Spoilers: This article discusses events from the early part of The Last of Us Part 2. We don't go into details, or name the character involved, but if you want to go into the game completely fresh, come back once you've played the first couple of hours.
Late last year I lost two people very close to me, all within the span of a couple of months. Up until that particular moment I had never really experienced death, and as you can imagine I took things pretty hard. I found myself going through all of the difficult emotions it's natural to feel after the loss of a loved one— helplessness, despair, even apathy—and I found that my only comfort was picking my acoustic guitar back up for the first time in years. To my surprise, taking some time each day to learn a new song or simply pick at the strings helped keep my mind in order. Since then I have come to recognize the profound and deeply important role that music can play while grieving.
Music has a frankly spooky relationship with memory. Oftentimes a song can trigger vivid flashbacks better than a name or a face ever could. I think this is why music can be so cathartic after losing someone. After such an event, you're left dwelling on the memories you have of that person, replaying them over and over in an attempt to keep them alive. What I found when I rediscovered the guitar last year was that by learning new music and songs, I was subconsciously associating them with the people that had died. I was in essence creating brand new memories of these people, which was a great comfort. Everytime I play these previously innocuous songs, I now have a significant emotional response.
Given how the first game played out and the tone of the pre-release marketing material, I absolutely expected The Last of Us Part 2 to be a deeply emotional experience for me. In many ways it seemed laser-focused on particular traumas that I struggle with every day, though when I actually sat down to play it there was only really one aspect that hit close to the bone for me. Throughout the story, Ellie is grieving the loss of someone close to her. I won't go into the details of who this involves, only that Ellie is constantly spiralling as she seeks closure on the events that take place at the start of the game. Ellie is wild with grief, totally consumed by it, but every now and then there are moments of calm, and these moments almost exclusively center around her guitar.
Guitars appear regularly throughout the 25-30 hour story. You'll find them in abandoned music stores; watch flashbacks where they're the centerpiece, and every now and then you can pick them up and play them. This is by no means new ground for gaming, but the way Naughty Dog has designed these charming asides makes them particularly noteworthy.
As Ellie takes a moment to sit amidst some dilapidated apartment building, or a dimly lit theatre, you're given a wheel of guitar chords to choose from. Using the right analogue stick you pick which chord you want to strum, and do so using the Dualshock 4's touchpad. Some of these moments are scripted, in that you're given suggestions as to which chords you need to strum to play the song Ellie has chosen. Others, however, give you time to experiment as you wish. You can even build your own musical arrangements, and there's no need for prior knowledge of the guitar (I actually sat for an hour at one point, coming up with the song you can hear in the video below).
The guitar minigames found throughout The Last of Us Part 2 are as successful as they are because of the peculiarities of the Dualshock 4 controller. Because the strings are mapped to the touchpad, you can elicit a variety of sounds from the same chord. Tap it once with your finger, and you'll pick the string relative to where it sits on a real guitar. You can swipe harder to have a note or chord ring out, or move your thumb delicately for a more quiet tone. There's a real connection between Ellie and the player, and the heavy lifting is done by this unique and tactile control scheme. It seems fitting that after a whole generation of fairly gimmick uses, the Dualshock 4 really proves its worth as part of what feels like the PS4's swansong.
Ellie struggles to play one song in particular in The Last of Us Part 2, one directly associated with the person she's lost. Her ability to play this song changes over time, providing an aural representation of where she is in the mourning process. It's an extremely smart way of showing character progression without dialogue, extravagant cutscenes or the often not-so-subtle storytelling found in triple-A blockbusters such as this.
To be honest, The Last of Us Part 2's central theme of violence never really affected me, I mostly felt numb while killing the legions of enemies in my way. Our Editor in Chief Kat Bailey reviewed the game, and I share her view that Ellie's depiction as basically a super soldier does lessen the impact of the violence you're being forced to commit. The Last of Us Part 2 is about grief as much as it is violence and revenge though, and I think in that aspect it really excels. The reason this side of the coin is so much more interesting to me however is because it is expressed by much more beautiful and personal moments. I've always felt this to be where the heart of the series lies, the peaceful moments rather than the ones where you're caving a clicker's skull in with a hammer. There's a reason we all remember the giraffe, after all.
I suspect it will take some time for the events of The Last of Us Part 2 to truly hit me, for my thoughts to settle on whether or not the game really has anything smart to say about cycles of revenge and hatred. In the meantime though, The Last of Us Part 2 has encouraged me to carve out some time in my week to take a seat, pick up my guitar, and remember the people that I have lost.