I suspect that most Indy readers don’t play videogames much. But even if you don’t, the video game The Last of Us, Part II directed by Neal Druckmann and co-written with Halley Gross, is worth knowing about. Its predecessor, The Last of Us, was released in 2013 and became one of the most critically acclaimed, and best selling, games of its generation. Over the course of June and July, I tore through the sequel, which has had the internet all a-twitter because of both its lesbian and queer protagonists, and because of its unflinching look at cycles of violence.
Both games are set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. devastated by an on-going struggle against a fungus that turns people into bloodthirsty zombies. The films of George Romero and The Walking Dead are precedents. Like the latter, they focus less on blood ‘n’ guts than the emotional impact of living in a world where violence has become the norm and death an everyday presence. The theme of the consequences of a devastating global pandemic is especially resonant during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The games’ stories are told through a combination of cutscenes, where you have little to no control over the action, and gameplay sequences, where you scrounge for materials used to craft items that include health packs and ammo, while attempting to overcome or avoid attacks by zombies and other, healthier humans. You play from the third-person point of view, looking over your character’s shoulder. Stealth is a big part of the game. You can slip past many enemies instead of killing them. Sneaking around is often the most difficult and thrilling way to play.
The Last of Us centers around the relationship between Joel, a taciturn smuggler, and Ellie, a thirteen-year old girl who is the only person yet found to be immune to the zombie infection. Over the course of the game, Joel and Ellie become as close as father and daughter. At a crucial point late in the story, the player suddenly finds themself in control of Ellie, who is forced to protect Joel when he is seriously injured. The effect is revelatory. Inverting the balance of power often found in video games, the “damsel in distress” has become the protagonist. Ellie must protect her protector and show herself to be a hero in her own right, which she does admirably.
The game ends with a powerful moral dilemma after Joel unwittingly delivers his surrogate child to her death. A doctor in Seattle believes he can make a cure for the disease, but only by sampling Ellie’s brain tissue, thereby killing her. Playing once again as Joel, you rescue Ellie. Killing the doctor and others in the effort, you have chosen her life over the greater good. While the game’s story allows for only one course of action, I couldn’t help but weigh whether or not this was the correct decision. Of course Joel would have made this decision, but would I have?
The Last of Us, Part II begins six years later, with Ellie witnessing Joel’s harrowing execution at the hands of Abby, the daughter of the doctor whom Joel had killed. Abby sets Ellie free, and Ellie spends the rest of the game seeking revenge. You begin playing as Ellie, who is travelling with Dina, her new girlfriend, as the two of you track Abby through Seattle. Over the course of three days, you fight (or avoid) zombies, “Wolves” (the paramilitary group that Abby belongs to), and members of a religious sect called “The Seraphites.” After three days and numerous adventures, you find Abby’s hideout and kill several of her friends, who were in on Joel’s execution.
In a reversal as striking as the previous game, time suddenly rewinds. You now play as Abby, replaying those same three days through the eyes of the object of your revenge quest. The people who were just your enemies—some of whom you, playing as Ellie, have just killed—are now your friends, and you watch them being killed. By the time you’ve re-reached your predestined rendezvous with Ellie, Abby and Wolves are as sympathetic as Ellie and her friends.
I won’t spoil how the Last of Us, Part II ends. You can Google it, or better, play it yourself. I will tell you that it has been one of the most controversial video games in a while. Outraged male gamers had an online conniption when it was revealed that the lead character would not only be a woman, but would be a queer woman whose relationship wasn’t objectified or sexualized for the consumption of straight men. Pre-release leaks, whose image revealed Abby to be the buff warrior she is, led to further outrage when people wrongly assumed that her character was trans. Although Abby isn’t trans, another major character, the runaway Seraphite Lev, is. This has caused further consternation from those who don’t want trans or queer characters in their games as well as trans players who are disappointed in his representation.
If the story that The Last of Us, Part II tells is often brutal, it’s not because of the zombies. The zombies, whose colorful fungal infections are curious, if not a delight, to behold, are the least of what makes the game so horrifying. Druckmann grew up in Israel, experiencing the cycle of violence that has plagued relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Although the violence in The Last of Us games is more like the Hatfields versus the McCoys, playing through a revenge quest using videogames as a means of role-reversal is a significant breakthrough.
Video games have typically featured a kind of mindless “killing” that feels like little more than the inconsequential button-pushing it really is. Not so here. Druckmann has created an experience where virtual killing has greater impact because it’s closely tied to the kinds of empathetic connection that players forge with the video game characters they play. While it may not always be fun, The Last of Us, Part II uses video game violence as a serious platform for considering how real-world violence can spiral out of control. That’s an unusual accomplishment for a game.