Note: this piece contains extensive spoilers for both The Last of Us (2013) and The Last of Us Part II (2020).
I’m reading a slick of blood on a staircase. I’m reading the slow embering of realisation in a person’s eyes. I’m reading The Last of Us Part II—a video game that makes ‘playing’ really not feel like the appropriate word.
Video games always involve a strange blend of interactivity and restriction: they allow the player to make choices, but only within certain bounds. Lots of big-budget modern titles have tried to make those bounds as invisible as possible, implying freedom to go anywhere and do anything, but The Last of Us Part II takes a conspicuously different direction. This is a game that makes your choicelessness brutally, inescapably clear.
Say you wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s a ∆ on the door. This is your one option; you can’t interact with anything else in the room. How much is it really your decision to open that door? Say you’re walking through every room of your chilly Wyoming farmhouse, but soon enough the only other thing with a ∆ on it is the box where you keep your journal. How are you supposed to avoid the memories the journal contains? In this way, the targeted constriction of player choice becomes an exercise in empathy. You can’t do anything else, because the characters don’t feel they can do anything else. Wielded this way, the game’s restrictiveness becomes a miserably effective way of conveying traumatised compulsion. And the more unjustifiable and ruinous the action we’re compelled to act out, the more desperately our eyes scan the horizon for any possibility of an out.
The Last of Us Part II is a game about a lot of things: cycles of violence, community cauterisation, queer survival. It’s also about the squelch of Ellie’s Chuck Taylors after you crawl out of a river, and the cloying drone of flies on what you sincerely hope will turn out to be a corpse. It’s about the visceral experience of loss, and of futilely distracting yourself from it with Tasks and Action until your body falls apart. It’s about the shittiest privilege imaginable—being immune from the pandemic that’s ripped the guts out of the entire world—and the humiliated desire to make that privilege mean something, anything, before you die. It’s about the cold ink of grief, and the hot crack of bone. But most of all, it’s about how brutally difficult it is, when every sinew in your body is screaming that you don’t have a choice, to force yourself to make a better one.
Of all the risky choices made by Part II‘s developers, the one that shocked me the most was making the end of the first game have consequences. I had hated the frenzy of selfish violence that ended The Last of Us—Joel ‘choosing Ellie over the world’, slaughtering the only scientists capable of deriving a cure from her immunity, and denying her any agency over the decision—but didn’t feel at the time that I had many co-partisans. I remember trawling through gaming forums in 2013 and being unnerved at how many people were straightforwardly cheering on Joel’s rampage. He’d violated Ellie’s autonomy just as egregiously as the doctors had, condemning untold millions to die in agony because he couldn’t face the trauma of losing another daughter. And yet somehow, the people on those forums still thought of him as the hero. It was as if the Rambo-ish framing of that final sequence had taken them in entirely: one man against the world, ‘badass’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘doing what needed to be done.’
The Last of Us Part II is a bucket of ice water thrown over those macho delusions. The entire game is about the ramifications of Joel’s choice, which we see refracted in the nightmares of those left in its wake. It may seem obvious for such momentous violence to have consequences, but video games are awash with unexamined massacres. Nobody is surprised, after all, when an Uncharted sequel leaves unexamined the hundreds of orphans left by the trail of destruction carved out in the previous game. In keeping with that model, it would have been easy for the developers to make a sequel in which Joel’s massacre simply constituted ‘winning’, and the story moved on. But The Last of Us Part II has something better it wants to do with you.
The game’s best and boldest trick is the mirror at the centre of its structure. At first, you only see one side’s quest for revenge, but then you’re made to switch perspectives and play through the other side’s far more expansive experience of those days. It would have been controversial enough merely to kill Joel (who was, after all, the protagonist of one of the most beloved games of the last 20 years), but to kill Joel and then have you play half the game as his murderer is an astonishing gambit for a game this mainstream. In this mirror conceit is one relatively obvious revelation: that the bad guys have a point, too. Their motivations are at least as good as Ellie’s, and their justifications probably better. More significant, though, is the uniquely fatalistic way it makes you experience the unspooling of all of this violence. As Abby, you work frantically to save the lives of people you already know that that Ellie is later going to stab in the neck. You bond with a beautiful dog that you know will be gutted and kicked aside in a corridor. You know this will happen, because you—the complicit player-you that inhabits these different bodies—have already done it.
These actions don’t feel good the first time, but everything you find out in Abby’s sections twists the switchblade in deeper. Everyone you might have wanted to see as a two-dimensional villain is revealed to be an entire person, with complicated histories and favourite animes and realistically dysfunctional relationships. (A small but striking detail: even the random goons you fight along the way have names now: when thocking an arrow into someone’s head, you’re likely to hear one of their friends cry out, ‘Maggie!’ or ‘Drew!’, as you crush yet another world in the service of your own.) The effect is an especially cold and gut-sunk dread, where it never feels for a moment that there’s any way to stop the twin mirrors of Ellie’s and Abby’s lives from shattering one another. These wheels were set in motion too long ago. What’s happening now is just gravity.
I played the game late at night, with headphones on, and for weeks felt increasingly distracted and threadbare during the day. The outcomes I was bracing myself for were so unrelentingly dark that when some small mercies were finally meted out, I didn’t have it in me anymore to trust them. When Abby began to open up to Lev, I flinched at what I was sure would be his inevitable grotesque death. When the game cut forward to Ellie and Dina’s beautiful life at the farmhouse—thriving veggies, giggling baby, rooms full of art and light and music—I thought it was a dream. It felt like something this good could only be a dream. It was only when the familiar bitter weight reasserted itself (in the form of Ellie’s post-traumatic stress and unsated need for an impossible closure) that I could accept that the game had even briefly given me this.
This, I think, is one of the more emotionally valuable experiences the game can provide: making you feel in your bones the kind of traumatised logic that makes good things feel inherently suspect, inherently wrong, and then showing you how, in the mossy cracks of that logic, something else can still find a way to grow. Ellie probably won’t ever stop having flashbacks of Joel’s brutalised face, but at a crucial moment, she finds another memory that allows her to finally relent: his face crumpling in relief, rather than blood. Abby doesn’t find the peace she was hoping for by killing Joel; she finds it by becoming a better version of him, tracing his arc of rescuing and being rescued by a kid who doesn’t deserve a world this cruel, but this time without the control and deception. The Last of Us Part II is a tragic game about broken people, but it’s not the nihilistic trauma‑porn that I sometimes worried it might be while playing it. It’s something more hopeful, and much harder to move on from.
It’s tempting to connect The Last of Us Part II‘s particular post-apocalypse (a catastrophic fungal brain infection) with the current Covid-19 pandemic, but in truth, they aren’t much alike. What feels especially resonant to me about this story right now are the characters, and the confused, messy, self-sabotaging ways we try to carve out lives we can live with. What’s really sticking with me is Dina’s reckless vulnerability, Owen’s goofy idealism, and Lev’s surefooted mercy. What’s kept me wondering is Abby, and the startling lightness she manages to find after spending so long carrying so much. What’s clutched onto my insides and not letting me go is Ellie: a person who believes at the burning core of herself that she shouldn’t be alive, but who has to find some new way to go on living anyway.
Pandemic or not, that’s not a fight that’s going away.
Andy Connor is a non-binary poet and essayist who lives in Melbourne.