Note: This article contains spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II, up through the end of Seattle: Day 2.
I’ve made my way to a hospital, where a woman is hiding out who can supposedly tell me where my ultimate nemesis, Abby, is residing. The grounds are teeming with guards, as is to be expected. Sticking to my strengths, I bide my time—learning their walking patterns, noting where the grass provides sufficient cover, etc.—and then I use stealth to silently take them all down, one by one. It goes incredibly smoothly, right until I start my way toward the final sentry, who also has a dog with him. Aiming my silencer-equipped gun, I pop a bullet right in the animal’s head and turn my attention to the guard—just long enough for my thumb to slip, allowing him to yell, “She’s here!” Cue another dozen men racing towards me. Shit.
Alex McLevy: I’m making a lot of progress in The Last Of Us Part II. In the penultimate installment of this feature, last week, my campaign coach gave me a very simple homework assignment: Run away. Get into a firefight? Run away. A few zombies surprised me? Run away. Don’t like the looks of a cutscene? Run away. Okay, so that last one isn’t true—I would never skip a cutscene in this lush, lovely game—but the basic point was a sound one, and something I think is all too easy to forget when playing a deeply involving adventure like this one. That’s the problem with getting into a serious mindset in The Last Of Us Part II and other linear, narrative-driven games like it: Essentially, there’s a tendency to press on once you’re engaged with a character, story, and mission. Going backwards can feel like a defeat; an admission of failure, when your entire reward system is based on achieving milestones of forward momentum. By that reasoning, fleeing isn’t just a loss; it’s a violation of the spirit of the game.
Here’s the thing: That’s horseshit. Running away is a strategy, as integral to the structure and universe of the game as the tattoo covering up Ellie’s bite scar. This game depends upon the possibility of falling back for cover, of vanishing into the weeds or behind an overturned car, to allow Ellie to regroup and permit her assailants to lose track of where she is. There are moments that all but insist you book it out of the line of sight: Bloaters roaring their way toward you, suddenly finding yourself surrounded by members of the Washington Liberation Front, dogs barking at the discovery of your scent… these are times when cowardice is the better part of valor. It’s not even cowardice, though it can feel like that; it’s just smarts. There’s only one sure way to survive any dangerous situation in this game, and that’s to remove yourself from the situation.
And so, I run. I run away from Runners, Seraphites, anything and everything that is currently threatening to do me harm. And every single time, it turns out to be the right move. It lets me approach the scenario from another, more considered angle. Here’s maybe the best encapsulation of that technique, from early on in Day 2 of the story. I’ve been trying to quietly work my way through a truly massive number of WLF members patrolling a neighborhood, and it’s been mostly working, right up to the moment when a guy I didn’t expect to round the corner does exactly that, and sees me lying on the ground in exposed grass. Did I almost die? I did. I probably waited too long to book it out of there, hoping I could quickly take down the militia guards and find cover before more arrived. I should’ve just ran. But still! Observe:
I’m curious what William, my Campaign Coach, has taken away from the experience of watching me try to pair my improved shooting skills with the other exigencies of this game. In offering guidance, did he see things with a fresh set of eyes? I remember back when I first embarked upon this project—to become a less terrible shooter in video games—my tutor remarked in passing how fascinating it was to realize things that were just muscle memory for him, like aiming down sights, were the equivalent of a graduate course in first-person shooting to a total noob like I was. Are there any similar moments of discovery when a vastly more experienced gamer watches the struggles of someone trying to better their own talents?
William Hughes: One of the things I love about video games, Alex, is that there are few pastimes that make the tantalizing process of learning so obvious or immediate. Human brains have been working out, and exploiting, the rules of things since before we started using tools, but it’s only with games that we started making up our own in the service of make-believe systems, for no better reason than the sheer fun of finding ways to use or get around them. I love watching people have these kinds of gradual revelations, and thus I’ve loved watching you learn all the lessons The Last Of Us Part II has to teach.
I noted, in our first installment of this series, that your aiming skills were rarely, if ever, the reason you ended up dying in your fights. Rather, it was the choices that surrounded the shooting—weapon selection, choice of cover, and a dozen other mental factors—where you and the game were sometimes out of step. So it’s immensely satisfying to watch the above firefight, where you sink, seemingly effortlessly, into the flow the game is directing you toward. You fought the way a smart, isolated survivor like Ellie would, Alex: Taking advantage of your enemies’ mistakes, falling back in the face of unfair odds, and striking smartly from angles of opportunity. (With a few very clean headshots, to boot.) Seeing you internalize, not just my lessons, but the ones the game subtly encourages you to adopt, is a very lovely thing, and a testament to what a good teacher The Last Of Us Part II can be. And on a personal note, it’s forced me to put some of those principles—retreat, listen, use your tools—into words, where they were previously formless instincts. I’m close to the end of the game myself right now—so much for my “guru” status, huh?—and having these lessons forefront in my mind has informed and shaped how I’ve experienced this journey myself.
AM: Playing The Last Of Us Part II has been a joy. This game deals with such rich, emotionally fraught subject matter, and engages its ethical questions in a way that never feels cheap or trite. Ellie and Dina’s relationship not only becomes essential, it adds to the pathos of Ellie’s situation once you learn that she’s known about what Joel did for her this whole time. The flashback that ends Day 2, from two years’ prior, when Ellie returns to the Firefly hospital and learns she’s the only immune person who exists—and not only that, but there would likely have been a vaccine, had Joel let them sacrifice her—retroactively changes your entire understanding of the narrative. Ellie’s choices take on the burden of knowledge; she knows her quest for revenge was birthed from the same eye-for-an-eye mentality that led Abby to Jackson in the first place. But family is family, and now, Ellie has the chance for a new one.
I had hoped to finish the game before the end of this feature, but life doesn’t always give you what you want. (Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I am very slow when it comes to progress; I open every door, wander down every side street, even hop up on every rock, just in case. No one should ever watch me play in real time; you would die of boredom.) So instead, here’s a nice excerpt that shows how I’ve learned to make my way through this game—namely, with a maximum of stealth. I’ve had full or near-full ammo the past five nights I’ve played, because I’ve only pulled out a gun when it’s absolutely necessary. 90 percent of my kills have been stealth takedowns, with a knife and a murmured “Shut it” from Ellie. This is the last sequence I played through before the deadline for this piece arrived:
I can’t wait to see where Ellie’s story ends. If I know The Last Of Us—and unfortunately, having played the first game, I think I do—it’s going to be somewhere both sadder and sweeter than I’m expecting.