There are two sides to everything. Fiction or non-fiction, what we think of an enemy and who they actually are often differ, because of circumstance and the fact that knowing more about them can make it difficult to fuel hatred towards a supposed foe on the other side. Utilising a narrative experimental to the medium, The Last of Us Part II pushes boundaries on that fact, challenging what being a villain can mean through that which only a video game can so fully achieve. Player immersion is used to harshly remind us that there are human beings on the sides of every conflict and how the roles of heroes and villains are all but a matter of perspective.
This is an opinion piece and not a review. Be sure to check out out official review, saying that The Last of Us Part II is a brutally heartfelt masterpiece.
Massive spoilers are ahead both written and visually. Only read on if you have already finished The Last of Us Part II or simply don’t care about spoilers. If you’ve only just started playing, try out this guide on beginners tips to get you started, and come back when you’ve completed the game.
The Last of Us was all about finding hope in the darkness for both surrogate daughter and father, Ellie and Joel, each being the light that could fill the void of what they’d both lost in such a cruel world. Fast forward five years to Part II, that light of Ellie’s has been snatched away by Abby and her golf club, murdering Joel as revenge for both killing her own father and subsequently any hopes of a cure for the cordyceps virus that devasted humanity. Your horror, grief and anger is intended to match Ellie’s, justifying her need to go on a murderous rampage of vengeance towards Abby and her cohort friends.
Just over half way through the game, you’ve done just that. Many slit throats, exploded limbs and bullet-ridden bodies lay in your wake after playing as Ellie. Being relatively nameless or even faceless in the past, each brutally vanquished foe during a combat encounter has been referred to by name by their comrades in arms, letting you know that each life you effortlessly snuffed out might have been that of a cherished friend. Turns out this was only the beginning however, as when The Last of Us Part II shifts to your second, much longer turn playing as Abby, her personal stakes start to hit harder than we could’ve expected.
We’re taken back to a teenage Abby having a bonding, Zebra-saving, mini-trip with her lovable and charismatic Firefly doctor-father. We find out this happens at St. Marys Hospital, on the same day Joel arrived with Ellie. Soon after, Joel has gunned down Abby’s father to save Ellie from being killed by the surgery that would create a mankind-saving vaccine. We’ve always found Joel’s decision in the first game to be a horrible one when looking at it from the grand scheme of things. He doomed countless lives in order to save just one. He even took away Ellie’s opportunity to make that decision for herself. But, we forgave him. Because we empathised in his loss, his relationship with Ellie and we didn’t want to lose her just as much as Joel himself.
Through Abby though, someone from outside of the Joel-and-Ellie bubble, we’re forced to stare at the cracks we chose to look away from. Walking into the surgery theatre to see the bloodied corpse of her innocent dad, the pain is doubled for Abby. Both the hope of curing the plague that killed billions, and the person who she loved most in this cruel world are both gone in one unjust act. Abby’s light has been snatched away. Many instances in film, television and even other games have delved into the antagonist perspective before; but by dedicating so much time to it, The Last of Us Part 2 is the first time you’re fully forced to admit to yourself that beyond the reasons why you love these main characters you’ve come so far with, they’re objectively the villains of their own story.
Imagine if someone in the real world the way Joel did, snuffed out a cure for cancer, or a new strain of coronavirus that turns the afflicted into fungal rage zombies. Thousands of innocents, some of which you may hold dear, have been needlessly sacrificed due to an individual’s selfishness. You’d want that person to be punished and rightfully so. In the unwritten rules of a post-apocalyptic society, wanting them to suffer the same as those they’ve wronged feels fair. In the looking glass of the real world The Last of Us Part II has forced us to peer through, Joel was a true villain. Despite how much we love him and the tragedy his death is to those he left behind, he got what he deserved.
By putting a new hindsight onto the events of the first game, The Last of Us Part II prepares us for a journey that’s a bitter mix of delight and regret in its second half, going through the same three days in Seattle Ellie went through, but in Abbey’s shoes. Where Ellie would see enemies and cold murderers, Abby sees friends and loved ones. By being a game, with much more time to work with than a movie or series, you’re allowed to take the time to properly breathe in more of Abby’s world, letting the delights of her everyday life sink in.
Starting to see members of Abby’s community and her WLF comrades pre-Ellie murder, the lightbulb clicks on and shatters. The Abby story arc is about adding weight to the killings you recently committed so casually, making you feel almost shameful throughout the retread of this journey. When only seeing someone as an enemy who wants to get in your way and nothing more, shooting them in the face is easy. When they’re an actual living thing with a personality, hopes and dreams attached, that’s something else.
Manny, Abby’s roommate who we first met as he spat on Joel’s brutally beaten corpse, is a charming and caring friend who goes the extra mile for those in need. Mel, who Ellie unavoidably had to stab to death, we see beforehand in Abby’s arc, excited for the new family home that she plans to share with her husband and unborn baby. In Abby’s story, the heavily pregnant Mel still insists on going out into hostile territory as a medic, because no one else would be able to help her friends if one of them got hurt. Alice, the seemingly ferocious German Shepard that Ellie killed, referring to it as a “stupid dog”, was a loving companion just a few hours prior chronologically, playing fetch with a plushie octopus. Owen, another former Firefly I hated at the start of the game for leading Abby towards finding and killing Joel, I later felt pity for as a cocky yet kindhearted man, who had to sign up for an army he didn’t believe in out of necessity, after Joel’s actions made his own life fall apart.
Where before, we didn’t care how many enemies Ellie and co. slaughtered in the name of justice for Joel. Now, seeing the aftermath, the lifeless bodies of those select characters we’ve come to care about through Abby made me wish that no one had to die. Revenge killings on either side feel right when looking at the reason for them from one point of view, but seeing the fallout, reminding us what carrying them out really means, is that even in a world post-apocalypse, especially without the typical definition of hero and villain, violence shouldn’t have to be the answer.
The Last of Us Part II iterates that someone you dislike or even hate, is more than the reason they’re not in your good graces. Abby, the person who shatters Ellie’s world and is a catalyst for a chain of further tragedy and loss, is fundamentally a good and likable person. She’s actually funny and quirky, being even more enjoyable to spend time with than Ellie. Like Joel, she made mistakes, but she has a moral compass that most of the time points in the right direction. It’s that moral compass that made her risk her life in saving Seraphite cult escapees, children Lev and Yara; more so in facing her massive fear of heights, scaling makeshift bridges for the sake of obtaining lifesaving medicine for the elder sibling.
All it can take to turn someone like that into a villain is a decision to cause further calamity and the perspective of those who will suffer on the other side, even if it’s objectively an act of deserved retribution. In The Last of Us Part II, Joel, Abby and Ellie are all the villains of this story for that reason. Joel killed Abby’s father and hoped for a cure, Abby kills Ellie’s surrogate father. Ellie kills Abby’s friends, Abby kills Ellie’s friend. Ellie almost kills Abby, Abby bites off a couple of fingers. Ellie comes home to find her girlfriend and adopted son are gone, leaving her all alone. In a very costly lesson, The Last of Us Part II teaches that sometimes it’s better to hang on to what you have left, before you seek reprisal for what you lost. Otherwise, you could end up with nothing.