Updated: Aug 14, 2020
[Now that I’ve finally completed The Last of Us Part II, I’d like to share a few more random, disorganized observations that I originally posted to Twitter on July 2, 2020. Once again, there are SPOILERS BELOW; PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION!]
The Last of Us Part II provides a fascinating illustration of the difference between “story” and “storytelling.” On the surface, the Joel/Ellie and Abby/Lev dynamics are nearly identical. Presentation, however, makes all the difference.
In the first game, Naughty Dog had enough sense to avoid showing Joel at his worst. Various supporting characters vaguely allude to his violent past, but we never see it onscreen, allowing us to judge him by his actions in the present. Abby, on the other hand, is introduced brutally beating a man to death after he saves her life. Later, she expresses the desire to torture prisoners solely for her own satisfaction, supports the execution of children simply because they were born into an enemy faction, and relishes the opportunity to murder a pregnant woman.
The relationship between Joel and Ellie gradually evolves over the course of the first game, lending the narrative a well-defined arc. Abby’s relationship with Lev, however, lacks any sort of connective tissue; her desire to protect him arises too abruptly for their bond to feel authentic.
(It doesn’t help matters that Lev is such a flat character. Don’t get me wrong, I love the kid… but his characterization occurs almost entirely offscreen. Honestly, I would have greatly preferred a game that revolved around his escape from the Seraphites.)
These differences may seem minor, but their consequences are monumental. Joel comes off as a broken man haunted by his past, struggling to do the right thing for Ellie’s sake. Abby, meanwhile, remains a bloodthirsty, unrepentant psychopath with a morality pet.
Worst of all, Joel is constantly pummeled for his refusal to sacrifice Ellie in the first game. Ellie herself accuses him of depriving her of the choice to give up her life in pursuit of a cure—ignoring the fact that the Fireflies cared even less about her consent.
While Abby does eventually endure terrible torture, her suffering isn’t a direct consequence of her actions. Her friends pay the heaviest price for her deeds. Ultimately, she never even acknowledges the similarities between herself and Joel, making the whole exercise feel pointless.
In the end, Abby gives up her desire for vengeance, but only because she’s tired—she hasn’t actually learned anything. There needed to be a more significant epiphany. Perhaps she could have learned that she, too, was immune to cordyceps; it’s easy to say that you’d gladly sacrifice your life in pursuit of a cure when you’re not the one on the operating table—force her to put her money where her mouth is. Maybe even imply that her father knew all along and was actively misleading his comrades in order to protect her.
Even better, she could have found out that Lev was immune, forcing her to confront Joel’s choice head on. This would have added some much-needed nuance to the conflict and given Abby an actual character arc.