How The Last Of Us Part II Could've Been A Masterpiece
The Last of Us Part II a game that is divisive on just about all fronts. It’s highly praised for its graphics, sound design, gameplay and some aspects of its story such as the flashbacks. However, it is universally panned for its poorly written story and other aspects that could’ve been done a million times better. I also feel the dialogue needed work in places too, like fleshing out why Abby and Mel had that falling out. Those pacing issues? Had they had character perspectives switch from the get-go, and had you play one part as Abby, flesh out her childhood, what it was like growing up with her dad Jerry, etc. and then switch to Ellie’s perspective and vice versa, the game could’ve been much more bearable and the narrative would’ve been way better to play through.
Adding to that, they could’ve done a far better job of balancing combat sequences, making it that they’re not massive slog-fests, especially during Abby’s story arc before the inevitable showdown at the theatre in Seattle. Naughty Dog could’ve and should’ve looked to other games for inspiration on how to execute the sequel to what many considered one of their best games, and one that is heralded as one of the all-time greats to boot, had they executed things just a tad differently, The Last of Us Part II could’ve been an absolute masterpiece. If only they used one thing, determinants.
Games like Mass Effect, Until Dawn or Life is Strange would’ve been good places to go in terms of how the assets could’ve been handled and how the story could’ve been much more satisfying for fans of the original. There’s something about seeing the choices you make pan out later in the game and possibly in a sequel, that just makes things all the more satisfying. Why they made this game 100% linear with no deviations in the plot is beyond me. I feel if they had opened parts of the game up to dialogue choices, determinants and handled certain story segments differently, it could’ve been a million times better than what we were given, and it could’ve led to multiple endings that could in turn have carried over to a hypothetical The Last of Us Part III. There are at least six different scenes I can think of off the top of my head that would’ve been made so much better than what we had, here is how I feel they could’ve played out had they used determinants. I will start with one of the most divisive scenes in the game.
1. Joel’s Death
Let’s bust the gates wide open with this one, the scene that pissed many of us off the most and ended up with Laura Bailey on the receiving end of death threats and the game getting review bombed its release. Joel’s death could’ve been made entirely optional and handled so much better than it was. Rather than killing him outright, they should’ve made it that Abby beats him senseless, rendering him comatose, to the point where Abby and her crew think he’s dead or dying, and Owen successfully convinces her to stop.
They could’ve then made a scene after where Tommy and Ellie bring Joel to a hospital in Jackson and have Joel laying on a hospital bed with his vitals being monitored. Ellie is then given the grim news by a doctor that Joel’s life is hanging on by a thread, and that they are running low on medical supplies that would allow them to perform a surgery that could save him, that they would send someone over to an abandoned hospital about 12 hours away to check and see if those supplies are available there, but they can’t because they literally need all hands on deck. Ellie would’ve then been given the option to either volunteer to go to the abandoned hospital where she could possibly find the supplies or say she can’t go as she’s pressed for time.
If she were to go to the abandoned hospital, she would indeed find the supplies needed, but the place would be crawling with infected including a difficult boss she will need to fight, and after that, she would need to find a way out without dying whilst fending off another horde of infected. Joel would be saved but he would be rendered comatose and unplayable for the rest of the game, thus leading to one possible different ending. The desire for revenge on Ellie’s behalf for what Abby and her friends did would very much be there. However, if Ellie says she can’t go, then Joel ends up dying in the hospital, a funeral for him is held and he is buried. The game would continue on with her and Dina traveling to Seattle as per what happened.
2. Nora’s Death
Here’s one that I think would’ve been interesting, what if you were given the option to spare Nora in that she was bitten by an infected and living on borrowed time? Play the right dialogue choices, and you could’ve seen this alternate take in that she leaves but tells you where Abby is; you would then hear over the radio waves about an infected who ends up killing several WLF squad members before being taken out themselves, but in the end making your journey in Seattle easier as you will have fewer WLF soldiers to deal with, but kill her like what happened, and your journey will become that much harder. Small impact, but a lasting one and an example of how a ripple becomes a wave.
3. Events at the Aquarium
This is another one that I felt could’ve been done better. I couldn’t stand this part because a pregnant woman was murdered, her name was Mel, and she was one of the few who actually showed any remorse for participating in Abby’s grievous deed of murdering Joel that set up the cornerstone of the game’s plot. Further, you learn during a flashback sequence that she was unafraid to call Abby out for being a total piece of shit, but you don’t learn the reason why. If I had to fathom a guess though, that sex scene Abby has with her boyfriend Owen had something to do with it. Anyway, dialogue choices and a small QTE could’ve made a world of difference during this part. Pick the correct choices, Owen and Mel are spared death and told to get out while they can before the shit hits the fan. They both willingly oblige and prepare the boat to leave before Mel gives birth to her child. This in turn could’ve led to another ending of the game.
4. Showdown at the Theatre
This was one of the worst parts of the game, Jesse dies needlessly out the gate at the hands of Abby. Adding to that, Tommy somehow screws up and is held hostage alongside with Dina. This could’ve been done a little differently out the gate with either a QTE or dialogue choices where Ellie instructs Jesse to go hide, if you succeed, Jesse obeys and rather than getting killed, helps free Tom and Dina from the hands of Abby, who runs off in anger and threatens to come after Ellie. This would set up another different ending depending on how things pan out, Jesse would survive and actually get to know his son JJ, but would not rekindle things with Dina. Instead returning directly to Jackson and continuing with his patrols.
5. The Farm
This, I feel, could’ve been another marquee scene in the game that could’ve been handled much differently, and one that sees some of the choices you make play out. Depending on how things were handled during the showdown at the Seattle theatre, Jesse would either be alive and resuming duties as a patrol officer in Jackson, bonus that he gets to see and know his son JJ, or he is killed off in cold blood like what already happened. However, if he survives, he comes to visit JJ and checks on both Ellie and Dina to see how they’re holding up, and even gives Ellie friendly advice on what to do with Dina before going back to his patrol.
Then Tom would visit, events would play out like they did in the game where he lets Ellie know of Abby’s whereabouts, but this time, rather than Ellie outright going to hunt Abby down, she is given the option to not go and the game would end there, leading to another ending. Otherwise if she goes to LA, events would play out like they did in the game itself, but with slight differences, if Jesse survived, Ellie would be in Jackson getting supplies for her journey. He would come to talk to Ellie and try to convince her not to go, the effort would be futile, but in turn he would give her advice on how to handle the situation.
6. The Final Showdown
This is another one where things could’ve been done so much better even with what is present. In the final showdown, Abby is emaciated, her strength compromised and she’s basically almost knocking on death’s doorstep, as is her companion Lev. Ellie says she can’t let Abby go, pulls her switchblade on Lev and forces the two of them to fight. Now here’s what sucked, in the end, Ellie let Abby go after having a vision. So, in the end she does not get vengeance. Now some would say revenge is a dish best served cold, but here’s the thing, Abby and her crew killed someone she cared deeply about and someone who she was trying to repair a relationship with. Someone who put all rational thought aside when he came to realize that he was about to lose someone he considered like a daughter all over again, without her consent no less and did what he felt was necessary to get her out of there.
Here’s what they could’ve done differently, if they made it that you are given the option to continue to hold Abby down for a few more seconds, it could’ve led to yet another ending in the game. Yes, this would mean Abby is killed off, and in turn Lev would most likely be dead too. But in the end, Ellie’s quest for revenge would be complete. Again, this would be entirely optional of course and the ending you’d end up getting would depend on the decisions you made earlier in the game up until this point. All the decisions made would culminate in endings that could either be dis-satisfying or satisfying according to your own tastes, and the decisions could also carry over into that hypothetical The Last of Us Part III. I will start off with some ideas on other endings we could’ve gotten.
1. Joel’s Survival + Jesse’s Survival + Ellie Doesn’t Go to LA
In this ending, the surgery is carried out that saves Joel’s life. However, he’s no longer able to continue as a patrolman. Instead, he helps Ellie and Dina on the farm and watches over JJ while working on repairing his relationship with Ellie. Tom would come to visit the farm; his part would play out and Ellie would be given the option to either go to LA to pursue Abby or not. Joel and Jesse, both discourage her from going alongside Dina, saying that they’ve all gone through enough. Jesse leaves but would come to visit later on in the scene and let Ellie know she made the right decision. Tom then comes back and apologizes for any trouble he’s caused, offers to help around the farm and reminisces about their younger days as bounty hunters. Jesse helps with JJ and rocks him to sleep after he is fed by Dina, who comments what a good dad he is. Ellie makes a joke about jealousy but Jesse reassures her that he and Dina are strictly friends now, and that he’s got interest in another woman. Everyone then celebrates after contributing to making dinner, laughing, raising glasses of water and toasting to love and life. Abby and Lev’s fates remain unknown.
2. Joel’s Death + Jesse’s Survival + Ellie Doesn’t Go to LA
In this ending, Joel dies like before, only it’s on a hospital bed and surrounded by those who loved and cared about him, and his death doesn’t occur until after the events in Seattle, Ellie is informed by a despondent guardsman and confirmed by Tom. A funeral for him is held the day after Ellie gets home, and he’s remembered as a man who had his faults and did questionable things to survive, but that he was a loving brother and family man in a eulogy given by his brother Tom. He’s buried and Ellie weeps, Jesse offers comfort and condolences to Ellie. Sometime later, the events on the farm play out, Tom and Jesse both come to visit. Tom gives Ellie the information on Abby’s whereabouts. Jesse visits later upon hearing of this discussion and discourages Ellie from going. Ellie agrees and doesn’t go to LA, remaining on the farm with Dina and JJ, while Jesse resumes his patrols in Jackson. Later, Tom visits and apologizes for causing any strain in Ellie and Dina’s relationship, hoping to repair things. Ellie accepts but tells him to be cautious from here on out, that perhaps Abby will show up here someday.
3. Joel’s Death + Jesse’s Death + Ellie Goes to LA + Abby’s Death
Okay, this is going to be one of the darkest endings of the game, events play out like they did but the difference is, Ellie will ultimately kill Abby by holding her underwater for a few more seconds, the boat Lev is on ends up drifting out to sea, essentially sentencing them to death as well. Ellie weeps, wondering if her quest for revenge was worth it. She goes to the farm, finds it abandoned like before but in a much more decrepit state than before. Rather than a guitar, she goes and finds a gun. You are then given a final decision, either pull the trigger and commit suicide, ending her life or don’t and leave the farm, if you pull the trigger, Ellie shoots herself and ends her life, the camera would pan out as a pool of blood forms underneath her. If you don’t pull the trigger a small segment then plays out where she returns to Jackson trying to rekindle her relationship with Dina, but Dina tells her she can’t and that she has a life here to live, that unless Ellie is willing to return to Jackson and stay there, there’s no way to resume the relationship. Ellie then turns around and leaves Jackson for parts unknown.
4. Joel’s Survival + Jesse’s Death + Ellie Doesn’t Go to LA
In this ending, Jesse is killed in the showdown against Abby at the theatre and Tom is injured, but Joel survives thanks to the surgery performed on him. Jesse’s funeral is held, Dina gives a eulogy, he’s buried with honors. Joel and Tom visit the farm later on, this time both of them giving information on Abby’s whereabouts and offering the option to go after her. Ellie consults with Dina whom refuses to allow her to go, and Ellie remits that decision to Dina. Ellie doesn’t go and life resumes on the farm. But out in the distance, an unknown figure makes their way to the farm.
5. Joel’s Survival + Jesse’s Survival + Ellie Goes to LA + Abby’s Death
In this ending, Ellie goes to LA and finishes what she started even though Joel survived, and everyone tried to discourage her from going. Her reasoning? She couldn’t let a monster like Abby continue to do harm to others the way she did to Joel. While she gets what she wanted, she ends up feeling pangs of guilt over what she did and wonders if Lev is doing okay in spite of it all. Lev’s boat drifts out to sea and is found by the Firefly splinter group and they are made a member. However, Lev remembers Abby and the kindness that she showed to them during their time they were escaping the Seraphites, learns that she was killed by Ellie and becomes outraged, determined to find Ellie and avenge Abby’s death. The camera then pans to the farm with Lev looking out in the distance.
6. Joel’s Death + Jesse’s Death + Ellie Doesn’t Go to LA
In this ending, another dark one at that. Events play out like they did in the game, but Ellie decides not to go. Life goes on, but Ellie’s condition and PTSD only continue to worsen, she wonders day in and day out if she made the right decision for her own sanity even though Dina reassures her that she did. Ellie eventually becomes sick from not eating enough, and has to be taken to the hospital. Dina cries as she worries about Ellie’s well being. Tom then comes to visit again later, delivering news to Dina that Ellie unfortunately has taken a turn for the worse and tells her to go to the hospital immediately. Ellie is lying in a hospital bed with IV fluid dripping and sensors connected to monitor her vitals. She sees Dina take her hand, smiles, tells Dina she loves her and passes. Her funeral is held the following day, she is buried next to Joel’s grave and her headstone reads as “Ellie Williams” thus confirming her last name.
These are just six possible endings out of a myriad of them that could’ve been done with those determinants alone, those determinants could’ve really made all the difference. Really, Naughty Dog had a golden opportunity with The Last of Us Part II to set it up as an absolutely killer franchise, if they had done something akin to Mass Effect and Life is Strange where you are given a moments time to make a decision that would have had a ripple effect which carries through to a hypothetical The Last of Us Part III and sees the decisions and endings you wrought make references to Part II, it would’ve been pure gold and a killer way for Sony and Naughty Dog to show their chops when it comes to both storytelling and executing how determinants can make all the difference. While The Last of Us Part I was a linear game, it was like that for a reason. Part II could’ve truly opened this world up. That’s the part that eats at me the most, it could’ve easily become a marquee title not just for graphics and gameplay, but also for storytelling. Let’s face it, there’s good reason why the game was so divisive, its story and ending were amongst the key reasons why it’s been universally panned by fans of the first game, and I hate to say it, but in the end, the panning was indeed justified.
The game might have received many awards, but the storytelling and game of the year should not have been amongst them. I’m sorry, but as it stands, what we have is a game that is adequate but adequate is not a standard any game developer should acquiesce to, let alone one like Naughty Dog. As for why this game got game of the year in 2020, I am truly puzzled at that. It didn’t deserve to win such an award. Not with the way the story was carried out, not with the pacing issues present throughout the entire experience and especially not with how dis-satisfying the ending was.