Can a Video Game Show Us the Way?

What “The Last of Us: Part II” can teach a divided nation

John Kristof
Jan 18 · 13 min read
(Sony)

The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part II.

After the tremendous success of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us in 2013, work began almost immediately on a sequel. The follow-up to one of the most decorated story-driven video games spent six years in development, so when it finally hit the shelves last summer, the gaming world could not play it fast enough. Like its predecessor, The Last of Us: Part II has won numerous “Game of the Year” titles, and rightfully so. We have never seen a game share the virtues of empathy and compassion with such intricacy and sophistication, and it is the game we need right now.

The first The Last of Us told the story of a smuggler, Joel, tasked with escorting a child across a zombie-ridden United States. The child, Ellie, had been bitten by the undead and had never turned. A doctor on the West Coast believed his team could perform a procedure on her that would allow them to develop a vaccine for the zombie disease. Upon reaching the doctor’s location, Joel learns that the procedure would kill Ellie. Unable to let Ellie go, Joel takes her back while she is under anesthesia and kills anyone who tries to stop their escape.

The Last of Us: Part II takes place five years later. The game primes the player to expect a revenge fantasy. Before the player has much of a chance to get their bearings, Joel is tricked by an intense, muscular woman named Abby into hiding out with other members of the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a sort of paramilitary organization. Moments after entering, Abby attacks Joel. She beats and tortures the character players spent dozens of hours with in the first game, and she does so just long enough for Ellie to burst in and witness the gruesome killing blow.

Eager to depart before being caught by anyone else, the WLF members let Ellie live. Overcome with shock, grief, and rage, Ellie vows vengeance on the people who killed her father figure — and especially on Abby.

At this point in the game, just a few hours in, most players likely are with Ellie. Nobody expected the protagonist of the first The Last of Us to end so early, so abruptly, and so helplessly. We have all the clues we need to see the WLF, and especially Abby, as barbaric. We know they hunted Joel. A friend claims the WLF shot at him without provocation. When Ellie gets to WLF territory in Seattle to enact vengeance on Abby, she feels no remorse about killing her way through — and neither would your typical video game player.

But The Last of Us: Part II doesn’t let the player sit in a comfortable revenge fantasy for very long. The gameplay mechanics, writing, and design all subtly work together to build empathy within the player.

Scarcity and Empathy

In the zombie apocalypse, resources are scarce. Players are forced to scour every inch of land they see for bullets, cloth, and other things they need to protect themselves and hurt the enemy. Because the cost of getting materials is so high, the margin for error when fighting enemies is very low. To get the most out of their resources, players must be patient, waiting until their positioning is perfect for a strike. This “stealth survival” concept is not new to video games, but Naughty Dog uses the waiting periods to its advantage.

As Ellie waits behind vehicles or around corners, the player hears enemies’ conversations. Every piece of dialogue is unique. We learn WLF members’ first names. We hear about their families, their aspirations, how they are coping with a friend’s death. After this happens a few times in a row, the player can realize an uncomfortable reality — these WLF members have complex lives, lives that Ellie chooses to end because they are obstacles to her greater mission of revenge.

(Sony)

Scarce resources also necessitate close combat. Single-use items are at a premium, which means players must be deliberate about when they use bullets. As a result, players will frequently use knives, chokeholds, and other forms of melee combat. Such gameplay requires players to be up close and personal with their enemies. Criminal psychologists have established that close-contact killings usually involve more emotionality than, say, gunfire. Requiring a particularly personal method of killing to progress through the game exacerbates the emotional impact on players of knowing the names, histories, and passions of the enemies they kill.

After several hours of working their way through Seattle, the player has killed dozens of people. Frequently, after sniping one enemy, we can hear their partner scream their name in anguish across the way. Or, after slitting one person’s throat and slithering back into the shadows, we can see a team come across their dead mate — “They got Charlotte!”

Intensifying this experience is the impressively intricate animations and sound design. Incredibly, there are no visual breaks between cinematic experience and playable experience. In other words, the superb acting delivered by face-capture technology occurs during gameplay in addition to cut scenes. The player can see Ellie’s determination, fatigue, and pensiveness throughout the game. Crucially, the player can also see WLF members’ cockiness, fear, and pain throughout a fight, down to the fatal strike.

A Deadly Obsession

Meanwhile, Ellie’s plan for revenge gets more all-encompassing by the day. Dina, Ellie’s friend and rapidly developing love interest, joins the journey assuming that Ellie just wants Joel’s murderers dead. On a couple of occasions, Dina uses the possibility of the undead getting to the killers first as reassurance. Death isn’t good enough for Ellie: “I’m not sure that’s justice.”

Ellie’s deterioration is most apparent, however, through how she treats her friends over time. When she learns Dina is pregnant, she lashes out at her for being a burden. Their friend Jesse joins them shortly after, and he tries to convince Ellie to return home so Dina can receive much-needed medical attention. Ellie says they will return once they find Tommy, Joel’s brother who also is on a revenge trip. When clear opportunities to find an endangered Tommy arise, though, Ellie runs the other way on a slim lead to find Abby. Ellie is not just willing to put her well being on the line for the sake of revenge — she puts her friends on the backburner, too.

Combining these plot points with excellent acting by Ashley Johnson and impeccably detailed animation, it is clear to the player that, at this point, Ellie is not the same person she was when she left for Seattle. Her revenge is no longer out of some sense of love and duty to Joel, but a hunger that demands satisfaction. And the player can see how that impulse puts other beloved characters at risk. Perhaps some players begin wondering if there might be another path.

The Last of Us: Part II provides a second approach. Ellie’s story climaxes with Abby bursting into their hideaway, killing Jesse and subduing Tommy. At that moment, the screen blackens and the player is transported to a couple flashback scenes. This time, the player is Abby.

Human After All

In these flashbacks, players learn that Abby is the daughter of the doctor who could have created the vaccine that would prevent people from turning into zombies — the doctor that Joel killed to save Ellie.

Here, the game forces the player to look at Abby in a different lens. Before, the player’s only exposure to Abby suggested she was an unusually ruthless WLF member. In fact, she was the member with a beloved father who Joel killed.

After the flashbacks, the player is transported in Abby’s shoes to the day Ellie began her revenge journey. Like Ellie, Abby is serious but loyal to her friends (notably, we met — and killed — many of these friends in Ellie’s arc), and she is caught up in a sort of love triangle, one member of which is pregnant.

(Sony)

Abby’s arc quickly provides a closer look at the Seraphites, a sort of religious group seen briefly in Ellie’s arc that are persistent enemies of the WLF. Coming across written prayers to the Seraphites’ late founder and prophet, Abby is spiteful and dismissive: “If you want your family safe, maybe don’t join a death cult.”

Her story takes a sharp turn when Seraphites kidnap and doom her to hang so she can be “freed of sin,” though her executors get distracted when presented with a child named Yara. Charging Yara with apostasy, two Seraphites shatter her left humerus bone. Before they can move to her next arm, they are attacked by another child named Lev. In the ensuing scuffle, the barrel keeping Abby supported falls, and she begins to choke.

What follows is the lynchpin of Part II’s story. After all the Seraphites are defeated, Yara instructs Lev to cut Abby down. Initially unsure due to Abby’s WLF membership, Lev complies, saving Abby’s life. Insisting they know the best way to escape, Yara and Lev lead Abby through the woods. After finding safety in an old trailer home, Abby leaves Yara in Lev’s care and continues her journey.

Inexplicably to her, however, Abby can’t stop thinking about the two kids. The next night, she dreams of walking into the hospital where her father was killed, but instead of finding him, she finds Yara and Lev dead. In the morning, Abby marches back to the trailer to check on them. Upon returning to them, she discovers Yara is in far worse condition than she was the day before, and she escorts Yara and Lev to a former WLF doctor, who saves Yara’s life.

The WLF member and the two Seraphites become close. Lev leads Abby across secret Seraphite bridges to gather medical supplies for Yara, and Abby helps Yara overcome a fear of dogs. Lev tells Abby about the Seraphite religion — ideas of love and peace he still believes in, despite the extremist takeover in his community.

On separate occasions, the kids ask Abby why she has decided to help them. “You don’t deserve this,” she says slowly. “But also… I needed to.” Her word choice hints at a sense of duty toward protecting the kids who saved her life, but duty isn’t an emotion that evokes nightmares like the one that drove her back to the trailer. Abby needed to help them because, perhaps without realizing it, she had affection for these children who were strong enough to take care of themselves and brave enough to stand up for themselves. The WLF member saw herself in these young Seraphites.

Abby’s transformation culminates when the WLF raids the Seraphite island to wipe them out once and for all. The trio tries to escape, but are cornered by the WLF leader, Isaac, and some soldiers. Abby stands in between the man she used to fight for and the child she protects now. She puts down her gun and pleads for Lev’s life, explaining to Isaac that he saved her. Isaac is unamused. “You have three seconds to get out of the way.”

(Sony)

Before Isaac can count to three, he is shot in the head. The camera pans to Yara, who had picked up a stray pistol on the ground. Distracted, the soldiers riddle Yara with bullets. Amidst the confusion, Abby and Lev escape. Twice, now, the Seraphite children have saved Abby’s life: once from their community, and once from hers.

Initially overcome with emotion at Yara’s death, Lev lashes out at Abby. “Those were your fucking people!”

“Hey!” Abby kneels and holds Lev by the shoulders. “You’re my people.” The die had been cast. Choosing to reject their respective communities, Abby and Lev now fight for each other.

Mercy Breeds Mercy

Abby’s new perspective is tested upon their escape. She takes Lev to an old aquarium, where she expected to meet her love triangle friends who had decided to leave the WLF. Unfortunately for her, Ellie — the player — had killed those friends in an effort to find Abby.

Finding her friends dead enrages Abby, and she quickly tracks Ellie down. “We let you live,” she mutters to Ellie, “and you wasted it.” The word choice is crucial. When Yara and Lev saved Abby, their inexplicable kindness toward an enemy sparked further compassion from Abby, who saved Yara from a life-threatening injury and saved Lev from the warzone. The kids gifted Abby life, and over the last couple of days, she had done everything she could to give life back to them. Ellie, in her eyes, used a second chance at life to further destruction.

In the ensuing showdown, the player succeeds when Abby subdues Ellie. Dina, Ellie’s only remaining ally apparently alive, tackles Abby off of Ellie, but Abby is the far superior fighter. With a knife to Dina’s throat, Ellie meekly pleads for Dina’s life. “She had nothing to do with this. She’s pregnant.” There is a moment for Abby and the player to realize the connection between Abby’s pregnant friend, who Ellie killed, and Dina.

(Sony)

As Abby is about to strike the final blow anyway, Lev calls to her from the doorway. Abby silently snaps out of her rage. She and Lev leave without another ounce of bloodshed.

This scene, where the two arcs finally converge, provides the perfect comparison of the two protagonists’ transformations.

Vengeance is destructive, seeking to eradicate what a person sees as the source of their pain. When Abby killed Joel, that destruction bred further destruction. It sparked Ellie’s obsession with killing Abby, which led her on a journey that endangered the people she loved most. If Ellie did not go to Seattle, neither would Dina and Jesse. If she had returned home so Dina could receive medical attention, she would not have killed Abby’s friends. Had she not killed Abby’s friends, she would not have lost Jesse or nearly lost Dina.

Yara and Lev were merciful to Abby when they freed her from the noose. Freeing her was dangerous, but they did it anyway. That inexplicable kindness sparked the same from Abby, who saved Yara from a life-threatening injury and Lev from a warzone. Though she had the opportunity to let her vengeful spirit return and kill Ellie and Dina, one look from her savior from just days prior restores her transformed self. Abby is now a protector, not a destroyer.

Game of — and for — the Year

America will remember 2020 for many reasons. Throughout the year, a deadly virus took far too many lives, imposed economic hardship on many, and tested our relationships with loved ones. Though our culture was much deeper into a zombie craze when the first The Last of Us game was released in 2013, the COVID-19 pandemic arguably made us readier for a disease-based apocalypse game than we’ve ever been.

But the sociology of Part II is what really makes the game so timely. In a world of uncertainty, tribes become increasingly important to us. To use the terms of Robert Putnam, “bonding” relationships within our group exceed the importance of “bridging” relationships between groups. Accordingly, as the physical distance between us increased, we spent more time online. Scrolling through our news feeds, we digest information filtered through our preferences and ideologies, and we unconsciously enclose ourselves in familiarity.

Accordingly, in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we fought for cultural territory. Across the world, millions of people marched in the name of racial equality and in opposition to police brutality. Depending on your tribe, these people could be socially conscious heroes who will finally end racism or terrorists trying to upend Western culture. Similarly, the police officers charged with riot control and peacekeeping efforts — for which they receive little training — could be heroes keeping anarchy at bay or power-crazed racists.

These two different worlds collided in the November presidential election. Each party displayed much cynicism toward the other in the preceding months, each fully confident that a fair election could only result in their victory. For one group, the danger was in racists interfering with people casting their votes. For the other group, the threat was in shenanigans changing vote totals behind the scenes. Sure enough, months after the election, one group fights the results in inspiring displays of patriotism — or, in the other group’s eyes, in anti-democratic displays reminiscent of Nazism.

In short, the tribalism between the WLF and the Seraphites in a world of uncertainty feels rather realistic. To the WLF, Seraphites are Neolithic spiritual nuts who use religion as a front for terrorism. To the Seraphites, the WLF is a soulless, arrogant organization with no concept of peace. The player sees plenty of reasons to believe both narratives throughout the game.

The cloud of tribalism fades when the enemy becomes individuals and not a mere abstract entity. Yara and Lev break the Seraphite mold for Abby: their worldview is clearly shaped by Seraphite principles, yet are arguably kinder because they are more dedicated to those principles than their leaders. Abby becomes more to Yara and Lev than they thought a WLF member could be, as she consistently prioritizes their needs over her own.

Fighting Division

To atomize an opposing tribe into people, one must know people. While Abby, Yara, and Lev did not seek a chance to work with an enemy, a combination of fate and generosity enabled them to have a common cause and thus see each other for what they offered. Volunteering for community projects or serving the poor in our areas may be ways to cooperate and build relationships with people outside our comfort zones.

If you want to love your enemies better but get anxious trying to build relationships with strangers, remember the lesson from Part II’s game design — proximity itself can build empathy and familiarity. The player learned about WLF members not because they talked to Ellie but because the player was forced to be patient and wait nearby. We should make habits of being near those who live or believe differently from us, listening to stories and watching people be people. Empathy will follow.

The Last of Us: Part II should be remembered for years to come both for its entertainment value and for its sophisticated social commentary. Not only does it pose the questions around loss and division we face today, but it also demonstrates the path toward hope.

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