Major SPOILERS for The Last of Us Part 2
Vengeance is a hollow goal that only spreads more pain. It’s a common theme in fiction of all kinds, and is the central focus of The Last of Us Part 2. There’s nothing wrong with exploring a commonly used theme, but the key to making it work is to have some kind of point to make about it, whether endorsing it or criticizing it. And having a point is where The Last of Us 2 struggles the most.
The game’s ending, which is where a story’s theme should come through the strongest, is where its failures become most apparent. Ellie returns home, having decided to spare Abby at the last second, only to find her house abandoned and Dina, her partner, long gone. She strums her guitar, a symbol of her connection to Joel, only to struggle to play it because of her missing fingers (which she lost in her fight with Abby). She then flashes back to her last conversation with Joel, and then walks off. The end.
This ending has a few issues, some that only become apparent here, some endemic to the game as a whole. To start with, the flashback to her last conversation with Joel is completely out of place here. Everything we learn about Ellie’s relationship with him at the start of the game comes from flashbacks like this one, mostly in the middle of the story. The entire point of the game is Ellie’s desire to avenge him after Abby murders him, but its difficult to feel the same shock and loss she does when, at the time he’s actually killed, we have no idea what the context of their relationship is. Revealing that piecemeal throughout the story rather than as an introduction robs that plotline of the emotional resonance that’s crucial for this type of story to work. Instead, it’s sprinkled throughout in such a way that each reveal (like how Ellie learned the truth about the first game’s ending) seems more interested in shock value than natural storytelling.
That trend continues through the entire game. Ellie kills a lot of people in her quest for vengeance, and we only find out in the second half of the game, which it switches to Abby’s point of view, who these people are and what their relationships are like. This trend, having something happen and then trying to make you care afterwards, is the opposite of how stories should be structured. I’m the last person to say that all stories have to be a certain way, but there are certain fundamentals that exist precisely because they work. The way drama of any sort works is, at a basic level, a two step process: get the audience invested, then have some sort of payoff for the investment. The Last of Us 2 flips this order, showing events and then retroactively trying to make you care, which does not work. Having already seen that these people die pointlessly, trying to then build investment feels manipulative rather than organic. So in the end, rather than feeling tragic, their stories feel grim and pointless.
It’s that word that I keep coming back to when I think about the game: pointless. Ellie didn’t grow as a person (or at least we weren’t shown much of it), she didn’t gain anything from the events of the story, and didn’t change anything about the world at large (the conflict between the WLF and the Scars would’ve played out exactly the same if she hadn’t been there). All she did was go out, kill a bunch of people, then return to an empty house. So what’s the point of it all? The story clearly wants players to think about the pointlessness of her revenge, only in doing so, it becomes pointless itself. You go through all that with her, only to feel how pointless everything you just did was. Feeling empty and pointless at the end is clearly what the story wants you to feel. Okay, but then how is it any different from a story that is just empty and pointless?
The first game’s ending, which had Joel choosing to save Ellie’s life at the cost of destroying any chance at creating a vaccine, found its meaning in their relationship. Even if their journey didn’t end with them saving the world, they both gained something out of it. Joel, a daughter, and Ellie, a father. So in the end, they did find meaning, even if it wasn’t the meaning they sought.
The second game lacks any of that meaning, electing instead to conclude on a bitter, borderline-nihilistic note. The only thing it has to say is “yeah, revenge is bad,” a theme it had already made clear over and over. Ending on such an empty feeling doesn’t add to that or tie things up, all it is is just that: empty. Stories should have something to add, whether it’s a message to convey or something as simple as giving the audience a fun time. The Last of Us 2 is too grim and self-serious to be a pleasant experience, and too nihilistic to actually say anything meaningful. A story about Ellie trying to rebuild what she lost would carry far more weight than what we got, a bitter ending where Ellie lost everything good in her life and then walked off. Indulging in that kind of misery without some larger point or solid conclusion leaves a story feeling hollow and pointless. And pointlessness alone isn’t a point.