AKA The Last of Us, Revenge, and the Godfather
[“___ months/years later” is a series of blogs I’m hoping to start writing - thoughts and feelings about games and reflecting on the reception since release in an anniversary-style type of post. Also, I basically took too long to finish writing these at launch and the anniversaries give me an excuse to post them at an appropriate time! :D]
Spoilers for both The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II (and the ending of The Godfather Part II).
That’s the word that resounds in my mind ever since I finished The Last of Us Part II a few weeks ago. The experience is something that has continued to dwell on my mind heavily.
Like many others, the first title left an indelible mark on me. I got lost in that beautiful, sad world worn down by time and nature. I loved my time with those people - they weren’t just characters, they felt like legitimate people I could genuinely connect with. I strongly related to the themes of family and friendship more than I ever thought I would. The original Last of Us was very much a reflection of the absolute best and worst of humanity and what it meant to survive in such a harsh world. It was about the bonds people share despite these struggles and the regrets and decisions we make for the people we love. The execution was incredible, and I think it’s fair to say that the first entry set a very high bar for storytelling in video games.
Part II came out on June 19, 2020. In the first month alone, the game has been incredibly divisive since its release. Seeing the wide spectrum of reactions has been fascinating, to say the least. On one end, you’ll see overwhelming praise for what this sequel ended up being, and what it brought to the medium. On the other end, you’ll see an impressive amount of hatred and vitriol for how, in their eyes, it failed.
It comes down to the burden of expectation. The Last of Us Part II had the weight of the world on its shoulders. There was pressure coming from all sides - stakeholders, media, fans, and the developers themselves. There was a lot to live up to - the “Over 200 Game of the Year Awards” that’s printed on the case of the original’s Remastered version will tell you that much.
Ultimately, I think Part II is good. You could say great, even, on a good day. But there are a lot of faults, such as pacing issues or problems with how the story was arranged. Its originator’s shadow always seems to loom over it like a dark, heavy cloud. It’s hard to see it as a companion piece to the original that it's meant to be, because at the same time, it seems to try so hard to break apart and trailblaze forward in its own ways - to really try to stand out as something of its own. Yet, it is impossible not to compare its merits to that of its predecessor. This is a game that feels like it struggled with bearing the weight of it all.
One comparison that I don’t think has been brought up very often is the similarity between The Last of Us and The Godfather. The subject matter may be different, but the second parts of both are alike in what they were facing, what they set out to accomplish, and ultimately what the results were. And, y’know, they both have “Part II” in the title.
The Godfather is an amazing, amazing film and cinematic experience to behold. It’s considered a pioneering film in the gangster genre. It’s been universally praised over the years and is still considered one of the best movies of all time. Imagine trying to follow that up.
The sequel followed two different perspectives to tell its overall story - that of Michael Corleone and that of his father during his younger days, Vito Corleone. It explores the personalities of the two men and their differences as it creates parallels between the two, making the viewer think of what it costs to become someone like the Godfather. It delves into the price of following your goals so single-mindedly. At the end of the movie, Michael looks like he is about to reach the pinnacle of being the Godfather of the Corleone family. But what was lost in that pursuit of power? He sits alone by the lake in the finale - no family, no friends. You could say he has everything, but it really feels like he’s lost everything that truly mattered.
I don’t think The Godfather Part II was as good of a film as the original - it can be too long, comparatively, to the point it is trying to make. It gets caught up in its own writing and storytelling, with the pace becoming too slow and uneven. The use of changing perspectives can hurt the narrative with the way that it’s applied. This is a movie that tried to compliment its predecessor, and the results weren’t completely successful. From what I’ve read, reception of this movie was initially mixed. Hopefully, the parallels are apparent at this point.
I feel the same way that I did about The Godfather Part II as I did about The Last of Us Part II. Their original entries told brilliant stories and introduced memorable characters that were more straightforward and traditional in their delivery. Their sequels build off of the original concepts and ideas, taking them further. The sequels are expansive and ambitious - perhaps, at times, above their means. They end up feeling complicated, messy, and long. You could say that, for both Part IIs, the sequels take these characters and stories to their natural conclusions.
Joel essentially took the chance of a cure away from humanity, killed tons of people to survive, and get what he wanted, and ultimately it’s hard to say that he didn’t get what he deserved in the end. Michael Corleone changed from someone who wanted to stay separate from the family business to eventually chosing to take part, taking him down the dark path he would follow in the sequel. And Ellie? I found this on the r/TheLastofUs subreddit and I think it says a lot with just a few screenshots (thanks, /u/themoonrulz).
It may have taken some time, but I think it’s fair to say that The Godfather Part II is now regarded about as highly as the original. Will The Last of Us Part II achieve a similar status? It’s probably too early to tell. Please see me when I write a “10 years later” down the line or something.
It’s not too difficult to imagine what could have been. A sequel about Joel and Ellie on another adventure, properly talking and bonding and quipping and finally confronting Joel’s choice from the first game - I think that’s what a lot of people expected and desired. That’s not exactly what they got. It probably would have been the more safe, appealing direction to follow.
The team had already applied their masterful storytelling skills from The Last of Us to Uncharted 4, providing a truly fantastic, feel-good title that I think it’s safe to say satisfied a lot of fans. As a result of that, though, I believe they wanted to challenge themselves with their next entry. So they avoided the safe route, and they definitely did not go for another feel-good game. They told a more complex, demanding narrative that delves into darker subject matter that a lot of video games don’t really do. To their credit, there were some honestly amazing things to come out of that desire to push themselves out of their comfort zone and into something new, different, and unfamiliar.
The way that the developers play with the Joel-Ellie connection is powerful. This is the main draw of the original entry and one of the primary reasons why people loved the first game so much - their relationship feels so genuine and compelling. The initial belief of having another Joel and Ellie adventure and more to their development is shattered in the first hour or two.
The sequel packs a lot into the Joel-Ellie flashbacks that we’re able to experience - there’s so much love and care put into their dynamic. It adds additional layers to Ellie’s quest for revenge and frequently makes you pine for more than we got of the pair.
It’s the final flashback of the game - where we see what was very likely the last real conversation between Joel and Ellie before Joel’s death - that really punctuates the point of what Naughty Dog was trying to get across. Ellie did find out what Joel did at the end of the Last of Us. She couldn’t forgive him for what he did, but she declared that she wanted to try the day before he died. But she didn’t get that. We didn’t get that. She would never be able to properly reconcile with him, like we would never properly be able to reunite with them the way that we wanted. That’s what drives her resentment, what motivates her to venture all the way out to Seattle (quick aside - the trip from Jackson, Wyoming, to Seattle, Washington is over 850 miles, per Google Maps).
There has been a lot of criticism about Part II’s themes of revenge. More specifically, a point that has been brought up repeatedly is that the game tries to beat you over the head by constantly telling you that “revenge is bad”. It’s too monotonous a message to bear repeating throughout an almost 30-hour playthrough.
I do not believe the game is necessarily trying to tell you that revenge is bad - I think the game is trying to make you experience revenge, how much that takes out of you, and ultimately, what the costs are.
When Joel died at the start of the game, I was furious. I could not believe that Naughty Dog did this. Joel was not necessarily a good person, but we as players got to see beneath the harsh front he put up and the loving dad he was and wanted to be under the surface. It’s what makes that last choice at the end of the first entry so potent - it’s hard to fully vilify him for his actions because we got to see him lose Sarah at the start. He was going to lose another daughter, and he couldn’t let that happen again.
So I wanted justice, like Tommy and Ellie did. I was extremely hyped up to find his killers and get justice for Joel. That’s what I thought he deserved for all that we did with him in the original game, and all that we wouldn’t be able to do with him in this sequel.
But by the end of it all, though, I was worn out. This journey was really, really, really long. I had come out of every play session feeling tired. By the finale, I didn’t want more violence. There had already been so much killing. I was tired of fighting. I just wanted resolution.
Part II’s length is another sticking point for a lot of people - many felt like it was too long. I feel the same way - the first game was the perfect length. The original title broke the game down into seasons - little moments that never felt too long or too short, but effectively served to build an overarching narrative and developed the Joel-Ellie relationship into something organic and natural-feeling. It skipped all the traveling that wouldn’t add much to those moments. And when it was all said and done, the first title ended when it needed to.
Part II, by comparison, really doesn’t hesitate to draw out every moment and objective. Where the first game may have skipped you to a particular area or location (like going straight from Jackson to the college), there is no skipping the traveling portions in the sequel once you reach Seattle. You do all the walking and exploring in this game from one point to another through this incredibly huge city, but all that really does is make the trip from each major narrative moment to the next feel much longer than it needs to be. There would be a lot of points where I was just dying to get to the next big story moment but instead, I had to wade through an innumerable amount of buildings and places just to get to my destination.
In a podcast with Joel’s voice actor, Troy Baker, director Neil Druckmann explains that “the game is this long because we wanted to make it this long.”
The amount of work that it took to get to the confrontation between Ellie and Abby is staggering. But it’s also part of experiencing revenge - no matter how long, drawn-out, and tiring it will be, you can go to the ends of the earth to achieve vengeance. It can take years to get back at people who wrong you, if you’re given the chance. Ellie was absolutely willing to take that time, and by proxy, the player had to, as well. While it wasn’t necessarily fun to play all of the segments that ultimately don’t matter between getting from point A to B, it was a genius move by the developers to make you do every single little thing that it took to achieve Ellie’s (and the player’s) goal of getting retribution for Joel.
One of those “little” things that it took to get to that final confrontation is playing as Abby. It’s meant to provide a different perspective to Ellie’s quest and makes you think more about the people you’re gunning for and those that you’ve already killed. But what interests me more about Abby’s adventure is that, with Abby, you’re seeing a woman who has completed her cycle of vengeance. She killed Joel, who killed her dad. She is able to move on knowing that she got justice against her dad’s killer. As a result, during her part, both she and the player can experience a wider spectrum of emotions. Abby gets to make a lot of different choices and actions, when you think about it. She hangs out at the WLF base, gets to do stuff like playing fetch with dogs, takes part in shooting competitions, looks for Owen, gets entangled with Yara and Lev and ends up in a big war with the Scars. Abby gets to change and grow as a person.
Compare this to Ellie, who is so tortured and traumatized by her loss of Joel that almost everything that she does is for the sake of killing Abby. Her journey has less of an emotional spectrum than Abby’s - it can feel monotonous, that seems deliberate because revenge itself can be one-note. Even when she attempts to move on at the farmhouse, she can’t. She can’t move on until she’s gotten her vengeance. In Abby’s flashbacks, you see that she is never able to let go of her dad’s killer and how that affects her. It isolates her from her best friend, Owen. Ellie is in a similar position. The parallels are fascinating.
It’s all the stuff like this, looking back, that really makes me appreciate what Part II brought to the table. There are so many ideas and moments sprinkled throughout that are beautiful and touching. At the end, I was left in a comparable headspace to where I was after finishing the first game - thoughtful, contemplative, genuinely feeling for these characters and reflecting on the ride that I had embarked on.
There’s absolutely a lot that could have been done better - it’s why I think the game doesn’t match up as equally to its predecessor. But if I had to ask myself, was the experience worth it, despite everything?
The answer is yes, absolutely.