‘The Last Of Us Part II’ is a masterclass in character assassination – and that’s a good thing

The game’s magnificent moral ambiguity is one of its finest features

**Spoiler Warning: This article discusses major plot details from The Last Of Us Part II**

It’s been three weeks since I rolled credits on The Last Of Us Part II, and it is only now that I feel like I’ve had enough time to process the complex events of the narrative. It’s safe to say that I have many thoughts about this game, a lot of them still incongruous – but the one thing that I’m desperate to unpack is how it made me give up on a character that I really cared about.

It’s useful to ground this discussion with some important context: Ellie is one of gaming’s most beloved avatars. Due to the strong emotional bonds formed while playing 2013’s The Last Of Us (and its Ellie-focused expansion, Left Behind), millions claim that she is one of the best characters to ever grace the medium. Some even have tattoos of her tattoos. The cult of personality surrounding Ellie is pretty die-hard, which makes the events of The Last Of Us Part II particularly difficult to stomach for some.

The Last Of Us Part II
The Last Of Us Part II. Credit: Naughty Dog.

As I mentioned in my review, I was never that enamoured with the original game, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t rooting for Ellie when I first started digging into the sequel. The entire marketing machine leading up to the game’s release had painted an enticing picture, teasing a justified quest for vengeance in the sequel, in response to the death of a loved one that Ellie cared about. Many people (myself included) bought into that narrative, only to find that in the full release, the story is a lot more morally muddy than we first thought. In my case, I was delighted by the ambition of this narrative, but for many, it was anathema.

Let’s cut to the chase: Ellie’s actions in The Last Of Us Part II are not justified. For most of the game, she is blinded by her rage stemming from the brutal (but justified) murder of Joel at the hands of Abby, and this propels her to murder hordes of innocent people to get to her, sentencing her friends to death and destroying all of her most vital relationships in the process.

Over 30 hours of emotional hardship, Ellie transforms into an irredeemable monster and fundamentally fails to see the forest for the trees. The careful way this arc impacts the player over the course of the game is why The Last Of Us Part II is deserving of such acclaim – it deftly negotiates a fall from grace for Naughty Dog’s most beloved character.

Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us Part II
The Last Of Us Part II. Credit: Naughty Dog

The easy (and clearly quite common) response to The Last Of Us Part II’s story is to hate Naughty Dog for daring to treat its cast poorly. You might argue that it’s an affront to fans of the original that Joel was killed in such a callous fashion, or a disgrace that Ellie ended up becoming the villain of her own story.

But that isn’t for those tainted by bias to decide? Does Naughty Dog really owe fans a happy ending just because people have decided to put these characters on a pedestal? No! And I admire that the studio chose the road less travelled – it led to a story that supersedes the complicated emotional heights of the original.

It’s clear that people are far too precious about games that mean something to them, as they’re unwilling to temper anything but a safe happy ending for morally ambiguous but dearly beloved characters like Ellie and her father figure Joel.

Maybe there’s collective amnesia occurring, but you may remember Joel from such hits as “killing countless innocents and dooming humanity for the sake of one teenager”. I’m confident that if The Last Of Us Part II didn’t have the baggage of the original – which is similar to its sequel in its ethical complexity – people wouldn’t be so hurt, but it’s also precisely why this knife-twist heel turn is so brave and effective.

Naughty Dog actively unpicks the parasitic player-protagonist mentality in the sequel, which is a lot of the reasons why the discourse surrounding it is so toxic. People can’t handle the fact that the characters they care for are actually fallible humans (like us) who are capable of complex and often unfortunate emotions, which is strange to me when you consider that ethical ultimatums were what made the original game so groundbreaking.

These fans want the slop – a naive, safe sequel that soothes them. I have no doubt that this imaginary game would sell like hot cakes, but I’m glad it doesn’t exist because it would also be creatively bankrupt… be careful what you wish for.

Ellie defending herself
The Last Of Us Part II. Credit: Naughty Dog

The reason why The Last Of Us Part II succeeds in spite of its (brilliant) character assassination is due to the likeable, well-written characters that step in as Ellie enables her own downfall. My favourite of the new bunch is Abby, the quote-unquote antagonist, who, due to the game’s unusual structure, actually ends up being the protagonist for half the runtime.

This character has been subject to plenty of bile on the internet already, but that’s mainly because she’s a convenient scapegoat for superfans hurt by the game’s story beats. In reality, I find Abby to be the most morally righteous person in the sequel. Yes, she kills Joel… for killing her dad… and many of her friends… and destroying the organisation providing hope to humanity. The man is no saint!

Crucially though, Abby’s character works so well because she is a reflection of what Ellie could have been if only she’d been able to see through her blind rage. Abby bided her time to kill Joel, but once she enacted her eye for an eye, she offered Ellie mercy, only for Ellie to throw it in her face.

There’s a great scene where Abby finally confronts Ellie after her crazed tirade of violence, and Ellie misreads the situation due to the rage blinding her judgment. She has the gall to plead with Abby not to kill her friends and just take her instead – despite the fact that she’s just spent three days killing all of Abby’s friends to get to her….

The Last Of Us Part II
The Last Of Us Part II. Credit: Naughty Dog

Blinded by her grief, Ellie doesn’t see a diplomatic path – she doesn’t understand that mercy is an option because her father figure Joel didn’t show any himself when he was killing hundreds of people to keep her safe way back when. This complex baggage passed down from Joel to Ellie clouds her judgment and seals her fate – and it’s why I empathised with Abby so quickly, and was satisfied when Ellie got her comeuppance.

When they inevitably end up in a fistfight, it’s Abby who takes the high road and yields, offering Ellie mercy once more, only for Ellie to throw it back in her face again, leaving the safety of her young family and risking her life to hunt her down in Santa Barbara.

It’s a poetic trek into Ellie’s heart of darkness and results in one of the finest finales in modern video games. In truth, it would have been awful if Ellie had achieved her revenge because, as I was forced to realise, she didn’t deserve it. The Last Of Us Part II is a thrill ride full of tricky emotions, and even if it was hard to come to terms with, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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