How Subversion is Being Misused: An Analysis of The Last of Us Part II (2023)

Jordan 'Sigma' Greene




How Subversion is Being Misused: An Analysis of The Last of Us Part II (2)

(Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II and Part I as well as Game of Thrones and Metal Gear Solid 2)

So…I just finished The Last of Us Part II and I can confidently say that I feel very conflicted about my experience with this game. The Last of Us Part II is a sequel to arguably one of the most impactful games of the last decade and making something of that caliber again would be impossible. The Last of Us Part II falls short, especially in its story.

Before I dive into my analysis, I would like to address the vitriolic criticism targeted towards some of the Naughty Dog staff particularly Neil Druckmann and Laura Bailey. Many of these “critiques”, from Twitter and YouTube, seem to lambast the politics of the game, and or attack individual developers. Although these aren’t the majority of the dissenting opinions of this game, they’re indeed the loudest unfortunately. It’s normal to dislike a work of art but if you were to personally attack the people that made the work: you seriously need to reevaluate your life choices. Before I analyze this game, I would like to highlight the features I admired or liked about it.

Prelude: Aspects I Enjoyed –

How Subversion is Being Misused: An Analysis of The Last of Us Part II (3)

It’s no secret that Naughty Dog has been and still is the master of graphical fidelity. It’s truly hard to describe the sheer awesomeness of the graphics, you just need to watch the trailers. It can’t get any better than this on the PS4 hardware. The solid art direction complements this graphical fidelity.

Other elements that I enjoyed greatly are things that not enough people mention like the dialogue and performances. The dialogue is witty at times and never goes for flashy, generic one-liners. The dialogue is never truly on-the-nose: the dialogue is not too specific and is indicative of the character speaking allowing undertones. The actors do an exceptional job, including Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey, breathing new life into the dialogue.

The last aspect I enjoyed was the gameplay. Although I’ve fought with the controls on many occasions, the overall game mechanics are great albeit a slightly altered copy from the first game just with better A.I. The only thing new players can do is go prone and climb things when the game tells you to. These are welcomed additions and do provide variety of interesting experiences, but I would’ve preferred more innovation especially since this sequel has been seven years in the making.

Without further ado, I’ll initiate my analysis of the game, it’s marketing, and more.

Part I — The Marketing:

I know that criticizing the marketing of a game isn’t fair since it’s separate from the product itself, but it must be discussed either way. The marketing for this game was extremely misleading and is possibly false advertising. Trailers that show cutscenes where Joel would be are swapped out with an entirely different character or are the flashback models of Joel. Apparently, this decision was made by the developers to emulate Metal Gear Solid 2: Son of Liberty’s marketing campaign.

For those unaware, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was a stealth-action game released in 2001 that was notorious for having a blatantly misleading marketing campaign. Players were promised to continue the story of its protagonist Snake, but in this sequel, you play as Raiden for 90% of the game.

However, what made this game less controversial as time progressed was the fact that the marketing was part of the story of the game. This and the game’s story were used together to push a post-modernist message, although in a very trite and bloated manner, and analyze how the internet can be used to manipulate the masses through fake news. A message that’s eerily relevant to this day. The Last of Us Part II marketing was only there to convince people to buy it, not to tell a larger narrative. The game never dives into any post-modernist themes. The closest it gets is when the story uses subversion techniques. These techniques however are self-contained within the story and are never used to criticize the society in which said game was developed in. So it’s not post-modernism. This subversion is a topic I’ll dissect much later.

How Subversion is Being Misused: An Analysis of The Last of Us Part II (4)

Part II — A Certain Someone’s Poorly Handled Death:

The game’s story is really about two characters. After the very emotional death of Joel, Ellie sets out on a quest for vengeance along with her girlfriend Dina, her uncle Tommy, and Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse. However, the other half of the game is about a different character going through a redemption of sorts after the death of Joel. Eventually, these two worlds collide and they all learn a valuable lesson about how revenge does nothing but spark a vicious cycle and that seeking it won’t solve any internal conflicts.

The death of Joel resulting in Ellie’s path of vengeance has become quite contentious amongst fans. I for one am completely fine with the fact that Joel dies but how it’s executed (no pun intended) is an entirely different topic that I believe was handled very poorly.

By the time Joel dies the player has no explanation as to what Ellie and Joel’s relationship is like. You only see Joel as soon as he dies and this isn’t even mentioning the fact that he dies literally within the first 2 hours of the game. For people familiar with The Last of Us Part I you know what Joel and Ellie mean to each other. But for newcomers, Joel’s death scene is, albeit extremely well-acted, has no context as to the significance of it. In fact before Joel’s death, Ellie barely mentions him and when she does it’s usually in contempt for reasons that aren’t explained. So, why would Joel’s death matter to the player if we never see what their relationship is like. We do however get to see the relationship Ellie had with Joel in flashbacks, but these happen hours after Joel’s death so the context provided now mean virtually nothing.

What makes this such a crucial failure is that the entire conflict of the game revolves around his death and the developers couldn’t effectively make the viewers care enough. Veteran fans will be left with more questions than answers as to what Ellie’s relationships with Joel is like four years after The Last of Us Part I, while newcomers will be dumbfounded by it all. To make matters even more perplexing, you don’t just play as Ellie seeking revenge over the death of Joel. You play as the person who killed him, seeking to resolve an internal emotional conflict.

Part III — Abby is Cool, But Why Should I Care?

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It’s no secret that you play as Abby, the person that kills Joel. She wants revenge against Joel because he killed her father from the first game: the neurosurgeon that was going to harvest Ellie’s brain for a vaccine. Although this is a very ambitious idea, it ultimately doesn’t stick the landing sufficiently and it’s the plot structure and pacing to blame.

You play the first half of the game as Ellie senselessly killing people and only being traumatized by her actions when she kills semi-prominent characters like Nora or Mel. Eventually, Abby finds you after your killing spree and then you play as Abby: 3 days earlier. During this time, the game attempts to flesh out Abby’s character and her relationships mainly through her interactions with others and more flashbacks. The developers already tried to do this by having the player jump between playing Ellie and Abby before Joel’s death. This comes off as jarring however, because you’re never told who Abby is and it seems like the game throws you in the middle of some drama between Abby and Owen rather than showing us the inception of the drama.

The biggest problem with this is that the developers are fleshing out Abby’s character after Joel’s death. It doesn’t help that Abby never questions if killing Joel was right, especially when she still has nightmares of her father’s death. In The Last of Us Part I, the entire 25 hour long game revolves around fleshing out one relationship: Joel and Ellie from start to finish. In The Last of Us Part II Abby, her father, and Owen are developed in about 2 hours total. Abby’s relationship with her dad is about 15 minutes while Abby’s relationship between Owen is about an hour or so. It doesn’t help that Abby’s friends are very simple and are usually never expanded upon.

This by default makes Ellie more relatable because she’s more fleshed out from the previous game, while Abby isn’t nearly as developed despite her having superb acting and great dialogue. The flashbacks within flash backs are poorly spaced out in the story but do somewhat help in providing context. However, the fact that we’re given the other half of the game playing as Abby 3 days earlier instead of switching between Ellie and Abby in a chronological fashion makes this feel like filler. Not just because you’re stuck playing as Abby for 15 hours but because her story doesn’t truly start until she meets the teenagers Lev and Yara, 11 hours in. This is the part of the game where Abby becomes a much more relatable character and starts to have better nights resting as she begins to take care of Lev and Yara.

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Thematically speaking, Abby and her short journey with Yara and Lev mirror the first game where a character hardened by the world learns to love again. Despite this interesting parallel, it doesn’t make Abby on par with Ellie due to time constraints explained earlier. By the time Abby’s 3-day flashback is complete, Abby’s journey with Yara and Lev have ended and you fight against Ellie as Abby and I could do nothing but root for Ellie. I understand what the developers were doing, but they gave Abby little time to develop as a character compared to Ellie.

This all changes by the time the third act begins.

Part IV — The Third Act And How It’s…Good?

By this point in time, Ellie’s journey is complete. Abby spared a defeated Ellie and Dina after Lev convinces Abby to let go of her grudge. Ellie now lives on a farm with Dina’s baby despite earlier in the game Ellie jokingly not liking the idea of living on a farm. Ellie however suffers from PTSD after the death of Joel. This relative tranquility is shattered when a very uncharacteristically vicious Tommy, the brother of Joel, shows up to the farm with clues to Abby’s where abouts. When Ellie rejects this, Tommy lambasts Ellie. later that day, Ellie has a flashback of her ridiculing Joel and attempts to sneak out of the farm to hunt down Abby but is caught by Dina. Ellie breaks Dina’s heart in an ungrateful manner and leaves.

Ellie becomes a shell of her former self. Ellie is driven by rage and it starts to violate core tenants of her character and it borders on jumping the shark. She has no nuances when it comes to being wrathful. For example, when Ellie finds out Joel lied about the events that transpired at the end of The Last of Us Part I. Ellie is understandably feeling confused, upset, but mostly betrayed. This passionate hatred towards him has remained the same, even two years later. Having this much hatred towards someone that loves you deeply after such a long period of time comes off as hackneyed and having very little insight. This hurts since Ellie in The Last of Us Part I had a decent amount of insight despite being naïve at times, so this is a devolution of her character but I digress. When Joel dies, this hatred is targeted towards Abby because she was robbed of her opportunity to forgive Joel which is a very compelling thematic idea but is never explored. Ellie does have this anger occasionally lash out towards Dina and Jesse, which makes sense and never comes off as truly malicious.

The point to all of this is in order for me to relate to Ellie in the third act of the game, the developers should’ve added more nuance to her hatred which would’ve made her a more consistently likable character. Now that Ellie is less relatable, Abby is more likable. Abby never veers off the edge with her anger once in this third act. She is a very consistent character, albeit a simpler one. By the time the final encounter occurs, I was rooting for Abby despite me being stuck playing as Ellie.

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Ultimately, Ellie loses her fingers during the showdown and spares Abby moments before killing her after having a very convenient epiphany, a deus ex machina, solving some conflicts within herself. When Ellie returns to the farm, Dina and her baby are gone. Ellie attempts to play Joel’s guitar but pitifully fails. We see one more flashback of Joel and Ellie attempting to make amends. The flashback ends and we see her walk off into the distance somewhere. The End. Ostensibly, I’m to have sympathy for Ellie because of the events that have happened to her: she lost her family and can’t play the guitar Joel gifted her. Due to Ellie’s behavior however, I can’t help but feel like this was deserving. Logically speaking though, it would make sense for Ellie to get her revenge in exchange for losing her fingers and her family with Dina because Ellie was never consistently admonished for her drive for revenge. Instead Ellie just loses everything. Again, the botched pacing not letting Ellie’s wrath be developed properly makes me feel this way. Strangely enough, this is my favorite part of the game. The pacing is solid as you play as Abby for a bit and then as Ellie. Good pacing can go a long way in storytelling. It also helps that Ellie received karmic justice for her actions as much as I think it was a bizarre trade off. It was a weirdly fitting ending to Ellie’s uncharacteristic killing spree. Many critics had sympathy to Ellie at the end of this game praising the game for its “subversion”. This praise, I feel, is a total misuse of the word.

Part V — Subversion Isn’t Always Good:

As you can tell, The Last of Us Part II doesn’t live up to The Last of Us Part I, which is fine. What isn’t fine is how fervent the developers seem to be “subverting” viewer expectations to the point it violates the internal logic of the characters and ultimately gets nothing meaningful accomplished: a startling trend I’ve seen recently with the latest Star Wars movies and the last season of Game of Thrones. But, what is subversion?

Subversion is when events transpire, or character actions go against established tropes in a genre the story is in. A typical trope in fantasy books would be the honorable hero always winning, the evil dragon, the man who overthrows a wicked king to become a better one, etc. These tropes were commonplace until George R. R. Martin released his A Song of Ice and Fire book series or better known by its HBO title: Game of Thrones. In it, the fantasy characters subvert many tropes not because the author could but because following the tropes wouldn’t be in his characters’ best interest.

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A good example of this can be seen with Ned Stark. Whose one of the most honorable characters from the series. Honor, however, doesn’t translate to King’s Landing, a place of cutthroat politics. When Ned arrives to Kings Landing, he’s constantly shown that being honorable and respectful does no good in King’s Landing with the betrayal of Lord Baelish emphasizing this. Due to tropes in the fantasy genre, we would believe that Ned Stark could change the culture of King’s Landing or could at least survive keeping his values intact because he was a good guy. Unfortunately, Ned never learns to adapt to his surroundings and is killed. The reason why many viewers didn’t stop watching the show beyond this point wasn’t just because there were many more characters to be attached to, but because Ned’s trajectory made sense.

Game of Thrones’ controversial Red Wedding does the same thing. Rob Stark followed what was honorable, like his father Ned did, by marrying the woman he falls in love with to protect her honor. Instead of marrying the girl from House Frey, a notorious and ruthless house. Walder Frey catches wind of Rob’s actions and feels betrayed. He then conspires with the Lannisters to kill Rob and his rebellion that want to overthrow the Lannisters. We would think that because Rob’s the hero and is honorable he would be safe due to tropes we have seen. Unfortunately; Rob, his wife, and his mother are slaughtered at the Red Wedding by House Frey because Rob Stark didn’t adapt to his cutthroat environment and it was the logical conclusion to this tragic tale of Rob.

The zombie genre have there fair share of tropes as well: the person that’s immune, a paranoid guy who booby traps everything, the person who lied about being infected, the cure to the infection, etc. The Last of Us Part I follows a lot of these tropes but the main focus of the game’s story was on building the relationship between Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us Part II, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and season 8 of Game of Thrones seem too focused on subverting for the sake of it rather than telling a cohesive story.

This begs the question, why has “subversion” become a popular buzzword amongst critics to describe features in stories they like even though it’s being used improperly? I believe the biggest problem with the topic of subversion, with regards to storytelling, is its almost depressing misuse of the term. I do not believe one entity is entirely responsible for perverting the definition of subversion (*cough* CinemaSins *cough*), but it seems to be a trend in stories that critics appreciate. In recent years, critics have decided to criticize aspects of stories in movies or games that they deemed as being “predictable”. Any story that wasn’t predictable, no matter how often it violated its own logic, were labeled as subversion and therefore were great stories.

Weirdly enough, The Last of Us Part II seems to be a response to those criticisms. Despite many praising The Last of Us Part I now, detractors at the time decried how the story was too predictable and claimed that it was overrated and wasn’t worthy of the prestigious Game of The Year award. Now we have The Last of Us Part II and its subversion seemed to please some critics, but it ultimately lacks the polish and spirit of The Last of Us Part I.

Part VI — Conclusion:

How Subversion is Being Misused: An Analysis of The Last of Us Part II (9)

What makes this game so tragic to me is that the elements to a masterclass sequel are definitely there. They’re just put in all the wrong places due to the discombobulated plot structure and lackluster pacing, which can lead to major emotional climaxes being provided context retroactively hours later. It’s about as contrived as someone explaining a joke to you after the punchline: you understand it better, but the impact is lost. Personally, I believe the game can be fixed very easily.

If the game instead started with Abby and the story took its time developing her relationship with her dad, her presence in the story would be less jarring. After Abby’s backstory is developed, we play Ellie after the death of Abby’s father in the chronological order of the flashbacks switching between Abby and Ellie up to the time Joel dies. That way the audience can relate to the death of Joel as cathartic from Abby’s perspective but crushing from Ellie’s view. From there, the game will continue to switch between Ellie and Abby. This would fix the plot structure and pacing issues. Alas, these are just fixes that can’t be implemented into the game.

My final score will be on a 5-star scale. Using a 0 to 10 scale seems futile these days since any game receiving a score lower than a 6 or 7 is deemed not worth anyone’s time. With that said, my final rating for The Last of Us Part II is a 2.5/5 stars.

It pains me to give a sequel that I was so desperate to play receive a painfully average score. I really wanted to admire this game, despite the leaks saying it was going to be mediocre. I just couldn’t bring myself to do so with the flaws the game has. Overall, I hope that Naughty Dog is able to take this time to meditate, reflect, listen to the criticisms and devise a sequel that’s better than this one. But, due to the attacks from the internet that target the Naughty Dog staff I don’t know if they’ll make a sequel.

But what do you think? As always, if you disagree feel free to roast me.

Sigma out

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