The Game of the Year of a Very Bad Year

This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.

When I first started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, my world was a different place. My biggest stressors were the Very Bad Time I was having while playing Cyberpunk 2077 on my Xbox One and whether or not Walmart would fulfill my Xbox Series X order this time. This post was going to be about how I expected Cyberpunk 2077 (“Game of the year already!” I foolishly exclaimed to my boss, while explaining why I needed to take time off to play it) to be my game of the year, but that, when it came right down to it, The Last of Us Part II (Part II) really is my game of the year.

And then my world changed.

Let’s back up. Like a lot of people, I’d been anticipating Part II for quite some time. I didn’t know if I wanted to play a game about hate and revenge, where NPC dog owners had names and The Last of Us heroine Ellie looked like she was having a very bad time. I didn’t know if I wanted to play it, but I knew that I would. Going into the game, I knew enough about the framework of the leaks to know two critical spoilers: new character Abby is the daughter of a doctor killed by Joel in the first game in his pursuit of saving Ellie, and Joel dies at the hands of Abby in revenge. Because of this, I could brace for the early impact of Joel’s grisly death.

And boy, did I hate the game. I hated it so much that I forced my way through it over a long and painful weekend, referring to this push as “hate playing”. I took brief breaks for the bathroom and food, and I pushed past my reservations and anger at what felt like emotional exploitation. None of my observations will be novel here: many others have discussed in detail Ellie’s murder of a dog you’re later forced to play catch with as Abby, or Ellie’s murder of a pregnant woman you, as Abby, are later reminded over and over again is pregnant. 

The game hinges on these oppressive moments of parallel darkness. It felt like a slow dismantling of a character I loved in service of another, whom I grew to appreciate in her own way. The back half of the game, in which you play Abby, feels richer, fuller. Its set pieces are grander, its oppressive tension is higher, and its characters are simply better (the ways in which Part II did Tommy wrong is a whole other blog post). 

By the time end game came, I barreled past the final sections as Ellie, hardly bothering with enemies on my way to the next in-game checkpoint, just ready to Be Done. By the time Ellie began to attack Abby on the beach, I was as exhausted as both women were— of the game itself and of Ellie’s constant baffling decisions. 

In an earlier game moment, I set my controller down to try to prevent Ellie from torturing the now-helpless Norah. The scene requires a button prompt, a physical action taken by the player on behalf of Ellie. I left the room for half an hour. I came back and had to torture Nora to progress.

So too does the endgame force you to attack Abby, to repeatedly fight her in order to end the game. Ellie gained nothing and lost everything. She seemed to have learned even less. 

When I finished the game, I found my emotions about it so conflicting that, in a pandemic year with no social support, I immediately watched two full YouTube playthroughs (Jacksepticeye and TheRadBrad) of the game in their entirety. I needed to process my emotions about what had just happened— and to hear other people do the same. When people asked me my opinion, I vented: it’s gorgeous, I’d say, and the controls are crunchy, and the sound design is perfect, and the combat feels great (except for one very painful fight sequence). There’s a beautiful sound when you pick up enough of any type of supply to craft something. The music is perfect. The scene where you’re walking above Seattle as Abby fights her fear of heights? Wonderful.

But it’s terrible. And it made me feel bad, complicit in actions I’d never want to take. These aren’t roleplaying games, by the strict video game definition of the term, but they are roleplaying games in the sense that you are inhabiting this role. You are playing their story. 

And it wasn’t a story I wanted to be part of.

An interlude: I played Deadly Premonition 2 immediately after finishing Part II. It’s a nightmare of dropped frame rates and glitches that outdo Cyberpunk 2077’s on such a laughable scale. I wrote notes to myself like, “To play DP2 is to constantly ask yourself, ‘Is this the stupidest thing the game is going to make me do?’ while simultaneously knowing it’s not.” It was my palette cleanser after Part II. It did not do a very good job.

My dad died on 21 December, 2020. It was unexpected and immediate.

He likely felt no pain. He never got COVID-19, and he didn’t suffer in the hospital. I didn’t have a strained relationship with him. He didn’t kill a bunch of people to save me (that I know of) and doom the world. He was the best father a girl could ask for, and he was here one day and then gone of the next. There were no goodbyes, but there was also nothing left unspoken between us. He always knew how much I loved him, and I always knew how much he loved me. He was both my dad and one of my best friends in the world.

I don’t know the outlines my grief will take. It’s too soon to tell. Grief is complicated and unique. It’s been eleven days. Some are better than others. It will probably be that way for a long time. Having a dad is not a universal experience. Similarly, neither is losing one.

I’m not like Ellie. I’m not like Abby. While we may be living through our own version of a zombie apocalypse, my father wasn’t ripped away from me by an enemy with a face. I have no one to blame, no antagonist to pursue halfway across the country. There’s no revenge. There’s only an impossible yawning sense of sadness. And anger. And all of the other stages people have come up with– and a few thousand more.

One of the most affecting scenes in Part II is a flashback. A young Ellie, quippy and sassy and as-yet unaffected by the events of the first game, and Joel explore a museum, overgrown with the detritus the apocalypse hath wrought. Joel and Ellie climb into a space shuttle’s reentry vehicle, and Joel presents her with a cassette for her birthday. On it is a recording of the voicetrack to a shuttle launch. Ellie basks in the beauty of her fantasy about it. Joel, next to her, looks on in adoration. It feels like a near-final moment before the truth of The Last of Us creates a seemingly unfixable rift between them.

Joel’s killing of Abby’s father to protect Ellie, and Abby’s revenge-murder of Joel, Ellie’s adoptive father, have a profound impact on both women. They are who they are partly because of these father figures– and there are who they are now, without them.

Naughty Dog shows us at the end of Part II that in the hours before Joel’s death, he and Ellie made an effort to move forward, into the future. A future they never got to have. So, yeah, it’s a game about hate. And revenge. But it’s also about love and regret.

I played a lot that I enjoyed this year, some new and some not. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has helped keep me company during this strange time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has kept my brain occupied when I need it. Paradise Killer is weird and perfect. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is beautiful and enchanting. I even played the original Final Fantasy 7 for the first time in 2020. And there will always be Deadly Premonition 2.

But when I think about things that impacted me this year, the stories that crawled into the gaping chest wound that a protracted year of mental health challenges has caused, it’s Part II that will stay with me.

I didn’t enjoy playing it. In fact, I hated most of it– but Part II is going to stay with me for a very long time, for better or worse.

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