The Last Of Us Part II: A Haunting Portrait of Grief
SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US PART II!
One of my favourite things to do when I have an evening free is going to the cinema to watch National Theatre Live.
If you haven't heard of it before, NTLive allows you to go and see the latest work of some of the UK's top theatre makers from the comfort of your local cinema. I've seen some amazing theatre thanks to NTLive: Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein, Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Hamlet, and Tom Hiddleston's depiction of Coriolanus. The broadcast that always sticks out in my mind, however, is the National Theatre's 2017 production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
Follies is an incredible, and in my opinion, underrated musical. You may be able to guess from its title that it tells a story about the perceived failures of its four middle-aged, central characters as they reunite and reminisce about the hopes and dreams of their younger years. Not only does Sondheim's score bristle with emotion throughout, but the show manages to be one of the most down to earth, human stories I've seen on a stage.
The reason it sticks out in my mind is that I remember sitting there and watching Imelda Staunton's hauntingly unhinged performance and seeing a whopping four middle-aged couples walk out of the screen in teary, heated arguments.
I can only assume this phenomenon wasn't due to eight uncomfortable seats, four sickeningly poor bags of popcorn, or because of a lack of quality in the production they were seeing. In all honesty, I have to assume that the reason these couples walked out was because what they were watching hit just a little too close to home.
I assume this, because even as a 20-year-old watching it, the production felt like it could be informing me of my own life's shortcomings. I can't imagine watching as part of a married couple who had been through their struggles and felt the same jaded hopelessness as the characters they were watching.
Seeing those couples walk out taught me an important lesson - the most powerful, and most difficult art to behold, is a mirror.
Art has an unnerving power to show us how we really feel. In some cases, like with Follies, we're presented with such a universally relatable human experience that it hits us with a pang of intense guilt. One that makes us ask how someone managed to tap into our own individual experience so accurately. I talk about this, not because I want to sell you on how amazing theatre is so you'll consider helping save the UK's teetering industry, but because whenever I find a new piece of art that has that same power, I can't help but think back to seeing those couples leave the cinema.
!!! SERIOUSLY - SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON !!!
After the mass adoration of 2013's The Last of Us, it's no surprise to me that The Last of Us Part II has released to such an obscene amount of controversy. There's no doubt that a major plot spoiler being leaked in the months before release did nothing but fuel the fire, but after playing Naughty Dog's latest work through to completion, I can't help but feel there's another reason why the game is meeting such a wide range of negative reactions.
Mere hours after the game's release, people began "review-bombing" The Last of Us Part II on Metacritic. There are a few reasons for this. Joel, the character players were aligned so tightly with over the course of the original game sees a brutal and untimely end in the opening hours of the sequel. In the seven years between releases, Joel has become one of the most beloved father figures in video games, and potentially wider fiction - so it's really no surprise people were upset.
Although, as I read Metacritic's user reviews and noticed that some had played until just after Joel's death and no further, I was reminded of that night at the cinema. I realised that I knew exactly what was going on; people had been shown a mirror and it was too much to handle.
There are so many things to be impressed by in The Last of Us Part II. Graphically the game is top tier for the PlayStation 4 era, the animation is stunning, and once again Naughty Dog has presented a narrative so compelling it's made me rethink my stance on video game cutscenes. In the gameplay department, Naughty Dog has taken an ambitious 90-degree turn in terms of their level design, and The Last of Us Part II's combat proves to be some of the most emotive in all of gaming. Unexpectedly, however, the thing that impressed me most throughout my 29-hour playthrough was how well the game nailed its presentation of grief.
There is no feeling quite like the pain of losing a loved one. Whether it's a friend, a pet, or a family member, the internal pit of sorrow you find yourself in during the grieving process is one of the most all-encompassing feelings on the emotional spectrum. Trying to sum up this feeling in music, literature, film, and art has been attempted so many times, but I can't think of another video game of this scale that deals with this feeling head-on and manages to capture it accurately. The advantage of portraying it in a video game, however, is that you control the character who's experiencing it. Their actions are your actions. There's an otherwise unattainable link to be made in the ways the player and character will go about the minutia of grief.
Much of the time when we're caught in the crossfire of mortality, we put our pain into songs, into objects, and into specific memories that give us comfort. In The Last of Us Part II Ellie uses all three of these somewhat futile tactics.
One early scene from the game shows us Joel singing to Ellie shortly after the events of the first game. From that point on, Pearl Jam's Future Days very quickly becomes the poetic centerpiece of the game, with lyrics cropping up thematically throughout.
"All the promises at sundown, I meant them like the rest", Ellie scribbles in her tear-soaked journal as she discovers Joel's handmade guitars in his home.
"If I ever were to lose you, I'd surely lose myself", she sings as the slightest doubt creeps into her mind after her first day of vengeful hunting in Seattle.
"I believe cus I can see our future days, days of you and me", the player hears as they think of the relationship between Joel and Ellie that's been stolen from them.
As a player, you can't help but love Joel. Moreover, you can't help but adore Joel and Ellie's relationship. For seven long years, we waited to play just one more level as the pair and once again see the tiny glimpses of vulnerability between them despite their high emotional guards. When Joel is killed before our very eyes and both the player and Ellie lie there powerless to stop it, those "future days" of Ellie and Joel that had been promised to us with the news of a sequel were destroyed. Obviously we as players grieve that. It's part of the game's genius of aligning Ellie's emotions with our own, especially when we find later on that her relationship with her surrogate father had been non-existent for years until the night before his demise.
It hurts. But as we watch Ellie's obsession develop and she tries to avenge that loss with anger, the game holds up a mirror to anybody who refuses to play this game past Joel's death scene for doing the exact same thing.
Objects have different meanings to different people, but luckily The Last of Us Part II includes so many of Joel's cherished belongings that we can all attach our emotions to different ones. We can grieve Joel by pulling out his watch that's in your inventory after Ellie collects it, we can vent our frustrations by squeezing the trigger of his revolver, or we can delicately play an in-game guitar as we remember Joel doing the same.
Of course one, which resonated with me personally, is the moment Ellie steps into Joel's wardrobe and flicks through his many jackets. I remember shortly after losing my grandfather I found some of his clothes. Without thinking, I held them to my face and inhaled as deeply as I could. Smells are one of the strongest triggers of memory, and as Ellie embraced Joel's jacket and desperately tried to cling to the last traces of his presence, I could only sit back in awe. Naughty Dog managed to totally capture the ways we as humans remember people through objects, and just how beautifully comforting yet thoroughly painful that can be.
I think my favourite section of Part II has to be the museum flashback. After hours of enjoyable gameplay as Dina and Ellie, I found myself longing for another level as Joel and Ellie. Like my in-game character, I missed the greying, well-worn figure who would call me "Kiddo" and save me from my mistakes. Then, as if someone at Naughty Dog had heard my inner monologue, I was granted that wish.
The game flashed back to the year proceeding the events of The Last of Us, and I got to play as Ellie on her birthday. Joel guided me to a museum where he got to relive his days of walking his real daughter around dinosaur exhibits, spouting off the very best Jurassic Park-paleontology. He showed Ellie to a space exhibit and it's there that the game's most tender emotional moment happens. It was tear-jerkingly beautiful, and it was everything I hoped for in a sequel.
It was fitting because when we lose people we love we romanticise our best memories of them. In the face of any arguments, disagreements, and memories we don't want we cherish the good times because those are the experiences that made us love someone in the first place. We as the player again get totally wrapped up in Ellie's emotions here because we don't even have bad memories of Joel yet. It's made all the more poignant when we learn after that section that Joel and Ellie did have arguments between games. They did go through struggles, and they didn't always spend their time together as happily as in that museum.
It's then we see that Ellie is continuing her quest for revenge in spite of bad memories of Joel because she finally comprehends the love he felt for her at the end of the first game. Her grief becomes wrapped up in the fact that Joel did manage to save her from death, while she failed to save him. And instead of grieving properly, and cherishing what she still has, she ends up losing even more.
Ultimately, The Last of Us Part II is a beautiful depiction of human grief. It's a game about how grieving in the wrong ways can consume us, and can eat away at the final good in us that remains. No game of this scale has even dared to tackle the difficulties of real human loss, so it's understandable that people would "walk out of the cinema" in teary, heated arguments. If you are one of the many people currently looking at the game from a place of anger, I implore you to look again and to not turn away from the mirror that Naughty Dog is holding up to us.
For an in-depth review discussion for The Last of Us Part II, keep your eyes peeled for PodCoping Episode 30 which will arrive sometime in the next week!