The Last of Us Part II: Form and Substance

(This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II)

The Last of Us Part II is a game that serves narrative form and structure above substance.

Many critics have praised the narrative structure of the game — the neat parallel between Abby’s journey in Part II and that of Joel’s in the original; the elegant contrast of Abby’s revenge arc with that of Ellie’s. Such observations impart much perceived profundity to the narrative of the game.

But the point of form is to enable substance, not to draw attention to itself. This is a game that practically demands that you attend to its narrative cleverness, most egregiously with the white lettered “Seattle Day 1” that trumpets the structure of the second half of the game.

Source for images: Screenshots from the games

The most important question to ask when examining a structural decision is why? When attempting to answer this, it becomes apparent that the structural decisions didn’t organically emerge from the story that Naughty Dog wanted to tell; rather, they were driven from a motivation to make high art, and that pursuit ends up undermining the story itself.

Consider the narrative decision to have Abby undergo a whole video game’s worth of character development in three days, and just by coincidence, these are the same three days when Ellie happens to be hunting her in Seattle. Ellie and Joel took the better part of a year to bond in the first game. Abby and Lev practically become siblings in a day and a half. There is no answer to the why question that doesn’t belie Naughty Dog’s choice to favor form over substance — the need to have a dubious symmetry that does nothing except, well, be symmetric.

Begin with that premise, and the other narrative decisions become almost transparent. The need to maintain a balance sheet between Abby’s death toll and Ellie’s explains the game’s bland cast of new secondary characters that you’re forced to spend time with to make their inevitable deaths ‘count’. The capstone is the Dina pregnancy arc, which can best be explained as having been contrived to eventually give Abby a moral high ground for not killing a pregnant woman as Ellie did.

Lev is revealed to be an Ellie knock-off whose presence humanizes Abby in a manner not unlike the first game’s narrative humanized Joel (though as mentioned earlier this is done far less skillfully in the second game than in the first).

The senseless war between the WLF and the Seraphites is actually senseless; that is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Seraphites have an island of their own with farms, and presumably infected can’t swim, making the place a veritable paradise. And yet they put in a lot of work to attack WLF for motives of revenge and hatred — another analogue for Ellie’s quest for vengeance. The major factions that characterize the backdrop for much of the game are skin-deep; they exist to serve the narrative structure, and their distinctive traits seldom evolve beyond gimmicks.

Even Abby’s Day 1 walk through the orderly and thriving WLF HQ mirrors Ellie’s opening chapter in the Jackson community (let’s hope the player disregards the literal torture chambers WLF runs to help the analogy work). Abby’s uninspired flashback scene with Owen at the Great Wheel has you jumping into water just as Ellie did at the museum.

As the observations pile up, the ostensible subtlety and nuance evaporate, leaving you with distaste for the over-indulgence in form whilst sacrificing substance.

Let’s take a closer look at the substance. The game’s two central themes are about the futility of revenge, and the difficulty of getting closure over the loss of a loved one. The latter theme is one that the game does justice to; there are powerful story beats that really capture the essence of the grief that Ellie (and by extension the gamer) felt. Every scene between Joel and Ellie has all the nuance and depth I accuse the rest of the game of lacking. But that only underscores the point. The best moments in Part II stand on the shoulders of the incredible storytelling and character building of the first game. These moments are short, too short, and yet they bring all the substance and meaning to the game.

Take those moments away, and you are left with a fairly confusing revenge plot (the issue isn’t the revenge premise itself, but the execution of it; I’m reasonably convinced Joel’s death was necessary to move Ellie’s character forward). Ellie succeeds in killing most of Abby’s friends thereby balancing the scales somewhat. She knows why Abby wanted to kill Joel. She regrets killing a pregnant woman and having to torture someone. She is prepared to walk away. She and Dina survive the showdown because of Abby’s mercy. She settles down and starts a family. That sounds like a fairly coherent — if uninteresting — character arc. Then she sets out again to kill Abby. Because PTSD apparently negates traumatic learning experiences, a year’s worth of reflection, and a family. The cost of revenge is driven home through the pointless final act, which deprives of Ellie her ability to play the guitar so that she can figuratively put Joel’s memory to rest by literally setting down his guitar. Not to mention the ‘neat’ symmetry of the game opening with Joel holding the guitar and ending with Ellie putting it down. I stress that these structural decisions aren’t problematic in isolation — it is when they are considered in totality that the story is revealed to be an inorganic and insubstantial prop intended to serve the structure; a pursuit of high art that subdues organic storytelling.

There’s no better way to wrap up this article than to look at a stellar example of the right way to balance form and substance.

The Last of Us gave us one of the most nuanced, believable and morally grey protagonists in video game history. It told a powerful, pitch-perfect story driven by fleshed out, plausible characters. It was a tightly focused character study stitched together around a shared journey, unlike Part II’s sprawling ambitious epic.

At the same time, it was no slacker when it came to narrative form. The game is structured into seasons. Summer represents the call to adventure for the duo. The season ends on a grim note, with Joel and Ellie witnessing the death of another pair of travelers not unlike themselves. Fall is the time when Joel is confronted with difficult questions, and answers them by allowing himself to be vulnerable to a child again. Fall ends with Joel falling off his horse, nearly dying.

Winter comes around, and Ellie fends for herself and Joel. Ellie scrounging for food and medicine in the snow is indelible imagery, and getting to play as her through that segment was a masterstroke. Spring heralds hard-earned hope and friendship, and the giraffe scene remains an iconic moment in video game storytelling. This is how narrative form should be employed, quietly supporting the rhythms of the story rather than dictating them.

And there are indeed similar elements of greatness in Part II, touching vignettes that remind you of what this studio is capable of.

However, in its entirety, The Last of Us Part II’s pursuit of artistic value becomes its ultimate downfall. The indulgence in structural cleverness takes center stage, forcing the core themes to recede into the background unexamined. The game aggressively ropes the supporting cast into its transparent narrative agenda through deaths and dubious actions, as exemplified through dogs, pregnant women, Tommy, Jesse.

But it wasn’t a lazy game. The attention to detail, finely tuned gameplay, stirring soundtrack, powerful acting and haunting imagery amount to something significant, and I respect that even though I didn’t enjoy what it all added up to. I won’t forget this game anytime soon, though part of me wishes that I could.