The Button Prompt
There’s a moment in The Last of Us where the player is faced with a button prompt. Your character’s brother holds out a photo to him. It’s a picture of your character and his daughter. She’s won a soccer tournament, and he’s got an arm around her. I tap the triangle button, expecting that my character will take the photo. Instead, Joel pushes it away.
There’s a moment in The Last of Us Part 2 where the player is faced with a button prompt. Your character stands in front of a dying woman, who has information that your character wants. Your character is holding a metal rod. Her face contorts with anger. I tap the square button, expecting that my character will hit the dying woman with the metal pipe. And that’s what Ellie does. Again. And again. Until the screen abruptly cuts to black.
It’s a deeply silly moment. It doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve been making Ellie do cruel, violent things since the beginning of her revenge plan. Right before this scene, I threw a molotov at a human, lighting them on fire and drawing the nearby clickers to their group, waited until they killed each other, and then picked off the stragglers with a bow. What am I supposed to feel, watching Ellie’s face twitch, the square button prompt hanging beside it. Is there something that this square button is meant to add that a pure cutscene couldn’t tell you? What work was that square button meant to do?
These small weird things…the square button and the NPC names they were so proud of, they do nothing but make me roll my eyes and scoff a bit. When every NPC response to finding a fallen comrade is “BRENDA!” or “CHAD!” or “MIKE!” rather than anything else, it makes them feel more like pieces of code, not less. All that work for something that just didn’t work. What was the point?
Before I played The Last of Us Part 2, I read criticism for The Last of Us Part 2. I know this seems like the wrong order to do this, but I was curious. One thought that came up a few times in a few pieces was how the game seemed to implicate the player in its violence. That criticism confused me more than any of the others.
I always appreciated how The Last of Us seemed to take careful steps not to implicate you in its violence. The game, at least from my perspective, separates the player from Joel, even before it literally separates you at the end. That’s what that triangle button did for me. I pressed it, fully expecting one thing to happen. But Joel, instead, did something else. It was one of many moments where the game told me, “You are not Joel. You are just playing his role in this particular performance of The Last of Us.”
The Last of Us Part 2 is much less concerned with clearly making a distinction, and I think that’s where the issue lies. Its only moments of separation are literal- the switch from Ellie to Abby and back again. That was enough by the end of the game. In that violent, raw fight, I didn’t think the game was pointing fingers at me. I was too separate from Ellie by then. It wasn’t about me. I was just performing her role.
But that whole first section of the game left a lingering bad aftertaste. I understood where the criticism came from.
The Penultimate Sequences
When I controlled Joel on his desperate violent rush through the hospital in the first game, I didn’t necessarily feel good about what Joel was doing. But I didn’t necessarily feel bad either.
From a personal opinion, I think it’s fundamentally amoral that the Fireflies do not wake Ellie up, do not tell her what is about to happen, do not let her say goodbye to Joel, or read one more comic book, or listen to one more song. But it’s understandable. What if she said no? Better not to give her the chance. Humanity itself is on the line.
I also think it’s fundamentally amoral of Joel to murder his way through that hospital. He knows Ellie well enough to know that this is what she would want. But it’s understandable. They didn’t even let her say goodbye. And, to Joel, the potential of Ellie’s life is far more important than the certainty of her death.
When Ellie faces down Abby in the shallows of the ocean, there is a clear right and a clear wrong here for me. At this point, they have enacted violence on each other, so much violence that it’s hard to measure. Ellie has paid Abby back in kind for killing Joel. She’s taken all her friends, and Abby took back one of Ellie’s in turn. They both took it too far from the beginning, but now Ellie has taken it to the breaking point. If the game put the player back in control of Abby here, it would give a much different feeling.
I feel bad, controlling Ellie here at the end. I’m exhausted. Controlling Ellie, I let Abby get a few hits in, because I just can’t take it. But I don’t feel belittled or blamed here. Instead, I feel like the game is asking me, in its own limited way, to understand what Ellie feels.
She’s tired. She doesn’t want to be here. But she has to. She needs to. For her and for us, this is the only way forward.
A Generous Read
What’s important to know about Ellie is, deep down, she thinks the certainty of her death was more important than the potential of her life. And maybe she was right. But there’s no taking back Joel’s decision. And Abby took him away before Ellie could come to terms with that. Before she could even try to come around to his way of thinking. And it’s only in remembering that she wanted to that she finds the strength to let Abby go.
When we act as Ellie, the game, as a director, asks us to prioritize her doubts and hesitation. When we feel “I don’t want to do this,” we enact that part of Ellie’s character in our playing of her role. If the game didn’t make us feel reluctant or tired, then Ellie really would just be a relentless revenge machine. The game wouldn’t work if we wanted what Ellie thinks she wants.
So here’s my generous read on that square button prompt. It’s just another way for the player to act within the constructs of this game. It’s meant to represent her hesitation. The player gets to decide- how long does she hesitate? Does she just need a moment to steel herself or can she hardly bring herself to do it? Does she hesitate between swings, or does a single decision carry her all the way through?
Even as I’m typing it out, I doubt that was the original intent. But it’s hard to get a read on what the creators really wanted, not when the marketing and the interviews pre- and post-release contradict themselves. There are some things this game just got wrong. But I ultimately disagree with the notion that the game wants to make you complicit in its violence. It just wants you to understand where Ellie’s coming from.
Stray Thoughts Corner
I made my major point above, but I do want to use this as a place to get all my thoughts about The Last of Us Part 2 out, even the ones that aren’t really related to the essay above.
1. A Different Structure
In keeping with my new brand I guess, I was musing a bit about whether this game would work better with a different structure. I don’t have as solid a case as I thought I did with Cold Steel, so no video. Also, I don’t hate myself, so no video.
I was wondering whether cutting most of Ellie’s first half of the game and giving it to Abby instead would have worked better overall. Abby’s story needed more time, but just adding time to this game wouldn’t work. It’s too long. Fight me, Troy Baker. But, to be honest, cutting from Ellie’s side is hard! I really like her relationship with Dina, and I think that’s important. I think the flashbacks with Joel are important too- we have to know that she knows at the very least. But I 100% think you could have skimmed an hour or five and given them to Abby and Lev’s relationship development instead.
Like, the sky bridge is a pretty clever shortcut to bonding, but it still feels slightly underdeveloped. Especially since I think we’re supposed to draw some parallels between Abby&Lev and Joel&Ellie. Maybe you could have made Lev and Yara an already-established presence in Abby’s world? I’m not sure that would have worked either.
Like I said, I don’t have a strong case for this. Just something I was musing about.
2. Spec-Ops The Line
I definitely fell in this trap before, but Spec Ops: The Line is less a criticism of “violent video games,” as it is popularly cited to be, than it is about “militaristic video games.” You know, those games that tell you you’re a hero fighting undercover for a strange, eerie facsimile of Ronald Reagan.
Seriously, wtf Call of Duty.
To be honest, that message in Spec Ops is even more important now, considering how the Army is pretty actively recruiting through Twitch and GameSpot just openly tweets out recruitment links.
Anyway, that’s just to point out that the critique in Spec Ops is a bit more meaningful than just “you shouldn’t shoot people in games.” I also think The Last of Us 2 is less about violence specifically that it is about how hard it is to healthily process grief and anger. And there’s value to that, especially since this is an anger towards an individual. I would just ask you to remember that some anger is healthy, especially when it is directed towards systems. In the wise advice of Barrett Wallace, sometimes you should hold on to it.
3. Re:Zero (???? yeah, I know, I’m really losing my mind here but-)
I recently caught up to Re:Zero (thank you for your condolences, I’m still not sure if I like the show???), and I was somewhat struck with the thought that Ellie and Subaru seem similar to me. In some ways! This is absolutely not a perfect comparison. But Subaru’s issue is that he saw Emilia as an object that needs to be saved by him, and Ellie’s issue is that she saw Joel as a symbol that needs to be avenged by her.
She convinced herself that this is what Joel would do, and so this is what he would want her to do. Of course, what Joel himself would do and what he would want for Ellie are very different. But the excuse works as a way to give herself a purpose, instead of continuing to drown in grief, anger, and disgust- most of which is aimed squarely at herself. Subaru, meanwhile, convinced himself that Emilia needs him, even when she says she doesn’t, ignoring the fact that Emilia has survived on her own for many years before he came along. But the excuse, again, works as a way to give himself a purpose, and to distract him from the many ways he hates himself.
These are very different characters, in the end, but I couldn’t help thinking about it. There are many different ways we use other people to hide from ourselves.
A few essays I really liked/gave me more to think about:
- ‘Last of Us Part II’ Is Great, but Can’t Escape Its Father’s Shadow by Julie Muncy
- The Not So Hidden Israeli Politics of ‘The Last of Us Part II’ by Emanuel Maiberg
- Attaching Real World Guilt to The Last of Us: Part II’s Violence is Bullsh*t by Kenneth Shepard
- Broken People, Broken Worlds: Thoughts on The Last of Us Part II by Carolyn Petit