Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Last of Us Part II and The Critical Mastery of Revenge Porn

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The Last of Us Part II is not a masterpiece. It’s not a 10/10. I know what, like, every quasi-professional review ever has to say about it. I also recognize the physical danger there is to criticizing a game so popular that it has its own almost cinephile cult of personality surrounding it.

But the Last of Us Part II is not a masterpiece. I say this, first and foremost, because the emotional after image of a story is not a divorced reaction to the story itself. It is, inherently a product of the experience.

And so how a game feels after the credits roll and you put the controller down is an integral part of the score.

I won’t replay this game. I regret the time I spent with this game. I do not and will not, under any circumstance, recommend this game to others.

Much hay has been made about how divisive the developers anticipate it being. And in order to talk about why I feel the way I do about this game, we’re going to have to talk about the spoilers.

So. Spoiler warning.

The Last of Us Part II is a story of revenge. And what happens when that pursuit consumes you. What it costs to exact revenge. The revenge in this case is supplied by the brutal murder of Joel, in the prologue.

It’s ugly. I’ve been trying to draw comparisons but I’m coming up blank. When Joel is murdered, Ellie has tried to rescue him, failed, been caught, is now pinned to the floor and bleeding from several impacts to the head, and crying, begging Joel to get up. Abby, ostensibly the antagonist, finishes the job of killing Joel with a golf club. We don’t see a close-up of Joel’s final form. We do see Abby step back, away from his corpse, holding the golf club low, with a piece of Joel’s LITERAL BRAIN, clearly visible on the end of the club.

Ellie, reasonably, comes unglued. All of Abby’s friends react in kind, talk about the lengths they need to go to clean up, including murdering Ellie, until Abby intervenes and they move off.

Thus begins Ellie’s story of revenge.

She travels with Dina, a queer, Jewish woman who falls for Ellie and supports her on her mission to get even. Early in the story, she discovers she’s pregnant and when they get to Seattle, hangs back while Ellie pushes on ahead alone.

I don’t want to rehash the story beats. There are great articles outlining every major beat, and the Wikipedia summary is pretty comprehensive of the major plot points.

So far, the only good thing I can say about this game is that Ellie and Dina both survive. Queer women in love don’t often live to the end of their stories, especially in tragedies like this. But they do in this one. A first, for The Last of Us as a series, as the Left Behind DLC in the first game ends with the impending death of Ellie’s first love.

And so, Ellie and Dina both live. It’s sort of unfortunate.

Ellie hunts the specific people who helped Abby kill Joel across Seattle, at one point savagely beating one for information. We see blood splatter, in this scene. But we do not see the person Ellie brutalizes. Because it’s not about the act; it’s about what it does to Ellie. It’s an act that scars her.

It’s difficult to sit through. So much of this game is just simply difficult to stomach, not because violence is unthinkable but because of the lengths it goes to show the awfulness of people. At every turn, people choose to be their worst selves to each other.

We watch the Seraphites, a religious cult, smash a woman, Yara’s, arm with a hammer and you can hear the bone splinter and shatter.

Just before this happens, Abby is bound, hanged, and almost gutted.

You kill patrol dogs in-game, and they whimper when they die. Patrol mates call out for each other. They talk about how scared they are. Their voices break when they realize they’re being picked off.

None of this slows them down from trying to kill you. It’s just a mechanic to make you feel bad.

This game feels like a thesis, written by a sheltered person, who wonders, ‘what if violence felt bad?’ and there’s no answer to that question, it just punishes you for playing the game. You can’t not kill. You can’t sneak past enemies to get to your next objective. You can stealthily eliminate them, for sure, but you can very rarely evade them entirely.

And so the game goes to great and theatrical lengths to make its core mechanics hurt, emotionally, to engage with. But! It tells you, bluntly and endlessly that violence is bad and this mission is wrong and revenge is poison, but the mechanics of killing and actually playing the game are endlessly gratifying.

It’s immensely satisfying to get the finishing blow on a difficult enemy, and the relief when an engagement passes is palpable. You have a broad array of tools with limited ammo to handle engagements, and so there’s a lot of work in managing your resources, not getting surrounded, picking off stragglers, things like that.

But at no point is this a bad game to play. It is, without a doubt, Naughty Dog’s most polished product to date.

As a brief aside, there was one noticeable improvement from the first game to this one, beyond graphics. In the first game, I remember a story about a photojournalist playing the game and getting pictures of the gameplay moments. They had a friend play the game, and at the right moments, the journalist would tell them to take a picture of the action.

Almost invariably, Joel’s face would be static.

Ellie, as she goes through these actions, is animated. She grunts, she grimaces, she squints, she flinches. Naughty Dog is renowned for the subtlety of their animations and the emotion they can convey. They have hit it out of the ballpark here.

Back to the point I’m trying to make.

In order to really reinforce the idea that what you’ve been doing is wrong, in-game, around the halfway point the story switches at what appears to be the climax. And now you play as Abby; Joel’s murderer.

It backs up to just before the end of the first game, before the hospital. Abby is younger, not as visibly strong, and she’s on a walk with her father; he’s the surgeon that Joel will eventually kill to save Ellie’s life. You get some bonding with Abby’s father, demonstration of the man’s supposed compassion when you help him free a zebra caught in barbed wire.

And then they’re summoned to the hospital. Abby’s father talks with Marlene, the functional leader of the Fireflies, and someone Joel will also murder before the first game is over.

The debate is over Ellie’s life. One life, versus saving millions. There’s no functional way to get to the thing that makes Ellie immune to cordyceps (the disease that killed the world) without killing Ellie and picking her brain apart.

This is a gamble, by the way. They don’t KNOW, for sure, that this will work. They’re guessing, if they take Ellie’s head apart, they’ll find the THING that makes her immune.

The surgeon is willing to kill Ellie if it means he gets the cure. IF. There’s no certainty here. Marlene’s uncertain. Compares Ellie to Abby, asks what if? The surgeon, in my opinion, without actually saying it, implies that he’d do it anyway.

Abby, eavesdropping, comes in. After Marlene moves off, Abby says that she’d be willing to die if it meant a cure could be found.

And then Shit Hits The Fan. Joel does his thing, Abby rushes in later, and sees her father, dead, on the floor. Her world comes unglued.

Four years later, she gets a lead on Joel, hunts him down, and has her revenge. Her group of friends supports this, and all of them are eager to kill both Ellie and Joel. I want to reinforce that.

It cuts back to the present, where she’s at the headquarters with her people. They’re part of an army that has occupied Seattle, and shoots both stragglers and infected on sight. A primary difference between Ellie’s people back in Jackson, and this group in Seattle.

The folks in Jackson invite strangers in, gives sanctuary. The “wolves” of Seattle are an occupying army.

You spend a fair chunk of time walking around the headquarters, the former stadium, seeing how all the people who were so eager to butcher Joel and Ellie live, and have lives, and people who love them. The game treats you so childishly that it’s daring you to ask, ‘what if villains were people too!’.

You go on patrol, banter with your friends, do all the things you did as Ellie, but now as the woman who beat Joel to death with a golf club.

This act has fractured Abby’s friendships, however. There’s tension between her and Mel. Mel is a medic, and has lost her nerve a bit because of the act.

She’s also the pregnant girlfriend to Owen, someone that Abby has mixed feelings about, and attraction to. The tension there is an ugly and toxic love triangle.

The game tries really, REALLY, hard to humanize these people. It doesn’t work for me personally because it rings too close to, “nazis were people too.” Fundamentally true, they had lives and went to church and their nine-to-five was butchering Jews.

To ask, “What if villains were people too?” is a question as deep as a mirror, and yet you spend twelve hours of this game rooted exclusively in the suffering of its characters, playing as an incredibly unlikeable person.

Abby’s greatest redemption ultimately comes when she helps save the life of Yara and Lev, victims of the Seraphite’s brutal punishments. Lev is a trans man, someone who is deadnamed constantly by the other Seraphites in the game. Because he dared to present himself honestly to his society, he was condemned to a brutal death.

He survives, in no small part, to Abby’s actions.

As a trans woman, very nearly all of Lev’s story, and the way he’s treated by others in this game, is triggering to me. It’s the worst kind of ugly. I didn’t need Naughty Dog to inform me that the world is eager and willing to brutalize people like us at every turn.

Not two weeks before this game came out, two trans women were butchered, and their killers remain uncaught.

In more than forty American states, straight men can murder trans women because of how they react to us, and get away with it, because of the “Gay Panic defense.”

But please, Naughty Dog, tell me more about this INCONCEIVABLE IDEA that trans folks are vulnerable in an apocalypse to extreme religious cultists. No one’s thought of that before.

The story of Abby connecting to Lev and actively trying to be better because of him is, in fact, moving. And if that had been the whole game, or at least more of Abby’s story, my final opinion of the game might have been different.

This is a scenario, however, where there’s no one thing to tweak that would have made this a more enjoyable experience. There’s so much that’s functionally broken that I can’t just say “fix the ending,” or “rewrite Abby’s story focusing instead on her personal journey of enlightenment and leave everyone else out of it.” Because I don’t if that would fix what’s fundamentally broken about this game.

I don’t want to rant anymore so here are my final thoughts.

The game punishes the players for the story and for the actions you cannot avoid and the cutscenes you cannot skip, and at the end of that, there’s nothing. The ending is, ultimately, nothing.

No catharsis. No resolution. You can’t bring yourself to kill Abby.

Letting her go on the beach, before Ellie holds a trans man hostage to force the final fight, by the way, would have been a better ending.

But it would have required a choice. To stand up and say something.

It would have required Ellie to see the suffering Abby and Lev went through in Santa Barbara and decide that that’s enough. But no, Ellie forces the issue.

The final fight is awful, and it ends with Ellie losing two fingers, having flashbacks to Joel, and ultimately letting Abby live anyway.

At the end of the story I’m sitting here watching Ellie walk off towards Jackson, left by Dina, with Abby in the wind, Joel in the dirt, and two fingers lost to the fight, and wondering what was the point?

What was the point?

There was none. We see the cost, sure. Ellie’s alone with nothing but consequences; the woman who loved her, left because she couldn’t carry the weight of that revenge. Ellie can’t play guitar anymore because she doesn’t have enough fingers, and so Joel’s gift to her is useless.

There’s nothing.

I will sit through truly agonizing story experiences if the ending is worth something, if the characters find catharsis in their journey.

There was no catharsis here.

A mediocre story is elevated by an amazing ending and a brilliant story is ruined by a poor one.

This was neither a brilliant or middling story. It was just. Ugly.

I cannot stress how not worth it this game was. I want every single second I spent taking in this story, thinking about this story, being aware of this story, back.

I joked to some friends that the story, for me, functionally, ended with Dina and Ellie in Eugene’s basement smoking weed and making out. Happy and excited for what they could do together. What their future might hold.

The story could have ended when they got back to the farm. Ellie is haunted, has PTSD, and stress flashbacks about what she endured. But she could have made strides to find healing. Closure. And stayed with Dina and their child on the farm.

But. That would have required an intelligent, or emotionally aware, decision. And at its core, this is a horror game. And so Ellie makes the decision to reopen the wound, and go back after Abby.

Technically, from a rendering, acting, and presentation standpoint, the game is the most polished ever made by Naughty Dog. It is, functionally speaking, a technical masterpiece. And the content, what it actually has to say, is so not worth anyone’s time that I struggle to see what the justification was.

This game took seven years, countless hours, unending and abusive crunch periods, high turn-over, emotional and physical distress on behalf of the devs, and I’m looking at what they were directed to make and struggling to understand what this story gave the world that it lacked before.

Who, precisely, was unaware that the world is cruel, unforgiving, brutally punishing to people that don’t fit into the standard order of things?

Is that the headline? That there are vulnerable people who exist outside the rules and that, for existing, there are those waiting and willing to do violence to us?

It’s not like our government tried to remove legal protections to prevent discrimination against queer and trans patients seeking medical aid.

It’s not like we’re in the middle of a country-wide call for reform for policing because of the white supremacist law enforcement’s continual abuse of Black and brown bodies.

Golly, Naughty Dog, who could have POSSIBLY guessed the world is hostile?

So here’s my final review score: 2/10. It’s visually stunning, you can throw a ball for a dog a couple of times, and the guitar minigame is pretty clever. In every other way that matters, however, I cannot possibly stress this enough: don’t play this game. It will not be worth it.

Image courtesy of Naughty Dog

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