[WARNING: contain spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II]
In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg sat in a Harvard dorm room and came up with a small social media website called “The Facebook”, which allowed people to post certain things like their relationship status, happenings in life and any other updates. While exclusive to Harvard at the time, it slowly expanded in later years and eventually became one of the largest social media bases in the world. The website was revolutionary in many ways, and paved the way for people to connect more than ever before.
As time passed, the site evolved from simply being a place to post life updates to uploading more pictures, sharing external posts, discussing news and digital media, and even playing games on the platform. This led to more social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat eventually making it into the foray. Today, millions of people use these platforms to post updates on their lives, and discuss topics of interest, and also led to more opinions being shared than ever before on said topics, on each spectrum.
When it comes to online discussions, there are essentially two approaches to them: in this writer’s personal experience, what counts as rationality is the ability to sit back and have a calm, composed discussion on a topic. That discussion may expand to other users on the platform as well, but with a sense of objectivity. However, the pendulum can swing in either direction during these conversations. The parties involved may or may not agree with one another in the end — after all, they’re just personal opinions — but each voice is given a chance to be heard.
But there is another approach that is used by some: being openly toxic or harsh in their comments, with the inherent concept that “my opinion is a fact”. If someone disagrees with an opinion or a form of media, the response to either be vicious, filled with racial slurs, abuses, name calling or exhibitions of different kinds of phobias that offend others, or not give anyone else a chance to explain themselves. This is the approach we’ll be discussing the most in this article, and the negative impact such irrationality can have.
One of the most prominent avenues for such discussions are the different forms of media, mainly movies and video games, and those are the two we’ll be focusing on in this article. Before talking about The Last of Us: Part II and the current conversation around it, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. While there are many different examples that fall under the two aforementioned categories of media (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was one of the first examples of a massive online divide), I would like to hone in on the movie that people are still extremely divided on after 2 1/2 years, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In 2017, after the cliffhanger ending of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans were excited to see where the story would go from there. Would Luke take down the whole First Order on his own? Is he Rey’s father? Is Snoke the Emperor’s master in disguise? Rian Johnson’s movie, however, decided to flip the entire story set up on its head, and made an unconventional sequel that challenged every fan’s perception of the beloved characters, particularly with Luke Skywalker, who is astonishingly different from what fans of the original trilogy remember. Critics loved the movie, awarding it a 90% aggregate score via their reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas fans were split down the line.
The Last Jedi is not the first movie in the Star Wars Saga to have a divided response. Back in 1980, before social media ever existed, The Empire Strikes Back opened to a very divided response, with many critics and audiences unsure on how they felt about it, and how it took things in a very different direction compared to Star Wars (1977). Today, it is regarded as not only the finest Star Wars movie ever made, but one of the greatest movies of all time. The overall point here is that having a divisive reaction to The Last Jedi isn’t a problem. There has been civil agreement and disagreement around the movie and potentially every comment that could be made on it has been made. This fits the proper parameters of civil discourse.
However, there was another side to this conversation, where certain users and fans began attacking specific people involved in the movie. Rian Johnson, Kelly Marie Tran (the actress for Rose Tico), Kathleen Kennedy and others were subject to rampant online harassment at this time, with many shouting racist remarks at Tran, who was of Vietnamese descent, as a way of expressing their dislike of her character, to the point that she was driven off of social media entirely in early 2018. As of this article, Rian Johnson is no longer on Twitter either, but for unknown reasons, though he was sent constant hate mail as well as death threats for making the movie different from what fans were wanting and “ruining Luke Skywalker”. This was one of the first major instances of online toxicity being so openly displayed. It even drove many fans away from being associated with Star Wars in general.
Two and a half years after that, in June 2020, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Naughty Dog released The Last of Us: Part II, a sequel to 2013’s smash hit that won over 200 “Game of the Year” awards. After seven years of anticipation, fans of the game were about to see where the story of Ellie and Joel (played by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, respectively) went next, and explore their almost father-daughter like relationship more…
…so it obviously came as a shocking surprise to people when around the 90-minute mark of Part II’s gameplay, Joel Miller gets brutally murdered with a golf club by a new character named Abigail “Abby” Anderson (played by Laura Bailey), right in front of a pinned-down, helpless Ellie. Later in the game, as Ellie embarks on her quest for revenge and spends three days in Seattle, we not only get a reasoning for why Abby does this — Joel killed her dad in Part I — but we also get to play as her for half the game, showing us what she was doing during those three days while you played as Ellie.
Much like The Last Jedi, while critics loved the game (94/100 on Metacritic and 10/10s almost across the board from other publications), the game was met with a polarized response from fans of the previous entry, and much like it, this was on both sides of the spectrum: there was civil agreement and disagreement with the storytelling and narrative decisions between fans of the game and general players, as well as different interpretations of the game’s ending, and whether or not Ellie got any form of catharsis or not.
However, similar to The Last Jedi, Part II was also met with a toxic form of criticism that attacked people involved in the game, in particular the game’s director, Neil Druckmann, and Laura Bailey herself for playing Abby, receiving death threats not just directed towards her, but her son and husband as well.
As most people can guess, in both cases, this behavior was met with universal criticism, from fans and celebrities alike. In the case of Kelly Marie Tran, the toxic fans were condemned by thousands of fans, as well as Rian Johnson and John Boyega on social media, while Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and other co-stars offered their support in interviews. Laura Bailey and Neil Druckmann received support from thousands of fans, as well as Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Halley Gross (game co-writer) and others involved in the game.
For some time now, I’ve been a reviewer online. My audience may not be huge, but the experience has been satisfying thus far. In the time that I’ve done reviews, I’ve seen all kinds of conversations on social media, and at times, been subject to racist, derogatory comments myself. When I started writing this article, my main goal was not to criticize (no pun intended) anyone who thinks otherwise about differently than me about The Last Jedi or The Last of Us: Part II (I loved both), but to call out where I think criticism stops being effective and used in an incorrect way.
If history has taught us anything by now, it’s that art is always subjective. It’s unlikely that anything gets universal praise. For example, “The Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh is a masterpiece that’s currently the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I’ve gone to see several times. Tomorrow, however, someone might come across it and say “what a blasé piece of work”. That doesn’t make them wrong. It just means that they have a different opinion on the painting. It’s not a form of art that suits them. While we’re on the subject, “One: Number 31, 1950” by Jackson Pollock, also in MoMA, falls under the same argument. It’s one of my favorite pieces of all time, but not everyone will like abstract art, and that’s fine.
Objective criticism and discussion will always be a factor in any creation. In my personal experience, the more varied the conversation around a work of art is, the more prominence it’s likely to get down the line. What shouldn’t be condoned, however, is addressing it in a way that’s derogatory for the sake of being so, like some of the current conversation around The Last of Us: Part II is.
In my humble opinion, there are a few factors that play into online toxicity:
- Character Worship: if these two pieces of media have taught us anything, it’s that the main characters in them have found a special place in everyone’s hearts. Both Luke and Joel are well written, well developed people who, thanks to the writing for them, remain extremely memorable. When you write stories which make drastic decisions that affect them, there will always be some comments on it (“Luke doesn’t face the enemy on his own!?”, “Joel lets his guard down and gets killed so easily!?”), which can be your own criticisms, but when it goes from that to “Rian Johnson should die for what he did” or “I’m gonna kill you for what you did to Joel”, that isn’t, in a simple sense, okay. I think the one detail lost in these is that the characters, as well as the worlds, are fiction. Luke and Rose aren’t real. Abby, Joel and Ellie aren’t real. It’s wonderful to see people connect with the stories, but somewhere along the way, I think some people forget this, which leads me into the next factor…
- Inability to “Blur the Line”: talking exclusively about The Last of Us: Part II, in real life, the actors who portray these characters don’t hate one another. After the game was over, Laura Bailey didn’t try to kill Troy Baker. Similarly, her and Ashley Johnson are not only friends, they’re co-hosts on a YouTube channel called “Critical Role”, where they play D&D with several other hosts. They’re not Ellie and Abby trying to kill each other. These are, in the end, just roles that they played. If anything, the fact that they got you to have the emotional responses you did towards them means they did a spectacular job portraying them.
And it goes without saying: if Part II was a movie, Laura Bailey would be in the conversation for acting awards. She probably will be when the BAFTA Game Awards come around. Her performance is mesmerizing. Truly remarkable.
I don’t expect this piece to end toxicity online, and I’m not condemning anyone for having vastly different opinions either, but no form of media warrants threats to life, especially not to someone’s little child, or being racist in any way. Kelly Marie Tran didn’t deserve the hate she got. There’s a difference between “not liking a character” and attacking the person for even existing to play said character. If you don’t like Rose cause you think she wasn’t as compelling a character you’d hoped, that’s fine. As stated, not everyone will like everything. I would say “in this scenario, the writer is at fault”, i.e., Rian Johnson, but even so, sending them death threats and racist comments isn’t acceptable. Valid criticism is always welcome. Abby won’t be a character that everyone loves, and not someone everybody will sympathize with, but that doesn’t warrant threats to the lives of others.
And I understand that the eternal reasoning exists: “it was in the heat of the moment”, but speaking from even personal experience, the first baseline angry response to something shouldn’t be what we go with. There’s nothing to gain from that. One person who sent Laura Bailey those messages actually apologized for it, and she accepted it, which is wonderful, but it never should have happened at all. We can’t normalize having angry responses in a moment and treating it like a mistake every time. Not everyone will apologize for it like that guy did.
I haven’t even mentioned the homophobic tweets about the game yet, or the sexist comments about Rey, or the anti-Semitic messages Neil Druckmann received. In an essence, none of those are right. None of those logical. You’re welcome to criticize it all you want, and tomorrow, if someone says they didn’t like The Last Jedi or The Last of Us: Part II, I reiterate: that’s fine. That should be the norm, not our base reactions. By taking those small steps towards more rationality, we’ll accomplish a sense of balance eventually, and create a better community to interact with.