The Last of Us Part II is Grim, Not Implausible

It has surely been long enough, but for those still hoping to preserve their innocence, this piece contains spoilers for both The Last of Us Part II and its predecessor. This piece also contains expletives.

The Last of Us Part II has proven to be a rather controversial game, to say the least. The initial rush of numerically-scored reviews painted it as a pure critical darling, although some game critics (e.g., those at Polygon) were less glowing in their unscored narrative reviews. User scores, often a trash-fire, were afflicted by widespread review-bombing after leaks revealed an unpopular early plot point and a muscular female deuteragonist. That discussion got very toxic very quickly, and I won’t be giving it much oxygen here.

This piece isn’t really about game mechanics, but just to get it out there: I hated having to continually craft shivs. I thought that Ellie’s reusable knife was a wonderful addition and hated that Abby, a character with obvious access to assault weapons could not source a proper combat knife. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the gameplay, and particularly the fluidity of the cover, crouching, commando-crawling system. Anyway, on to the more, erm, weighty issues at hand.

Overall, I thought the game was a flawed masterpiece. I have criticisms, certainly, but so much of the critical discourse, professional and other, seemed to be focusing on the wrong things. I’ll focus on the expressed views of two main critics, Rob Zacny (VICE) and Jess Joho (Mashable). I’m not specifically seeking to target them, but they have articulately expressed views that clearly represent a portion of those responding to the game. The specific review that made me feel the need to write about this is that by Zacny. That piece emphasises the discomfort many players feel with protagonist Ellie’s decisions in her dogged and singular pursuit of vengeance. It lost me when it dismissed Ellie’s anguish over her father figure’s torture and murder as unjustified because he “had it coming” due to his actions at the end of the first game. This idea, that Ellie had no plausible reason to avenge Joel because he did something — or simply was — straightforwardly evil has been made by others (e.g., Joho in this roundtable).

This claim is vulnerable on a few levels, in my view. I doubt it is being made earnestly and wholeheartedly for one thing, but I’ll get to that later. Key issues here as I see them are the acceptability of Joel’s decision at the end of the first game, and the plausibility of Ellie’s response to his death. I’ll also discuss trauma and moving on, legitimate criticisms, and sum up what I took from the story.

Morality, Worthiness, and The Trolley Problem

Despite the views expressed by proponents of this perspective, it is far from settled that Joel’s actions at the end of the original game were straightforwardly evil. In choosing to kill the Fireflies in order to prevent them from killing Ellie in their pursuit of a cure, Joel prevented them from potentially saving humanity. It is confirmed through flashbacks in Part II though, that the Fireflies never allowed Ellie to wake up to seek her consent, and that Joel was given very little time to decide how to react when he discovered the Fireflies’ intentions. Playing through the section, Joel is forced to kill the medical team working on Ellie, and many other Fireflies in order to get to her and to get away relatively cleanly with a still-unconcsious Ellie. The condemnation of Joel’s choice seems to be rooted in utilitarian concerns about the greater good. The problem with this is that it is often not the way people tend to behave in practice. “Kill one to save many” can seem like a clear-cut decision and worthy sacrifice in the abstract. The picture gets murkier the closer you get, though.

The “Trolley Problem” is a famous thought experiment, and there are lots of different versions of it. Essentially, it proposes that a trolley-car (also known as a tram) or train is out of control. Five people (the exact figure varies between versions) are working on the tracks and will be killed if you do nothing, although the train driver will survive. Alternatively, you can switch the tracks, so that only the driver will die. As-is, considering the Trolley Problem with you as the decision-maker may illustrate that morality is not a simple numbers game. This can be more powerfully demonstrated with some modifications, for exampe, if the people involved are not just strangers. What if the driver was your daughter and the workers are strangers? What if switching the tracks guarantees the driver’s death but only makes the survival of the workers uncertain or even unlikely? What if the driver would go on to achieve something unique and magnificent if they survive?

The Trolley Problem is closest to Dr Anderson’s (Abby’s father’s) dilemma; Joel’s is best viewed as his response to Dr Anderson’s choice. Regardless, full-blooded utilitarianism demands that the identities and personal relationships of the driver and workers must be irrelevant. We are living through a time in which we can see in real-time that developing and distributing medications and medical supplies is slow, prone to trial and error, and vulnerable to corruption. We also see daily occurrences in which self-interest and venality Trump [sic] any considerations of the greater good. Certainly, this is bleak; however, it is anything but implausible. Ultimately, Joel chose to save his surrogate daughter at the expense of the possible development of one potential cure, which if successful, might have saved an unknown number of people.

Even if Joel’s actions are viewed as clearly and simply evil, does that render Ellie’s quest vengeance unbelievable? This is founded on the idea that Joel is unworthy, and thus Ellie should not be attached enough to him to want to avenge his death. It is not difficult to find examples of difficult or unworthy people who nevertheless have those who love them. I know it’s normally a conversation-ender to invoke Hitler, but even he had those who loved him. There are countless more banal examples of this, though. Worthiness is obviously not a prerequisite for being loved.

Trauma and Uncomfortable Identification

Another area that I have really disliked has been the response to Ellie’s difficulty with recognising the pyrrhic nature of her quest and moving on. I’ve already written about the plausibility of Ellie’s drive to avenge Joel’s death. During the aforementioned roundtable, Joho repeatedly stated her inability to relate to Ellie’s decisions, and expressed frustration at Ellie’s inability to learn from experience and abandon her revenge mission. Zacny claimed that Ellie’s decision to seek vengeance given Joel’s actions is “a source of discomfort the game never explores”.

I strenuously disagree with the latter claim. While Ellie does not offer much explicit access to her internal world via soliloquy or monologue (i.e., via diagesis), the tension between moral justification and action is explored in great depth across the various characters and stories in the game (i.e., via mimesis). Abby’s story parallels Ellie’s:

  • Both Ellie and Abby had a father figure who made a morally questionable choice involving life or death
  • Both father figures were killed as a result of their choice
  • Ellie and Abby both seek revenge for the death of their father figure
  • For both characters, the search for vengeance perpetuates a cycle of violence
  • Ellie and Abby both eventually choose to walk away, ending their cycle of violence

Despite these similarities, there are many differences, both in terms of what happens to the two women, and in how they react to those events. We are also given counter-examples where other characters focus on cooperation, building, and moving on more readily than either Ellie or Abby. These multiple variations and perspectives promote reflection on the moral and psychological universe of the game. The fact that the game doesn’t neatly resolve the tension between justification, revenge, degeneration, violence, forgiveness, and redemption for you is demonstrated by the ocean of words written and spoken about this very point.

Many have complained about Ellie’s lack of insight and inability to learn or reflect, as this surely would have led her to abandon her pursuit of vengeance. I won’t dwell on this point overly, but this sentiment represents a key lack of understanding about the nature of trauma. In common parlance, “trauma” is normally used to describe any unpleasant or distressing experience. In a strict clinical sense, however, such as in the context of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), “traumatic stress” refers to an extreme reaction to negative experiences (i.e., it’s about the extreme reaction, not the event itself). Two people might be standing next to each other during an earthquake, but only one goes on to develop a severe post-traumatic reaction. PTSD is a complex disorder, or perhaps more correctly, family of disorders. Importantly, though, a critical element is being unable to adequately process and move through one’s reaction to the traumatic event. Those with a severe posttraumatic stress response can find themselves suddenly back in the traumatic experience, not as a memory, but (from their perspective) genuinely reliving it. People understandably attempt to cope by avoiding possible reminders of the traumatic event, “numbing” themselves by using substances, distancing themselves from other people, and by immersing themselves in activities that allow them to avoid reflection and introspection. In this way, trauma is by definition an inability to adequately process one’s reactions and move forward.

Some have mentioned trauma, but handwaved away any explanatory weight it might offer for understanding Ellie’s and Abby’s actions. Like the issues listed above with the initial justification for Ellie’s vendetta, I think the root of these objections might lie in the discomfort of potentially identifying with Ellie (and Abby, for that matter). Ellie is the protagonist of a video game. She is strong, resourceful, queer, well-realised and impeccably performed. In the first game, she is in many ways our viewpoint character, our way in. She can’t swim, hates violence, loves comics, is scared of zombies — er, infected. In what was essentially a game-long escort mission, we weren’t even annoyed by Ellie; we loved her. We want to identify with her, but she goes to some extremely uncomfortable places in The Last of Us Part II, does intensely unpleasant things. If we love Ellie but hate what she is doing, that tension might lead us to reject the portrayal to avoid rejecting the character. What better way to do that than to claim that the portrayal is not just wrong, but incoherent?

For what it’s worth, most of the above descriptors also apply to Abby. As of early in The Last of Us Part II, “suffering from a severe traumatic response” also clearly applies to both women. While both Abby and Ellie are eventually able to turn away from their cycle of violence, a fertile possibility is to consider why they do so when they do. Abby was consumed revenge for years before the story opens, so it is incorrect to claim that she had a briefer obsession with vengeance than did Ellie. To what degree is Abby’s earlier redemption due to the close, protective relationship she forms with Lev, Part II’s analogue to a young Ellie for the original game’s Joel? Certainly, concern for Lev motivates Abby more than revenge, and Lev actively stops Abby from killing Dina in the confrontation at the theatre. Unlike Ellie, Abby actually achieves revenge for her father’s death very early in the story. Even without the game offering her explicit reflections on this, Abby has the entire story to notice that her world is no better for her revenge. Not only that, but most of the devastating events of both women’s stories result from her actions.

Legitimate Criticisms and Closing Thoughts

I deeply appreciated this game. I was tired of revenge by the end, but I was supposed to — this was intentional on the part of the developers. It is fair to criticise the game for being grim. I disagree with some that it presents a completely hopeless future, as it portrays plenty of people trying to build lives and communities. Still, it is the nature of this particular narrative to occupy some of the darkest parts of this already penumbral post-apocalypse. I did not precisely enjoy Ellie and Abby’s stories, but I found them compelling nonetheless. In many ways, the game achieved what its creators set out to do. it was technically brilliant, well-acted, and packed an emotional punch.

While I clearly have a higher opinion of the game than the great Jim-fucking-Sterling, I share some of his criticisms. Overall, the game did feel longer than necessary, and I think he made some brilliant points about pacing. While the sense of exhaustion by the game’s final act was appropriate to the story, the final antagonist faction felt rather flat compared to the well-realised factions of the rest of the game. I also agree that the story might have been more powerful even at the same length if it switched between Abby and Ellie more often, or if it had a briefer version of Abby’s story. Structured as it was, Abby’s story felt like a lengthy digression from the main story, and it deserved better. By the time we play through the flashbacks that compose Abby’s entire story, we already know the ultimate fates of many of the key characters, which makes it harder to invest in them. I liked Sterling’s suggestion that recutting the story such that we play through scenes with Abby and her friends, and then jump forward to Ellie’s confrontations with them. In other words, in a similar way to that in which other flashbacks are handled in the game. I’m convinced that the game would actually have felt more streamlined even with the same content had it taken that approach. I suspect that Naughty Dog might have been committed to maintaining the surprise switch to Abby as a substantial playable character, which might not have worked as well with that re-mixed approach. Still, if the surprise was considered critical from a storytelling standpoint, then a briefer interlude as Abby would have made more sense to me.

I won’t wade into the whole ludonarrative dissonance issue here (i.e., mismatch between fun game violence and “violence is bad” story messaging). I will say that, while it was a nice touch to have enemies call out the names of their fallen friends, there must be a lot more people named Skylar in the post-apocalyptic future than the zero I’ve ever met. I do want to respond to the criticism that the game continually beats the player over the head with “violence is bad, mkay?” messaging. A lot of people seem to think that’s the core message of the game, and feel patronised by its repetition. I don’t think that’s quite right. Ultimately, I took away a message of hard-won redemption and hope. Ellie and Abby both struggle through the mud and weeds to get there, but Abby finishes the game in Catalina with Lev and probably her new Firefly cell, and Ellie survives and is able to move forward. Even if it’s unclear whether she’ll return to Jackson or reconcile with Dina, Ellie can walk away from the guitar Joel gave her, which doesn’t work for her any more. It was a grim, compelling, grim, exhausting, grim journey to get there, though. In the final analysis, Ellie’s and Abby’s journeys through the post-apocalyptic world presented in The Last of Us Part II are grim, messily human and yes, arduous, redemption quests. Both characters navigate anger, pain, inner darkness, and substantial trauma to emerge with greater self-knowledge and resilience, and with the scars to show for it.

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