I Wish The Last Of Us Part 2 Was Just The Flashbacks
The Last of Us Part 2 is a hard game to replay, and I don’t just mean because of the New Game+ difficulty. Christ, Grounded mode is an ordeal though. Anyway, it’s mostly hard to play again because of how unrelentingly miserable the whole thing is. It starts off with a dark twist, then only gets more brutal as you play through Ellie’s three days in Seattle. When it pivots to Abby, it gets a little brighter, but it already feels cast in the shadows of that initial, dark twist. After that, Abby’s three days are just as tragic as Ellie’s, before the game’s hopeful epilogue is torn down by even more misery.
It’s tough to play. The Last of Us didn’t even sink its claws into me the way the story did for some other folk, and it still feels a bit grim watching Ellie drag her friends through death and despair. Everything is almost irredeemably awful in The Last of Us Part 2, except for the flashback scenes. Those portions centre around younger, more carefree versions of twin leads Ellie and Abby, and punctuate most of the grim beats of the main storyline. Replaying it again, knowing what’s about to come, those flashbacks feel like gasps of fresh air while the rest of the game holds you underwater.
I know the game shattered records for game of the year gongs, and touched a lot of people in ways video games don’t often manage. But it didn’t really do that for me, and I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if it had just been those flashbacks.
Obviously I don’t mean just the flashbacks and no other changes. That would mean cutting out 20 hours of content, severing Abby’s link to Ellie, and getting rid of the story. But I want the ideas of the flashbacks, I want the tone of them. Goddamn it, I want their hope.
The museum scene is by far the best section of The Last of Us Part 2, showing Ellie at her most innocent and curious, overcoming her fears and feeding her young mind. It allows for a softer, more tender side of Joel too – a side we didn’t get to see in the first game. A side we all thought had died with Sarah. The level design of the museum is genius as well, leading us through each exhibition as if we were the visitor ourselves. Every display can be interacted with, every room opens up into something new.
Obviously, Ellie is significantly older at the start of the game, and her newfound knowledge of the previous game’s ending now colours her worldview, but we still see smatterings of this personality back in Jackson. Ellie is older, but it’s clear from her conversations with Dina she’s still the same person. Even after Joel’s death, we see her charm and wit on display during her first day in Seattle, but as her quest for revenge goes on, Ellie’s life is drained out of her. Day one, journeying through the desolate city, is a lot like the museum flashback. Ellie can wander into any building and crack wise about the bank robbery gone wrong or the lesbian novellas. By day three, she’s silent. There’s no curiosity, no charisma. No Ellie.
I don’t want to see her like that. I want the real Ellie, I want to see her life in Jackson with Joel and Dina and Jesse. I want stories of her and Joel taking out a Bloater while searching for new guitar strings, I want to see her learning how to shoot a sniper rifle with Tommy. It didn’t need to be such a relentlessly dark game where Ellie bashes a nurse to death with a lead pipe. It really, really didn’t.
There’s still room for tension, especially since it’s in a flashback that Ellie finds out Joel saved her life, but potentially doomed mankind in the process. But that tension didn’t need to be wrapped around such a savage story.
Abby is only in the plot because of Joel’s death, so if we’re reworking the game to be more like the flashbacks, then clearly she wouldn’t be there. But her stories follow a similar pattern to Ellie’s, starting with cementing her closeness with her father, just before revealing that he was the doctor Joel murdered as he ‘saved’ Ellie at the end of the first game.
Abby’s version of the museum scene is her trip to the aquarium – or fish zoo – with Owen. I don’t even really like Owen very much, and I know Abby could do much better, but I love that the scene is unashamedly joyful even in a world filled with death and destruction at every turn. Yeah, this kind of joy would get old if it was stretched out over 30 hours of gameplay, because there needs to be tension, and stakes, and loss. But does there need to be so much of it, all the time?
Structurally, these scenes are there deliberately for juxtaposition. They show the similarities between Ellie and Abby, and they show what the world can do to you when it grinds you down. The scenes are there to show what our two protagonists have lost and to remind us of the price of revenge. But that just doesn’t justify it for me. Why are we only allowed happiness when it’s used to deepen the sadness, why are we only allowed to love things so they can be ripped away?
I don’t need everything to be rosy all the time, and I’m honestly not that bothered that Joel died. I always saw him as an anti-hero and I’m not desperately scrambling for a way the game could have saved him. I hope he’s not in The Last of Us Part 3 at all, if there ever is one. I’d rather it was Abby and Lev.
If it is those two taking the story forward, I want them to be allowed to hope. I want them to be allowed joy for the sake of joy, not to foreshadow some unimaginable horror which will soon stumble along and rip it all away. Part of the reason The Last of Us didn’t strike at the heart of me the way it seemed to for other people was because I couldn’t shake the feeling of how judgemental it was. I know it’s dystopian horror but bloody hell, why does it have to think the worst of everyone? It gives us two thriving community units in Jackson and the WLF base, clearly full of friends and families and love, then tells us a story about hate.
The flashbacks were the only scenes in The Last of Us Part 2 that weren’t afraid to let the love in. It’s braver to be hopeful and kind, especially in a world already so full of violence and misery. I’m not sure I could have endured replaying the game if the flashbacks weren’t a part of it, and I hope if the series continues, it continues with hope.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. In real life, she normally stays home. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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