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.

There are no spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 or any other games in this post.

A few days ago, a video game asked me to evaluate some nipples. My character’s, specifically. After a not insignificant portion of time moving toggles back and forth between different nose types or trying to choose the perfect dead eyes, here I was, being asked to choose which set of nipples I wanted. This is Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator, and it’s been causing quite the stir. The nipples made me think, as one does, about the humble character creator, the quiet workhorse of any good RPG design. Whatever your intention as you go into a game’s character creator, if you’ve spent any time at all customizing a character, you’re in it. You’re invested now.

If you’ve spent any time at all customizing a character, you’re in it. You’re invested now.

My first personal experience with character creators came in the form of Neverwinter Nights (2002), developed by BioWare and Obsidian. I was raised on a heavy diet of point-and-click adventure Mac games with clearly defined protagonists like Guybrush Threepwood or April from The Longest Journey. These weren’t roleplaying games, and the story I was playing through was theirs, not mine. Like every good DnD-style game, you chose your race, character class, attributes and abilities, and then some basic character customization. Back in 2002, this was novel to me, and I spent hours choosing which head and tattoo color to put on my batch of polygons.

Character creators have come a really long way in the last 20 years. You can create alien and mythical races, specify ear size, and choose the inner and outer rings of a character’s iris. Saint’s Row IV even lets you be Nolan North. And a character creator is about so much more than simply choosing an aesthetic.

A good character creator helps you build your ideal avatar, whatever that may look like, so that you can send them out into the game world, to experience it, to impact it and be impacted by it.

There are some games where you spend a lot of time seeing your character. BioWare games, for one, feature your character so heavily that I’ve occasionally spent 20 minutes customizing my character, only to redo it all when I actually see her in gameplay. Nobody can stand 60 hours of a game looking at a nightmare. (I once created a character in Dragon Age: Inquisition with the “lip gloss” feature turned all the way up. It took so long to create her that I stuck with it, but on a sunny day, she’d blind everyone with her lips. I had a constant lens flare.)

If the lipgloss goes to 11, I’m going to take it to 11.

This level of investment in a character’s face, a character who, for better or worse, comes to represent you throughout a game’s run time, can backfire. Take, for instance, 2012’s Mass Effect 3, the third in a trilogy of space opera games that began in 2005. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you take the form of Commander Shepard, a badass space soldier you’ll be seeing a lot of through Mass Effect’s cumulative 100-hour game time. Mass Effect 2, and subsequently Mass Effect 3, let you import your character and their major choices from game to game. But there was a problem with ME3: if you imported your ME1 character to ME2, there was an issue with the face codes, meaning that your ME3 Shepard wasn’t going to look like your ME2 or ME1 Shep.

As someone who had played through both the first two games in order to have my canonically perfect run to import into ME3, imagine my dismay when my dream Shepard didn’t– and couldn’t– look like the one I’d just devoted 60 hours to. It was an immersion-breaking issue that led to creative problem solving.

At least default FemShep is a badass. She took me all the way through ME3, and I loved her, but I couldn’t avoid the feeling that she wasn’t the same Shepard I’d taken on all of those adventures that had come before.

My ACNH character has bad bangs and she’s living her best life.

When Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, it also had a problem. It had many, but one in particular seemed to rattle the cages of even the most dedicated Mass Effect player (of which I consider myself one): the character creator. BioWare, who not too long before Andromeda had released a pretty great creator along with Dragon Age: Inquisition, took a few steps backwards. The biggest complaint? You couldn’t deviate much from a handful of preset faces, making true customization impossible. It bothered people so much that BioWare dropped a patch a couple of months after the game released, which significantly changed the creator and included an on-ship facial reconstruction station in case you really couldn’t stand your Ryder build.

I don’t know why I thought to take a literal photograph of Sara Ryder, but this has sat on my phone for close to four years.

But I’m the person who took four days off from work to play Mass Effect 3, and an unattractive character wasn’t going to prevent me from my space romances and pre-order pink tracksuit. A lot of us had already finished the game by the time this patch rolled out, and no, I wasn’t going to go back to Andromeda until the memory of it had long faded and I thought I might be up for it again. So I made Sara, featured above, of indeterminate ethnic background, a mop of shockingly (and clearly fake) blonde hair, and roots for days. And we were in it together, for all of that game, for better or for worse.

I stared at those roots a lot. Sara, I thought. If there’s a space bar on the Nexus, surely there’s a hair salon?

I haven’t seen much of V in Cyberpunk 2077. In spite of the extensive character creator, she’s hardly there, buried behind a first-person view. I know she’s there. I’m conscious, even, that she has a face, the way it feels once you learn Lisa is programmed to always be behind you in PT. Sometimes I’ll stop and make her look in a mirror, just so I can remember what I did to her face. Her eyes are soulless, and her pink and blue ombré hair in delicate finger curls felt right for a Corpo but less so for what (who?) she’s becoming. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of her when I am forced to go third person to try to drive a vehicle rather than sprinting through Night City. Whenever I access my inventory, I can see her there, too. When I change her clothes, I even get to see the nipples I chose. I don’t know why I got to choose them.

But I did. And this V, whatever she’s worth, whoever she is, is mine.

Are you smiling? I don’t even know you, V.

What’s your favorite character creator, or your favorite character you’ve ever made? Or just say hi!