Have games helped you get through lockdown? Do you want recommendations for what to play? FT gaming columnist Tom Faber will be online today at 12-1pm UK time to discuss titles new and old and answer your questions. Below he assesses the much-anticipated sequel ‘The Last of Us Part II’. Head to the comments section at the bottom to read the discussion and get involved
What makes a good ending? However it’s done, the best finales respect characters, offer emotional resolution and resonate with the story’s themes. For great TV endings, people cite The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. In gaming, it’s The Last of Us. In this 2013 game you play weary smuggler Joel, tasked with shepherding orphaned teenager Ellie across an America brought to its knees by a fungus that turns people into bloodthirsty zombies. The motivation: Ellie is immune to the zombifying spores and may be the key to developing a cure.
The Last of Us, a slick stealth-and-survival game that won more than 200 awards, is now being adapted for TV by HBO. Its success was founded not on the action but the depth of its characters: the tenderness of Joel and Ellie’s relationship as they slowly developed from mistrustful survivors into a protective surrogate family.
The game felt like a vindication of the hopes I had for gaming as an art form. It was informed by moral ambiguity and the capacity of the best horror to reflect on society. Its emotional sophistication peaked with a sucker-punch ending, in which Joel makes a decision that queasily twists the game’s moral compass.
The sequel, out today, has enormous shoes to fill. Five years after the events of the original, we find Ellie and Joel living in a settlement in Wyoming, a bastion of peace in a zombie-ravaged US. Obviously the calm cannot last, and before long a violent event leads Ellie, now 19, to set out on a quest for revenge.
Seattle is the main location. Instead of today’s real-life police and protesters, here a spooky cult and an improvised militia fight over the city’s gorgeous ruins, in which crumbling tower blocks rise from a landscape reverting to prairie land. The environments are often stunning, particularly a luminous scene in the stained-glass glow of an abandoned synagogue. There is a gruesome beauty, too, in how the zombie fungus blossoms from corpses, spreading like a fleshy, psychedelic mould.
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Yet environments aren’t just decoration, they also tell half the story. As you explore, personal tragedies are rendered through detail: torn bed sheets, stockpiled water in a kitchen, an apologetic note addressed to a spouse who never lived to read it.
The impressive design does not detract from the action: this game is harrowing, bloody, and sometimes terrifying. Your characters are not bullet-sponge action heroes but vulnerable humans, and the game takes its violence seriously. Enemies chat about their lives and call out to each other by name, humanising them and lending real moral weight to the murders you commit. When Ellie takes off her shirt you see a grisly map of scratches, cuts and welts across her back. Despite the gallons of blood this game spills, it never shows violence as anything other than a hideous act with psychological consequences for both victim and aggressor.
‘The Last of Us Part II’
This is a colder, darker story than its predecessor. The bleakness of the original was leavened by the sweetness of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, illuminating a landscape of cruelty with shafts of radiant intimacy. The sequel switches focus to a traumatised woman’s revenge, exploring cycles of violence and hatred, and it is often a brutal, emotionally demanding experience. Yet the cast of new characters, casually diverse without drawing attention to the fact, are well-drawn enough to help Ellie seem grounded in this world. They ensure the story follows the best dystopian fiction in exploring humanity, companionship and compassion through dark times.
The game attempts structural acrobatics, some more successful than others, but the journey remains riveting due to the masterful pacing, which prizes quiet moments. You never feel more engaged — or complicit — in Ellie’s troubling story than when you pick up a guitar to strum a few chords in an abandoned theatre, or emerge from a frenzied underground chase into the painfully lush city, the rain falling softly, spreading relief as it kisses your skin.