The Unexpected Controversy of The Last of Us: Part II


Tasha Acres (she/her) interrogates the mixed reception of Playstation’s most anticipated game of 2020

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Image by Naughty Dog Presskit

By Tasha Acres

Warning: this article contains major spoilers!

Any fan of The Last of Us prior to Part II will remember the creeping anticipation for its release. Every trailer promised a game rich with emotion, meticulously developed and infused with nostalgia. With an initial release in February 2020, it made sense that the suspense became painful when video game developer Naughty Dog announced that the release date would be pushed back to June. With the steady release of trailers providing deeper insight into the world that we were introduced to in 2013, every fan’s expectations stood taller than a skyscraper.

June arrived, and before long, fiery opinions of the game flew. Naughty Dog’s fanbase couldn’t decide whether they loved the game or hated it, and I want to discuss why. Perhaps you’re reading this article because you’re looking for vindication, maybe you don’t understand the other side’s perspective and you are hoping to find out. Potentially, you have no opinion about this at all but you’re curious as to what the whole issue was.

I think the most obvious part to note about the backlash to Part II is the lack of a certain character. Joel’s death took a large number of fans by shock – crucially, though, not the type of shock that was intended by Naughty Dog. His death was certainly placed in the game to deepen the emotional turmoil of the player, and therefore bring them into Ellie’s state of mind, but the fact that he did die was unexpected for many.

Even though the 2016 trailer of the game seems to play with the metaphor of Joel stepping onto the trailer from the light, his face barely visible as he walks through the scene like a shadow strongly implied that he was not truly with Ellie, subsequent trailers place this initial, obvious assumption onto shaky foundations. The expectation of Joel’s presence in the game was fostered by Naughty Dog during the marketing for the game, which is why it is understandable that the backlash to this was so extreme. It makes sense for Naughty Dog to withhold this plot, but the misleading marketing led to feelings of betrayal for many fans.

In the official story and release date trailer from Sony’s State of Play in September 2019, Joel surprises Ellie, with a cut on his cheek, and the question, “You think I’d let you do this on your own?” This contrasts with the trailer from 2016, where it is exactly Joel’s clean appearance that detaches him from the rest of the scene. Here, it’s very clear that he was intended to appear in this scene, whether Naughty Dog intended for it to seem like that or not. Therefore, when Jesse is substituted for Joel’s place in the actual game, the backlash makes more sense, it feels more like betrayal; we’ve been misled. Another trailer features Joel at the age we’ve seen him in Part IIso far, yet in the game it turns out to be a flashback, obliterating the expectations they had laid down. And when paired with the delayed release, and other parts of the trailers seemingly hinting that something was to happen to Dina, such as in the extended cinematic trailer, where the focus on Dina’s bracelet which cuts to Ellie wading knee-deep through a battle with the Seraphites seems to imply that Dina is who Ellie was avenging. The question that will forever remain a mystery is whether the plot of the game had been ‘frank-ensteined’ before its June release, where scenes were altered and rejigged quickly to fit an alter-nate story. There is concept art showing Ellie in the level where the island is on fire, suggesting that there was a significant alteration as to what was originally intended to happen.

Of course, Joel’s absence from the game changed the tone entirely. The game was no longer about Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which is what many fans wanted to see: the perseverance of love in an environment otherwise devoid of it. However even though Naughty Dog didn’t retain the atmosphere of the first game, Part II was not the failure of a game that those who disliked the story made it out to be. Those who either immediately praised it or learned to appreciate it have noticed that written into it is an unmistakable thread of humanity.

The subversion of the revenge drama, where usually all characters meet their end to emphasise that the path of revenge is the wrong one to take, helps to make the game emotionally complex. You don’t feel happy upon completion, and that is deliberate. You are forced into the perspective of two grieving, angry teenagers that have grown up in a world divided into factions and who have likely never felt safe in their lives. Part II is an empathetic game that demonstrates how Ellie’s generation grapples with living in a divided, desolate world where love and compassion are pushed to the side in favour of violence and apathy. Ellie deciding not to kill her opponent, Abby, at the end is not the dissatisfying ending that many believe it to be; in a world where self preservation is the priority, the silent truce between Ellie and Abby emphasises the acknowledgement that the betterment of humanity begins with them, as it is their responsibility to not follow in the footsteps of their elders, to choose empathy over violence.

The desolate, hopeless weight that settles into the crevices of your heart after finishing the game is a purposeful reminder of the change that the game wants to emphasise; it is hard, gruelling and seemingly impossible to go through with. But it is necessary. Perhaps The Last of Us: Part III – if there is one – will high-light the consequences of this change, which is hopefully for the better.