Talking about The Last of Us: Part II has been very challenging for us here at Fanbyte, as well as other outlets all over the internet. As we discussed in our review podcast, we were given very restrictive guidelines about what we could and couldn’t talk about. This meant we had to dance around these guidelines in our podcast, and in the written review essay we ended up publishing that referenced themes more than specific events.
But having seen the game to completion, rewatched trailers, read interviews and marketing materials, and looking at these restrictions and how they’ve hurt the conversation around the game over the last week, it feels like Naughty Dog has, in an attempt to hide the game’s many secrets and preserve an experience, hidden perhaps the most important piece of The Last of Us: Part II: the love that ties it all together.
The following will contain mild spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II. If you’re planning on playing the game and want to go in as unspoiled as possible, minimize this and come back to us when you’re done.
Right now, The Last of Us: Part II is available in some territories, so we’re finally allowed to talk about the ways in which the marketing of the game undermined a story that is so much more than the violence that became the focus of nearly everything Naughty Dog showed in three-and-a-half years of promotion. More so than probably anything I’ve covered in all my years of writing about video games, The Last of Us: Part II has made more attempts to obfuscate the truth of its game through choice edits in trailers, deliberately pulling scenes and dialogue out of context to paint a picture of a story that doesn’t happen.
Thanks to intentionally misleading trailers, Naughty Dog wanted us to believe that The Last of Us: Part II was a revenge story of main character Ellie going to Seattle to find a group of cultists who killed her girlfriend Dina. This immediately threw up red flags for queer fans, especially after the series already had a history of falling into the “bury your gays” trope by killing the paranoid smuggler Bill’s partner and Ellie’s first love interest, Riley, in the original game. But as it turns out, the game is incredibly respectful of queerness in its universe. It makes a point to avoid the tropes that plagued the first game and makes its queer characters, their relationships to each other, and their understanding of their own identities into key storylines.
Despite what the deliberately edited trailers imply, Dina isn’t some plot device added to the story to send Ellie on a revenge tour to facilitate 20+ hours of violence. Her relationship with Ellie, the complicated ties she still has to her ex and how Ellie reckons with it all is just one of the pieces of the multifaceted drama The Last of Us: Part II delivers — and this is not even the full extent of how queer characters find their place in this post-apocalyptic universe.
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Even without the bury your gays backdrop, The Last of Us: Part II was still being marketed with its violence above all else. Completely devoid of context, trailers like the one from the Paris Games Week, which showed a young girl named Yara being held down and struck with a hammer, revelled in violence as a major bullet point of what this game is, without clarifying that she, along with her brother Lev, were on the run from the cult who threatened Lev’s life. Promotional materials don’t have to spoil major plot threads, but they don’t have to zero in on the most heinous and ugly moments. In spite of everything that takes place in the 20+ hours that is The Last of Us: Part II, Naughty Dog chose to portray it as something unrelentingly miserable, avoiding large swaths of a game with so much more to say. It created an image in the public’s mind of something that hones in solely on the cycle of violence.
It’s a shame, because in between those moments of torment, there is love. There is purpose. There are reasons to not lose hope in the world that appears beyond saving. For every fire fight or stealth kill Ellie pulls off, there is one where she and Dina get to laugh about the time they wasted before confessing their feelings for one another. For every moment I was reminded what someone like father figure Joel, who has murdered hundreds of people across both games, was capable of as a killer, I was also shown his capacity for compassion and elaborate, grand gestures to show how much he cares. And every time I thought I understood the whole motivation behind people who I was made to believe were my enemy, a new reveal showed to me that there was love behind their actions as well.
The Last of Us: Part II is a messy, violent, and sometimes exhausting story. But it’s not the one Naughty Dog wanted you to believe it is. It isn’t without purpose, it doesn’t treat its characters like playthings to be discarded, and above all, it never loses sight of the ties that bind them together.