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  • Writer's picturePeter Howell

The Last of Us: Part II's 'Theatre Fight' made me hate Ellie but that's why it's clever

Updated: Feb 22

SPOILER WARNING: This article will spoil key plot points of The Last of Us: Part II!


This article has been in my drafts for a while (nearly 4 years, to be honest) and now with the recent release of The Last of Us: Part II Remastered, it seems like a sensible time to stop being lazy and just finish it. I've referred to the 'Theatre Fight' sequence in The Last of Us: Part II multiple times in my teaching over the last few years and I still find it one of the more interesting examples of persuasion through gameplay systems, or what Bogost (2007) calls 'procedural rhetoric', of recent years.


The Last of Us: Part II Promo Image

The Last of Us: Part II attracted some, let's say, rather heated debate following its release in June 2020. Since then, many words have been spilled in the gaming press, player communities, and scholarly work that praise and condemn the game in near equal measure. The game has, for example, changed people's lives for the better, enabling players to consider and empathise with different perspectives, and to reflect on their own values and beliefs (Rahulahti, 2019). Conversely, it has been criticised for its treatment of female characters and particularly, the way it represents father-daughter relationships (Ramirez, 2022). Unfortunately, but also somewhat predictably, a small but vocal group of players were critical of the game's diverse range of characters. However, this is countered by the breadth of praise the game received for the way it developed those characters and their relationships over its runtime. Player opinion on the game is very clearly split but this is what makes it such an interesting title to write about.


One of the most divisive aspects of the game is the fact that the player spends a significant amount of playtime inhabiting the character of Abby, the now adult daughter of the doctor that Joel murders at the end of the first game. The reasoning behind players' dislike of Abby as a player-character is often different depending on who you talk to. Some dislike is simply based on the fact that Abby represents another female protagonist (and one that has the sheer audacity to not look traditionally 'feminine' either), but this is a perspective less receptive to logical debate given that it tends to be rooted in illogical hatred for females, or indeed diversity in all forms, in games. More nuanced criticism that can be engaged with usefully is generally focused on feeling that the game betrays the player's investment in Ellie as the primary protagonist, that the game's marketing was misleading, or simply that Abby's characterisation and story arc are less well-developed than Ellie's.


I argue though that Abby's role as a secondary protagonist is to afford players the ability to see Ellie more clearly as the deeply-flawed character that she becomes following Joel's death. This is a tough design problem given the mindset of players coming to this game from the first in the franchise. In The Last of Us: Part I, we first protect Ellie in our roleplay of Joel, before feeling a more direct sense of parental or guardianship responsibility for her in our role as player-protector when playing as Ellie herself. This is a strong bond that develops over the course of a substantial amount of playtime; players are highly likely to become invested in characters that they spend that amount of time with. How can The Last of Us: Part II take that basis of strongly invested players and turn it into a scenario where we don't just have less positive feelings towards Ellie as a character, but develop a sense of anger, even hatred towards her? Moreover, how can this be achieved through the unique, interactive capabilities of the videogame medium?


There are numerous narrative and content-based components that support this change in perspective, with a particularly significant one being Ellie's killing of the pregnant character Mel. 'The child' as a social construct embodies innocence, purity, simplicity, and fragility, and this is arguably at its most evident when it is represented as an unborn baby protected by and wholly dependent on its mother. "Violence against children - including virtual representations of children - strikes at the heart of the Western sense of moral superiority" (Reay, 2024) and in doing so, is a surefire way of triggering a strong emotional response in many players, particularly when that violence is visceral and brutal, verging on gratuitous.


Ellie stands over Mel
Ellie is immediately horrified when she realises she's just killed a pregnant woman.

Importantly, we the player know that Mel is pregnant but Ellie only discovers this after Mel is dead. Ellie is immediately shown to feel physically sick at the recognition of what she has done. We are shown that Ellie is remorseful, we know that this killing was in self-defence, but we also know that this entire sequence of events is driven through Ellie's laser-focus on exacting revenge. This innocent child could have been spared if Ellie's priorities were different, if she'd made different decisions. This sequence alone is not enough to make us hate Ellie - she's not an emotionless monster after all - but it creates an anchor point for our mental construction of her character. A degree of doubt is cast on her role as the 'wronged' protagonist and makes the moral distinction between her and Abby's motivations more blurry.


Eventually, Abby tracks Ellie down at the theatre. The ensuing 'boss fight' sequence is where I found myself developing a more clear-cut sense of anger against and temporarily, a real hatred for, Ellie. There's a few things going on here design-wise that are structured to antagonise the player. Firstly, the combat environment is tightly-packed with walls, doorways, openings, boxes, shelves, desks, and all manner of other clutter that makes constructing a mental map of the space very difficult. This is compounded by the lighting - a combination of dark shadowy areas and harsh red tones - the use of multiple sizes and shapes of cover objects which block or shorten lines of sight, alongside numerous small gaps to squeeze through and surfaces that can be mantled over. Altogether, this makes navigating the space more aesthetically and mechanically awkward and frustrating. Much like the way in which early 3D horror titles benefitted from the limitations of their 'tank control' movement systems to induce anxiety and panic in different scenarios, so here The Last of Us: Part II manages to heighten player frustration through environmental design and mechanical systems working together.


Gameplay screenshot of Abby pursuing Ellie in the Theatre Fight
Abby pursues Ellie through the Theatre.

With the player primed to view this sequence as a source of potential frustration in terms of navigation and movement, Ellie's behaviour and abilities then also make her one of the more frustrating enemies encountered in the game from a combat perspective. The player has no weapons beyond throwable objects in the environment and must track and get close enough to Ellie to attack physically. Ellie meanwhile has a physically smaller profile than many enemies which makes her difficult to track in the already confusing and dark environment. She wields a shotgun in the second phase of the fight which can be an instant kill if the player is too close, making closing in on her inherently risky. The final phase of the fight sees her switch to the use of her bow as well as starting to lay Trap Mines around the combat space and use Molotov Cocktails to flush Abby out of cover.


The use of the Trap Mines and Molotovs are particularly effective at driving player anger. Firstly, Trap Mines are difficult to spot in the dark, secondly, they are instant-kill weapons, and lastly, the Molotovs may force the player to move quickly and less carefully between cover increasing the risk of stepping on a Trap Mine. There's no other point in the game that sees enemies behaving in such a downright sneaky manner. A few deaths in this area can rapidly build player frustration and you may, like me, end up really hating Ellie as the instigator of those failures.


The result is that, for a short period, this fight affords an opportunity for players to feel within themselves a sense of the anger that Abby harbors towards Ellie. It provides a gameplay-driven method of temporarily identifying with the mindset of the character that we've been playing as for the last few hours. What is important though is that this is temporary. As I outlined previously, I argue that Abby's narrative role is to provide a mechanism by which the player can view Ellie's character externally and question the defensibility of Ellie's revenge mission. Abby's character development demonstrates that she's not a one-dimensional villain archetype but I don't think players are ever really meant to develop a specific liking or fondness of her. In terms of Jerrett et al.'s (2021) empathy spectrum, we may feel pity for Abby's lot in life, possibly a degree of cognitive empathy and sympathy also for her current situation. But not the level of investment or strength of bond developed with Ellie across the entirety of the first game and nothing approaching a genuine compassionate, caring attitude towards Abby as a person.


Abby holds a knife to Dina's throat
Abby is not only willing, but seemingly happy, to kill the pregnant Dina.

This is ultimately demonstrated in the cutscene following the Theatre Fight in which Abby is about to kill Dina. We know how blinded by hatred Abby currently is, we've felt some sense of that anger towards Ellie in the preceding fight. Ellie desperately says that she's pregnant, mirroring Owen's dying breath that Mel, too, was pregnant. However, where Ellie's response to this information was to be horrified with herself, Abby's response is simply "Good" - only the intervention from Lev stops her from cutting Dina's throat. Thus, ultimately, players can see that Ellie retains more of her humanity than Abby at this point in the story. Ellie hated herself for killing an unborn child unknowingly; Abby was willing to kill one knowingly.


References

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press.


Jerrett, A., Howell, P., & Dansey, N. (2021). Developing an Empathy Spectrum for Games. Games and Culture, 16 (6). https://doi.org/10.1177/155541202095401


Ramirez, J. J. (2022). Rules of the father in The Last of Us: Masculinity among the ruins of neoliberalism. Palgrave Macmillan.


Rautalahti, H. (2019). "How video games changed my life": Life-changing testimonies and The Last of Us. gamevironments, 10, 1–38. http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:gbv:46-00107540-18


Reay, E. (2024). The Child in Videogames: From the Meek, to the Mighty, to the Monstrous. Palgrave Macmillan.

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