Why The Last Of Us 2 Failed, Or: How Theme Matters.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

(Spoilers to come, but not yet.)

It’s fucking weird to say “The Last Of Us 2 was a failure” when it’s sold more copies of anything that you, or I, or anyone you know will ever make. Judged purely in terms of “copies out the door,” The Last Of Us 2 is a fantastic success.

But in terms of “How happy are the people who bought Last of Us 2?”

Hooo boy.

Now, keep in mind that even aside from commercial success, artistic success is never perfect. You’re not gonna satisfy everyone. It’s more like a percentage: If, say, 70% of the people who saw your stuff liked it, then you’re doing really well. And I dislike the dialogue around tricksy stuff like, say, the latest Star Wars films, because whoever’s talking them down always goes “Everyone hated them” and it’s like no, lots of people liked them, please don’t dismiss the positive feedback just because you’re hauling in a bucketload of criticism.



The Last Of Us 2 is a story that’s really dreadfully constructed. It’s like the last season of Game of Thrones, where you can see what they wanted to do, but largely didn’t provide people with the emotional beats to get them to that place where they wanted.

And where did they fail? Theme, mostly. Everything else is good: the plot is there, the characterization is consistent (or could be, because characters are always evolving and we definitely could have bought way more people into Ellie making these decisions with the right setup), the dialogue is sharp.

But the theme that sells the story they wanted to tell?

It’s like they forgot.

So I’m gonna analyze it here, and talk about TLOU2 in-depth, and if you wanna exit out before I discuss anything spoilery here’s your option.








Okay. So let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: The Last Of Us 2 wants us to sympathize with the person who killed the person we played as for like 90% of the previous game. It wants us to sympathize with her so much that it literally halts the game at the climax of Ellie’s story and spends twelve goddamned hours forcing us to play as Abby.

The problem is, Abby’s theme isn’t compelling.

Abby is theoretically getting revenge at Joel because he killed her dad, who was trying to find a cure for the not-a-zombie fungus. Which is a legitimate take! Again, like the degraded Khaleesi, you could do a lot with that.

But Abby’s story is not about why she wanted revenge at Joel, which is a major goddamned problem. I mean, it certainly talks about it, but we don’t see that motivation driving her in any way outside of Joel – Abby’s basically a cold-hearted killing machine working for a cold-hearted militia, and her story is essentially “Abby learns to love thanks to a stray kid.”

Which doesn’t really explain why Abby turned out to be a beefed-up enthusiastic killer. Is she an idealist? Is she trying to smash her Daddy issues flat? Has she been shaped, unthinkingly, into a murder machine by the WLF after the Fireflies disbanded?

The game doesn’t really have an *opinion* on this.

And if the whole point of this game is “We want you to see both sides of this,” then thematically, Abby has to be a opposite to Joel in some form, not “pretty much the same as Joel.” Because we know Joel. Seeing his story thematically represented in Abby will undoubtedly work for some, but for many others – many, many others according to the user reviews – dwelling on Abby as “Like Joel, but womanlier” just reminds people of how much they liked Joel.

It’s a dangerous act that didn’t pull off.

And they have opportunities to differentiate! When Abby stumbles up her dad talking about the cure, she overhears another doctor saying “What if it was your child you had to sacrifice?”

And the game waffles. The Dad’s all like, “Well, you know, that’s different,” and then Joel kills him saving Ellie, and that’s about it.

That is a shitty way of approaching it. It’s basically saying, “Well, Joel had a good point” – which doesn’t make Abby’s murdering him feel like payback (particularly after Joel saves her from not-a-zombies), but just sort of senseless nastiness.

What if Abby had a point, though?

What if instead of shying away from the question, Abby’s dad had rallied? What if instead of backing off, he’d doubled down?

If Abby’s dad had been established as the polar opposite of Joel by saying, “If it was my child – no, let’s be specific, if it was Abby? And she was the only hope the entire world had for a cure, which right now, Ellie is? Damn straight I would sacrifice her. It’s our duty. How many friends have you lost to these bites? How many anguished people are staggering around in a hellish living nightmare, knowing they’ve become monsters as the cordyceps overrides their body but not their consciousness, eating their daughters and mothers?

“I would mourn my daughter. But the world is more important than any one girl. We have to take this shot.”

Thematically, that’s Joel’s opposite – and maybe it’s horrifying to hear a guy stanning for murdering his daughter, but done right it should be horrifying in the same way that Joel was willing to let everyone die to save his second kid.

And I maintain that if Abby had been inspired by that speech, that her whole goal was to selflessly subsume herself into the collective, that would have been a motivation we could have understood. We could have seen her not know what to do when the Fireflies – the world’s last hope, from her perspective – dissolved. We could have seen her very specific response to her friends dying to the cordyceps, which is to look at every zombie as someone she personally failed by not being as special as Ellie. We could have seen her sucked into the WLF’s fascist rhetoric because she’d be sacrificing part of her soul to save others, she hates killing but it’s necessary (unlike Joel, who went to it as a gleeful go-to)…

And when she finally stumbled across Joel, sure, she’d have a moment when she felt bad about it – that last, struggling remnant of her humanity – but everything else lined up into everything she was told she wanted, because the WLF wants this guy dead and Abby wants revenge on the guy who killed her father and the universe tells her this is who you’re meant to be….

Which, if the theme of TLOU2 is “Revenge will destroy you,” is actually the story that could be told. Because unlike Joel, Abby could be a hardass who is secretly breaking down underneath. That sacrifice could be more than “Her friends keep a distance,” but instead “Abby acting out more in an attempt to justify, until the point she can’t any more.”

But what did we get?

Rehashed Joel. And that did not go over well.

Likewise, for Ellie, the theme is “Revenge is bad,” but Ellie doesn’t have any choices that we can make. The game goes into a sadistic amount of detail showing exactly what it’s like to slit a woman’s throat or to beat a dog to death, but you have to do that to continue. There’s no non-violent options available to you, so your lack of choices doesn’t feel organic to most people – it feels like railroading.

And I wonder what would have happened if the game had leaned into that theme of “You’re just as bad as Ellie,” in a sort of Undertale way, by presenting off-ramps.

Like, what would have happened if you were given a choice to stop at some point? Like, Joel dies, you go back to town, you have a heartwarming talk with Dina… and you can choose, if you want, to give up the revenge.

And that revenge has actual costs. The game’s save erases itself then. You get to see how things turn out, but you don’t get to see the rest of the game. You don’t get the trophies, the full story, the full value or what you bought. And if you choose to continue, the game locks in that value to all previous saves so you’re forced to that path.

You want to see what would have happened if you’d continued? You have to play all the way through again.

Which would have let you tell your own story. You wanna stop before you murder the pregnant lady? Fine. You wanna live with harmony with Dina and your PTSD flashbacks? Fine.

But if you face that victim with a pipe, knowing that you could walk away from this right now – that you don’t have to swing that pipe to beat the information out of her, that you could select “Nope” and decide the story ends here?

Then this story is on you.

That would have been bold, and equally controversial, but it would have played into the theme of “Revenge is bad, but you can walk away.” (And probably encouraged more playthroughs.)

There’s a lot the game could have done better – I’d argue it would have been less hair-teary to split time equally between Abby and Ellie’s story, and you could have got a lot of narrative juice out of making you the murderer. (Imagine if you’d started out early with Abby and her pregnant friend navigating a city full of zombies, thinking “SHE’S GONE GET BIT” and then being surprised when it turns out you are the one who murders her.

But fundamentally, a lot of the problem with TLOU2 is that it wants us to sympathize with Abby, and Abby is someone who is insufficiently contrasted. In a vacuum, Abby is an interesting character – she’s got a fucked up love life, she’s got real friends, she’s got hidden depths. On her own, she’d probably be a good lead for a game.

Yet when you’re unveiling “The person who murders your best friend from the last game, how do you like them now?” well, you need more than “Hey, cool character, bruh.” You need to justify their behavior, to place it in context, to get to the point where the further you go on, the more you go, “I don’t agree with what she did, but if I were in her shoes I might have done the same thing.”

Would that have gotten universal acclaim? Of course not. As I said, “artistic success” is a percentage ploy, and the original Last Of Us was a really solid plot. I don’t think you could follow it up in a way that was both as shocking/interesting as the first one and also as good.

The best you can do is sway a few more percentage points in your direction. And what they did with Abby was guaranteed to alienate a lot of people – especially when you’re forced to spend a big, unskippable chunk of time as her. They didn’t seem to ponder, “Well, what would make her someone we could, if not exactly root for, at least sympathize for?”

What you got was a story that seems really random. Last of Us 2 has great combat. It has interesting characters. But it doesn’t coalesce in the same way that The Last of Us did, and people feel that gap between intent and execution.

Which is a shame. They had ambitions. But in the end, I get the impression they felt constricted by the game engine they had, where violence was the big show of the day and so violence had to be the theme, and they just chose… more violence, as opposed to questioning it in a way any deeper than “Is bad.”

1 Comment

  1. Imrix
    Jul 9, 2020

    A big part of the problem, I think, is also that this story has been done before, and done better better. We’ve HAD games that forced you to commit violence in order to examine that, and framed it well enough that it landed; Spec Ops: The Line made that work because it existed in the context of modern military shooters being an ascendant genre, many of which played out as an on-rails guided tour of strictly regulated action set pieces, to the point that the player couldn’t even open doors themselves, they had to wait for NPC’s to unlock the next scene. In order to land its satire of those games, Spec Ops had to BE a shooting game that conveyed the player through a regulated and linear tour of military set pieces. Without that mimicry, without raising the spectre of the ‘bro shooter playbook’ as some call it, the satire would’ve fallen flat.

    And we’ve had games that mechanised ‘violence bad’ in interesting ways, as well; Metal Gear Solid had stuff like the Sorrow encounter, where the player is suddenly forced to wade through the ghosts of all the guards they’ve killed, locked in an animation loop of how they died. Metal Gear Solid 4 has feature where if you kill enough guards, Snake has PTSD flashbacks to an old enemy telling him how much he enjoys killing, and loses stamina from a bout of PTSD-induced vomiting. We’ve had games like Dishonoured, where the story wants to encourage a pacifist/ghost run and judge a high-lethality playthrough with a morally worse ending, while gating much more of its gameplay behind that lethality, and people have had the conversations about how well that did or did not work.

    These aren’t not small or niche games. They’re not indie titles you might stumble across on Itch.io. They were big, mainstream games that released to a lot of fanfare and discussion. They were released quite some time ago (Metal Gear Solid 3 is from 2004!) and are still talked about today.

    The point here is that TLoU2 is not breaking any kind of new ground. It doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt for having something new or innovative to say – instead, it gets dismissal for its messaging being fairly trie and unoriginal, while being so invested in how much of a Big Important Story it has to tell.

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