The Last of Us: Part II gave me everything I needed to invest in a sequel I never wanted, a story I never needed to know, and live in a world I never felt the desire to return to.
It presents itself as a story about hate, pushing lead character Ellie to lengths I hoped I would never see her driven to by the end of The Last of Us. But it is so deeply intertwined with the same love that drove the original game that, at its darkest moments, I felt I had to move forward toward the light, even if it was just a spark flickering off a quiet moment between Ellie and her girlfriend Dina, or from a grand, loving gesture from her father figure Joel. As grim as the Last of Us universe is, it’s not without human connections that gives it moments of hope. Those moments might not come from its setting, but they are seen in the people who exist within it.
But in trying to talk about the minutiae of everything The Last of Us: Part II has to say, I find myself choking on the words before they can move past my lips. I’m unable to type them as my fingers tremble over the keyboard. I’ve never wanted to talk so little about a video game I love.
One of the unique privileges of this job is being allowed a chance to experience a work completely devoid of the conversations that will eventually surround it. We’re able to play or watch things on our own terms, without the expectations other reviews or criticism will thrust upon us. We get to mull over something before the public gets its hands on it, and the internet goes to town.
That blank canvas allows our personal experiences to be the sole driving force behind how we initially feel about something, rather than be influenced or shaped by any preconceived notions. In some cases, that can backfire very quickly. We might miss out on something important that goes beyond the scope of our particular understanding. But when something really and truly hits the mark for us, we put our feelings into words and wait to see where our views fit into a larger conversation.
But I don’t think I’m ready to have that conversation about The Last of Us: Part II yet.
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When I started playing The Last of Us: Part II, my father was alive, still fighting his years-long fight with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. By the time I finished it two days later, he’d passed away. By nature, The Last of Us is a series that puts weight behind death. In a time where that very concept weighs on me in a way it hasn’t before, The Last of Us: Part II has sewn itself into this moment in my life in a way I don’t think I can excise. Because the game is now intrinsically tied to the death of my own father in my head and in my heart, talking about it and seeing it out in the world feels like a mourning process intrusively extended into the public eye. Describing how it felt to play The Last of Us: Part II now feels invasive. Like thousands of strangers hugging me or shaking my hand at a funeral, assuming they know exactly how I feel and why I feel it. I’m not ready for it, but I know I can’t stop or change it. Try as we might, the stories we take in are interwoven with the context in which we experience them. Sometimes unraveling those threads is not as simple, clean, or painless as we might hope.
There are a lot of forms this review could have taken. I could have said The Last of Us: Part II is an exemplary illustration of how sequels are better when they build upon their predecessors — not when they attempt to exist independently of them. Or, if I was feeling up to it, I could have written about the way its marketing failed the game by being so determined to hide the truth of its story from the world. It has made the game feel small, presented to the public with the most shallow, gruesome, and eye-catching mischaracterizations of a game about so much more than its violence. Or, if you got me started, I could have ranted about how it’s too long. I might yearn for the days when Naughty Dog made games tighter than 20 or 30 hours…
…and yet, looking at all these points, maybe I do want to talk about The Last of Us: Part II. It’s just that both the game itself and the act of reflecting upon it pick at wounds that are still fresh and healing. That includes both the ones it inflicted on me, as well as the ones that hurt worse by their proximity. Like Ellie after a tough fight, I’m trying to nurse my own pain before I head back into the world and gear up for the next lesion. Talking about The Last of Us: Part II feels like repeated waves of battle that will reopen the same injuries and undo every bandage I’ve wrapped around myself. I want more time to trace my fingers over the scars, but if you’re reading this, The Last of Us: Part II is no longer this private, special thing for me. It’s a video game in the public consciousness, and the conversations that follow are going to tug on the loose ends of those bandages all over again.
The Last of Us: Part II posits that holding onto anger, whether it be at each other, yourself, or just the course your life has taken, is a sickness. It’s the infectious cordyceps fungus running through a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a game simultaneously built upon pain while also begging everyone who exists within it to let go. Doing so might be the healthier option, but I’m not ready to release the feelings The Last of Us: Part II has riled within me yet. I want to bottle it up, hold onto it, and keep it for myself. If not forever, at least for now.