Broken People, Broken Worlds: Thoughts on The Last of Us Part II

PLEASE NOTE: This piece is intended as post-game reading. It discusses plot events in detail, including the ending.

“Why on earth are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.” — John Lennon, “Instant Karma”

“What’s broken can always be fixed. What’s fixed will always be broken.” — Jens Lekman, “Your Arms Around Me”

I’ll tell you the exact moment that The Last of Us Part II lost me completely. It was during the climactic fight on the beach with Abby. Abby refuses to fight Ellie, and Ellie holds a knife to the throat of Lev, just saved from the brink of death, innocent in the matters for which Ellie seeks vengeance, to force her to fight. After everything we’ve seen Ellie do thus far, we know she’s capable of making good on her threat.

That was it. I was done. The Last of Us Part II had taken a character I’d adored after The Last of Us and especially Left Behind, a character who I’d so much wanted to see have a shot at love and life and the kind of imperfect happiness that counts for success in this world, and made me hate her. And for what? What had it given me in return? A depiction of a miserable world in which I had found nothing particularly revelatory or insightful, in which I’d watched characters I liked repeatedly make terrible decisions and endure and inflict tremendous suffering and trauma. This is what some are calling the pinnacle of gaming, a demonstration of the potential of games to tell great stories, to be works of art? Clearly we have different ideas, those people and me — not just about games and art but about humanity and the kinds of worlds we can create for ourselves. The hopelessness of it made me hopeless. And now is not a time for hopelessness.

This game is such an asshole.

But I don’t want to forget all the ways that The Last of Us Part II feels like a miracle to me. My god, these women. Ellie and Dina and Abby. Ten years ago, I could scarcely have imagined a mainstream game, something aimed at the widest possible audience, that centered female characters like these, not scantily clad pinups or other manifestations of male sexual fantasy but believable, flawed, complex women who are humanized by the game they’re in. Abby is wonderful in how she represents a kind of female beauty once so rarely seen in games. There’s Cassandra of the Dragon Age games who broke my heart. There’s Kassandra of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, with those magnificent arms of hers. And now there’s Abby of The Last of Us Part II.

But Ellie is our anchor here, the one with whom our quest begins and ends. Our Frodo, our hero forever set apart from those around her. When I was young, I went through a phase where I read every epic quest I could get my hands on, from The Lord of the Rings to The Stand and everything in between. And I saw myself in the heroes of these stories. Frodo is forever set apart from those around him by his experiences as Ringbearer. It’s why he must ultimately leave The Shire and head to the Grey Havens. I don’t know if I knew the word “trans” yet at that age, but I already knew who I was. I thought to myself, “I’m different, too. I’ll never be like everybody else.”

Like Frodo, Ellie is also set apart. The Ring and, once it’s gone, the eternal spiritual ache of having borne and lost it, is his burden to bear. For her, it’s her immunity, and the knowledge that if Joel had let her die at the hospital that day, humanity’s prospects might be very different now. It’s her anger at him for not letting her life have that larger purpose. It’s her guilt at still being alive. Just as nobody else can truly know what Frodo went through, nor can anyone else fully claim to understand the pain that Ellie carries.

But we can’t forget that Frodo does what he does to save the world, and Ellie does what she does on a deeply misguided quest for vengeance. His quest is heroic, and hers is evil. When Frodo returns to the Shire, having lost a finger at Mount Doom, he does so with friends, people who love him and support him even if they can’t fully understand what he’s been through. He can reach beyond his trauma and exist with some mixture of joy and sadness in the world of the living, at least for a while. There’s hope in that for people like me who also feel set apart by certain circumstances in our lives. However, when Ellie returns to the farmhouse she shared with Dina, having lost two fingers in her final confrontation with Abby, she does so alone, and the house she returns to is an empty one. She remains a thing set apart, defined by her trauma. I wanted something better for her. I still do.

That moment on the beach wasn’t the first time I’d felt the game violently push me away. It wasn’t Ellie’s first full-on Jack Bauer moment. Much earlier, when I’d tracked Nora to the hospital and cornered her in its spore-infested bowels, the game drove a massive splinter between itself and me. Up to that point, I’d been trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. I was against Ellie’s murderquest from the beginning, but it was her decision, not mine. I felt like the game and I were on the same page about this. But then, with Nora, the game tried to implicate me more fully in her actions. We see Ellie boiling over with rage, willing to do anything to Nora to get her to talk about Abby’s whereabouts, and then a button prompt appears on the screen. Press square to proceed with brutal torture. No, I thought. You can’t put this on me. I know other worlds are possible; other stories, too. I’m not on board with this. You think you’re saying something about me as the player, my participation in this, by putting this prompt up, but you’re not. You’re the ones who felt that this was the game you had to make. I wanted something else entirely.

The Last of Us Part II tries so hard to justify its depiction of a world of savagery. For one, it’s so deliberate about the other works it cites. We meet a woman playing Hotline Miami on a Vita, another brutally violent game that was itself the subject of some debate, and of course, Ellie brutally kills the woman playing it. We hear “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube, with its famous line “Today I didn’t even have to use my AK,” a song about life in a world where deadly violence is an everyday occurrence, though stripped here of all the sociopolitical context for that violence. And at one point Abby is seen reading City of Thieves by David Benioff, a novel about two young men on a quest through Leningrad during the Nazi siege of 1942. Of course they encounter violence and death at every turn.

Additionally, you find so many letters about good people driven to do bad things because they just didn’t have any choice. You learn that Eugene, the likable old guy who actually died of natural causes — what a rarity in this world! — ”slow-tortured” a FEDRA general. Ah yes, some years after the heyday of movies like Zero Dark Thirty and TV shows like 24, we’re back to depicting torture as something that even the good guys do. So inescapable is violence that Dina had to kill a man when she was just ten years old! Okay, we get it. It’s a brutal world. There’s something that feels almost desperate about the game’s efforts to justify the world it offers us. It wants so badly to avoid raising the spectre of “ludonarrative dissonance,” but can’t see a way out of being brutally violent and still delivering on marketplace expectations, so instead it leans as hard as possible into the violence, while straining with all of its might to convince us that human beings would be this savage if society as we know it collapsed, and just looking regretful about how inescapable our violence is.

Of course I know that this can be a brutal world. You don’t have to tell me that. I’m not naive about our history as a species, nor am I a stranger to violence and the threat of violence in my own life. I know what it is to live in fear. And I’m not somebody who shuns brutal violence in art. I don’t want everything to be Steven Universe and Animal Crossing. But come on. Before its release, there were warnings that this game was going to be “divisive,” and that to me suggests risk-taking. Sure, I get that it has alienated members of the audience who think that simply humanizing and centering queer women and trans people is a betrayal, but even as I rejoice at seeing characters like this in a game like this, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t think games should be overly celebrated just for telling stories that recognize the humanity in all of us and don’t cater to bigots. No, to me a truly bold, “divisive” game would have been one that said “actually, there are other possibilities. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

So many people seem to believe that society as we know it is the only thing holding us back from all turning into video game characters in a brutal, kill-or-be-killed world. But it’s not. In her wonderful book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit explores again and again stories of tremendous adversity and even violence not driving people apart but bringing them together. She writes,

The assumption behind much disaster response by the authorities — and the logic of bombing civilians — is that civilization is a brittle facade, and behind it lies our true nature as monstrous, selfish, chaotic and violent or as timid, fragile and helpless. In fact, in most disasters most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative.

And she has the stories to back it up. But we also need look no further than the current moment to know that this is true. The headline for a New York Times story states that this is “a Dark Game for a Dark Time.” But this is also a revelatory, hopeful time, a time that reveals who we actually can be in times of struggle, and the worlds we can want for ourselves. Yes, of course we are seeing acts of brutality and violence and, in many, a callous disregard for the lives of our fellow human beings. I don’t fault The Last of Us Part II for acknowledging that we are capable of such things. But we can also see in the current moment powerful visions of the more equitable and compassionate societies that we could create, and we can see people fighting incredibly hard on behalf of their fellow human beings to bring us a tiny step closer to such a world.

But this game is so relentless, so absolute in its dwelling on the savagery that people are capable of, and in its efforts to create a world in which your colossal body count and reliance on torture are all consistent and justified, that it feels stubborn and ignorant. At a time when the old order is cracking to reveal beautiful new possibilities for the future, this game feels like a surrender to the most hopeless notions about who we are. Yes, there are visions of community here, but they’re just here as things to be cast aside for the core action. They give way to the violence, the violence doesn’t give way to them.

I understand that there is a sense in which the game wants us to question our assumptions. Playing as Abby offers an opportunity to understand her motivations. Her encounter with Lev and Yara forces her to question the ideology she’s adopted. But I didn’t need to play as Abby to think of Ellie’s quest as deeply misguided and morally reprehensible. If part of what the game is trying to do is to say, “See? The choices these characters have made were wrong, they didn’t have to make these choices,” then what does it say that this is the game Naughty Dog felt they had to make? That’s where it all falls apart for me. It’s as if the game wants to suggest that other things are possible by making us question the actions of its characters, and yet the game itself feels utterly trapped by the expectations of the AAA marketplace in a story of brutal violence. That internal tension drives me up a wall. It’s almost like I can feel the game shaking its head in disapproval and regret over what the characters do, and over what we do as those characters, while still making them and us do it. “There may be a way out for humanity,” it seems to say, “but there’s no way out for video games like this.” I find it to be the opposite of bold or divisive. I find it comforting and safe within the lineage of AAA games and their history of violence. A doubling down on the same old ideas.

You might say it’s unfair to saddle any one work with so many expectations, and I might agree with you. But at the same time, The Last of Us franchise is in many ways positioned as (and by some critics heralded as) the best of us, the best of what games as a medium have to offer. So I think it’s important to seriously interrogate the basis of its perceived greatness, and where it falls short.

It feels to me like such a defeated game. Such a statement of defeat. One that says that even when we center queer women and trans people in our stories, we can’t tell different kinds of stories. We’re trapped.

If there’s any hope here, it’s in the fact that the game has to work so hard to justify itself. You can almost feel it tearing at the seams under the weight of its effort to be internally consistent and believable. I hope that means that this game has taken this sort of thing as far as it can go, that a breakthrough to places beyond awaits, that there might actually be something meaningfully different on the horizon.

Like a lot of things these days, I just don’t see how this can hold.

And then there’s Lev. Oh, I love Lev. I especially like him in Santa Barbara, in that t-shirt, his hair growing out a little bit, like you can feel him just starting to explore the dude he really is. It’s lovely. He‘s coming into his own and flourishing a bit, the way we only can if we have love and support. Acceptance.

And I very much appreciate that he doesn’t seem overburdened with shame. What I mean is that the game doesn’t seem to think that he needs to spend the rest of his life agonizing about the pain that his mom suffered, or anyone else, because him being trans is not a sin, and any pain that it may send out into the world reveals an illness not with him but with the world itself for not being able to love and accept him as he is.

I also like that I was pretty sure Lev was trans from the moment I met him. I didn’t feel like the game was trying to hide it. Everyone knows I’m trans from the moment they meet me. That’s just a reality with some trans people. We could use more representations of visibly trans people, I think. Trans kids, even. Cool Asian trans kids like Lev. Yes please.

When you encounter the enemies who call Lev by his deadname, to me it wasn’t a “reveal.” The only thing they were revealing was that they’re assholes. My Abby already knew, she just didn’t say anything, because she accepted Lev for who he is.

Lev is my dude. I want to protect him so much. I want him to get a shot at living a real life. He deserves it.

Now I want to tell you about the moment that this game won me back. Not fully. Just a little bit. Just enough to make me reconsider writing it off completely.

It’s something that Joel says in Ellie’s memory, when she returns to that empty house, and strums that guitar, and remembers visiting him on that last night, after the dance. This is what he says:

“Look, I have no idea what [Dina’s] intentions are, but…I do know that she would be lucky to have you.”

Hearing this, as someone who never had a parent or parental figure who said things like this to me, who saw me clearly enough to believe in the value of the love I had to give, hit me hard. But it also instantly helped me understand Ellie in a way that I hadn’t before, and it made me consider the entire arc of the game from a new angle. I suddenly saw in a new way the fundamental tension between the way Joel sees Ellie and the way she sees herself. He sees her as someone who deserves a shot at living, at loving and being loved. In fact, when he had the choice between saving Ellie or saving the world, he decided that Ellie was the world worth saving.

But she doesn’t see herself that way. She carries around so much shame for being alive. She probably sees her entire legacy as violence; all the people who weren’t saved by a vaccine, the entire state of the world. Suddenly it struck me that when she walked away from Dina to go to Santa Barbara, saying “I have to finish it” (while I screamed at the screen, “No, you fucking don’t!”), it wasn’t really about avenging Joel, or at least not just about that. It was about the shame she still carried around. It was because she hadn’t yet heard what Joel had said to her that night, that she deserved to love and be loved, too. It was because she didn’t think she deserved to be there with Dina, getting a shot at happiness.

She was still acting from the wounded place inside her. The place that loves Joel but didn’t get to do the work of learning to forgive him for prioritizing her life over everyone else’s. Their messy future of fumbling toward forgiveness was stolen from them both but Ellie’s the one who has to live in the absence. When she lets Abby go, there’s nothing left to distract her. She’s alone with her own brokenness. She has to truly confront it at last.

I screamed at her for leaving Dina and going to Santa Barbara, because I, too, see Ellie as someone who deserves love. But if I scream at her for acting out of shame, then why do I let myself carry around so much shame? Why do I always doubt that I am worthy of loving and being loved? I’m a fucking hypocrite.

Now, it’s true that in reality, I’d have a hard time viewing anyone who did what Ellie has done as deserving of love and redemption. And it’s true that The Last of Us Part II, with all its brutal violence and its realistic rope physics, wants us to believe in its world, to feel every savage stab through the neck, every life we snuff out.

But it’s also true that I think any game, no matter how realistic, can work on levels that bypass realism and literal truth. I recall that in one of my small handful of interactions with Neil Druckmann, many years ago, the topic of all those bodies that Nathan Drake leaves in his wake came up. Neil’s response was that the games offered up a “heightened reality.” (I believe that was the term he used. If I’m misremembering, Neil, I apologize.) But I prefer to think of games less as a heightened reality and more as a dreamspace. We’re there. In a way we’re absolutely really there. But we’re also not. We’re taking those actions, but we’re also not. And in my understanding of my own struggle to see myself as someone worthy of loving and being loved, and of how trauma encourages so many of us to stay locked in self-destructive patterns, there’s a kind of dreamlogic in the way that Ellie unleashes so much violence on the world, as a way of avoiding tending to the hurt inside of herself. I know that for so many players of Dark Souls who have struggled with depression, myself included, overcoming the arduous battles of that game had a symbolic and therapeutic quality, as if we were facing the demons in ourselves. But a game’s world doesn’t have to be as dreamlike as Lordran for a character’s quest to take on symbolic meaning for us. It just has to make sense to us.

I’m not saying this because I feel some pressure to go soft on the game. I’m saying it because it’s what’s best for me. To view Ellie, in all her damage and trauma and her tendency to push people away, with compassion. Because that compassion isn’t just for her. It’s for myself, too. I get the shame she carries. Shame like that comes between you and the world. It makes you unreachable. I want to let it go, once and for all.

It strikes me as true — emotionally true, psychologically true — that it would be only now, when Ellie has pursued Abby to the ends of the proverbial Earth and she’s thrashing underneath her as Ellie holds her under the water and there’s nothing left to do but hold her there for just a few seconds longer and end her life, that Ellie would flash back to Joel on that porch and finally hear what he said to her that night. That only now she would understand, or finally be able to accept, that he wouldn’t want her doing any of this, that he’d rather she was safe and happy in Dina’s arms than seeking vengeance for his death. It reminds me of how, during the few weeks I spent earlier this year working nights in an Amazon warehouse, as difficult and desperate a time as I’ve ever known, vivid images would flash into my mind of moments and people and things I hadn’t thought about in decades, and sometimes I’d be blindsided by emotions about them that I had no idea I was still carrying.

God, I can relate to Ellie so much. The feeling of connection I had with her at the end made me recall the feeling of connection I had with her at the beginning, when I read an entry about Dina in her journal. This is what it said:

Dina asked if I was gonna go to the dance… And she touched my arm… ARGHH! I’m so delusional. Don’t be an idiot. She’s like that with everybody. Don’t fuck up your friendship. Don’t fuck up your friendship. DON’T FUCK UP YOUR FRIENDSHIP!!!

I get this. I know this kind of excitement intimately. When you meet someone who has a big gold star around them, and you want so badly for there to be a chance but you also don’t dare to hope that there could be a chance. Well, Ellie has a chance with Dina. So when she walked away from Dina to go to Santa Barbara, saying “I have to finish it,” and I got angry, and I screamed “No you fucking don’t!”, it was because I was angry at her for throwing away a chance when I don’t know if I’ll ever have one.

I know my writing about games often tends to be very personal, but I don’t know how we can have an experience with most games that isn’t personal. Isn’t that kind of the whole thing with games? The way we’re there? The way we feel it?

When I lean hard into my own experience like this, it’s not to make it all about me. It’s because it’s the only way I know of to articulate something that might be true for you as well. This doesn’t mean that I think your truth will be the same as my truth. Rather, when I read criticism, encountering the truth of someone else’s experience always helps me to better understand my own, regardless of whether we feel the same way about something or not. There can be something clarifying and illuminating about another’s lived-in perspective, and that’s all I have to offer. My experience is the only basis for truth that I know.

There’s something about the way that Ellie looks, in that final act in California. Her tightened face, her narrow eyes, like she doesn’t even know why she’s doing it anymore, she just can’t stop. We can tell just by looking at her that she’s running away from the truth of herself, because as awful as it is, it’s somehow still less scary than facing the place inside of her that tells her that because she lived, she doesn’t deserve to be loved. In lesser hands it would have been a failure. But the performances, not just the phenomenal voice acting but also what is lent to these characters by the graphical artists, make it work.

Consider the contrast between Ellie and Lev. It might have made sense for Lev to be eaten away from the inside by a monster made of self-loathing that tells him all the time that the simple fact of who he is unleashed pain into the world, killed his mother and his sister. But he doesn’t seem to be that person. Not that he never thinks about those he’s lost, I’m sure he does. I just mean that he doesn’t hate himself. He seems to want to be a part of whatever future he and Abby might be able to make together. He seems to believe he deserves it. And of course, he does. Ellie’s problem is that she doesn’t think she deserves such a future, and that belief manifests in violence. In the dreamspace the game offers, this makes sense. At times I’ve carried such bitterness and rage within me at the world’s transphobia and cruelty that, if it manifested in physical form, it might bring cities crumbling down. In that way, I too have met violence with violence, a kind of emotional or spiritual violence. I have not always been better than this. But I can be. I’m trying to learn to be. I hope Ellie does, too.

Earlier I mentioned that the game cites many works that seem designed to shore up its depiction of a brutally violent world. Hotline Miami. “It Was a Good Day.” City of Thieves. But there was one work that gets cited that seemed like an outlier to me: the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit.

In the end, though, this, too, made sense to me. I believe that we define ourselves primarily through our relationships to others, and that it’s sometimes a painful process, but it’s also where real life is. Ellie still hasn’t fully become real, but she could, if she stops running away from love. Beauty can happen amid struggle and yes, I believe that love can bloom, even on the battlefield. But it’s in the quiet rhythms of a more ordinary life that Ellie would do the real work of becoming real, not amidst the crushing numbness of endless neck stabbings. Running into that kind of violence makes you numb to the love, too. As a wise man once said, “You can’t shut off the risk and the pain without losin’ the love that remains.” Or perhaps a certain song Ellie sings to Dina in the game is grasping for the same sentiment when it says, “it’s no better to be safe than sorry.” Y’know what I mean? In the game’s final image, I sure hope Ellie is going to see about a girl. To do, if Dina will let her, the work of trying to rebuild the trust she broke.

Ellie’s relationship with Joel is filled with highs (Oh my god that mission control sequence! The cherishing of Ellie’s dreams and the honoring of the people she’ll never get to be, the things she’s already lost.) and lows, with rejection and tentative steps toward rebuilding trust. It turns out that games, like people, can lose us and then win us back, at least a little bit.

I wrestled tremendously with this piece, because I didn’t know what to do with a game that provoked so many reactions in me that were simultaneously so deep, and so contradictory. What would I have scored this game, if I were still in the business of scoring games? What does it mean to assign a score to something we both dislike and admire so much? Shall we say that the feelings cancel each other out and call it a 5? No. Readers interpret a 5 as mediocrity, regardless of our intentions. A 5 suggests a limp handshake of a game. Mediocrity is not the issue with The Last of Us Part II. This is a great and terrible game, a game that demands to be reckoned with. The issue is that it is a game cleaved in two: one part a vision of a better and more beautiful potential future, one part a surrender to remaining forever trapped in a severely limited past. I have a real appreciation, even a love, for Ellie’s arc and the ending, but I don’t believe the game needed to drag us through 25 hours of relentless suffering and brutality to make that payoff work.

Why don’t we get to see Ellie doing the work of trying to be a better person? Why don’t we get to see her trying to rebuild things with Dina, and trying to internalize what Joel said to her, that she deserves to love and be loved? Because these remain the limits of AAA games. Because that’s the part where no shooting happens, and therefore it remains outside the scope of a game like this. Because we’re still so trapped.

But we know that things can be different. The Last of Us: Left Behind showed us that games like this can use their mechanics in other ways. That this kind of gameplay can be used as a way to explore the development of a relationship, as well as the murder of one person by another. And, of course, there are so many other kinds of gameplay that could be utilized.

If there’s to be a future for this particular series (and I don’t necessarily think it needs one, but if there is), I hope it does something truly bold, truly divisive. Rather than continuing to shrug its shoulders and shake its head regretfully at how violence is just a necessary component of games like this and all we can do is lean into it harder and harder and go to greater and greater lengths to justify it while painting the bleakest possible picture of humanity, I hope it says that there are other possibilities, not just for games but for us, for all of us.

Like I said, I want Lev to have a shot at life too. Maybe he’ll be the main playable character in The Last of Us Part III. And maybe, just maybe, his life won’t be so fraught with brutality and vengeance. Maybe he’ll get to pursue a different path through the wounds the world has left him with.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Thank you for reading. If you’re in a position to do so, please consider giving me a bit of financial support.