Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

It can’t be for nothing: notes from The Last of Us Part 2

02 Nov 2020


Ellie ran along a snowy clifftop towards a wooden hut, its lights flaming. I didn’t want her to go in; if she didn’t go in then the cutscene wouldn’t trigger and Joel wouldn’t die. That said, from what I’d already seen it didn’t look like Joel had much of a life left, and I did want to find out what happened next. Ellie misjudged the world’s physics and fell off a ledge and broke her neck. That would have been an anti-climax. She tried that bit again and opened the hut door.

Am I having fun? I often wondered while playing The Last of Us Part 2. I decided that I must be, otherwise why would I still be playing? The Last of Us is meant to be a horrible, oppressive experience that shows the full futility of war and vengeance, and if you’re feeling credulous then you can write off any missteps as in service of this vision. Yes it’s frustrating when you see the ferris wheel far, far in the distance and realize that the next plot point is miles and hours of slogging away, but that’s what it would be like in a real zombie apocalypse and I thought you said you liked gritty realism? Whenever you spot a gang of clickers your heart sinks because they are not enjoyable to fight, but how do you think Ellie feels? I loved the game but I do wonder if I should have been more critical. Too late now.

Having decided that on balance I probably was having fun, I worried whether I was having the most fun possible. In order for The Last of Us to punch hard, death needs to hurt. It might be logical to charge into every battle and draw out all the enemies in order to see how many there are, then restart the encounter and use the information from your past life to craft a strategy. But that would detract from the fear and suffering that I’d decided was temporarily desirable. This made me further wonder, was I restarting checkpoints too often? If I got shot at a few times or wasted a few bullets then should I just suck it up? Is this what I want to teach my son? This isn’t an online ladder, Playing to Win doesn’t apply here. To paraphrase my mum, you’re only cheesing yourself. To raise the stakes I considered having the game restart from the beginning of the encounter when I died, not just the last checkpoint. Then I realized how tedious this would be. Unlike in a game like Dark Souls, dying and repeating the same section over and over and over isn’t a core gameplay mechanic.

The game does do a decent job of making death an inconvenience. Fatalities are gruesome. Getting shot feels distressing, especially since I already experience a strong urge to disengage from anything when I’m losing. When I used to play Rocket League 1v1s I would quit when I went more than 3 goals down because I wanted to spend as little time being 3 goals down as possible. In TLOU2 the one way in which I could get over my fear of dying was by telling myself that I didn’t even care about staying alive. This is perhaps not the type of true grit you want in a zombie cataclysm survivor, or an employee, or a parent, or indeed anyone really. It took me over half the game to realize that hiding again once you get shot and spotted isn’t actually very hard.

A few hours in, once I reached the TV station, I realized that I wasn’t scared and had too much ammo. I wanted to bring back the feeling of the beginning of the game, where every med pack was precious and shooting anything you could have shanked felt like a grotesque indulgence. For the first time in any game ever, I nudged the difficulty slider up to Hard. I felt like an idiot for voluntarily making my life more awkward, although I felt better when I remembered that that’s the definition of a video game. Even on hard mode if you fail to solve a puzzle for long enough then the game prompts you to press L3 and a character gives you a hint. I know that this is more ergonomic than getting my phone out and typing “last of us 2 room with boxes and zombies how get out”, but I’d still prefer to fudge my way through in secret without the game knowing that I’d got stuck.

For most of the game I could only bring myself to play for an hour a day at most. I’d finish a long day of working, parenting and husbanding and settle down for a mammoth evening of grisly vengeance. A few minutes later I was drained and ready for bed. After a session-ending fight I’d grab all the ammo and tell myself that I’d keep walking and jumping until the next danger presented itself. This meant that I always ended on a calm note, but started on a stressful one. When I first met some bloaters I gave them the old sneak-sneak-triangle-stab. I discovered that you can’t stab bloaters and got torn apart. I stopped playing for a week. To be fair to me, I have a 16 month old, so I only ever played at night, in the dark, with headphones. I discovered that I am braver than I ever knew. I think that my anxiety and self-confidence would greatly benefit from playing a game all about collecting ammo and scissors after an implied epic fight.

I’m not sure if the AI was good. I always felt like the human enemies were real humans, but I think that most of this might have been the lines that they shout at the player and each other, rather than their clever tactics. This source of realism definitely seeped away as I murdered all of their friends. “Anyone found anything?” / “All clear” is not the conversation of soldiers who have just lost half of their crew to an unseen killer. The final soldier should really just run for it; they definitely shouldn’t shout “When I find you you’re dead!” since the evidence so far does not support thi assertion. By contrast, the infected are mindless zombies so you can’t expect them to have particularly subtle motivations and movements. Those stalkers are real pricks though.

The human and dog enemies had names and relationships - “Someone killed Cody!” - or at least they had enough contextual dialogue triggers to make it seem that way. I don’t think that this enhanced my direct enjoyment of the game much, but I felt happy to be playing a game in which someone had gone to that effort, even if they were presumably forced to do it while sleeping under their desk for the three months before ship date. When I stay in a real life hotel room I don’t really care if it has a bit of dust in it, but I feel special that someone bothered to get rid of all the dust for me, then I feel bad that they probably didn’t get paid very much.

When Dinah and Ellie and I arrived in Seattle for the first time I was all up for a runny shooty wise-cracky vengeance adventure. The game strongly encouraged me to find the music shop. There will be supplies! And pathos! But this clearly wasn’t going to last and we were going to regret our retribution before too long.

It wasn’t a surprise that Joel died. Where is there to go from St. Mary’s Hospital other than a day of reckoning? Gaby, my wife, said that if she was in Joel’s position then she would absolutely have murdered as many Fireflies as it took to save our son. I think I would have pretended that I needed to go to the toilet, and if by the time I got out if Gaby had killed everyone and had the engine running on a getaway car then that’s no complexity on my morality.

It wasn’t a surprise when I switched to playing as Abby. Why else would I have played as her for those few minutes before she took Joel to the driving range? And how else was the game going to stretch itself out to a standard AAA game length? I was playing at a rate of less than an hour a day and the game took me several months to complete, so I had long lost any sense of my total play time. Nonetheless, I sensed that there was a long way to go.

When I started playing as Abby I knew that I’d eventually get invested in her story and her little friends, but I was still sad to get ripped away from the characters I knew. Oh great, now I have to have to learn to love all these other people, like a new season of The Wire or a new baby. I did buy into the WLF’s painstakingly-likable paradise, with its gyms and daycares and equitable distribution of communal resources and burritos. The parallels with Jackson are clear and deliberate, although the Wolves are at war and are kind of dicks. If the Scars weren’t there then would Isaac close down his torture dungeon and embark on an inclusive program of urban renewal? I suppose that if the Scars weren’t there then probably Isaac wouldn’t be the Wolves’ leader. Isaac reminds me of Dick Cheney at the end of Vice. “I can feel your recrimination. That’s in your judgement. And I am fine with it…I will not apologize for keeping your family safe and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done.” If I was the leader of the Wolves then my agenda wouldn’t have been quite so torture- and aggression-focussed, but on the other hand we would probably all get shot in our sleep, so who’s the hero?

As Abby we run with the dogs that we shot as Ellie. My real-world friends seemed quite traumatized by having to shoot animals, which I did not understand. I’m vegan and the only time I regretted killing dogs was when I missed their heads and needed 2 bullets instead of 1. It’s hard enough already to hide in the world of The Last of Us, because the environments are very short on defendable positions. When you finally find shelter the last thing you need is some yappy prick smelling you out. Kill the dogs first.

I preferred playing as Ellie. As Ellie my goal was to kill Abby. As Abby my goal was to advance the story through her miscellaneous hobbies and diversions until she discovered Owen and Mel. I expected Abby’s half of the game to have us on the tail of a mystery maniac who was gunning down all our Wolf friends, and I was looking forward to rushing to every place we’d been in the first half of the game, arriving only a few minutes too late. As it turned out, Abby had gone AWOL and didn’t know anything about what Ellie had been doing until the end of Day 3.

I didn’t like the Scars. I thought they were a tropey, boring cult. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but the only reason I can think of for a large group of people to revert to olde worlde cloaks and bows and arrows is in order to visually and mechanically distinguish themselves from an opposing faction. Yara and Lev were better-rounded, but they still mostly felt like obstacles in between me and finding Owen and Mel’s dead bodies in the aquarium and advancing the plotline that I really cared about.

The world of the Last of Us seems to have a culture of hand-written notes, which I appreciated. I can’t think of any other game in which I actually felt excited to find and read its letters. My favorite note was in the Abby half of the game, on the ship where you get the crossbow. In the midst of a probable Cordyceps outbreak, a man writes a note to his partner saying that if their daughter wakes up early then there are some books to read to her in his bag. Toddlers still need to be read to in an apocalypse.

At first I found the flashback scenes manipulative and flow-breaking. I button mashed my way through the museum trip with Joel as fast as I could, desperate to get back to Seattle. But after he was gone I realized that I had needed that time with him in order to remind me why I was in Seattle at all.

There’s an official Last of Us podcast. It is good, but it’s hard hearing “Joel” talk in a coastal accent about his normal, non-epic life in LA. Nonetheless, I loved the The Last of Us and it made me believe in art again. You don’t have to like artists in order to enjoy their art. Wagner was a massive anti-semite.

I suspect that the epilogue is meant to make the player lose all sympathy for Ellie. Just give it a rest! Many of my friends hated the epilogue because they didn’t believe that any real person would have kept chasing Abby at this point. But I’m a credulous person, and so I really liked this final section of the game. My surrogate dad figure has never been clubbed to death in front of me, and if Ellie wants to pursue revenge beyond the point of all seeming rationality then hey, maybe that’s what I’d do too. Probably not, of course, but that’s why I live in the suburbs and she lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Ellie felt like the last person awake, doggedly trying to keep the party going when everyone else has gone to bed or gone home. No one begrudged her a revenge adventure in the immediate shadow of the loss of Joel, and no one’s arguing that they didn’t agree with her plans and motivations once upon a time. But by the time we reach the epilogue she just seems deranged.

I was still completely on board with her though. I had been feeling ridiculous for having spent so much time and effort on conserving rags and bullets in service of nothing. How could I have been so obsessed with finding Wolves and vitamins and Abby when the world is empty and life is meaningless? Even the Wolves were starting to show their unease at what they’d done in Jackson. I wasn’t ready for the game to end, and was happy that Ellie wanted to keep the party going too.

The game doesn’t signal when it is about to end, although with hindsight I should have guessed. The first end is when we play as Abby for the final time, scavenging in the suburbs for ten minutes before making radio contact with the Fireflies and getting bashed on the head. I was still in full ammo-conserving, maximum-stealthing mode, planning how to craft my items and spend my future upgrade vitamins. Then Abby vanished. The second end is the real one. This time I had a suspicion, but you never know with Ellie. I didn’t enjoy the final fight very much. Ellie never seemed like a particularly honorable person, so I wasn’t sold when she put down her weapons for a fist fight. We’ve already been through enough, just shoot Abby in the face! But again, maybe we’re not supposed to enjoy this.

I didn’t want the game to end and would have kept playing it for as long as it wanted to draw itself out. Ellie comes home and realizes she should indeed have shot Abby in the face; let’s get back to Santa Barbara. Or maybe Tommy has done something weird, you tell me, I’m not a writer. I’m not really up for a sequel though. Joel’s dead, his memory is dead, and by that point his corpse is an entire game in the past. I’ll still buy TLOU3 if they want to make it, obviously.

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