Trying to avoid the controversy surrounding The Last of Us Part II is like trying to avoid a minefield with a blindfold on. The Last of Us Part II is getting controversy for a few different reasons, so to understand that is to understand the complaints.
So, let’s do a little dive through recent history and break down what is happening.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
Ellie, Joel and the Inclusion of LGBT
So, for those of you who did not play the first Last of Us game, here’s a general breakdown of what happened. After a worldwide pandemic wipes out most of human life, character’s Joel and Ellie find themselves thrust together on a mission of survival.
See, Ellie is immune to the cordyceps virus, and Joel takes on the task of bringing her to the Fireflies. Or, doctors that can effectively use Ellie’s brain tissue to synthesize a viral immunity vaccine.
All of this led to one of the most shocking endings in video game history and cemented Naughty Dog as master storytellers. Notably, the game also showed a proper way to implement a character’s sexual preferences without making them a full frontal story.
Knowing that Ellie is a lesbian didn’t change any of the narrative story. It would have been an amazing story nonetheless because Ellie and Joel are compelling characters with tragic histories.
Speaking of Joel, he’s become one of the most widely recognizable and favorite gaming characters of all time. Acted to absolute perfection by Troy Baker, Joel is akin to Logan in the x-Men film ‘Logan’. He’s been buried by grief and built up walls of a gruff badass in order to just cope with life.
By the end of the game you both hate him for his choices, but respect his willpower and fortitude as a father figure to Ellie.
Yesterday’s Problems, Today’s Games
Now in 2020, Naughty Dog is releasing the much anticipated sequel to the original game. The Last of Us Part II will focus much more on Ellie, her home life and her plot of vengeance against a group of humans.
At its core, The Last of Us is about the people, not the monsters. Or rather, it’s a story about how people can become monsters at the flick of a switch when faced with tragedy.
We saw it in the first game with Joel, and now we’re seeing it with Ellie. When she finds herself faced with an uncomfortable truth, a shocking betrayal and violence, she snaps. She finds herself facing the same decisions and hard choices that Joel did.
It’s a parallel of choices and consequences. We have to live with what we do, and some of us will go as far as we need to in order to achieve a goal. Ellie is learning that firsthand in the sequel.
This is where the controversy begins, and where the true issues arise.
Inclusion for Pampering or Storytelling?
Beginning of the controversy was quite literally at the E3 trailer reveal for The Last of Us Part II. In the trailer we see a happy Ellie with her wife (or lover) just trying to enjoy what slice of life that she can.
The trailer garnered immediate reactions on both sides. Both due to the quality of the trailer and due to the inclusion of Ellie’s sexual preferences. For some reason that sparked an outrage, despite the fact that it was already well known that she was a lesbian.
This actually led to the game getting banned in the Middle East. Opinions were pretty hot and heavy, again, despite that this was already public knowledge. Naughty Dog saw no need to pretend that she wasn’t who she was, that should be commended, not condemned.
It was bound to get worse though, it was later revealed through various teases and leaks that Joel was the essential villain. He isn’t the one who orchestrated everything, but he was no longer a father figure or good man. This reveal did not please a lot of fans of the earlier title, myself included.
Then, I thought longer about it, and I realized that this was already set up in the first game. We learn by the end that Joel is not a good person, he knows that his decisions were selfish and that he doomed mankind.
Joel was already the villain, Naughty Dog was just so good at creating his character that they successfully subverted your viewpoint of him. Never was he a good person after the events at the beginning of the game.
Why do Movies Get a Pass While Games Get Hate?
Think of some of the most influential and highest rated movies of the last 10 years. Can’t think of any right now? That’s okay, I got you covered!
The Lighthouse, Hereditary, Joker, Parasite, 12 Years a Slave, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ladybird, Get Out just to name a few. What do these all have in common with each other? They told their stories in unconventional, groundbreaking ways that surprised audiences and critics alike.
Not only did they accomplish that feat, but they’re generally considered by everyone to be masterpieces in their genres. They also included inclusions like LGBT communities, racism, bigotry etc. They weren’t easy movies to watch, and they were incredibly different.
The Last of Us Part II is doing exactly that. It is trying to break the narrative mold of video game storytelling. We’ve seen it done before, and for some reason those games aren’t mired in audience controversy.
Mass Effect did it years ago, Knights of the Old Republic as well, so did Overwatch. Well, I guess Overwatch caught some flak, and then immediately died down when they realized no one cared about it.
Why is The Last of Us Part II an exception to the rule? Because it’s being well made and has movie level production value and incredible attention to detail? Because it wants to make you feel bad and wants to make you look inwardly at your own humanity? Joker got away with it, why can’t The Last of Us?
We need to accept that not all storytelling is meant to be kind, thoughtful and feel good. Some stories are mean, dark and full of humanity at their very worst moments.
This was already seen in the first game. There were truly evil moments throughout the entire playtime of the game. For God’s sake, the whole middle act is Ellie learning to kill to survive, fight off a rapist who knows she’s a minor and trying to save Joel. And the entire finale is about how much of a horrible person Joel has become, how selfish he truly is.
We’re not really meant to side with the protagonists of these stories, that is the whole point. Just because we see Ellie and Joel in their happy place only for it to be ripped away is not for their benefit as good people.
Sometimes, the world punishes you for existing, and it’s up to us (the characters) to decide how to face the music. But, don’t complain and whine when the music isn’t what you expected it to be.