I’m Ready to Talk About The Last of Us: Part II

"All the promises at sundown, I meant them like the rest."

The following will contain spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II, and is a continuation of topics discussed in our spoiler-free review essay titled I Don’t Want to Talk About The Last of Us: Part II

I finished The Last of Us: Part II about 24 hours after my father took his last breath. I had sequestered myself in a spare bedroom in his home while family and friends all gathered in the living room. They were tending to one another, making funeral arrangements, and swapping stories about my dad and the impact he’d had on each of them in life.

Meanwhile, I was working. My bosses here at Fanbyte had given me the time off I’d requested, but I’m a person who would rather be productive than stare at a wall and I still had a Last of Us: Part II review to write. My piece, which discussed the ways media is tied to the time in our life we experienced them, took that form for a few reasons:

  1. As we discussed in our review podcast, the embargo for The Last of Us: Part II was so oppressive that discussing the game in any meaningful way was near impossible.
  2. The themes of The Last of Us: Part II resonated with me in a way that felt like I couldn’t give it a bog standard review. I needed to try and evoke the feelings the game left in me to really convey how I felt about it without spoilers.
  3. As cheesy as it sounds, the timing of when The Last of Us: Part II fell into my lap felt poetic, in light of both in-game events and what was happening as I wrote this review.

I don’t think I realized how alike my dad and Joel, the father figure and playable character of the first Last of Us, were until I got to see him really be a father in The Last of Us: Part II. Through multiple flashbacks, Joel is seen taking a vested interest in Ellie’s hobbies and fixations, whether they be her dream of being an astronaut in a world not overrun by the cordyceps fungus, her desire to learn how to play guitar, or eventually, wising up to the fact that she is, in fact, a lesbian, who has been harboring feelings for her friend Dina for years. Joel, a Texas native, also hits on several points any southern child has dealt with growing up, whether it be stopping everyone in their tracks to look at deer passing through the forest during a hike, or by joking that when Ellie can fit through a small space that she’s too skinny and needs to eat more. 

Each of these moments touched on memories of my growing up as an awkward gay kid in the south with a dad who, however he fumbled, supported me. I have a lot of memories of playing video games with him growing up, whether that be fighting games like X-Men Mutant Academy or watching him play MediEvil on our first PlayStation. During the window of time I was pursuing a career in music education, he took me and my brother on trips to buy guitars, strings, and sheet music. He helped pay for me to fly to industry events on the other side of the country because I was certain I’d make some networking connection that would land me a job (I didn’t). And then, when he found out I was gay, he supported me without a moment’s hesitation. Even when we were two diametrically opposed people, my dad never asked me to justify who I was or what I wanted, and just asked how he could help.

But when he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, there was an acknowledgement that he would only be able to support me for so much longer. Now, he just had to hope that everything he’d given me or helped me accomplish would be enough to keep me moving forward. He was a stubborn old man, who, even after years of refusing to use his oxygen in public out of embarrassment, managed to outlive nearly every estimate he was given. If I were a spiritual man, I could attribute his outlasting the doctor’s best guess to him waiting to see me and my siblings all set up for success, and he would not be taken from this earth until he had finished what he was here to do. After being invested in my education, he’d seen me graduate college (which wouldn’t have taken as long if I hadn’t jumped between three different majors), and saw me reach a point where I was living comfortably as a journalist in my field. Through sheer willpower, he lived with the disease for three years.

As this was all happening, I was playing a game that echoed my real life so closely that it felt like my grieving process had been digitized and slipped into my PlayStation 4. The Last of Us: Part II’s inciting incident is the violent, revenge-driven murder of Joel. It’s a 20+ hour story of how blinding rage can be driven by love, and how that same love can make us hesitant, keep us grounded, and ultimately, allow us to forgive. I saw Joel die one day before I watched my own father die, so I was able to have two separate reactions. But when you play something like The Last of Us: Part II and its themes resonate with that moment in your life, the lines blur between fact and fiction, and it becomes impossible to unravel it from that.

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At the end of The Last of Us: Part II, Ellie returns to her home having let Joel’s murderer go, accepting that killing her would not bring her surrogate father back. She acknowledges that facing the wreckage she’d made of her life in pursuit of justice would devastate him were he alive to see it. At the end of the first game, he sacrificed the world for Ellie’s life, and in doing so gave her a chance to choose her future, but formed a wedge between them that wouldn’t be fixed until the night before his death. She thinks back on the final conversation they had, where the two didn’t outright reconcile, but they left on the hopeful note that they might one day.

As soon as I finished the game, I walked out of that spare bedroom, past all the people in the living room, and to his backyard, where I sat at the campfire my family had gathered around countless times. I sat there alone and put headphones in and listened to “Ecstasy” by Crooked Still on repeat. By the time the first sob left me, I couldn’t differentiate if I was crying because my father was gone, or because the emotional weight of The Last of Us: Part II had been lifted from my shoulders. I’m starting to think I’ll never know, because they both feel the same.

The last time I saw my dad in person wasn’t as dramatic as Joel and Ellie’s last conversation. We sat in his kitchen and talked about how bored he was getting being homebound during the coronavirus pandemic. I told him he should look into getting some new hobbies. He joked about taking up knitting.

In my review essay, I wrote about how discussing The Last of Us: Part II felt like pulling at bandages over still-healing wounds, and if you’ve been on the internet, you’ve seen the anger this game is bringing out of everyone, from entitled developers and actors defensive about a game they made being criticized, to fans demanding their view of the game’s queer representation become the consensus, or even well-meaning people advocating for better working conditions at Naughty Dog after reports have come out about the studio’s crunch culture.

Before the game was in the public’s hands, I knew things were going to be bad, but I don’t think I anticipated the way that the industry would attach every grudge and narrative to one game, as if it were the first and last video game that we were ever going to play. Real discussions are being shouted down by gushing, hyperbolic praise just as frequently as heinous, bad faith arguments. Even important discussions about crunch and labor issues are being squandered by people who say the quality of the game makes these working conditions “worth it” while others use it as a weapon to diminish the work of the people they claim they’re trying to defend.

Under normal circumstances, the discussion around The Last of Us: Part II would be unbearable, but for me, it’s a game intrinsically tied to when I played it, and the ways the internet is engaging with it feel like listening to nails on a chalkboard, but my job requires me to be aware of it all, even if I don’t have to actively take part. 

To talk about The Last of Us: Part II is to talk about my father’s death just as much as it is talking about Ellie’s, but she and I don’t have the same journey to recovery. For her, it’s in traveling to Seattle to find those responsible and exact her pound of flesh. For me, it came in writing that review, and now, this piece you’ve just about finished reading. While I can’t keep the game for myself, I can at least internalize its message of deciding what parts of the people in our lives we want to take with us, and how we can honor them when they’re no longer around.

I’ve been very happy with my coverage of the game thus far, and I’m getting more comfortable talking about it with others without having to immediately remember what I lost when I was playing it. When I find well-meaning criticism from those who it didn’t resonate with as much as it did me, it’s starting to feel like a conversation. Sifting through the hostile areas of the internet to find it, however, hasn’t gotten much easier.

I don’t want to talk about The Last of Us: Part II, but the further I get away from it, the more I think I would like to try.