When it comes to storytelling, is there anything more important than perspective?
No matter the medium, a storyteller needs to be able to perfectly place the audience into the shoes of whoever’s story is being told. We, as an audience, can’t understand character motivations or the world our characters live in without perspective. We can’t understand relationship dynamics or decision-making. The audience can only be truly engaging with a story, empathizing with characters and melting into the world once perspective is perfected.
I first saw “Pulp Fiction” the summer between middle school and high school. It was my dad’s favorite movie, and they figured at 14 years old I was finally ready to watch it. I was instantly in love, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I realize it’s labeled as a “basic” and “film bro” movie – which I understand to an extent – but for a young teenager, it was something of a revelation. It was my first exposure to a narrative that was this challenging, twisting and original. The plot was presented out of order, and the characters were neither good nor bad. The film opens with some of the coolest gangsters in cinema – Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winston (Samuel L. Jackson). They were funny, badass and endlessly quotable. We got to see Vincent become entangled in a precarious date with his boss’s wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), trying to balance her entertainment with his cautious respect, and ultimately saving her life from a drug overdose. He isn’t someone to idolize, but you could empathize with all the shitty positions he found himself in and you never wanted to see him fail.
About halfway through, we’re thrown into the shoes of Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a professional boxer who double-crosses Vincent’s boss and tries to make it out of town with a whole bunch of his money. Butch is almost ready to catch his train to Tennessee when he realizes he left an extremely personal gold watch back at his apartment. Butch acts like an asshole at times, yelling at his girlfriend for forgetting the watch in the first place, but the fact that he’s screwing over a crime boss is something exciting that you want to see him pull off. Butch drives all the way across town, quietly sneaks into his apartment and grabs the watch… just before noticing the sub-machine gun sitting on the kitchen counter. He’s not alone, and he hears the toilet flush. His would-be assassin has literally been caught with his pants down. Butch picks up the gun, aims it at the door and guns down… Vincent Vega? He’s filled with lead and falls into the bathtub. Gone in a flash. It’s shocking and frustrating, but also relieving. I didn’t want either man to die, and I knew Vincent was just doing his job. But I also knew Vincent stood between Butch and not just an item that was very personal to him, but his very chance at survival. Butch escapes and – after a disturbing sex dungeon detour – manages to get out of Los Angeles alive.
What the hell does any of that have to do with Naughty Dog’s PlayStation masterpiece “The Last of Us”?
Well, two years after my “Pulp Fiction” awakening, my older brother brought the game home as I began my summer vacation. I knew the studio was responsible for my beloved “Uncharted” franchise, so I was immediately intrigued. What I didn’t expect was how much more cinematic and emotionally-affecting this game would be than any other I had ever played. Fifteen minutes in, I was in shock at the death of Joel’s daughter. I’m talking full-on tears streaming down my face. I had never cried with a PlayStation controller in my hand before. It was another revelation in many ways.
The rest of the game is a masterpiece, as everyone knows, anchored by the incredible main characters of Joel (Troy Baker) and Ellie (Ashley Johnson). Together, they cross a post-apocalyptic United States in hopes of delivering Ellie to a group known as the Fireflies. Joel and Ellie have to kill a lot of people to complete their mission, and in order to survive in this wasteland, you have to be a killer, prepared to take a life in a split-second. I was so attached to the leads that I was devastated when it was revealed Ellie would have to die in a medical procedure to craft a vaccine created from her genes.
I knew it may create a cure and save the human race, but it’s not a sure thing, and at this point, is the human race even worth saving? It’s too big a question for any one person to decide, but Joel decides, anyway. I played as Joel, tearing through the hospital, killing every Firefly in sight and ultimately murdering the surgeon in the operating room. Joel takes a sedated Ellie back to his brother’s settlement in Wyoming, where he lies to her and says the Fireflies didn’t need her to create the vaccine after all, saying that other attempts haven’t worked. The game concludes with Ellie asking Joel point blank whether everything he says is true. He looks her in the eye and lies. She believes. Cut to black.
It was a terrifically devastating final moment, and I left it knowing Joel had truly gone beyond the point of saving. I understood why he did what he did and, even if part of me hated him for it, part of me loved him for it, too. So, when “The Last of Us Part II” was announced in December 2016, I was ecstatic, but I knew a reckoning had to be in the cards. In the lead up to release, I kept myself mostly in the dark, hoping to be surprised by the approach that director/co-writer Neil Druckmann, narrative lead Halley Gross and Naughty Dog were taking. From the beginning, Joel’s decision is brought to question as he recounts it to his brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) in a flashback, leaving him shocked. The moment comes shortly after the ending of the first game, but it quickly jumps ahead several years. Ellie is an adult now, and her relationship with Joel is strained for reasons we aren’t made aware.
At the same time, we’re shown a group of travelers who arrive in the mountains near Jackson, and we take control of a woman named Abby (Laura Bailey), muscles rippling and sporting a long, blonde ponytail. We aren’t exactly sure of her mission, but Naughty Dog puts the player in control of her as she embarks on a solo quest through a blizzard. We come into contact with the first infected of “Part II” and immediately want to make sure she can sneak past them all or kill them, if necessary. My anxiety spiked as the mission wore on, culminating with a breathless chase sequence, where Abby barely manages to stay a step ahead of all the infected. I was suddenly rescued by none other than Joel and Tommy, who were out on patrol. As we raced through the snow on horseback and found refuge with Abby’s group, I felt such relief for all three of the characters finding safety. Just then, Abby and her crew beat Tommy and Joel down onto the floor.
I felt like such an idiot. I had been playing as the game’s villain! I felt personally responsible for getting Joel and Tommy into that situation. Switching back to Ellie, I found my way to the cabin and arrived just in time to get beaten down to the ground myself, just as Abby beat Joel’s head in with a golf club. It was a punch to the gut. Joel was dead, buried, killed by the person that I had just unknowingly aided in her mission to hunt him down.
And that was exactly Naughty Dog’s intent. It was a betrayal just like Joel had betrayed the Fireflies and Ellie by going on a killing spree, stealing her from the hospital, and lying to her. I hated to see Joel beaten and bloodied in his final moments, but was there any other way for his story to end, after everything he had done?
In my heart, I knew Abby and these people must be getting revenge for that attack, but it couldn’t be something Ellie would know or understand. As a result, Ellie was hellbent on her own revenge, setting out with her girlfriend Dina (Shannon Woodward) and following Abby and her crew back to Seattle. Admittedly, I wanted Ellie to find Abby, kill all her people and get her revenge. Hell, I wanted revenge. Tearing through Seattle for three days, I stabbed, slashed, shot and strangled every member of the Washington Liberation Front who stood in my way – the WLF being the militia group that the former Fireflies belong to, in which Abby is a key figure.
I tortured people, the game forcing me to beat someone with a pipe to get information on Abby’s whereabouts. The whole time, my desire to continue waned and my questions of Ellie’s morality and motivations grew. How far are we willing to take this? How is Ellie going to feel when she realizes why Abby and the Fireflies came for Joel? The devastation culminates with Ellie murdering two of Abby’s companions, Owen (Patrick Fugit) and Mel (Ashly Burch), and learning after the fact that Mel was pregnant. Ellie has now murdered a pregnant woman, and my tears were once again flowing. Tommy and Jesse, Dina’s ex-boyfriend, find Ellie. We return to our hideout in Seattle to regroup and take care of Dina – who is also pregnant with Jesse’s child.
We are shown a flashback of Ellie from a couple years prior. She has gone back to the Salt Lake City hospital and discovered the truth about what happened with the Fireflies. Ellie confronts Joel, who followed her. He finally caves in, and the truth is devastating. Ashley Johnson’s performance is gutting, as Ellie nearly hyperventilates due to grief and shock. Like so many other cutscenes, I was in tears, but this time, it was out of more than what Joel had done to steal Ellie’s agency, but the fact that Ellie had known the truth all along. She went after Abby despite knowing that Joel had murdered the Fireflies.
So, when Abby busts into the hideout, murders Jesse and screams at Ellie “You killed my friends! We let you live, and you wasted it!” – I was in shock. I was heartbroken. And I realized that she was right. Abby and Owen were there when Joel died, but they didn’t kill Tommy or me. Because they weren’t a part of what Joel did. As this realization hits, the game finally reveals its ace in the hole. Through flashbacks, we play as a younger Abby, and she feels just as relatable and even more innocent than Ellie did in the first game. She collects coins, a passion she shares with her father, just as Ellie started collecting trading cards while on her journey with Joel. She, Owen and her father help free a trapped zebra in a zoo. But not just any zoo… a zoo in Salt Lake City, right near the hospital, just as Ellie and Joel arrive. We discover that Abby’s father was the Firefly surgeon who Joel murdered in order to save Ellie. Abby saw her father’s body on the floor. That is why she came for Joel.
It was an emotional tidal wave for me that was only amplified by the next few hours of gameplay, in which we see the last few days from Abby’s perspective. We are placed into Abby’s shoes, seeing the WLF up close and personal for the first time. Their central base is in the old Seattle stadium, and it’s fairly clean, well-lit and feels safe and warm. There’s a full gym, a bunch of kiddos in daycare, a whole cafeteria, and a well-organized system for checking out supplies and weapons. The WLF have scheduled patrols, mission groups and facilities across the city. It makes the Jackson outpost where Ellie lives seem quaint and struggling by comparison. Everyone seems friendly, cracking jokes as we make our way through the stadium, picking out one of the many dogs from play pens. Ellie has torn through many dogs on her mission, and I always hated them and how vicious they could be. Here, you can rub the head of a German Shepherd named Alice and play fetch with her, knowing that Ellie will kill her in a couple of days.
I play as Abby selflessly aids and defends her crew in firefights, feeling out her personality. She’s stronger and bigger than Ellie, but there isn’t much difference between them at their cores. They’re both willing to do whatever it takes to protect the ones they care about. Abby even helps rescue a pair of kids from a rival faction – the Seraphites. The siblings, Yara (Victoria Grace) and Lev (Ian Alexander), are left in a high-risk area, and Yara’s arm is broken to the point of requiring an amputation. Abby goes on a selfless odyssey across the city to get them to safety and retrieve the surgical supplies to save Yara’s life. It all culminates with Abby turning on the WLF to protect Lev, although the WLF kills Yara in the process. It seems like no matter what good anyone tries to do, the vicious cycle of hate and trauma continues.
Upon finding the bodies of Owen and Mel, I was more upset than I was the first time, even though I knew it was coming. Part of me hated Ellie for going after Abby in the first place, but then I thought about how Abby could have chosen to not go after Joel, even though I know what I would do if someone had murdered my dad. And on top of it all, Abby chose to let Ellie live at the beginning of the game, only to have it backfire in the worst way imaginable and causing so much more tragedy.
I’ve seen critics label this game as “just another revenge story,” but I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve never seen the cycle of hate and revenge perpetuated in a story as well as I have seen it done here, and it’s executed in a way that only video games can make possible. In the world of “The Last of Us,” who are the “villains” really? Who am I to everyone else, if I’m playing as Joel, Ellie or Abby? Every character is so convinced that they are the righteous hero crusading for a just cause. In reality, they’re all washed in a dark, dirty gray with bright spots occasionally managing to shine through.
What has made me such a passionate fan of cinema is the way filmmaking techniques can all come together to help the viewer empathize with characters and see things through their eyes. I didn’t think there was a way to top that until “The Last of Us Part II.” By the end of the game, when Ellie and Abby are in a fight to the death, I wanted to throw the controller down. I didn’t want to press the buttons for them to stab and punch and drown one another. It wasn’t enough for this game to be devastating on a surface level, because any story can do that. But making the player complicit in this cycle of killing and obsession is enough to make me question every act of violence I had committed in this story, from 2013 to now.
“The Last of Us Part II” is a masterpiece for many reasons – the incredible graphics, engaging gameplay, beautiful musical score and the phenomenal performances from the entire cast – but the daring, bold decision to question the beloved characters of the original, and by extension, the player, sets it above any other game I’ve ever encountered. It’s the type of experience that you can’t shake, that you want to discuss and debate and share with others.
And whether it’s Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus or the latest masterpiece from Naughty Dog, that’s what storytelling is all about, right?
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."