Anger and Acceptance in The Last of Us Part II
I finished The Last of Us Part II three weeks ago. I’ve since watched my boyfriend play through it, had conversations with him and a handful of friends, appeared on a podcast discussing it; I have a lot to say, but for two weeks now I have been struggling to sit down and put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keys) and get something written.
This is partly due to personal mental health issues, which have been only exacerbated by existing on social media—especially as a woman on social media. I’m aware I have it relatively easy in comparison to some, and the majority of experiences I have with the gaming community on the internet are positive. But the fear of being targeted by certain types of people in the gaming community puts me off writing and puts me off sharing my stronger opinions on games, and in avoiding this I have come off relatively unscathed.
However, you can’t blame me for being tentative, when recently the voice actress for Abby in The Last of Us Part II has faced death threats and a tirade of disgusting abuse for merely playing a role in a game—a very nuanced, emotional, and downright awesome role that, in my opinion, will be one of the most influential of this generation.
One of the reasons why it has taken me so long to get my thoughts on The Last of Us Part II down is because I didn’t want to address the negativity surrounding it because I didn’t want to tarnish the incredible experience I had playing it. But I have come to realise that this needs to be addressed because it is unacceptable and highlights that, despite the gaming community becoming more diverse, there is still a long way to go.
*** I will be discussing The Last of Us & The Last of Us Part II in great detail past this point, so if you don’t want spoilers, do not read any more of this article!***
I took longer than I care to admit to actually finish playing The Last of Us. I had many issues with the pacing of the “Summer” section of the game, I couldn’t get behind mechanics that I felt were clumsy, and I felt the story was taking a lot longer than I would like to hook me. However, just before “Fall” I finally got there.
No other game has affected me more than The Last of Us, but then Part II came along and it absolutely floored me. The entire experience was a huge emotional rollercoaster. I think the last time I shed this many tears at a piece of visual media was Toy Story 3 (and I was a mess, just ask my dad). I don’t quite know what specifically “got” me; I think the obvious catalyst was the death of Joel, but the events that follow continue to build and build on this incident, making it heartbreaking and emotionally confusing on so many levels, leaving you to question everything Joel (and I guess by extension you, the player) did in the first game. Should I sympathise with Joel this much now? Who should I be rooting for? Do I even want to be making these characters carry out these actions? Do I really want revenge?
What the first game did so well was put the player in the shoes of the characters of Joel and Ellie. I was so fully committed to these two; I was rooting for them both to survive and succeed and that’s why the ending is so gut-wrenching. When you realise Ellie had to die for a cure, it is a testament to the game (in my case anyway) that I was fully on Joel’s side—I even made sure to kill everyone in the operating theatre, although I didn’t actually have to, just because I was so protective of Ellie and so convinced that is what Joel would have done.
This is what made The Last of Us Part II such a rollercoaster for me, because it made me question my actions in the first game, not just the actions where you have no choice but to follow the narrative, and it made me question Joel. Joel, the man who is one of my favourite characters of all time, who I sympathise with, who I want to have a happy and good life in peace.
For the game to make me think, “Yeah, he kind of deserved it,” breaks my heart into a thousand pieces, but also is absolutely a credit to Naughty Dog. Anyone who thinks this event shouldn’t have happened in this game and are petitioning for the story to be changed (yes, this is a thing) needs to reevaluate what this world and these stories are all about. They are missing the point of the game entirely. At the end of the day, it is very clear that Joel did terrible things in the first game, but I made peace with this as I got to know him as the man who is protecting this young girl at all costs.
By killing off the male protagonist and having Ellie, a gay female character, as the new protagonist was likely to ruffle some feathers. However, this isn’t the “issue” certain individuals have with the game; most likely because players like Ellie, and it has been common knowledge since 2016 that Ellie was going to be the main playable character. The main issue I have seen was just the very fact Joel died at all, but more importantly, who he was killed by.
It started with the review bombing, something I have grown to hate with a passion. The very idea that someone would give something a bad score without even playing it, just because of the characters and the themes present, makes my blood boil, especially when this game is taking strides for representation for the LGBTQ+ community and how women are represented in gaming. It makes me feel so frustrated that these people hate something that does not harm them in the slightest so much that they go out of their way to review bomb and harass the actors, developers, and comment sections with their hate.
Now, a lot of these people are using the fact that Abby killed their precious Joel as a mask for blatant sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. There have been plenty of main characters killed by other characters in gaming history, and to my knowledge, voice actors haven’t been bullied, or at least not to the extent that has been directed at Laura Bailey, the voice actor who played Abby.
Part of me wants to think that if Abby were replaced and it was Owen who did the deed, the amount of hate and harassment from these people would have been the same. But I don’t think that the hate would have been as vicious and I don’t think these people would bother to harass the actor. I hate to assume, but I think the reaction would have been very different. Why? Because I think these people would have been more comfortable with a man killing Joel; they may have found it more “believable.” To put it in plain and simple terms, these people do not respect women.
They are threatened by a woman who can incapacitate and murder their favourite character in cold blood. They are threatened by a woman who doesn’t fit into their “idea” of a woman they are used to seeing in video games. They are used to either lusting after or protecting the women in their video games. I know it is obvious, but I am going to use Lara Croft as an example. Even though she is a totally badass, intelligent, strong, and powerful woman, one quote from a developer of the 2012 game was that they wanted the player to feel “protective” of her. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a more relatable version of Lara, but for me, she has always been the embodiment of a strong, awesome woman who doesn’t need anyone to protect her.
Now the difference between Abby and Lara is, to put it bluntly, their looks. Lara Croft was created to be as sexy as possible. It is all everyone talked about in relation to her character back in the ’90s and, to a certain extent, still has that discourse around her to this day. But Lara, although strong and able in-game, had the most unrealistic body type, to the point where it looks like she is wearing a corset with her impossibly tiny waist.
Abby is strong as hell and looks it. She has a body type we are not used to seeing in media, let alone gaming. She looks like she could take anyone down. Her character design stands out for me in such a great way, but for others… it’s a big issue. They hide behind cries of “She killed Joel, I hate her,” (that was massively toned down language) which, in some cases, translates to: “She killed Joel, I hate her, but also I can’t find her sexually attractive because she has muscles. Also, I’m scared of her and can’t protect her because she could quite easily take me in a fight.” Again, this is all me assuming other people’s thoughts, but I can’t help but feel that this is where a lot of the anger and resentment comes from.
For me, Abby was the best part of the game (no, it’s not because I am trying to work against the backlash). I made up my mind about this before everyone started kicking off. I love her as a way to make you question everything; I love how they used her to question Joel’s actions, but I also love her as a character.
She is not just the really cool lady with muscles; she is so much more complicated than that. Abby has fears. She is strong on the outside but has a lot of resentment and hate on the inside, which is coupled with sensitivity and a fierce sense of protectivity, much like a certain character in this series whose name begins with the letter J.
The player gets glimpses into her character the first time we play as her—the attempts to humanise her with her fear of heights and hints of a history with Owen all worked for me because by the time we realise she is after Joel and she finally kills him, I kind of have a soft spot for her. I didn’t have as much raw hatred for her as others did (my boyfriend included), but in so many cases this was purely down to the fact she killed Joel, and a lot of the time they came around to her in the end.
The thing is, you are meant to hate Abby for a portion of the game. She killed Joel for a reason unknown to the player and, at that moment, you feel like it is completely unjust and heartless… until the game begins to piece things together.
The way the game does this best is when you meet outcast Seraphites, Yara and Lev, especially when it is just Abby and Lev together. There are so many mechanics that hark back to playing as Joel and Ellie in the first game. Abby can only strangle or use crafted shivs for takedowns, like Joel, and if you are in a pinch Lev comes up and stabs the attacker in the back, just like Ellie. You are once again the older person protecting the younger from harm; it makes you realise that in this world no one is intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Everyone has their story and, at the heart of it, revenge is pointless.
This is only solidified when you finally confront Ellie for the first time and you have to fight her. I hated every minute of it because I obviously didn’t want to harm Ellie, the person who I protected for the entirety of the first game and played as for half of this one, but I also didn’t want Abby to get hurt while also not wanting her to kill again because it didn’t feel worth it.
The reverse happened at the very last scene with Ellie and Abby, to the point where I died twice because I didn’t want Ellie to kill Abby. I knew it wasn’t what Ellie wanted, it wasn’t what she would have done, but I also loved Abby at that point in the game as well. The emotional connections I made with so many characters in this game are really second to none and the reactions I had during my playthrough were completely unique to anything I have experienced before.
I have so much to say about so many elements of this game and I am only frustrated I had to spend a lot of it talking about the backlash, but it’s necessary. These opinions need to be highlighted as outdated and bigoted ones that have no place in discourse about a game that is taking big steps in diversity. I felt that every decision throughout the game was extremely well thought-out and incredibly executed, and the representation was so great. At the end of the day, this game will be highly influential for years to come and, hopefully, it will pave the way for more games to take these kinds of risks.
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