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The Last of Us Part II, Momentum, and a Gamble from the Developers

I finished The Last of Us Part II a few days ago, and I've taken a lot of time to reflect about the game. I think that in general I was really disappointed by it – even though it isn't a bad game per se, it just did not live up to the quality of the first game or any of the studio's other games (ones that I love dearly).

In reflecting on what disappointed me about the game, I think the biggest factor is the perspective shift from Ellie to Abby at the halfway point through the game. And the reason I dislike this is because it totally killed the momentum that the story had.

I never expected Naughty Dog to make a sequel to TLOU. As they released more and more footage and gameplay trailers for the game, I got pretty excited to continue the journey from Ellie's perspective – the parts of the first game that gave the player control of Ellie were among my favorites, after all.

Throughout the first half, I was honestly enjoying the game. The story was somewhat simple, but I figured that I was just early in the game and that more interesting twists and turns would come around as I progressed. I liked that we saw Ellie going into a dark place, perhaps climaxing when she kills Nora. After she kills Owen and Mel and is discovered by Tommy and Jesse, it almost seems like was on the verge of "waking up" and realizing that the path that she is on is too dangerous to pursue. When Abby bursts into the theater, killing Jesse and holding Tommy at gunpoint, I was super invested. This was without a doubt the emotional high-point of the game, and in the moment all I thought was "how is Ellie going to get out of this?"

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But before I could even finish that thought, the game cuts back to a flashback and we find out that Abby's father was the surgeon that Joel killed at the hospital. When this flashback ended, I was expecting to pick back up at the theater – to continue this emotional climax. Instead, I see "Seattle Day 1" and my heart just sank.

For me, the switch to Abby made the game grind to a halt. "I do not want to play as Abby, I just want to play as Ellie," I kept saying to myself. Once I realized that I wouldn't just see some flashbacks from Abby's perspective, but that I actually would be starting the game over as Abby, I felt incredibly conflicted. I have to give some credit – Abby's story is not bad. I was actually kind of interested in her character, her relationship with Owen and Mel, her friendship with Manny and Nora, and how she grew alongside Yara and Lev. Some of my favorite parts of the game actually came from Abby's part of the story, especially the sky bridge.

But all the time, I couldn't shake this thought of "I just want to find out what happened at the theater." I thought that the first half of the game built up to this point brilliantly and then it was suddenly ripped away. For me, it made it difficult to enjoy Abby's section of the game for two reasons: I just kept going back to that scene, and I knew exactly where Abby's story was heading. It kind of took the meaning out of her perspective because I already knew the destination, and I just wanted to know how that was going to play out.

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I think that at the end of the day, this was a gamble by Naughty Dog. They wanted the player to empathize with Abby, which is not exactly a foreign idea in storytelling: a lot of stories want you to empathize with the villain to understand their perspective or why they perform the actions that they do. Nothing is wrong with doing that, but ND took a huge gamble by dedicating nearly half of the game to putting the player directly in the antagonist's shoes. I can't think of any other games that do that, let alone narrative-focused games like TLOU. Not a lot of games have perspective shifts in general, and if they do they're typically only for an hour or less.

While I understand what ND was aiming for with this shift in perspective, I think that it has larger ramifications on the game's story than they expected. The first is that I think it robs Ellie of more meaningful development in the game. Imagine if we got another 12ish hours of gameplay as Ellie instead of Abby in this game. Perhaps the narrative could have evolved past the "simple revenge story" that a lot of people are criticizing this game for. Instead we are left perhaps with more sympathy for the villain than in most other stories, but it also means that we have less understanding for the protagonist. In the case of TLOU2, where the protagonist is a character that many people are very invested in, this is disappointing. Again, Abby's story was not bad – but I just could not shake the thought that I just wanted to keep playing as Ellie.

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For some people, the gamble that ND took is interesting and it might make them love the game. For others like me, it could have completely killed their momentum and ruined their enjoyment.

TLDR: The decision made by Naughty Dog to shift perspectives from Ellie to Abby was a gamble to make the player empathize with the antagonist. For me, it completely killed the momentum that the story had going for it and prevented the overall narrative from evolving into something greater. The momentum interruption prevented me from enjoying Abby's section of the game to the fullest extent because I could not stop thinking about the emotional high-point that the game left off at and I was too invested in Ellie's character to want to stop playing as her for more than an hour or two.


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