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Monday, July 20, 2020

‘The Last of Us Part II’ Has Its True Horror In Its Human Moments

The Last of Us Part II is a horror game, at least… technically. It has certain horror hallmarks: zombie outbreak (cordyceps infection but let’s not quibble), monsters, post-apocalyptic setting, lots of blood and gore. But it never quite felt like that kind of horror for me. It’s horror in the same way Get Out or Midsommar are horror movies: horror’s the box that makes the most sense, but doesn’t even come close to capturing the essence. Certainly, there are a lot of high octane traditional horror sequences in the game, but they never really scared me. When I stared at The Last Us Part II’s human heart though, there were times when I was petrified.

Let’s start right at the end, which means there are SPOILERS from here on out.

After some more blockbuster boss battles against Bloaters, hoard waves, and the abominable Rat King, your final two boss battles mirror each other. In the first, you play as Abby trying to kill Ellie, and in the second you are Ellie trying to kill Abby. The Rat King was not real, but this, this was something raw and true. Controversial as it may be, I liked both of these characters, and wanted both to succeed in their quests. Considering that meant each of them killing the other, I knew it was impossible, and therefore every stealthy footstep I crept as Abby had my heart thumping, worrying that the next time I leapt out on Ellie, I would kill the character who had meant so much to me since I met her back in 2013. Likewise, when the roles were flipped, my breath was held, my knuckles were white-tight, as my tired Ellie slashed wildly at Abby. I knew each swipe could mean the end for one of the most interesting and complex characters I’d encountered in all my years of gaming.

With the Rat King, there was no such tension. If Abby died there, it was game over, start again, try a different tactic. It never really scared me, because death only meant losing the game. Here, death meant losing a friend. I was willing Ellie, screaming in my head and whispering with my mouth, to spare Abby, to let her and Lev continue in their quest.

Somehow, thankfully, Ellie heard me, and that meant both characters could continue to live, though exactly what sort of life Ellie has left remains ambiguous.

These two battles form the slices of bread around perhaps the game’s scariest moment too. In her peaceful life on the farm, Ellie is feeding the lambs with her son JJ when something falls in the barn and lands with a clang. After a nightmarish flashback, we see Ellie scrunched up in the dark, JJ crying, until Dina comes and rescues her. This is the real consequence of The Last Of Us Part II. Not the death of Joel or Jesse or Mel or Owen, not the wounds Ellie suffers, and not the endless times she got her throat ripped out because I couldn’t take out the Clickers fast enough. They’re all only a reality in Ellie’s world; a world of cordyceps infections, a world I will never live in. I don’t fear them, because I will never know them. But a panic attack, the feeling that your fear controls you and, worse, stops you from protecting your loved ones, in Ellie’s case baby JJ? That’s real, and heartbreaking, and terrifying.

It’s not just the finale and epilogue which trade on these more human fears, though it’s true that the monster/zombie horror is less prevalent in the final few hours. I wouldn’t count things like Joel’s death in this category. Sad, gory, and unexpected (if unspoiled), certainly. But horror? Not really. Horror reaches inside of your chest, gropes at your organs, makes you feel like your skin and skeleton are slightly off-kilter. Joel’s death didn’t do that for me.

No, the first moment of human horror comes when Ellie’s gas mask cracks, and Dina tries to take off hers so they can share. It’s a moment laced with fear not only because the action would certainly kill Dina, but the death would be for naught as Ellie is already immune. This is the first act of true love (rather than flirtation and romance) between the pair that we see, and it was very nearly Dina’s last. Add to that Dina’s pregnancy and the fact Ellie had tried to confess her immunity previously but had it fall on deaf ears, and this becomes a tragedy wrapped up in very human horror.

These human horror moments perhaps don’t hit the mark every time; when the game asks you to ‘press square to bash in Nora’s skull’, I didn’t feel anything. Perhaps because I didn’t fully sympathize with Ellie’s reasoning, or perhaps because the game asked you to push the button to do it – yet left you no other resolution – that what was clearly designed to be a human horror moment left me feeling… well, not very much at all.

It is rare, in a horror, for every moment to catch everyone in the same way. If ever any horror attempts to, the results feel very lab-grown and inauthentic. Despite the heavy crunch culture and the focus testing Neil Druckmann used for parts of his direction, The Last Of Us Part II’s human horror moments feel incredibly organic. Even the scene with Nora did, despite being a swing and a miss for me personally – though not, unfortunately, for Nora’s skull. The Rat King is a scary monster I can laugh off, but Ellie’s panic attack will stay with me for a long time.


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