Warning – There will be spoilers.
The Last of Us Part Two is the most emotionally distressing game I’ve ever played. It’s also hands down the best game I’ve ever played. Those two facts don’t necessarily go hand in hand and that’s where the genius of what Naughty Dog have accomplished lies. The narrative sweet spot where you are pushed beyond your comfort levels but by a cast of characters so compelling that moments that I concluded I never wanted to have to play through again, because of how it made me feel, I now find myself enthusiastically revisiting during a replay of the game.
Those moments are just as emotionally difficult second time around but they are also more poignant and more wonderful with the benefit of understanding the story as a whole. It’s a game that begs to be replayed and not just so you can enjoy the years of hard work that the Naughty Dog team put into it, but also because it’s non-linear and intertwined structure mean that second time round, every moment is new. Suddenly areas that were just interesting environments to be explored are now littered with subtext and meaning because you understand what has happened here previously.
I managed to play this game first time thankfully without having seen any of the leaks that happened before it was released so got the full effect of all of the highs and lows of the story as the creators intended them to be experienced. And this game is an experience. It’s an obvious distinction that the biggest difference between watching a film versus playing a video game is that with a video game you are actively involved with the story and characters and so your immersion in to the narrative has the scope to be so much fuller. Naughty Dog are so good at taking advantage of this and the story for both Part One and Part Two requires you to examine the feelings of the character’s as well as your own.
In Part One, an aggressive parasitical infection has swept across the globe and devastated mankind. Those who become infected are lost, becoming the destructive and volatile puppet of the fungal parasite now residing in their brain. During its outbreak, the infection was ill contained and any kind of regular way of life has been turned upside down in the struggle to survive. Going back in to that world for Part Two would always have felt familiar, but with a release date in 2020, in the end it was a kind of familiar that I had not imagined.
It had to be Joel
In game two, the protagonist from Part One – Joel – is killed a mere two hours in to this thirty hour game. (I said there would be spoilers.) Joel dies and it is awful. It also makes perfect sense as the inciting incident of the story, even though never in my wildest dreams pre playthrough did I think he’d actually be killed off. Naughty Dog are so protective of their stories that even the trailers for the game held red herrings where they included Joel in scenes so that it appeared he was part of the wider storyline.
Though this annoyed some players as it just increased their sense of disappointment during their eventual playthrough, for me it was welcome. I was fully geared up for a Joel rescue mission and that made the eventual moment of his death all the more upsetting (helped greatly by the fantastic job all the actors in this game have also done). As I got to a scene that in the trailer is played with Joel but in reality is played with a character called Jesse, I smiled when I recognised it because I realised I’d been utterly duped – and I was thrilled about it. The best stories are the ones that surprise you.
One of the criticisms of how Joel was killed is that it doesn’t fit with how much of a hardened survivor he is in the first game; how on earth could Joel have gotten himself cornered and killed by a bunch of strangers he never would have trusted before? The thing is; this isn’t the Joel we knew before. He and Ellie (his surrogate daughter, also from game one) now live in a new town called Jackson where all its inhabitants are able to live in relative safety. Risk assessed excursions out in to the wild for supplies and to keep the surrounding area clear of infected rarely end in tragedy and the people here are actually living.
Life in Jackson is not only about surviving anymore and that’s the Joel we meet at the start of Part Two. Joel’s main focus in life now is Ellie and rebuilding their relationship after his deception at the end of Part One; a fact that is made painfully clear in all the flashbacks throughout Ellie’s section of the game. Meeting Joel again in Part Two via these interspersed flashbacks (we never actually see him in real time except a short sequence in the lead up to him being killed) added to the sadness of his death. This beloved character is now just a memory and it’s as tragic a loss for us as it is for the in game characters who loved him. Part Two isn’t Joel’s game, but he is in every single heartbeat of it and his presence is still an important grounding for the story.
The flashbacks are practical in giving us the information we need as to what’s happened since we last saw these characters, but also allow us some small moments of light in what is overall a pretty dark game. They are a reminder as we hit the real time story beats of just what Ellie has lost and serve as an important signifier of the importance of human connection in our lives as we stumble, fall and pick ourselves back up.
No-one is perfect – Joel least of all – and as he attempted to make things right with Ellie we are shown that every decision you make has a consequence; big or small, good or bad. No matter what the reason behind that choice is, you have to be prepared to pay the price. Something that it takes the entire game for Ellie, and us as we journey along with her, to fully understand.
It had to be Joel. Who else would we go rampaging across hostile lands for to dish out retribution on those who murdered him? Who else would send Ellie spiralling to such an extent that in the end, we don’t even know who she is anymore? The depth of emotion you feel for Joel carries you through the whole first section of the game and more importantly, it requires the highest effort of will to open your mind when the protagonist changes and we leave Ellie behind only to restart the story with Abby – the woman who murdered Joel. The themes of the game don’t hit anywhere near as hard if you don’t wholeheartedly buy in to the depths that Ellie goes to. And the message doesn’t resonate anywhere near as deep if you don’t have to really question the characters as well as yourself.
Seeing it through
At it’s core this story is about both revenge and redemption and as the player it’s a bitter pill to swallow and not a journey that can be taken passively. When Joel is murdered in Ellie’s presence, brutally and without mercy, it scars Ellie and the player and starts us on a furious path to bring Abby to justice. For me the character of Ellie (now aged 19) has been floundering in the four years between stories. Her life has been filled with circumstances that she expected to go one way and then suddenly, they go painfully and uncontrollably in another.
Riley and Ellie chose to die together when they got bitten, but in reality Ellie was immune and instead had to watch her best friend become infected whilst she got to live. That immunity then gave her life meaning and was supposed to be the cure for mankind. But Joel, on discovering that the surgery would kill her, stopped surgeons mid-operation to save her, lying to her when she came round that it simply hadn’t worked. Joel was supposed to be a father figure that she could trust and in reality he took away her choice to carry out her most meaningful act – and then lied about it.
Even as you play, this feeling continues with Ellie’s girlfriend Dina. Theirs is a new relationship and Dina realises whilst they’re together in Seattle that she’s pregnant with her ex’s baby. This unsurprisingly complicates things somewhat and is another moment of Ellie still not able to be quite in control of her own life. The relationship she’d planned for and her goal of revenge is now subject to another circumstance she didn’t choose and her angry, knee-jerk response to it is so telling of that. Ellie has not been the author of her own life up till now and the shape of revenge in the face of such tragedy is the perfect fit to fill the void that has been created within her.
She throws herself in to a three day journey across a flooded and dangerous Seattle landscape, amidst warring factions and hordes of infected, to hunt down Joel’s killer. She goes to great lengths to achieve the vengeance she believes will relieve the ache in her heart and give her back a semblance of control. The familiarity of moving through Seattle (particularly during the open world sequence of day one) is comfortable and harks back to those days from the first game where Joel and Ellie trekked across the country fighting off humans and infected together as their father daughter relationship begins to blossom. Ellie understands the parameters of life out in the open like this and it gives a structure to her otherwise spiralling existence. It is also a reminder to us that she is a child of this strange new world. She has no experience of the world as the player knows it and in this post-apocalyptic environment, killing to survive is very much part of her nature.
Throughout the journey Ellie is anchored to Joel through her memories of him and through the music that Joel taught her on guitar. In so many ways, one of the most heart-breaking things I find in Ellie’s story is how much she is trying to emulate Joel in her actions, even when it’s clear that those actions don’t feel completely right for her. It’s the form her sadness takes and she sees it through because she thinks it’s what he would do and that it’s what his memory deserves. When she forces Abby’s friends to talk and coerces them in to giving her information, she uses cruel torture tricks that Joel mentioned he used back in his smuggling days. These tactics take both a physical and mental toll and as her efforts become darker and more desperate, the girl we knew from Part One disappears completely.
Hers is a path of hatred and revenge and one that the player, given our history with the characters and this world, dives into with her whole heartedly. At least to begin with… As things progress, what we as the player are both witness to and complicit in are events that become more and more morally dubious and suddenly, you’re not in alignment with your protagonist anymore. Watching Ellie change in to such a single minded and hardened person gets you questioning and it becomes more and more uncomfortable to play. I understood her motivations and she is a character I love so I was with her, but throughout I found myself asking if I would do the things she chooses to do.
In these moments of disorder I found that my feelings were reflected so much in Dina. Each time Ellie returned to her in their derelict theatre hideout a little bit more broken and lost, Dina’s love and support become if possible, more pronounced than ever. She knows that there is no talking to Ellie to try to change her mind and yet in every touch and every word, you can see how much Dina feels Ellie slipping further into the abyss. Playing it was like watching a beloved friend keep making terrible decisions but understanding that their grief is something that has to be played out and that can’t be touched. All that you can do is try to be there to catch them when they fall and hope that it’s over quickly.
It’s a story that is painful, shocking, immersive and so beautifully constructed that when this part reaches it’s climax, I watched with my head in my hands not knowing what the hell was going to happen, but knowing I didn’t want Ellie to suffer any more pain at the hands of the woman who killed Joel.
And then we meet her.
You wasted it
In what has to be one of the riskiest moves in gaming history, at a climactic cliff hanger moment, the momentum shifts completely and we go back to play the same three days with the very character we’ve been hunting – Joel’s killer, Abby. Unsurprisingly, this really threw me off. For Naughty Dog to put us in her shoes is an incredible leap and exceptionally brave. I already don’t like her and now I have to spend the next 10 hours playing as her? The writing in this section has so much to do and although I wasn’t incensed as some players have been, I was certainly wrong footed.
Needless to say, it took me a while to warm up to Abby. I had already formed a two-dimensional opinion of her as the monster who killed Joel and had journeyed with Ellie with the single-minded goal of getting revenge. I didn’t want to like Abby, or her friends. However, as I started back at the beginning and moved through this section of the game my view of her began to change and suddenly at the end of Seattle Day Two, knowing where all of this action was headed (i.e. back to the same cliff hanger moment) I started to feel the first pangs of a dilemma.
At the end of Ellie’s three Seattle days we leave her unarmed with Abby pointing a gun at her head, Jesse (the father of Dina’s baby) dead and Tommy (Joel’s brother) injured. As Abby’s story builds towards that same climax, I already knew that I didn’t want Ellie to die but now I wasn’t keen on Abby dying either. Suddenly, the actions in the game gained an emotional weight that I was not prepared for and playing it was no longer simple.
The reason this shift is so successful and so harrowing is down to how well the story, the in-game mechanics and characters are developed and used. Whether you liked the game or not is a question of whether you were open to the depth of feeling this game is able to evoke or not. In the time we’ve spent with Ellie, feelings of uncertainty over the morality of her actions and her mental health have already been seeded. Until we meet Abby, we can push all that down because the end goal is still justice for Joel, but it’s on that foundation that the themes of this story start to build.
Abby (who is around the same age as Ellie) is by no means an easy character to get to like but her personality is so well woven in to the story that her flaws, her wit and her eventual warmth are on full display as you begin your journey with her. With the odds of our approval so stacked against her, subtlety is the key and it’s by playing the game and not through laborious exposition that this altering of our minds happens. This change is helped along with the introduction of a young trans boy named Lev and his sister Yara when their paths cross with Abby. Lev’s innocence to the world outside his cultist faction and his kind heart are a breath of fresh air in a dark and oppressive world and it’s through his eyes that we really begin to see past what Abby has done and look to the better person she is trying so hard to be.
As part of our warming towards her, early on we learn that the reason Abby hunted down Joel is because her Father was the surgeon that Joel kills at the end of game one. She too blazed a trail of revenge and is the embodiment of what all that hatred can do to a person. She successfully killed the man who murdered her father – and it only made things worse. Through flashback we see how her need for revenge pushed the people around her to the side-lines and how a relationship with her childhood sweetheart floundered and failed because of her inability to move on in a constructive way.
Ellie and Abby are the beginning and end of the same journey; they are both sides of the same coin. Ellie is on the descent of her path whereas Abby has already achieved her goal and is trying to come out the other side having experienced how futile her revenge has been. Abby’s story opens our eyes to how little there is to be gained by a cycle of violence. Joel kills Abby’s father, Abby kills Joel, Ellie kills all of Abby’s friends in her desperation to do the same thing to Abby. These deaths are needless and all of them done with only half of the story in place because hatred doesn’t care about the details, it only wishes to breed more chaos.
The moment that I knew that I was finally on board with Abby was during the bridges section in Day Two. Abby is hugely afraid of heights but in order to reach a hospital to obtain life-saving medicine for Yara, she and Lev venture across secret bridges high above the city of Seattle. Her fear of heights is something that is beautifully done with the in game mechanics where when you move towards a high edge whilst traversing an area, her breathing becomes more laboured and the fringes of the screen start to blur as she looks down in to the drop. (I may be going a little too deep here but I like to think of this as a metaphor for her life as well. She’s on the decline from the spiral her own journey of revenge sent her on but she hasn’t yet fallen, and it’s her fear of what she could become if she doesn’t change that she is ultimately feeling when she looks down in to the abyss.)
Conjecturing aside, the bridges show Abby at her most terrified but even through that acute distress she is kind with Lev and digs deep to find the strength she needs to push past debilitating fear. It’s not a wholly selfless mission (she is actively trying to wash off the stain her revenge has left) but in those moments she shows what she is made of. She never tries to turn back and instead opens herself to Lev, trusting him to mentor her through this awful ordeal. This section of the story demands that you see Abby as a human being by exposing her vulnerability and simultaneously showcasing her best features. It marks a turning point where if you are open to it, the hard work of the writing pays off and you are invested.
As we reach the climax for the second time with Abby, the scene replays and hearing Abby’s words repeated having spent time with her and having seen through new eyes what Ellie (and we with her) have done, gave me goosebumps in a whole new way.
“You killed my friends. We let you both live. And you wasted it.”
Abby spared the lives of Ellie and Tommy at the start, guided in part by childhood sweetheart Owen, knowing that her issue was only with Joel. In doing so she manages to maintain a semblance of humanity but as a consequence of that action, all Abby’s friends are now dead. Ellie on the other hand, utterly consumed by grief and hatred, has continued the cycle of violence without any mercy in her own quest for revenge. This is a pivotal moment for Abby and a test to see whether under this extreme pressure, she is able to resist falling back in to that same cycle.
When the two characters begin to fight, as the player I was being utterly half arsed about the whole thing. At this point you’re still playing as Abby but I absolutely didn’t want to kill Ellie. Ellie is terrifying in this sequence and when she catches you there is no love lost in her face. She is quick and calculating and suddenly all the traps and tricks you’ve been using in the first third of the game are used against you. You experience exactly what all the people who Ellie (and you) have killed in the game have gone through – panic.
I don’t know how many times I died in the first play through of this sequence but it was a lot. I was so unwilling to do damage to either of them and I hated playing it not because it’s a terrible game but because my motivation was all blurry. As the player you know both of these characters very well but their view of each other remains painfully two dimensional and watching them hunt each other is excruciating.
Eventually, Abby gains the upper hand and once again finds the lives of Ellie and her companions (in this instance Dina) in her power. She teeters on the brink of falling back into old habits, fully intending to kill both Dina and Ellie as retribution for the lost lives of her friends and it is Lev that brings her back from that precipice. He calls to her and as she looks at him, his fear of what she is about to do reminds her of everything she has been trying to be since Joel. It’s a huge effort of will but by opening herself up to human connection with Lev, Yara and Owen she has given herself the strength to break the cycle.
In this moment, we finally see that her story is one of redemption as she spares Dina and gives Ellie her life for a second time. As she stands over Ellie who is utterly helpless she issues a final warning, “Don’t ever let me see you again.”
Potato, potato, my little potato.
In an unusual sequence of calm, we pick back up with Ellie several months later and discover that having made it back home, Ellie, Dina and little baby JJ are now settled and living on a beautiful, secured farm a little way away from Jackson. This sequence is such a joy to play and time is spent allowing you to see what an idyllic set up this is. In the world of The Last of Us, this is surely as good as it gets.
We spend quality time with JJ and Dina in gorgeous gameplay moments (dancing, baby giggles, playing with lambs and herding sheep) that after the constant threat of attack we’ve experienced in the first two thirds of the game is really, really needed. (For those that have played the first game, it’s not quite a giraffe moment but it’s not far off.) Watching Ellie sitting on an old-fashioned tractor with JJ, as the sun sets and she sings a terribly cute potato themed song to him; I wanted this to be the ending.
But things are not that simple and underneath it all both Dina and Ellie are struggling. Moments here feel hollow in parts and that’s because they are. They love each other but both of them are going through the motions. Ellie is suffering from severe PTSD with sounds and moments taking her back to when she was pinned down, helplessly forced to watch her father figure be beaten to death. Not to mention coming to terms with everything she did in Seattle.
Dina is the glue holding them together, moving them forward and trying hard to cultivate a life for them. Ultimately though she is alone; the mother of an adorable but demanding young baby with a partner who is just barely functioning. There are so many things to love in the way that Dina has been written and her selflessness and strength come to the fore here as she keeps them all on track with an understanding and patience that few of us would be able to maintain.
When a visit from Joel’s brother Tommy threatens this equilibrium, the story shines a spotlight on the cracks in this seemingly idyllic life. Though Tommy tries to guilt Ellie in to hunting down Abby once more to get the justice that he believes Joel deserves, Ellie knows that she can’t and refuses (leading to one of my favourite moments where Dina absolutely lays into Tommy as he storms off). Dina is protective and knows how fragile her family still is and seeing how hard she fights for that makes the next part on the farm so much worse.
It’s not a surprise but it is truly a disappointment when Ellie packs up and gets ready to sneak out overnight without saying goodbye. Her response to Tommy was what she owed to Dina but in the dark of night when left to her own thoughts, she knows that, that isn’t her choice. The fight isn’t over for her and though Dina wakes up and tries to stop her, it’s utterly pointless. In an emotional scene Ellie walks out on her family, rubbishing everything Dina has worked so hard to try to sustain and proving that Dina’s assertions that leaving means Abby is more important than anything else are correct.
As the player, this was the moment when I too felt like I’d broken off from Ellie. I was raging at her for making this decision because after everything we’ve already learned with Abby, and everything that has been set up on the farm, we are acutely aware of what a stupid decision it is. It’s frustrating and upsetting and more importantly a pivotal moment in the narrative which sets the tone for the final third of the game. Futility.
To align us back somewhat with Ellie, Naughty Dog needed to make an absolutely horrendous final enemy for us to fight as we embark on this last chapter with her. For the story to work, we need something to rally against because the overall goal of finding Abby is ultimately now one that we don’t believe in. This is done with great success via a new faction we meet in Santa Barbara called The Rattlers.
There is minimal evidence of any shreds of humanity within this group of people and that simplicity is easy and welcome. In a less emotionally weighted section of gameplay we are allowed to get behind Ellie in taking them down as she infiltrates this group in the hopes of finding Abby, who has been taken prisoner already along with Lev. The gameplay here is a lot of fun and stealth and tactics are the most effective weapons in your arsenal as you meet enemies who have better armour and large numbers on their side. The player is given room to enjoy Ellie’s capabilities and forget, at least for a little while, what you’re actually there for.
As a plot point, knowing that Abby was now a prisoner also made me hope that maybe, just maybe this could end up being a rescue mission instead and that a conversation would happen to help them understand each other. When we make it to the prison cells, Ellie releases the other prisoners and learns from them that Abby has been taken down to “the pillars” and is probably already dead. The prisoners in their efforts to escape, arm themselves and set the whole camp on fire and it is in this chaos that we make our slow painful way towards Abby.
At this point Ellie is physically beyond recognition and it’s a shock to see it portrayed so starkly. She is pinched and hard, covered in wounds and blood that make her stagger and fall. She stumbles forward mumbling Abby’s name over and over in almost crazed efforts to try to keep herself going. It’s the physical and mental testament of what has become of her as she has sunk further and further into her grief and endured more and more loss.
The Pillars we discover are a form of punishment the Rattlers dish out to those prisoners who have pushed the boundaries one too many times. Abby and Lev have tried to escape (presumably multiple times knowing them) and their fate is to die out here slowly and painfully. Looking around, Ellie searches for Abby amongst prisoners who have all been tied to large pillars set upright in the sand.
Looking for someone with Abby’s usual physique it took me a minute to find her and when we finally do, it’s another shock to see a character we’ve learned to love so changed. The woman we find is a shell of her former self and barely looks like Abby. Her hair has been shaved and is short and cropped. Her muscles have long since gone and she is small and weak after months of torture and starvation under the hot sun.
In this broken state the two women meet again. Abby is wary. She knows that Ellie has hunted her down presumably to kill her but that as yet she is pausing and unsure what to do. Ellie has found her quarry but Abby is almost unrecognisable and the huge change in her appearance jolts Ellie in to seeing her as more than just the murderer of Joel and instead as a human being who has suffered and gone through pain just as she has.
Narratively these physical changes are so important and serve as both a clear visual indicator of the journey these characters have gone through (both literally and metaphorically) and as a useful device to allow a much slower pace for things to play out. If Ellie had met Abby with them both physically fit, there would have been nothing to stop them attacking straight away. Instead, this final game of cat and mouse is tense and unnerving, and allows the player to sit with their own feelings in a drawn out moment of anticipation.
As they reach some boats that would be a means of escape from The Rattlers, there is a moment where Ellie seems to rethink her vendetta and almost lets Abby take a near unconscious Lev away to safety. Then she remembers Joel. A flash of his face in his final moment flits into her mind and she turns back. How can she let Abby go after what she did? How can she move on from the trauma of his loss if she doesn’t finally have revenge?
Abby is adamant that she doesn’t want to fight which, assuming the player has successfully jumped on board with her at this point, solidifies our alignment with her. In order to force her, Ellie threatens the life of Lev. And so it begins.
Events begin to unfold and I found myself vocally struggling against it as a fight between them is made unavoidable. Crucially we’re still playing as Ellie in this sequence and it’s an important factor in how the game strives to elicit the deepest emotional response from the player. At this point, we have so much staked in both characters and by playing as Ellie who is the aggressor, the gameplay actively makes you do the thing you absolutely don’t want to do. We already know that Ellie’s choice to fight isn’t going to help her move on at all and will only make things worse. We’ve learned that lesson with Abby but Ellie hasn’t and watching her make that mistake is difficult to play and gut wrenching to watch.
The work of game one made us fall in love with Ellie so that despite all the bad choices she makes in game two, we want her to endure and be better. The incredible work that then goes into the relatively short time we spend with Abby makes us understand, like and sympathise with a character we initially hate; and further, to recognise in her that she is so very similar to Ellie – only a little further along the path. These strong, brave, remarkable young women should not be fighting each other and the futility of it all tastes like ashes in your mouth.
In an awful echo during the final fight, which is brutal and relentless, I found myself repeating Ellie’s sentiments from the scene where she is watching Joel murdered. I wanted it to stop. Please, please stop. I didn’t want to have to do this fight and watching two characters that I absolutely love attack each other was excruciating and unbearable. The gameplay here is clever and shows a great foresight from the game creators who know how the player will be feeling in this moment. In a game that excels at tactical fighting and planning ahead to take down complicated foes, all that is required here is the simplest of melee combat which is interspersed with short cut scenes of action as the fight progresses.
Second time round, this fight lost none of its potency and if anything, with the foresight of knowing how it all ends, the depth of feeling was even greater because knowing I couldn’t stop it meant that I was immersed more in every beat rather than fighting against it so hard.
Slowly and painfully, Ellie manages to overcome Abby. In horror, I watched Ellie as she begins to drown Abby in the shallows of the ocean. As well as seeing the life of a character you love be taken, you’re also watching the last hope of any kind of humanity vanish in Ellie. The sound design is incredible throughout the game but here especially it is deep, guttural and alarming. It resonates in your ears deepening the immersion as you literally feel the sound inside you.
When reading something like this it may be difficult to understand why something that makes you feel so awful at its climax would be something that also compelled me to write a loving analysis of how incredible it is. But it’s the very depth of feeling that has been crafted that I have found so inspiring. For a piece of entertainment to take you through the highs and lows that this game does is such a monumental achievement.
There are no concessions for comfortability made in gameplay, design, visuals, sound, story or character and every facet works together to create an immersive experience like no other.
Ridiculously, the game does this even whilst not being absolutely perfect. If you want to be really finnicky, there are still areas that could be honed and made better and yet the experience remains unforgettable in a way that feels truly special and ground-breaking.
I digress and the story is not yet over.
Ellie does not kill Abby. At the last moment (and if you’re like me, at the point where the player is an absolute mess) Ellie thinks of Joel once more. We see him playing his guitar on the porch, warmth in his face as he looks up to camera. We don’t know it yet but Ellie is remembering Joel from the last time she saw him alive – a beautifully scripted scene that we see played out in full after this sequence. For the player in the moment though, it’s enough to see his face and understand that Ellie finds the strength in her connection to him to finally realise that this is not what she wants.
Joel had utter conviction in his decision – he knew the cost of denying the world of a cure and he accepted it to save the life of the girl who he saw as a daughter. Ellie does not have that conviction in this moment. She has reached Abby, her goal, and so it no longer serves as a reason or excuse for her actions. She is weighed down with the burden of what she has already done, what she has already lost, and whether any of it was even worth it. In the end, she will only be denying another young person of their loved one and protector by seeing this through. She knows that pain and it is not something that, when she is herself, she would want to inflict on another person. Let alone the boy who was pivotal in keeping her and Dina alive back at the theatre. So she let’s Abby go.
Every choice has a cost – in this case the last shred of her humanity – and finally Ellie realises that, that final cost is too high. Of course, the journey that has got her to that realisation is one that has already left its mark on her and all those she encountered. She has devastated countless lives and has lost everything in the process.
This point is hammered home in the final moments where Ellie returns to the farm to find that Dina and JJ have left. She finds her guitar and tries to play but the final fight with Abby resulted in Ellie losing two of her fingers meaning that she can’t even do that anymore. One of her strongest connections to Joel and she has obliterated that too. So much loss; so much wasted time; and as an ending – it’s bleak.
As she walks away and back into the wilderness though, there is the tiniest seed of hope. She hung on to that final shred of who she is and maybe, just maybe, on whatever path she is on now her tread will be lighter and her journey less destructive. With tears in my eyes as the credits rolled – I really wanted that for her.
There will be some players who will have wanted to kill Abby at the end of this as a way for them to gain some form of justice for Joel in a world without a justice system. I can understand that point of view but for me, the disappointment they may have felt with the outcome is symptomatic of having missed the wider point of the game. A cycle of violence has no end and the cost of that kind of justice is an enduring one with far too great an impact. People are not simply good or bad and to simplify things down to so narrow a viewpoint is to miss the beauty and the ugliness of the human condition.
Ultimately though, there is no correct or incorrect response and at no point do the game creators tell you how to feel; it is your journey as a player and what you take from the game is unique to you. It is a ride you take alongside a nuanced and imperfect cast of characters and more than any other game I’ve played, a story that allows you to sit with your own feelings in tandem with those characters as you watch them walk their own path – whether it’s the one you would choose for them or not.
This game was the most emotionally distressing game I’ve ever played.
And that is its absolute triumph.