Anyone Can Play Guitar

The Last of Us: Part II (2020) (Spoilers) (shots in-game, game © Naughty Dog, LLC)

The release of Part II heralds endings, whether for a generation of video games or for the way studios make them. If you think games matter, then Part II matters purely on that basis, and will matter for years to come. Part II also understandably invites reflections about pasts, comments on presents, and predictions of futures. But Part II is not just an occurrence. Part II is a text. What the game does is not reducible to just its story, or its gameplay, or even entirely to whether Part II is any fun. Instead, the interaction of these elements creates something with a meaning all its own.

Part II turns out to have ambitious plans for the player. Many tools and choices are necessary for Part II to try to achieve its desired effects, whether in play, or in story, or in ways to engage the player in each. If we want to find other ways to talk about games, trying to read this game’s language may be one place to start.

Part II begins with the player watching a “cinematic,” a short story. Naughty Dog, Part II‘s developer, loves to use the tools of movies like this. (Part II features several conversations about movies.) In this opening, a man named Joel recounts to his brother Tommy the final heights of the first game’s shattering narrative. The game will feature many more of these short stories, over which the player will exercise no control.

Part II is a game, though, so, when the cinematic ends, the player can get involved, and move a character around. In Naughty Dog’s games, part of the story being told is which characters you will inhabit. The roles impart something about what the “story” is when “play” takes over and you can do more than pause. The shifts between roles also signal values and affect expectations. Between when you take up the controller, and when you put it down, you will encounter hundreds of people, scattered across different places and clashing factions. The game’s choices about who the player spends time with, and when, and how, will affect any relationship to that world.

You first play as Joel, the protagonist and main playable character of the first game. This is an immediate danger sign. The Last of Us opened with the player controlling Sarah, Joel’s daughter, and she died early on. When Joel leaves your control, like Sarah did, he is still alive. (So was she.) Soon after, the player gains control of Ellie. Playable for parts of the first game, Ellie became the series protagonist in a later entry, and her face adorns the new game’s cover. (Unlike before, Joel is not with her.)

Ellie’s familiar presence helps the player to get used to the game’s new rhythms amid early events. Then, the player gains control of a third, new, character, named Abby. Abby is looking for someone, and, by chance, she comes across Joel and Tommy. By this point, discordant notes have begun to ring out like sirens, drowning out the muted echoes of Ellie’s footsteps. A few hours in, the player learns what contextual signals alone might have already communicated. A brutal cinematic ends with Joel in mortal peril. Then the player is left to run, as Ellie, through a building, frantically looking for him, while we hear the awful cries of a man being made to suffer.

Two attachments will drive one forward: the fictional bond between Joel and Ellie, and the real bond between a player and a character they care about. At that moment, both might feel very strong. Joel’s death not yet certain, you may worry for Ellie, or for Joel, or for Joel as Ellie. (If that sounds overwrought, consider that you might be taking in these events after having waited seven years to see how the story of Joel and Ellie might continue.) But whatever you are doing, all that you are doing is to stop what is happening. You fail. When the player reaches Joel, play stops yet again. Ellie watches what we watch. She sees Joel, her surrogate father, die, and the person who swings the golf club into his head is Abby. Abby has friends, and those friends help her, watch her, even urge her to kill Ellie and Tommy. Yet Abby has gotten what she was after. She spares Ellie and leaves her behind, with a body to bury, a face to remember, and a righteous purpose.

Joel saved Ellie in the first game, and that experience demonstrated what those two will do for each other. Abby, who the player has met only briefly, now feels like the most important person in the world, the key to making things right. She is not the first character in Last of Us to feel so entwined with the fate of existence. Some others thought that about Ellie, and now Joel is off to meet them.

When players gain control of Ellie again, most will want revenge, and will want Ellie to get her revenge. Her incentives and theirs align: these bastards killed Joel. This is a hunger for the kind of satisfaction Abby evidently felt, of setting the world back on its axis. Now, as Ellie, violence is again something in your command, not something you have to watch being done to someone you care about. The game starts to give you power. Foe after foe lines up on your quest toward what is good, and you gradually get more weapons to clear them away. Even if someone just plays Last of Us for the thrills, the main event seems to have begun.

As you work your way through Ellie’s quest for justice, you will not hear Joel’s screams in the distance. But there is an urgent, unmistakable feeling of the game shouting at you, the assurance that there is more coming. Something is wrong about this setup, this tidy crusade. Part II elsewhere builds tension from atmosphere, or direct emotional attachment. Here, the foreboding comes from having briefly played as Abby, the person Ellie seeks to erase. This brief commune lingers, and there is other evidence that this interaction was no stray episode. Abby’s inclusion, and the way in which she is included, signal that she may not have left the player’s control for good.

The player also learned something about Abby, in those moments, something inconvenient: by leaving Ellie and Tommy alive, she showed her violence was not wanton, but targeted, especially by the standards of its surroundings. Compared to the fires, stabbings, and gun wounds yet to come, Abby’s violence was not even particularly gruesome. Over the next hours, the player will run into many human beings who, like Joel, probably have families and once made someone smile. Many of their deaths will be painful and terrible, and they will be deaths, even if it may take a savepoint to render them as final as Joel’s. The player will cause those deaths. They’ll probably even beat some brains in, just not with a golf club.

Hearts will probably not linger too long on these enemies. Instead, in those sequences, the focus is on the play. But one early clue that Part II may be tinkering with stable arrangements about what is “play” and what is “story,” what counts and what doesn’t, comes in the first names bestowed on each of your human enemies. I doubt any player will get through the game without at some point reacting to those names with laughter — all one will really know about “Ben!” is the way he made you feel when he pointed a gun at your character, or alerted other enemies to your presence. But this light touch of humanization still suggests expansions of potential personhood. Part II takes an evident interest in how context, and challenges to perspective, may turn sour the gleeful victory of a narrow escape.

Midway through, Part II unveils a structural twist. The first major part of the game — Ellie’s quest for vengeance, promised after the story’s opening machinations — takes place over three days. She searches for Abby through a Seattle coming apart at the seams, torn between two warring camps. Ellie and her companions’ presence further destabilizes, introducing what is effectively a third roving force among the ruins. Eventually, Ellie ends up confronting Abby, directly. But when our subject meets her object, Abby has the gun, not Ellie. Ellie does not get the moment Abby has already experienced. Abby does not fire. Instead, everything goes away, and Part II skips back a few days earlier, to when Ellie first came to Seattle. The player now controls Abby.

The reset is stark, even if the surprise may not be total. The game warned something like this was coming, and the idea of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes is not new. But Abby’s role in Part II is not just a thought experiment. The game is after your gut, and she is the key to everything Part II wants to instill.

Whether playing as Abby or Ellie, Part II does not alter most of what made the first game distinctive to play. In the down moments between sprawling rumbles, the player searches for hidden means of survival. Then there are monsters in rooms you don’t want to enter, or people with guns approaching the only exits. What dumb bets you want to make with those odds will sometimes pay off and sometimes lead to nail-biting chaos. Part II refines what makes Last of Us feel like Last of Us, and for that reason is easy to pick up again.

Part II also borrows from other games with the same glee of a player finding a blade for a makeshift bomb. Sometimes, when the game grabs from other PlayStation titles — God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn, and indoor portions of Spider-Man come to mind — Naughty Dog is merely returning the favor, repossessing elements influenced by its own earlier creations. Other times, when the studio pulls directly from its prior efforts — including the most recent Uncharted titles, A Thief’s End and Lost Legacy — the developers are just reopening their own toolbox. Either way, Part II again feels inherently familiar.

These similarities, and any resulting textual effects, may arise in part or in whole from how Part II was made. Studio storytelling mediums like video games often begin to standardize the building blocks. For the recent unveiling of the Unreal 5 game engine, Epic Studios produced a brief game simulacrum, and the experience is difficult to distinguish in all but cosmetic terms from watching Aloy, or Nathan Drake — or Abby, or Ellie. Part II may also resemble other games because it was made by the same people. Key contributions to Part II seem to have come from the team behind the earlier Lost Legacy, and early parts of Ellie’s Seattle adventure, swinging on ropes above ruins, feel straight out of that title. Other significant work on Part II came from third-party contractors, a direct continuity with any other games on which their employees worked.

Whether these resemblances result from authorial preference or economic necessity, however, there are textual consequences. In playing, Part II is at times a Last of Us sequel and at times other, discrete concepts dressed up in Part II‘s beautiful clothes. Yet in either mode, for most of the time that the player controls the game, the familiar play will distract as little as possible from forward progress. This helps the game to free up the player’s attention and direct it elsewhere.

These touchstones also impose an obligation on the storytellers. Last of Us is a story-first game, and that story cannot hide behind, or defend itself, through novelty. If Part II is all of these games at once, then any self-commentary extends to the whole family, including the studio’s own creations. Violent play must now justify itself in general terms.

The challenge for meaningful play is how one assigns significance to what occurs. There is usually no inherent “story” to play, not until there is a constructed context for what one is doing. In its cinematics, and in the heavy integration of dialogue and characterization into play, the voice of the studio’s collective “author” can be heard clearly. Part II therefore eagerly invites the player to experience the game with its story as the primary source of meaning, and to look first to story to interpret any new event.

Yet most of Part II‘s runtime consists of playing, and the player authors these events. And there is an inescapably arbitrary and contingent element to play outside the game’s power to dictate fully. The writer of a book is omnipotent in a way that an authored “game” is not. Even to try to describe specific gameplay is a form of sports writing, capturing a moment as it happens that can never occur again. What Part II decides to do about the rest of the equation, those moments when the ball is in the air, affects the player’s experience.

Naughty Dog in the past has often preferred to impose outcomes. The player may be able to move or leap about, but real control is illusory. This approach allows the staging of exciting sequences, and the moments usually land, but inherent distrust of the player is not the only perspective one can take. The much-loved Kentucky Route Zero, for instance, has similar gaps in its hard power, but chooses diplomacy. The game invites the player to help tell the story, by picking parts to include. The ploy of reducing “play” almost entirely to “story” works so well in part because the game has a generous spirit, offering a kind of literary partnership.

In Part II, the studio loosens its grip considerably. The first Last of Us thrived at offering open-ended combat and stealth, an improvisational, organically-developing experience where things would rarely ever go the same way. But the physical settings were often relatively small, in part to confine the terms of potential engagements. Part II throws open the doors for the players, and paths proliferate. One sustained stretch of Ellie’s journey through Seattle is an open-world game in miniature (a nod to Lost Legacy). The space to roam leaves even the order of encounters to the player, and confines any sense of scripting to the enemies’ dialogue. Other sequences involve human enemies and monster enemies (a nod to Left Behind), and there, the player even has control of genre. Depending on how the player acts, they can buy a ticket for any kind of entertainment they would like.

Part II‘s all-of-the-above gameplay thus places large parts of the game mostly outside authorial control in content (if not in form). In allowing this, however, without its customary resistance, Naughty Dog is communicating something quite clearly, and somewhat surprisingly. The game is disclaiming any reliance on the specific experience of one’s play to do the work of the story. The player gains new freedom only because it is an acceptable concession. The arbitrary content of play is ground that can mostly be surrendered, because the main objectives lie elsewhere.

Though much of Part II‘s specific play may be left safely to the side as something other than authorial storytelling, there is one element left that should not be overlooked. Naughty Dog may decline to control the player’s experience of an encounter, but the studio takes real care in offering two contrasting styles of play, one for Abby, one for Ellie. The characters move differently, in ways any player will sense. Ellie is an adult, now, and is no longer helpless when, if seen, strength must meet strength. But Abby is, in another character’s description, “built like an ox,” a bruiser who feels far more like Joel did in the first game. This is no accident. Abby and Ellie are characters, and the text characterizes their play: the specifics, the content, remain subject to the player’s whim, but the contrast, the form, reflects authorial intent. So too does their sequencing, and Abby taking up much of the player’s time over the course of the second half of the game.

Abby’s style of play can often feel like a font of delirious experimentation by the developers, eager to juice the uncomfortable relationship with the controlled character through a rush of neurotransmitters. Inevitably, too, by arriving later in the player’s overall experience, the parts where the player controls Abby have the greater share of the game’s real set-pieces. In one sequence, Abby explores a makeshift bridge in the rainclouds of Seattle and then winds her way back to earth through the remnants of a tall tower, hitting the literal heights of Horizon Zero Dawn before descending into extended survival-horror worthy of Resident Evil. The player’s time with Ellie often feels more somber, less spectacular, the satisfactions of victory real but the senses less stimulated. The most revelatory experiences when playing as Ellie are often in the past, in flashbacks offering sad juxtapositions justified by the information they begin to impart.

This different experience of the two leads complements the other tools of Part II‘s storytelling. The early stretches of the game demonstrate what control can communicate, and the structural twist shows an ambition to explore just how much. The play offers everything under the sun, clues the player in to their own control, and extends the subject of the game beyond its plot and characters. And what part of the story we are in affects how everything feels. Considered collectively, these aspects teased out earlier are not mere glosses, or even defining traits. They are instead the consistent through-line of Part II‘s storytelling.

Every choice Part II makes about the player’s authorial hand, the subjective content of a game, directs and attunes the player toward context. The story of Part II drills into the player that context offers information, and the play, seamless and transparent, leaves the player with nothing but context to look to for meaning. This alignment is work Part II did not leave to the player. Yet the uniform message being delivered may also spur the player to engage in similar thinking. Many times in Part II, not just in the prologue, one gets the sense of something more going on, something awful yet to come. Only rarely does this sense emerge just because of information from the lit screen. Instead, when all the storytelling arrows point in the same direction, the player will begin to intuit the game being hunted, and act accordingly.

In its attuning of the player to context as the source of meaning, the closest reference points to Part II‘s authorial storytelling may not just be games. These methods resemble comics, where one derives the significance of sequences of images, words, or other visual elements from awareness of their relationships. Like any comic book, context is what the text of Part II is made from, not just what the story is about.

Ellie needed no help in gaining the player’s trust, and the player needed no further incentive to move Ellie forward toward a confrontation with Abby. All of the tools and storytelling concerns mentioned above are not necessary to narrate Ellie’s rampage. Part II needs all of these tools and this player awareness, rather, because of Abby, and the challenge she poses to motivation. Abby’s story begins after she has gotten her revenge, and before we have much gotten to know her. What we do know about her has not, so far, inclined the player to view her positively. To get anyone to accept playing as Abby is no easy task, and the game needs to make this possible.

To do so, the game layers on context, and in genuinely unsettling ways. Abby’s story is often about what the player has robbed her of, whether when controlling Joel in the first game or controlling Ellie in the second. You did much of the worst things she ever experienced. In the player’s time with Abby reminders gradually accumulate of all the people Ellie has killed, many of them Abby’s friends. A relaxed scene of Abby walking through a cafeteria of her chosen militia features several faces — and names — a player may recognize from hours of game-time ago, when they brought about their end.

The most important narrative work being done in the section playing as Abby, however, is not making the player feel bad because of what they have done. This context is necessary, but not sufficient. The story also needs to make you care about Abby, by what you see right in front of you. In its plot, the game positions Abby as independent from violent institutions, and protective of the innocent. Her prior restraint reflected a real code, and there are greater evils lurking in the world around her. In this slow thawing of this chilly presence, the way playing as Abby feels like playing as Joel now feels like a reincarnation. Before long, Abby is ferrying a child through an unforgiving landscape, and living Joel’s story with Ellie: the gradual development of a familial bond, and the growing uncertainty of just who is in need of saving.

The first game kept Joel and Ellie’s horizons relatively narrow, because the violence in that game was about those two. Whatever steps are being walked again, the scale is not the same, and this expansion, too, communicates. One other sequence, late in Abby’s story, drives this home. Abby sets out on a rescue mission to an island being invaded by sea. There are homes here, and people, and when you arrive, flames light only lamps and torches. By the time you leave, there is nothing but fire. What was there is torn apart by war and set alight before your eyes as ruinous cycles of revenge play themselves out among hundreds of combatants. There is no cause to join up with, and no goal of directing events. These last stretches instead unfold almost like the desperate final chase in Halo, a cacophonous madness of beings locked in battle. But there is no timer here. The player knows to escape, rather than engage, in part because of the knowledge that any solution lies beyond individual capacity. For all the weapons of war in Abby’s backpack, the player has become powerless.

The collapse Abby witnesses also imparts how much of the world lies beyond Abby and Ellie’s control, how they, like the player, have limits on their authorship. Perhaps for this reason, Abby is sympathetic to almost everyone around her. Stowed within the player’s time with Abby is a heart-rending story about the child she is protecting, Lev, and his family. The player only hears directly its particulars because Abby, in search of her own atonement, bothers to care.

Time spent with Abby adds up, and so does the time spent absent from Ellie. After a while, any player will be eager to get back to their meeting. But early anticipation may start to feel more like dread, because it will be difficult for a player not to come to care about Abby on some level. As a result, the player may begin to worry not just about what might happen to Ellie when Abby has a gun on her, but about what might happen to Abby when events resume.

By the time that moment re-arrives, at a minimum, Abby no longer feels like a demon. Perhaps more surprisingly, she does not feel like Ellie’s mirror, either. Any emotional attachment is different, any subjective experience of time with them is different, and any superficial resemblances in the character’s lives are less strong than the stark differences in how they act, and how they feel to help act. Their divide is real. And once again, you can hear the game screaming that something is wrong.

Brought back, by Abby, to Ellie’s presence, events develop quickly around the player. The crisis of the stand-off breaks, and these two young women, with whom you have, by now, spent roughly equal time, are now at odds. And when this occurs, and the player gains control again, and you need to figure out how to orient yourself, the game stays with Abby, keeps you with Abby, and you come to realize who your enemy is.

It may take a second to sink in. But this is a game, and games move forward. This is a boss battle, against the hero on the cover of the game. The goal of the fight is to kill someone who you have only ever wanted to be safe. All of the subjectivity carefully built up again over Abby’s journey collapses anew.

The player has a lot of knowledge of how to employ violence by this time in the game, but you can hardly blame anyone in that moment for having trouble. I know I didn’t want to fight Ellie. The game presents a seismic internal conflict. If a player does die, this wonderfully-underplayed screenshot comes up, presenting Ellie as just another foe to be solved. Everything has turned over.

The fight itself delivers, and then the story, mercifully spares both leads. After a climax based on balance, everything knits together. Abby and Ellie becoming whole again seems possible to imagine. Part II could have ended, right there, finding solace in fraught hope. We would have been none the wiser, though I suspect that’s why the game did not end.

Part II‘s final major story to tell is a Tolkein-esque surprise, leaping away from the formal satisfaction of the two leads’ confrontation and disengagement. An idyllic pastoral scene is ripped away from us, not because of some incursion of violence, but because of the need to bring violence to somewhere far away. Ellie walks out on happiness, and she takes the player right back to where things got started, on a hunt for Abby. Once Ellie does this, the game offers no easy signals of what might be coming, in either its story or its play. Ellie and Abby have yet more to do, and these sections resemble what came before, but there is less of a sense of intention, few of the familiar comforts of form or defined relation. One does not know what confrontations one may be preparing for, whether environments encountered are ones worth delving into further. Even the overt attempts to humanize enemies seem less frequent.

The unmistakable sense is of the authorial hand relaxing, and eventually all order dissolves. Clean lines of sight tumble into a fun-house nightmare, a kaleidoscope of repetitions and repercussions. Everything happens again, but off, in a way that cannot fit together. Even Abby and Ellie can’t make sense of things anymore, the internal logic of their dance now mutilated by the accumulation of wrongs.

Neither character ends this final stretch better off, though in the course of things Ellie at least saves Abby (and Lev) from oblivion. All this costs Ellie are the hard-won joys that the player had sought, and so briefly attained, in the hours of playing through her story. At times you want to plead with the game to stop, to end, much like Ellie begged Abby to spare Joel. But Part II doesn’t call to mind the things it calls to mind for no reason. Part II makes emphatically clear that if one grants personhood to two people, then there is no acceptable outcome when these people set upon each other’s lives. There are just more and more wounds, and ones the player, too, will feel, deeper than any mere idea of one.

In this way, for the last time, Part II changes an established relationship between play and story. By directing all of the player’s attention to the interaction of those elements, Part II has by now primed the player to pay attention to everything to make sense of the experience. But the melancholy final stretches of Part II are negative space, where what is evident is what is absent. Part II earlier adopted the view that what the player specifically does when playing carries little meaning on its own. Freed now from the context of any stable fiction, the violence, like play, now too becomes meaningless. The player has no subjective identification left with their acts, even as the game demands you to keep acting.

How the player might feel when the credits go up is a last contingency, beyond the control of authorial storytelling. Whether Part II is successful in what it tries to do, and in the habits of thought it wants to encourage, is up to others to resolve. But Part II does not endorse nihilism. The game is showing the player the limits, and challenges, of acting meaningfully. If meaning requires context, then no meaning can be found in one’s actions without taking on the burdens of empathy. And while that may be hard, demanding work, that path looks much better after the game’s last moments. To see only waves, where once there was land, may be no freedom at all.

Any real sense of other persons should make one unwilling to take up a sword against them. Time and time again in Part II a character or a group offers a distinction between what they do and what someone else has done, usually comparing violence inflicted. Yet these are always blinkered views and they cannot be meaningfully right. If context assigns meaning, and if violence without context seems altogether meaningless, then any action tethered to a subjective perspective cannot be safe. Part II seems to want to model the impossible task of thinking in some other way.

Within that framework, justifying any act of violence at all, even literal self-defense, becomes spiritually exhausting. And so no more of this violent game remains to play.

Part II is not the first title to believe that video games may have unique effects on how we think. And its demands are a long dive to ask anyone to take. But any game capable of depicting such a range of perspectives, and arguing so urgently for listening to all of them, merits attention. There are vast fictions to find hiding within these realistic toys.

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