The tensest moment I've seen in a video game hinges on a man nonchalantly introducing himself. There's violence after the introduction, sure, but it's in that moment, as recognition spreads across the faces of the people surrounding him, that the unease becomes unbearable.
This moment happens early on in The Last of Us Part 2, and Naughty Dog spends the hour or so before it expertly weaving the threads that coalesce here. Before this, we've seen Joel confess his actions at the end of the previous game to his brother, Tommy, and play a plaintive song for Ellie on an acoustic guitar. We've moved forward in time to see Ellie's life as a young adult in Jackson, preparing to go on patrol with her friends. There's the hint that not all is well with Ellie's relationship with Joel as Jesse asks her questions about the night before. And there are the new characters, camped out in the mountains above Jackson for reasons that we don't understand at first.
As Abby and Owen hike to a cliff and look down on the lights of Jackson glittering below, we understand that, for some reason, they're here for Joel. They don't name him, but we know. When Abby later crosses paths with Joel and Tommy while running from a horde of infected, we know what's on her mind.
Heading into The Last of Us Part 2 for the first time back in 2020, I knew that someone had to die. Naughty Dog had touted the game as a revenge story, saying that, as much as the first game was about love, this game was about hate. Given that early looks had introduced us to Dina, I felt sure that it would either be her death or Joel's death that would send Ellie on her cross country trek for blood. Naughty Dog went so far as replacing Jesse in an in-game cutscene with Joel for a trailer, making it seem like Joel would still be alive while Ellie was on her quest for revenge. The waters were sufficiently muddied. So when I started playing the game, the inciting incident remained shrouded in mystery.
But, when Abby led Joel and Tommy back to the cabin where her friends were waiting, it suddenly became clear where the game was headed. Joel is heading into the lion's den (or, more accurately, the Wolves' Den). What follows is tough to watch. It was difficult to see Abby beat one of my favorite characters to death with a golf club and difficult to see Ellie scream and struggle as he died. But, that moment of tension is far worse. In that brief window, as the temperature in the room shifts in response to Joel saying his name, as he realizes that something is off and nervously says, "Y'all act like you've heard of us or something," the spring is coiled. It isn't released until 15 minutes later when, as Ellie, you reach the cabin.
Many fans of The Last of Us hated this moment and hated that the game went in this direction, but I loved it in 2020 and I love it now as I’m playing through the game for the third time. If you treasure art and orient your life so that you can spend time making and experiencing it, you eventually realize how few and far between the moments that really make you feel something are; the scenes or images or levels or phrases that get under your skin. The moment before Joel’s death is painfully tense, but that’s why it’s wonderful. We don’t get many moments that commit that fully to making us feel.
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