After seven years of waiting, "The Last of Us Part II" was finally released. To say it’s been a controversial ride would be an understatement.
In late April, pivotal scenes in the sequel were leaked, allegedly by a disgruntled employee. The leaks inspired countless Mario Golf memes (If you know, you know) by a so-called “toxic gaming community,” according to the co-writer, who didn’t work on the previous and original installment.
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.
A Brief History of The Last of Us
If you haven’t played The Last of Us, you really should. It’s considered a classic, one of the best games of its time, and for good reason. It’s an action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony, and it very much feels like watching a movie you control. It stars Joel, a hardened smuggler tasked with escorting a teenage girl, Ellie, across a post-apocalyptic, virus-ravaged United States. The game opens with a scene 20 years earlier, at the start of the outbreak with arguably the most heart-wrenching video game opening in history. Joel loses his young teenage daughter during their attempt to flee the city as the world is plunged into chaos.
Flash forward to the present, and he meets Ellie, a headstrong but optimistic young girl who becomes like a daughter to him. He’s supposed to take her to a medical research facility across the country, and during the journey, learns that she’s immune to the virus. When they arrive, Joel learns that in order to create the vaccine, Ellie will have to die in the process. Torn by the moral dilemma, he opts to save Ellie, perhaps driven by the pain of his inability to save his own daughter. While saving her, he kills many in a major gunfight, including the unarmed doctor in charge of Ellie’s surgery.
Although I’ve been a gamer my whole life, I primarily played Nintendo. So I didn’t actually play The Last of Us until the beginning of quarantine this year, which honestly was the best time to experience it. I live in Los Angeles, and just as extreme panic came in the form of the coronavirus, I was witnessing a pandemic of infected people in arguably one of the greatest video games of the decade. The score is hauntingly beautiful, and the story was so impactful that it inspired an HBO show currently in the making.
Now We Get to The Last of Us, Part II.
After an initially delayed release date, major leaks, and gamer outrage, the game debuted on Friday, June 19. The Last of Us Part II is receiving rave reviews from major critics and gaming sites, and is even being called "the best videogame ever made," but user reviews (all fans of the first game) tell a very different story.
The disconnect between critics and the audience
Despite harsh dismissal of the negative reviews from outlets like Forbes and claims from the Naughty Dog president that the game is being review-bombed by people who actually haven’t played it, the majority of reaction videos echo the scathing sentiments in the written reviews.
We see it all the time with movies. Just look at the obvious divide on sites like Rotten Tomatoes between critics and the audience. But video games? The Last of Us Part II has had more reviews this weekend than any game has had in history. But why are critics ranking it 10/10 while the audience ranks it 4.1/10? Here are the 7 biggest reasons why the game is getting so much hate:
Reason 1: Joel’s Death
Joel, arguably one of the greatest male protagonists in recent memory, is killed around the two-hour mark of The Last of Us II. Honestly, I wasn’t shocked. I expected him to die. The trailers hinted that Ellie would be out for vengeance so I figured Joel would be killed off early on. The issue? The way he died. First off, gamers who were told they were "conspiracy theorists" were vindicated as the leak turned out to be true. Joel is gruesomely beat to death with a golf club by a masculine, ripped woman named Abby, a name that will live in videogame infamy. Joel had rescued her from certain death just moments before she murders him.
But oh, is there more. Not only are you forced to play as Abby right before the brutal scene… not only is Ellie forced to watch… but after Joel’s dead body is mangled on the concrete floor, a character whose face is modeled after Neil Druckmann, the director of the game, SPITS on Joel’s corpse. This moment is infuriating, but worse, anyone who played the first game knows it’s completely out of character for Joel to follow a stranger to a hideout full of people he doesn’t know. Later on, we do see Joel again in flashbacks, which are arguably some of the best scenes you experience while playing as Ellie.
Reason 2: Prominent LGBTQ Themes
When the leaks came out featuring Joel and Abby (the woman he saved who murders him), many memes surfaced about Abby being transgender, mostly due to her character photo. The body double they used for her character was a ripped, female Crossfit athlete, only they most likely shrunk her chest as they did with the new character Dina, Ellie’s love interest.
Abby is not technically confirmed by the studio as transgender, but there is another character who is notably trans. Of the three new supporting characters, one was trans, one was lesbian, and one was also presumably transgender. Not to mention, Ellie, the heroine, is a lesbian. In the post-apocalyptic world, you don’t see any American flags, but you do see LGBTQ pride flags in Seattle.
I’ve seen some ignorant articles, like this one from Forbes, saying if you mention “‘agenda, feminism, SJW, woke, pandering or political correctness' you have already lost this argument.” I found it odd that the writer wrote a review for the sequel when he had only played 12 hours of the game (it’s around 24-27 hours total). That’s like leaving a movie or a Broadway show halfway in to write a review about it.
We knew for years that Ellie was most likely a lesbian. It was hinted at in The Last of Us: Left Behind expansion when she kisses her friend. And did you hear any uproar about it? No, because Ellie was a badass, a beacon of hope, and we loved her. The issue with this game is that for the sake of diversity, gamers felt that the story and plot were ruined by an obvious agenda. It’s clear they’re trying to make sexual and gender fluidity a prominent part of the story.
Dina, Ellie’s love interest in the game, kisses her while dancing at an event at the start of the game. An older man complains that there are families around, which sparks a fight. The next day, the man apologizes for the comment and for drinking too much, and makes Ellie a sandwich for her patrol, but she doesn’t want it. She passes it off, referring to it as a “bigot sandwich.”
Later that day, Ellie and Dina take a break on patrol and makeout and presumably have sex in an abandoned underground weed farm, right before Dina’s recent ex walks in on them. There isn’t much character development from Dina, and her chemistry with Ellie feels rushed and forced.
Next, we have Lev, a transgender character. He and his sister escape a religious cult called the Seraphites, presumably named after seraphs, which are angelic beings in ancient Jewish and Christian angelology. The Seraphites are indeed some sort of religious cult, but they’re definitely not angelic – they’re known for sacrificing their victims by hanging them.
You would think that the LGBTQ community would be thrilled having a transgender character as a new lead in such a big game, but that hasn’t been the case. Pink News mentions many tweets from gamers that condemn the new character. One gamer tweeted, “It doesn’t matter how ‘dark/grim’ a setting is, that’s unnecessary. Developers need to understand what kind of player will feel good about that kind of violence directed at trans people.”
I will say, Lev’s character comes across as incredibly selfish. When you fight with him as Abby against the Seraphites, he’s often called “Lily” or an “apostate.” So of course, you figure he was previously a girl. His sister later tells you that he shaved his head like a man and emotionally felt like one. Lev is stubborn and goes to tell his mom that he’s a man, while you (as Abby) and his sister chase after him (because the cult will kill him). When you finally catch up to Lev on the cult’s island offshore, Lev has killed his mother during their confrontation, presumably out of self-defense. Then his poor sister, who has one arm at this point, is killed as well.
THEN we return home and Abby’s friends are killed, one of which was her lover, the other was a pregnant woman. So FIVE people died because Lev was selfish. If Abby had stayed home instead of running after Lev, a character whose side quest feels totally random, she could’ve saved her friends. Honestly, aside from a character named Jesse, Dina’s ex-boyfriend, the new characters are extremely unlikeable.
Reason 3: Are Girls Not Allowed To Be Beautiful in Video Games Anymore?
Neil Druckmann, the director of The Last of Us II, cited Anita Sarkeesian and her Feminist Frequency videos as a major influence. Even as a girl, I couldn’t help but notice how masculine all the women looked in The Last of Us Part II. In the first game, Ellie was a cute girl, and side by side photos of her from the original and sequel show her as an uglier version of herself. Most of the girls have short hair and are completely flat-chested, despite their actual female body doubles having fuller busts.
Look, I’m not expecting every video game heroine to look like Lara Croft, Tifa Lockhart, or any of the gorgeous women from The Witcher, but why are we trying to make girls look as unattractive as possible? As a female gamer, I like playing as a hot, badass girl. So I did find it annoying that they went to the opposite extreme.
Reason 4: Feminist Inspiration
As one review put it, “they are definitely trying to push this whole ‘death to the patriarchy’ theme.” Maybe, maybe not. But all the male characters do die, except for Tommy, Joel’s brother. He ends up partly paralyzed and blind, and his wife leaves him.
Reason 5: Playing as the Enemy, Gone Wrong
One of the biggest choices Naughty Dog made is to have you play half the game as Ellie, and half the game as Abby, the antagonist, starting at the 15-hour mark. I’m assuming this length of time is to let your rage simmer after watching her murder Joel, the character both you and Ellie have grown to love. It’s a brilliant idea to play from the antagonist’s perspective, illustrating the idea of “there are two sides to every story.” Brilliant idea, terribly executed.
Abby’s roughly 7-8 hours of gameplay is spent on what ends up being a disastrous and pointless side mission to help the young trans character, which has absolutely nothing to do with the main story and has no effect on the ending. You also skip forward and backward, at one point even having a flashback within a flashback, forgetting where you actually are in the story with Ellie. It’s discombobulating, and it makes you wonder, what exactly is the point of this game?
The writers desperately want you to feel sorry for Abby and understand why she killed Joel. Turns out, her father was the doctor Joel killed at the end of the first game to save Ellie. Regardless, it feels cheap. And you’d be blind to miss the major difference in moral choices the game forces you to make.
When you play as Ellie (the protagonist)
You’re forced to kill dogs
You’re forced to murder a pregnant woman
You’re forced to murder people who plead for their lives as their loved ones watch
When you play as Abby (the antagonist)
You save kids
You defend those kids against evil transphobic forest people
You play with dogs
If the storytelling was that good, the writers wouldn’t need to be so desperate to try to show moral relativism. After Ellie kills the pregnant woman, she collapses and hyperventilates, because she didn’t know the woman was pregnant. When Abby is about to kill a pregnant woman, Ellie yells that she’s pregnant, and Abby says, “Good,” and is about to slit her throat until Lev asks her not to. If you wanted more insight into Abby's morality, she has rough sex with Owen on his boat while Mel, Owen's girlfriend, is pregnant with his child.
I did have some fun playing as Abby, strictly because she is given some exciting missions and her hulkish strength seems to make fighting a bit easier. She also has the best boss fight in the entire game, and the whole sequence is a terrifying, wild ride.
The Last of Us II is a lot more graphic and gory than its predecessor, possibly thanks to the new co-writer, Halley Gross, who apparently finds violence therapeutic: “I would drink a case of Diet Coke and cry in the shower. But whereas when I would write graphic violence, at the end of the day I would want to go out with my girlfriends and get a rosé. I would feel so zen. It was massive catharsis every day, like four hours of therapy.”
Reason 6: Lack of Choice in the Name of Moral Ambiguity
One of the story’s biggest issues is that it tries to be morally ambiguous to an obvious degree (no wonder the critics love it), while simultaneously removing choice from the player at the game’s most critical junctures. The writers force you to act in egregious ways, and it’s extremely uncomfortable. The best example is when you’re forced to brutalize and beat Ellie within an inch of her life as Abby.
Reason 7: The Ending
This is where the game crashes and burns on so many levels, and it's infuriating. Allow me to explain.
Where a great video game differs from a movie, is that you're in the driver’s seat. You control the protagonist, and your choices often have some control over the ending. But not here. After the big fight between Ellie and Abby, where Abby almost excitedly slits the throat of pregnant Dina while a shattered Ellie watches on, Abby disappears with Lev. She tells Ellie she never wants to see her again. And just like that, she’s gone. For good. Or so we think.
The False Ending
Time passes. We see Dina has had her cute baby boy, and they live with Ellie on a quaint sheep farm, just like Dina joked and dreamed about early in the game. There’s a moment where Ellie is holding the baby on a tractor overlooking golden fields and a blazing sunset. You feel it’s about to end, and you start thinking, wow - Abby got away. But you know what? Ellie has some peace now, aside from the PTSD. This is the quiet life she deserves.
But wait, there’s more! Tommy, Joel’s brother who’s been out for revenge ahead of Ellie, comes to the sheep farm to tell you (Ellie) he thinks he knows where Abby is in Santa Barbara and pleads with Ellie to go after her. He can’t go, because he’s partially paralyzed. At first, Ellie says no, and Tommy is not happy. He storms off and chews her out in a very out of character way. But guilt gets the best of her, and Ellie leaves for Santa Barbara, despite Dina pleading with her not to go.
Ellie kills about fifty people in Santa Barbara to get to Abby. When she finally finds Abby, Abby is skinny, weak, and near death. She’s been captured and tied to a post to die by the gang Ellie just eliminated. Ellie, who is also severely wounded at this point, cuts Abby down from the post, who in turn cuts down Lev. Abby carries Lev to a small boat on the foggy shore to leave, but Ellie forces her to fight.
At first, Abby refuses. But when Ellie threatens to stab Lev, Abby charges at Ellie and bites off two of her fingers. It’s as gruesome as it sounds. Ellie gains the upper hand and starts choking Abby to death just under the water’s surface. This is it. The moment of revenge Ellie (and you) have been waiting for. Just as Abby’s about to die, Ellie has a vision of Joel. Now is when you’d expect for two options to pop up: kill Abby or let her live. But no option ever comes. Instead, Ellie lets Abby go.
Hold up! If two years later, Ellie decided to fight Abby but realized during the fight that revenge isn’t worth it, I would totally understand. The problem is, Ellie kills an entire fort of random people she’s never met minutes before confronting Abby on the beach. So she’s okay with killing everyone else, EXCEPT her arch-nemesis who brutally tortured and murdered her father figure in front of her eyes? Makes zero sense.
If watching Abby disappear with Lev after you were forced to let her go wasn’t frustrating enough, don’t worry. The game isn’t done torturing you yet.
The (Actual) Ending
Ellie returns to the farm. Only, it’s empty. It’s clear that Dina took the baby, packed up, and left, leaving one room full of Ellie’s belongings. In that room is the guitar Joel gifted her early in the game. This guitar carries a lot of significance, as it’s the one Joel taught her to play on. The last flashback you see of Joel, he’s playing this guitar on his porch.
Ellie picks up the guitar and tries to play the song. But she can’t. Some of her fingers are missing. It’s…utterly depressing.
Joel is dead. Tommy is disfigured and abandoned by his wife. Dina and the baby are gone. And all Ellie has left is a guitar she can’t play. Meanwhile, Abby and Lev, responsible for the majority of the death and misery in the game, get away on a boat. It’s as if Naughty Dog spat in the face of every character we loved and forced you to like characters we mostly hated.
“But not all endings are happy!” I’m well aware. But need I remind you that a game, by definition, is “an activity you do to have fun, often one that has rules and that you can win or lose.” And while you can certainly argue that The Last of Us II is fun, you have absolutely no idea if, in the end, you’ve won or lost the game.
The Last of Us II is a visually stunning, wonderfully acted, interactive movie that's ruined by a messy plot and poor storytelling. It leaves you feeling broken and exhausted, like everything you just did was for nothing. It was certainly a whirlwind of an experience, but it’s an experience many gamers will likely never choose to have again.
* This review was not paid for by Naughty Dog or Sony.