Reading Time: 7 minutes
Warning: major spoilers ahead about the The Last of Us franchise. Enter at your own risk.
What would you do if the world was shattered by a deadly fungal pandemic that destroyed humanity? Better yet, what would you be willing to do to survive? Would you remain empathic towards others or adopt a dog-eat-dog attitude? That’s the first premise of Naughty Dog’s big hits The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II.
For the most distracted ones, The Last of Us Part II (hereafter referred to as Part II) is not, primarily, about violence, gore, or even horror. That comes with the package of the reality displayed. Indeed, it is a depiction of choices between empathy and survival and how one must sometimes let go of one or another.
It may be oversimplistic to affirm that the game is just this because the narrative, the gameplay, and the storytelling are brilliantly complex. However, one could say that this is one of the main topics. Part II wants you to understand and experience – simultaneously as a player and a watcher – the concept of empathy and to observe the nuance of grey sides. Contrary to the first game, which has a straightforward and linear narrative, a black and white structure, and the typical binary construction of heroes and villains, Part II shows us how much more complicated things really are. It’s almost like you see the first game in the eyes of a child to whom the world and people are black or white, and in the second part, we maturate and understand the intricate nuances of our own reality.
A world in ruins
The Last of Us universe takes part in a post-apocalyptic world, roughly 20 years after humanity was devasted by the Cordyceps fungus that turns humans into flesh-eating monsters who have no control over their actions, simply known as “infected”. The world you know is in ruins, and human hands did not cause it. Cities are “empty,” destroyed, and looted, and corpses fill the streets and constructions, creating a sense of nostalgia for our lost collective society, but also a permanent fear and state of alert (speaking for my experience, I was never relaxed when playing the game). The world as we know it is gone, and with it, our sense of synthetic control that keeps us calm.
As it would be expected, humanity has divided itself into factions as all civil rules have been erased. They were substituted by unspoken precepts like “you are either with us or against us” and “everyone is an enemy.” Besides the war against the infected, there is also an ongoing conflict against everyone that could potentially hurt or rob you. This civil war becomes tangible to the player when he/she is constantly looking for food, medical kits, bullets, and not having one item could mean death. Even in advanced difficulty levels, sometimes you (the player) must surpass six or seven enemies with only two bullets and relying on stealth skills.
When everything and everyone is a threat, one has very little time to move forward, which turns the civil war perpetual.
Set a few years after the outbreak, the game conveys how humanity’s state is the same, and the only visible progress is the edification of little towns (which is by itself an enormous feat). However, as Paradise Lost would say, there is no hope in sight: the world is infested by the Cordyceps virus that turns humans into zombie-like creatures covered in fungal growth. There is no vaccine, and the only way to achieve one appears to have been lost by Joel’s actions.
He and Ellie live in a small town in Jackson, Wyoming, a tiny semblance of a previous normal life. Ellie is growing up and even exploring romantic feelings towards another girl, which seems to give a little hope in a dark situation.
Everything seems as normal as it could be until a group from the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) appears. In a few hours of gameplay, we, the players, and Ellie have to stay powerless as you see Joel being tortured to death right in front of us.
The game is on.
A story of vengeance?
After an emotionally draining scene and a major knife to heart moment to Joel’s fans (such as myself), the course is set and the narrative seems to points to a vendetta storyline. For a moment, it’s all that. But then, so much more.
Watching our dear Joel die, one of the most beloved characters in gaming, represented Naughty Dog shrewdly pointing a gun to his fans and pulling the trigger. The whole scene infuriated and frustrated me as I wanted to save him, and yet I couldn’t. For a moment, I was filled of anger, sorrow, shock and needed to make Abby pay. For a moment, I was Ellie, and I was full of hatred for Abby.
Hate was the primal catalyst that made Ellie seek vengeance and hunt down (emphasis on the hunt part) Abby through Seattle. As Joel, who was a ruthless killer back in the days of Boston Q.Z. where he and his late partner, Tess, had to cross moral and personal boundaries to survive, Ellie is willing to do all that by going with Dina (her romantic interest) to Seattle to pursue and kill Joel’s killers, especially Abby. She tries to hide it during the first day in Seattle, or perhaps she simply didn’t understand the proportions of her obsession, but this motif becomes apparent when she and Jess part ways: Jess risks his life to save Tommy, who is also chasing the WLF, and Ellie goes alone to the aquarium just to find Abby.
By seeking vengeance for her father figure, Ellie is walking in Joel’s shoes and, like him, does whatever it takes to survive and achieve her goals.
Nevertheless, we can see throughout the gameplay how each death takes a toll on Ellie, especially after she inadvertently murders Mel, a pregnant woman, and that act finally pushes her over the edge. By experiencing Joel’s death, the three days narrative in Seattle, and watching every one of Ellie’s actions, I could see how she progressively lost her joie de vivre that made her unique and made so many players become fond of her in the first game.
This is a trait that we never perceived from Joel: he kills Marlene without remorse and claims he would save Ellie and destroy humanity’s hope for a cure all over again, if he had to do so. Oppositely, Naughty Dog pinpoints every moment of Ellie’s descent to obsession, violence, PTSD, and trauma and how that seems to cost her everything: Dina, little Potato, Jess, and her connection with Joel through music and with her mother through the switch-blade.
On the other hand, I believe that Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross made a bold decision to kill one of the most beloved characters ever to show us that we don’t have any control. Likewise, at the Last of Us’s culmination (first game), they showed us exactly the same by making us murder the doctor (Abby’s father). I think they needed to make the players hesitate and try not to murder him, but in the end, they cannot prevent it.
Ellie and Abby vs. empathy
By moving forward in the game, and after roughly 10 hours of playing as Ellie, the game forces us to play as Abby. That didn’t sit well with many elements of the gaming community, and it was also a shock to me. Even though, after experiencing pure sorrow and hate when I saw Abby murder Joel, I assumed that there was no way Naughty Dog would force our hand to this without reason. I was able to avoid spoilers, and yet I knew that Abby must have had a strong motivation to do what she did. She had to, right? We can’t always have violence for the sake of violence.
So, like most people who played this game, I started playing as Abby with loathly and wanting Ellie back, even though she had already caused so much death and suffering (cognitive dissonance, I guess).
In this part of the game, we can see how Abby and Ellie are similar but are moving in opposite directions: Ellie transformed herself in Seattle into a ruthless killer, and no one can say that there is ludonarrative dissonance during this segment. The players witness Ellie sinking further into depression, obsession, and mental illness, and the Ellie who once put a hat in a dinosaur seems to fade right in front of our eyes.
Abby does the inverse movement. We start by hating her, and in the end, we are (or should be) able to understand her. Contrary to Ellie, who is full of raw emotions and blames everyone of the WLF in an effort to dehumanize them (she often says “fuck these guys” during the game and others expressions), Abby’s m.o. is different: she is an apex predator who methodically prepared herself and worked out with the sole purpose of finding Joel and make him pay for killing her father. As Ellie, she is motivated by hate and retaliation, but she employs it in a much different way. Besides that, Abby starts to let go of anger and rancor and focus on herself, what she needs, and others. We see this transformation when she meets and becomes fond of Yara and Lev, two Seraphites she was supposed to hate because someone, somewhere decided they and the WLF should be enemies and engage in grotesque massacres (proven by the carnage in the Scars’ island).
Naughty Dog obligates us to understand Abby’s actions and the reasons behind them by actually walking a mile in her shoes (10 hours of gameplay, give or take) in a controlled empathy exercise of some sort.
Final arc: a story of empathy
In the end, the core point of Part II is revealing our unique human capability: empathy.
Even though Joel had let go of this past, decided to stay in Jackson, and provided some form of stability for Ellie, he was naïve to think that his actions – the Firefly massacre in St. Mary’s Hospital – would be forgotten. Eventually, his past catches up with him. And that’s what is so superb about this character: Naughty Dog doesn’t glorify Joel as a hero. The creators show him for what he was – a flawed human who was not perfect.
Sequentially, Joel was the first to break the circle of violence and suffering, which was later picked up by both Ellie and Abby. By killing Abby’s father and slaughtering the Fireflies in the first game, Joel created a personal killer who would want to seek vengeance. And, because there are no actions without consequences, his understandable but yet selfish acts scarred Ellie for life: she felt that she did not fulfill her destiny as humanity’s savior and is full of survivor’s guilt. The worst part is that Abby killed Joel precisely when Ellie was trying to forgive him, which made her hate the WLF even more since she ensured that she would never fix her relationship with Joel.
The acquaintanceship with Yara and Lev made Abby stop the circle of violence. Sadly, Ellie does this much later because she didn’t yet have enough time and perspective to learn that more violence does not cure the consequences of violence.
In the end, Ellie battles against and for empathy, but she absolutely does not forgive Abby. Empathy and forgiveness are two distinct terms that people often confuse.
Ultimately, it is also empathy that sets the tone in the final part of the game. For both Abby and Ellie, killing, stalking, and hurting the “object” of their hate does not grant them any satisfaction or closure – especially for Ellie, who starts to suffer from PTSD and whose relationships deteriorate (Jess before dying, Dina, Tommy) and, eventually, loses the sense of meaning. In fact, all those awaited moments of violence are not all cathartic as one might be expecting.
On the other hand, it’s empathy that stops the violence: it’s Lev who embodies empathy by asking Abby to not kill the pregnant Dina; it’s Abby’s refusal to kill Ellie and Tommy in the first part of the game; it’s Ellie letting Abby go (after, of course, beating the shit out of her). It’s the moments of empathy that bring them peace of mind, not the other way around.