The Last of Us , released by Naughty Dog and PlayStation in 2013 to cacophonous acclaim by the critical establishment, is perhaps the most significant exemplar of one of the biggest trends of its era of gaming: the dad game. Spawned (so to speak) by the fact that many upstart gaming studio heads began becoming parents in the early 2010s, the dad game centers on the relationship between a father and a child, using the language of games to emphasize that supposedly sacral protective bond. The child is usually a daughter—a character that, using the language of patriarchy, is defined as much by her vulnerability as anything else—and the games, being preoccupied with violence, are eager to utilize that character to give players something to protect.
The Last of Us was the quintessential dad game, starring a grizzled southern man doing terrible violence to safeguard his surrogate daughter, Ellie. It was postapocalyptic, so as to make the responsibility of the father figure, Joel, even more dire. It was brutal, hyperviolent, and occasionally sweet, in the way dad games are. “What would you do for your child?” the dad game asks, even as it works to insert just enough moral ambiguity to make things interesting, to make you wonder if this dad is, in fact, a good dad or a bad dad. Amid a field of competitors like Dishonored, BioShock Infinite, God of War, and the original Nier, The Last of Us stands above all others as the archetypal dad game. Its sequel, The Last of Us Part II, feels like the archetypal example of another smaller trend, a reaction to the first. The Last of Us Part II is a daughter game.
The daughter game emerges as a response to one of the most significant criticisms leveled at the dad game, the obvious observation that, in any given dad game, the most interesting character is usually the daughter. As the object of protection, the one who responds and must adapt to the world instead of fighting stubbornly and protectively against it, the daughter in a dad game usually ends up, accidentally, being the most sympathetic and complex character. So the daughter game, usually made by the same folks who made the dad games, is both a gesture of contrition and a posture of defensiveness. It’s an admission that yes, you’re right, she is more interesting, followed immediately by I can tell that story, too! Games like Dishonored 2 and, to an extent, Gears of War 5 and Nier Automata are daughter games—games that attempt to center the perspectives of the women, instead of the father figures. But that’s a fraught proposition. As many women will tell you, few people arguably understand women less than their fathers. The paternal gaze can all too easily elide internal complexity in favor of external reactivity, seeing the daughter’s actions not as a reflection of her own growth and legacy but of his.
As the quintessential daughter game, The Last of Us Part II is defined by its father figure, even as it moves on to telling stories about his progeny. That father figure is Joel, and the game takes on many of his attributes. Like Joel, it’s cruel and violent, emotionally intense and a bit domineering. At the end of the original game, Joel makes a decision that cements Ellie as his surrogate daughter in the most toxic way possible, protecting her in a way that overwrites her agency, launching a cycle of revenge and brutality with no endpoint in sight. The Last of Us Part II is about the long tail of those decisions, and how they go on to shape Ellie and her own future, which is warped inexorably by Joel’s choices, sent careening toward bloodshed. Ellie is forced to bear the weight of those choices and to try to reconcile herself with them, even as they send her on a winding, often horrific quest for revenge against a new set of enemies.
Written by the original game’s director, Neil Druckmann, alongside TV writer Halley Gross, Part II‘s story wants to find its characters a path out of the cycle of revenge, a way out of life in the shadow of Joel. That path is monstrous, though crafted with all the care one would expect from the game studio that made the lauded Uncharted series. The frequent combat is desperate and authentically threatening; techniques borrowed from cinema are used elegantly to place narrative import on the most mundane moments of exploration and scavenging; the moment-to-moment writing is sharp, full of character, and beautifully acted.
From one perspective, there’s something extremely compelling about this combination of bloody aesthetic, nasty world, and the character of Ellie. It’s refreshing to see women star in these kinds of stories. Of course women can be bloody revengers. Of course queer representation and people of color can exist alongside the triple-A videogame industry’s pet obsessions. The history of women surviving to bring a reckoning upon their enemies in fiction is a rich one. There is a dark, animal joy to be found in being a woman wronged, sinking an axe into the skull of bastards who deserve it. The Last of Us Part II serves that joy with aplomb for nearly 30 hours straight.
But the father still rears his head. At some point, it becomes easy to wonder if the direction of The Last of Us Part II isn’t, in some way, the result of a failure of imagination endemic to its dad-game past. This story, and the pull it generates over the gameplay, is one that can’t escape its obsession with fathers and their children. Druckmann and Gross cannot imagine any relationship bearing the weight the father-daughter relationship bears. No connection influences its characters the way that one does. No burden pulls as hard, or as deeply. Even if the fathers were removed, the world of The Last of Us, a survivalist mess of zombies and bandits, cannibals and militants, is one built to highlight the needs and conflicts of the father who was the primary focus of the original game. One has to ask: Is Ellie’s inability to grow, or develop, without in some way referencing her relationship with Joel a true aspect of her character? Or is it merely a preoccupation her writers cannot escape?
That’s the problem with the daughter game, as exemplified, at least, by The Last of Us Part II. Even at its best, the daughter game still needs the father to justify itself. He is what the daughter game is a response to, a reaction against. The first Last of Us views Joel in both sentimentalizing and condemnatory terms. He is a bad man, a murderer and a scoundrel, but that game also wants to make room for the player to identify with and sympathize with his decisions, even if they end up breaking with him at the end. The Last of Us Part II has no tools to move past that understanding of Joel, and cannot take either the player or Ellie into a world beyond his influence. It may be that the game fails here, or it may be that no tools in the narrative toolbox created by the first game exist for this purpose. Every child has to, at some point, find a way to live that’s different from their parents, but the daughter game can only work with what the dad game gives it. Push the dad away too much and The Last of Us Part II would be, for those who played the first, basically unrecognizable. That’s not a risk that a game like this was ever going to take.
The Last of Us Part II is an excellent daughter game, perhaps one of the best games in its hyperviolent, prestige mold. Its later half, in particular, is formally and stylistically daring, pulling narrative tricks and reversals that manage to enrich the central narrative in surprising ways. But The Last of Us Part II feels like the ending of something, not the beginning. This is the father’s story, all played out and brought to fruition through his daughter. Now maybe we can tell stories about something entirely new.
More Great WIRED Stories
- The Last of Us Part II and its crisis-strewn path to release
- AI, AR, and the (somewhat) speculative future of a tech-fueled FBI
- How to make your virtual jam session sound—and look—good
- “Nonlethal” anti-protest weapons can cause serious harm
- Women have always worked from home
- ? What is intelligence, anyway? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable mattresses to smart speakers