Throughout its marketing, The Last of Us Part II was touted as a game about hatred, violence, and the cycle of revenge. In particular, hate was the theme that most consistently came up, especially once it was revealed the game would focus on Ellie’s quest for revenge after a life-altering tragedy. However, director Neil Druckmann has stated this was a lie. In reality, both The Last of Us Part II and its predecessor are about love.
Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II to follow.
In a spoiler cast stream with Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller — as well as Ashley Johnson, the voice actor for Ellie, and Troy Baker, the voice actor for Joel — Druckmann explores what he believes is the message of The Last of Us Part II. Around the 00:46:15 mark, he states:
I’m always afraid to answer these questions because people, like, put too much weight. I guess… I’ll say a couple of things. When we first started talking about this game, I said, you know, the first game’s about love, this game’s about hate. That’s not true. Both games are about love.
Both games explore the most wonderful things love can provide, like when you see Ellie and Joel in the space capsule, and how much these two characters are willing to do for each other, and these really sweet moments. And the worst things that love can drive you to, which is… some of the worst atrocities that happen in the world happen in the name of love. And so much, to me, this game is an exploration of finding these characters that struggle with that and make sometimes horrible decisions, flawed decisions, human decisions, and then finally finding ways to decouple their ego from the violence they’re committing.
And that’s Ellie’s journey throughout the whole game. Her ego is so wrapped up in bringing these people to justice, and it takes her hitting complete rock bottom for her to finally wake up. That’s what this game is about.
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I was extremely relieved upon hearing this, for I framed my review of The Last of Us Part II over at Paste Magazine exactly around this notion. I wrote that, for a game ostensibly about hate, it “revolves around the complexities of love. It shows love at its most positive, between two people whose love is rarely normalized in media; as the driving force behind a powerful, overwhelming, all-consuming quest of anger, murder and retribution; as a means of defining identity and community, where we belong and where we are dehumanized. It conveys how love — in its equal potential to be merciful and violent — is intrinsically tied with survival.”
As time has passed and I’ve replayed the game, rewatched it numerous times, and consumed as much criticism as I can, I only feel more certain about what I wrote. I can’t see The Last of Us Part II as ultimately being about something other than love, despite the game’s faulty marketing doing its best to portray it as otherwise. Every character, especially Ellie and Abby — the game’s main protagonists — conveys the different forms love can take.
To frame Ellie and Abby’s actions as simply being about hate has always felt reductive to me. At the end of the day, Ellie is so obsessed with achieving justice for Joel’s death because of how much she loves him. Avenging him is the only way she feels she can honor that love after having him — and the chance to mend their relationship — violently taken away from her. Ellie has grown up in a world in which violence is arguably the most primary language for anyone. Violence is a tool for communication as much as it is for survival. Ellie learned how to play the guitar from Joel and was able to explore her love of art through the life they made together at Jackson, but it’s through violence that they met, grew together, and learned to love each other.
Similarly, Abby’s hatred for Joel is rooted in her love for her father; in her grief over losing him. Joel killed her father, who was the surgeon who would’ve operated on Ellie at the end of The Last of Us to develop a cure for the cordyceps virus. But, for her, it’s not about how he robbed the rest of humanity of a cure; it’s about him robbing her of the most important person to her. In the broken post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us, violence is a means of existence. To Ellie and Abby, their fathers could only tangibly survive through the violence they spread. It’s only until the end — when all they have gained and lost through loving people like Dina, Yara, and Lev — that they learn the language of forgiveness; that they can honor the memories of those most precious to them in other ways.
The Last of Us universe explores the inevitable selfishness of humanity in extremely complicated ways, never excusing it but acknowledging how deeply it can drive us when it intersects with love. Considering the times we live in and how awful humanity has shown itself to be, it’s an exploration I’m happy to see with such nuance. I firmly believe humanity isn’t as good as some of us would like to think it is — but the meaningful connections we form are powerful enough to provide some hope and keep us going. It’s humanity’s capacity to bond, love, and hope that The Last of Us Part II is truly about.
Druckmann also states in the spoiler cast that The Last of Us Part II will not be getting any DLC. It’s hard to see (or for me personally to even consider) the universe of The Last of Us wrapping up entirely anytime soon, so perhaps we’ll get a game similar to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which is a standalone expansion to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
You can watch the full spoiler cast below.