It’s been six months since The Last of Us Part II launched back in June, so it’s weird to be writing about a new trailer that isn’t about any kind of new content. But I guess six months is where Naughty Dog and PlayStation draw the line about when is an acceptable time to talk about something that was technically a spoiler, but also a significant part of the game: Abby.
Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II follow. Reader discretion is advised
Given that this trailer doesn’t have anything new in it, there’s not much here that is, on the surface, newsworthy. What I find interesting about it, however, is that Abby, a secret playable character, was a secret for years leading up to the launch of The Last of Us Part II, so much so that Naughty Dog went out of its way to misrepresent the game it was trying to sell in order to hide her identity and her motivations, as well as how all of the above led to what was actually the plot of the sequel. Meanwhile, this trailer, directly states what Abby does and why she is so pivotal to the story The Last of Us has been telling for the past seven years. She was the daughter of the doctor Joel killed at the end of the first game, and she exacts revenge on him in the sequel’s early hours. This is the true set up of the entire violent, bloody, but eventually hopeful events of The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us Part II was a divisive game for a multitude of reasons. Some of them I think are legitimate, as the game’s development has become a touchstone of the ongoing discussion of crunch culture in the industry. Where others, like the fan’s reaction to the murder of Joel, show an undercurrent of uncritical, “I don’t like when games make me feel bad” sentiment that is less defensible. And then there are issues of how the game portrays queerness that are more multifaceted and ingrained in one’s lived experience and have to be unpacked on a case-by-case basis. But one has to wonder, if the marketing team had gone a different direction, one that was maybe more forthcoming about what the game entailed, would reactions to characters like Abby and events like the loss of Joel been more tempered? And would some of the claims of its divisiveness be less pronounced as we head into awards season?
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I think as its own piece, The Last of Us Part II is incredibly effective in how it uses perspective to tell a story that is stellar as the sum of its parts, even if the out of context moments invite frustration as they happen. While it’s fairly obvious when Abby kills Joel that she’s doing it as an ex-Firefly and someone who has felt a very tangible loss due to his actions, players empathise with his daughter figure Ellie in the moment because that’s the only perspective they’ve had up to that point. This is all without knowing that halfway through the game you’re going to switch to Abby and play as her for several hours. When the game is viewed as a whole, it’s a great case study in how perspective can elevate game stories in a way games like Nier Automata have also played with. But six months removed from the game’s launch, it feels like a large amount of the shock and anger that followed came from a sense of feeling like the game wasn’t what players were led to believe it was. And while nothing would satiate people who were ready to exonerate Joel of any wrongdoing, maybe having a more holistic understanding of what you’re getting into removes the need for certain criticism.
But then I start to consider how some people who took their dissatisfaction with something and weaponized it as a reason to harass and even threaten people. And that makes me less concerned about how The Last of Us Part II could’ve avoided certain troubles and more angry that it shouldn’t have had to. Creators shouldn’t have to spoil their work to avoid hostile backlash, and maybe all of this just goes to show you that it’s the environment that surrounds something which invites the level of reaction games like The Last of Us Part II receive more than anything marketing or a piece of fiction can do on its own.
I don’t think the reaction to The Last of Us Part II was justified, both because I think the story the game tells is far more cohesive than Joel apologists would like you to believe, and also how out of control things got as it was happening shows that some people just need to acknowledge there are bigger problems in the world than whether or not a game made you feel good. But seeing a trailer about Abby that doesn’t make an attempt to hide her role in things does make me wonder if some of the game’s reception were avoidable. But in the end, it mainly makes me wish the video game industry was a less vitriolic place so there would have been nothing to avoid at all. Maybe one day a game won’t have to be held to some feel good, power fantasy that some think it should, and people won’t have to fear being harassed or threatened when they don’t match that imagined standard.