Words: Alan Wen
This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II - like that wasn't obvious from the headline.
We need to talk about Abby.
Depending on whether or not you read the leaks prior to the release of The Last of Us Part II (review), or only read the restrictively spoiler-free reviews, Abby is either the game's worst- or best-kept secret. Either way, she is the greatest character in Naughty Dog's game. Quite the feat, considering she's positioned to be the most hated. (Spoilers coming your way, right after the picture below.)
After all, she's responsible for Joel's death in the most brutal and graphic way possible. But the fact that the game has you in her shoes during the prologue leading up to this moment should already have players know that something is up. For me, it wasn't until I saw 'Seattle Day 1' for the second time that I realised that Naughty Dog meant business.
As it turns out, Abby is a full-on protagonist with her own campaign, giving us one of the biggest bait and switches in video games since Metal Gear Solid 2. Once you learn she's the daughter of the surgeon Joel murdered in order to save Ellie, we suddenly understand the former Firefly's reason for justice - even if the way it's done still sickens us, and some of her companions.
Her arc is a direct contrast to Ellie's. Having already administered her sense of justice, the Washington Liberation Front's top killer isn't consumed by hatred. Instead, her journey, which dominates the game's second half, is a messy search for redemption.
For a game filled with so much despair and darkness, Abby's decision to go back and save the Seraphite runaways Yara and Lev (another contender for this game's best character, albeit in a supporting role) can be read as both selfless and selfish - as she tells them, "I'm doing this for me." But it's a reminder that under all the flaws, there is still a good person within her, desperately looking for the light.
What makes Abby so compelling is just how multi-faceted her character is, which by extension makes her the most human of all the characters, warts and all. Just looking at her - "built like an ox," as one character describes her - she's a force of nature that bulldozes through decades of strong female protagonist tropes.
Abby kicks serious ass. And her physical appearance makes sense narratively, too, once you compare it with her appearance in the flashbacks. Clearly this woman has spent the intervening years building up that muscle, training and preparing for the day she would get to face her father's murderer.
Of course, certain people on the internet have been upset by this muscular woman, saying nonsense like "that's not how a normal woman looks", or that her body type is impossible. (The hilarious thing being that those same people will have no qualms over a skinny yet busty female character with unrealistic proportions fighting in bikini armour or whatnot.)
I just find it ironic that after years of games having us ogle sexualised female characters via a third-person, behind-the-ass perspective, so many eyes are squarely on those arms this time around.
So it's maybe all the more surprising that Abby is the only character in the game to have an explicit sex scene. It's a different tone to the borderline soft porn of The Witcher 3 - and let's not even mention that sex scene in Heavy Rain. Rather, it just feels emotionally real. It's not meant to be sexy, but it shows us Abby is sexual, and that she's human with flaws and needs. In this case, those needs extend to a selfish desire to feel good with her ex-boyfriend Owen, knowing full well he's in a relationship with another WLF character, Mel, who is pregnant with their child.
Think about how often video games always shoehorn in romantic interests for male protagonists, from Nathan Drake to Alan Wake, right up to Master Chief's relationship with an AI companion. Have you ever noticed that's virtually never the case when the protagonist is female? They're either hyper-sexual creatures designed for the benefit of horny straight men (which, incidentally, reminds me of how Japanese pop idols are forbidden from dating so that they're 'available' to their male fans); or on the times when they are strong and independent, as in the case of the rebooted Tomb Raider games, it's at the cost of having any obvious romantic desires of their own.
I imagine it's down to the fact that so many writers in AAA studios are straight guys who are incapable of writing for an audience that isn't like themselves. And that's one of the reasons why it's so important that Westworld writer Halley Gross is the lead narrative designer (and story co-writer) for The Last of Us Part II, which has given us the rare instance of depicting relationships between two women as well as a straight relationship from a woman's perspective.
Abby's no Superwoman either. She's got her vulnerabilities - in her specific case a fear of heights, which we're introduced to in a rather innocent flashback before it's taken to extreme heights (pun intended) when she's scaling a skyscraper and the Seraphites' infamous 'skybridge' with Lev. It's a set piece that screams Uncharted; but instead of a Nathan Drake casually jumping from one prescribed hold to the next, we can hear Abby's unease and deep breaths as she wills herself to make it across one rickety platform after another. We're left just as out of breath by the end when she says to Lev, "Can I get a minute."
Ultimately, none of this would have been possible without Laura Bailey's astounding performance as Abby. Bailey has really come into her own playing tough-ass women in recent years, like Kait Diaz from Gears of War and Nadine Ross from the Uncharted series (although these performances are somewhat marred by the fact these are characters of colour being played by a white woman). But the emotional range here is something else. Sure, everyone's raving about Ashley Johnson as Ellie, but she has got some serious competition come awards season.
Over the course of her campaign, I went from hating Abby to feeling her pain, her loss, and her search for something to hold onto - something that she ultimately finds in Lev. Their relationship essentially mirrors that of Joel and Ellie in 2013's The Last of Us (part one, I guess), though where for Ellie's sake Joel commits an unforgivable act, it's for Lev's sake that Abby is able to break the cycle of violence.
By the end, I wanted Abby to have escaped with Lev, to find the Fireflies, to rekindle that goodness she still had within her - and judging by where the boat ends up in the title screen at the end, that's the path Naughty Dog wants us to focus on, too. As she would put it, she's my people.