might have had about who Abby and her friends are is gone. She knows they’re Fireflies. She knows what Joel did to them.
And Ellie tortures and murders Nora anyway.
From there, Ellie’s descent only gets darker. As she makes her way to the aquarium, we learn that despite saying otherwise, she only cares about killing Abby, not finding and helping Tommy–which causes her to leave Jesse behind as he heads to Tommy’s aid. Soon afterward, though she’s somewhat forced into it, Ellie murders Owen and Mel, only to discover Mel was pregnant. But though that act in particular has a massive, traumatizing impact on Ellie, it’s still not enough to stop her.
The Last of Us Part 2 most dramatically expresses the fact that Ellie is the villain through its shift to Abby’s perspective. The game goes to lengths to demonstrate just how similar Abby and her friends are to Ellie and hers. Life in the WLF isn’t all that bad and the people there look out for each other and care for each other. The bad guys are the good guys, depending on your point of view. As Abby, you meet a number of people Ellie killed in the first half of the game, and you learn more about them as people. You even play fetch with the dogs, knowing that in hours or days, they’ll be dead because of Ellie’s actions.
What’s more, you see Abby choosing to help people and mitigate harm on several occasions, in contrast to Ellie. When Abby and her friends kill Joel, she specifically chooses to leave Tommy and Ellie alive because they weren’t involved. And Abby spends her entire portion of the game aiding Yara and Lev, two people who previously would have been her enemies. Meanwhile, Ellie leaves only destruction in her wake, for her enemies as well as her friends. (Granted, the fact Abby also stacks up a massive body count does a lot to undercut the game’s thematic thrust.)
Finally, TLOU2 drives home Ellie’s villainy by making you play through her confrontation with Abby from Abby’s perspective–at the climax of Ellie’s revenge quest, you leave her perspective and fight her as a boss enemy (a fight that, because of Lev’s influence, again ends with Abby winning but leaving Ellie alive). The situation is mirrored in the final fight between Abby and Ellie in Santa Barbara, too. Here, you play Ellie in that fight as she forces Abby into the confrontation by threatening to hurt Lev. As you slash away at Abby with Ellie’s knife, it becomes instantly clear that this is in no way a fair fight. Abby is quickly bloodied and gasping, shielding herself with her arms as you leave thin streaks of red criss-crossing her skin. Even as you play Ellie in the final moments of her quest, moments from achieving her goal, the game is doing everything it can to make it feel wrong.
The Last of Us Part 2 holds back on the reveal of what Ellie knows and when she knows it because this is supposed to be a mind-blowing revelation. The character you care about, the character you play, is not the hero of the story, as has been the case in thousands of games before this one–the character you care about is the villain. By extension, to some degree, you are too.
Dig Two Graves
Except, if you’ve been paying even a modicum of attention, the fact that Ellie isn’t justified in her revenge quest is obvious well before the game expects you to realize it. Ellie clearly is in the wrong from the jump, and not just because Joel definitely deserved punishment for his many crimes. Even if Ellie is justified in going after Abby and her friends, she creates massive collateral damage along the way for people who are, ostensibly, innocent–or at the very least, uninvolved.
In all likelihood, as Ellie, you kill a whole mess of members of Abby’s group, the WLF, long before you get anywhere near Abby herself. During Seattle Day 1, if you kill “Wolf” patrols (who are searching Seattle for trespassers after clearly warning off anyone who tries to invade their territory), Dina will ask Ellie if she recognizes any of them. Repeatedly, Ellie says, “Nope.” It becomes very obvious very early that it doesn’t matter to Ellie if these Wolves were the ones who attacked Joel or not. They’re in her way, and therefore, she can kill them. When Dina speculates who it is that might have murdered Joel, Ellie shuts her down. That’s not because she doesn’t know, because it’s clear Ellie has some idea. Ellie doesn’t care to guess, because Ellie doesn’t care who, or why. Those questions are immaterial to her goals.
The brutality of stealth kills and combat in TLOU2 also show you Ellie’s role in the story early on. Naughty Dog has said repeatedly that violence in The Last of Us Part 2 is meant to be realistic and therefore haunting, and it immediately demonstrates that Ellie is a cold, frightening killer. Enemies scream in pain as they bleed out after you blow off their limbs or shred their bodies with explosives. Their eyes bulge as you slash their throats so they can’t scream. During the first two days in Seattle, TLOU2 provides you with plenty of reasons to follow Ellie’s point of view that the Wolves are bad people and therefore deserve their fates, through notes and backstory that suggest they’re an oppressive, brutal force that took over the city. But the emphasis the game puts on how horrifically these people die immediately makes it tough to justify her actions. She’s an invading force, killing indiscriminately, and making zero attempts to prevent any amount of harm. And that’s to say nothing of the damage she allows her obsession to bring to her friends.
TLOU2 doesn’t need to hold back key characterization details to shock you with the realization that Ellie is a villain, because it’s obvious from her actions and attitude, and the body count you can easily pile up even early in the story. The twists in the story play out as if the idea that you might not be heroically dispatching an endless parade of evil mooks is something that has never crossed your mind, but we get there long before TLOU2 expects us to. And that undermines Ellie and Abby’s story, because it makes it harder to understand who they are and why they do what they do.
None of this discussion of Ellie as a villain in this story is meant as a judgment of her actions or her character, or the story Naughty Dog chose to tell here. This isn’t to say, “Ellie should have been more heroic,” or to wring hands over the fact that she made decisions I didn’t like as a player. The trouble with The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t the story it chooses to tell, but how it tells it.
The game is so hung up on the “gotcha” moment of revealing Ellie’s true knowledge of Joel that it undercuts the much more interesting exploration of how she deals with her trauma and pain, and what effects that has on the world around her. We don’t need to agree with Ellie’s actions to identify with her–but holding back Ellie’s real motivations feels like The Last of Us Part 2 believes it needs to trick us into empathizing with Ellie, and that it’s going to shock us when it reveals who she has been all along. It feels like there’s not enough confidence in the story to tell it straight, and that players can’t be trusted to sit with and examine the nuances of how they feel about the characters for who they are and what they do.
I don’t think that’s the case. What I liked about The Last of Us Part 2 was its willingness to tell a painful and tragic story about pained, tragic people. Both Ellie and Abby are so damaged that they also create massive damage to those around them, and both struggle to stop themselves and heal themselves, with varying results. “When you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” is a proverb for a reason, but in telling two revenge stories in parallel and letting both characters assume protagonist and antagonist roles in equal measure, TLOU2 finds a fascinating new way to cover the well-trod ground of this kind of story.
It’s a shame the game can’t just let the characters exist in that tragic space, or fully explore them. And it’s a shame that TLOU2 doesn’t seem to expect players to “get it” without structural gymnastics. Naughty Dog’s games are strongest when it builds believable, well-rounded characters, and The Last of Us Part 2 often does that. It just doesn’t feel like the game trusts us to understand or appreciate them if we can’t be the hero of the story along with them.