‘The Last of Us, Pt. II’: The Hate U Give

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Guys, it’s been a minute, and we’ve got so much to catch up on, but first up: some overwrought reflection on my favorite game of 2020, and possibly ever, ‘The Last of Us, Pt. II’. We are FULL SPOILERS from here on in, so if 1) you haven’t completed the game (and plan to) or 2) just have no interest, at all, now’s your cue to go fire up HBO’s ‘The Vow’ instead. This essay will probably be just as long and meandering!

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If you’re still reading, then you’re already well-versed in the plot of ‘The Last of Us, Pt. II’. But this is my first blog post in a while, and daddy wants to stretch his prosaic muscles, so–

FIVE YEARS after the events of the first game (‘Pt. I,’ retroactively), smuggler/killer/guitarist/dad Joel is beaten to death by a ski-capped stranger. Joel’s surrogate daughter Ellie, utterly broken, sets off on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge through Seattle. When she reaches the apex of that revenge… the game’s perspective shifts, and suddenly you’re playing as Abby, aka the ski-capped monster you’ve been trying to kill, now navigating her OWN story of trauma and vengeance. WTF?! Up is down, down is up, until 20+ hours later when you finally confront each other on a beach in Santa Barbara, battle to the death… and then each stumble away — Abby to Catalina Island, Ellie to Jackson, Wyoming, both of you to a future finally unshackled from this endless cycle of blood.

(The game’s a friggin’ laugh riot, is what I’m trying to say!)

‘LoU II’ is many things — a zombie survival game, a stealth shooter, a playable movie — but above all, it’s this: a study of people dealing with tremendous pain, hollowed out by hate, who slowly (really slowly) find the courage and grace to let it go. I don’t see any kind of metaphor for 2020 in there, no way, you’re crazy.

Why U Mad, Bro?

You can’t talk about this game without also talking about the people talking about this game, which is to say: the h8rs. Now, if you didn’t know, some videogame fans can be even more possessive of their favorite characters and stories than some TV fans (who, if you’ll remember, one time tried to save the show ‘Roswell’ from cancellation). This intensity makes a lot of emotional sense, to be honest — videogames more than any other artform put you in the literal shoes of their characters, implicitly asking you to identify with the (usually male) avatars you play as. So even if the logical part of your brain understands that Joel wasn’t exactly the best dude when he up and machine-gunned a bunch of doctors at the end of the first game, thus setting up the plot of the second… I mean YOU did that, right? And YOU’RE not bad! You’re a guy who always tips 15% on Domino’s orders and holds the door for two, sometimes three people at a time.

A common fan theory before the game’s release was that in ‘Lou II’, you’d play as both Ellie and Joel, teaming up for some mission of vengeance — likely spurred by the death of Ellie’s girlfriend, Dina, which early trailers seemed to tease. Then April of this year brought some major LEAKS about the game’s plot, and maybe the most (sorry) triggering one of all: Joel’s death. H8r brainwaves nationwide lit up like Christmas trees.

Killing Joel would have been a treasonous offense on its own, but the leaks also revealed who did it: Abby. Not just a new character. Not just a woman. But a woman with muscles. Murdering fucking ME?! Now, some gamers, you should know,  can be even more mysoginistic than some TV fans (who, if you’ll remember, thought that Skyler White was a “total bitch” for getting in Walter White’s badass way). So if you thought the h8rs would take their de– I mean Joel’s death lying down… brother, you don’t know the power of Code Red Mountain Dew.

Some of the more fervent criticism — both months before the game’s release, and when it finally came out in June — is so blatantly wrong-headed as to be laughable. “Abby is clearly trans, which is bad, and Naughty Dog is trying to override my zombie-killing fun with their bullshit SJW agenda” was a particularly fun one! Smarter h8rs dressed their defensiveness up in videos with titles like “The Fundamental Pacing Flaws of Naughty Dog” or “50 Ways ‘The Last of Us, Pt. II Makes No Narrative Sense” (h8rs, you should know, are all storytelling experts). At either end of the spectrum, the subtext seems pretty clear: I wanted what I wanted and you guys didn’t fucking deliver. 

Now, on the surface, none of this h8r blowback is interesting; it might actually, sadly, be par for the course. But when the game in question is LITERALLY about hate, about the dangers of tribalism (🛎) and over-identification (🛎🛎)… I mean, that’s when you’re talking about a cultural goddamn flashpoint, and great fodder for a probably 2500 word essay. [EDITOR’S NOTE: we’re at 825!]]

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Abby in the Ski Cabin with the Golf Club

No more than an hour or two into the game, you watch through Ellie’s eyes as her father figure, Joel, is ruthlessly bludgeoned to death with a golf club. You’re on the ground, subdued by enemies, helpless. This muscle-bound woman is standing over Joel’s corpse, murder weapon in hand and not an ounce of regret on her face… and you want to fucking kill her. You want to make her suffer.

Good! You’re right where the game wants you to be.

Whether you finished ‘Pt. I’ hours ago (in a truly masochistic double feature!) or seven years ago, you’re bringing 20+ hours of Joel playtime/baggage to the beginning of this game. So when he dies — I mean, YOU die, basically, along with whatever hopes you had for another cathartic father-daughter zombie-killin’ adventure. And guys… the game knows this. That white hot rage you feel, compelling you to murder half of Seattle hunting for Abby, it’s all by design. So is the mounting sense of culpability. “I liked the part where I molotoved then rifled that dude in the face,” says _Minecraftwerk_34, “I just wish you didn’t, you know, call me out on it.”

No one wants to feel like a bad person. Not Disney villains. Not Trump. Not the good folks at “AngryJoeShow”, brought to you by G Fuel(™️). We all like to believe — maybe need to believe — our cause is just and our morals sound. “Abby killed Joel; I need to kill Abby. Simple!” goes the thinking in Ellie’s/your head. But at a certain point, the body count in and around The Space Needle [EDITOR’S NOTE: this is actually not a playable area, but would have been sick] is so high that, psychologically, you have only two options:

  1. You start to question just how just your cause is
  2. You lash out, HARD

So here’s where I kick this post into high gear and, in all likelihood, lose the thread entirely, but whatever: I’m not at all surprised by the knee-jerk defensiveness this game has brought out in people, because it’s the same knee-jerk defensiveness preventing our country from truly examining its own shit.

This absolute juggernaut of a year has laid bare SO many crises for us, from public health to widening economic disparity to, umm, the threat of irrevocable climate change. With almost no new movie releases to distract us, and sourdough breadmaking feeling like such a March thing, problems we’d been able to ignore forever now seem impossible to ignore.

Maybe the most uncomfortable one for a lot of people to confront is — you guessed it — systemic racism! That includes me, a person whose primary Black education before this year was probably “owning ‘Do the Right Thing’ on Criterion.” Four hundred years of subjugation both obvious (slavery) and insidious (policing, redlining, pick your poison) are on the table in ways they haven’t been before, at least not for those of us who could casually ignore them.

At the center of that discomfort is the idea of complicity: having to wrestle with the idea that even if you’re not racist, even if you haven’t, like, done anything (which is such a bizarre rhetorical tack)… you’re still actively benefiting from, and therefore supporting, a broken system. That’s an incredibly hard pill to swallow!

Obviously, the world of ‘The Last of Us’ makes things a little more black and white because… well, you have done some shit. As Joel. As Ellie. As Abby, eventually. You’ve robbed, you’ve killed (murdered, even), you’ve lived without consideration of anyone outside your tribe. And the game confronts you, time and again, with the ramifications of your actions. Was it thrilling to massacre an entire hospital in ‘Pt. I’ to stop them from killing Ellie (it’s complicated)? Well, guess what — all those doctors had families. Did some part of you feel righteous to kill Abby’s accomplice Mel in self-defense? Sure! Until you found out she was pregnant.

(Like I said, the game is just FUN.)

No one’s clean, and no one emerges unscathed — the same way no one can, say, benefit from the fruits of white supremacism, then claim no responsibility for it. This ain’t Goldeneye, man! The blood doesn’t disappear so easy.

"Abby and Ellie" by Miguel Co
Illustration by Miguel Co (https://www.miguelcoart.com/)

Ego Death

Halfway through the game, you stop being polite playing as Ellie and start getting real playing as Abby. It’s a jarring transition! In more than a few of the 12+ reaction videos I watched (COVID has provided us all more time than we know what to do with), this is the point in the game where someone would throw their controller in disgust and declare ‘LoU II’ to be “absolute bullshit,” a reaction that, in the moment, makes a certain sense. Suddenly I have to play as — nay, sympathize with —  this person I’ve wanted to kill for the past ten hours? Who killed my surrogate dad? Who just murdered another one of my friends?! Maybe I SHOULD throw my controller across the room, or at least pretend like I did in a dramatic reenactment!

But the deeper you get into Abby’s story, the more you learn that Archenemies — They’re Just Like Us. For starters, they share the same core trauma: dead dads. Is it shocking to learn that Joel murdered Abby’s father? Not really. But after re-living it in cut scenes, and feeling its weight on Abby, who you’re identifying with more and more… what had seemed at first like too-obvious storytelling now resonates on an almost psychic level. You’re no longer thinking about the game’s themes of hatred and division; you’re playing them, or more accurately their antidote, in real time.

A very sharp analysis from the non-h8ers at Girlfriend Reviews introduced me to this concept called “ego death,” which is the complete loss of subjective self-identity. By our nature, we’re creatures of ego — shaped by our individual histories, driven by our unique ambitions, each of us walled off from one another by our own fears and prejudices. Is that wall the recipe for, like, all of human conflict? Kind of! So leave it to Naughty Dog, with their blunt-force philosophizing and very solid rope physics, to say–

After you’ve spent ten hours in Abby’s military-grade boots, the story circles back on itself. Once upon a time, you were Ellie murdering Abby’s friends; but now they’re your friends, and it’s time to make Ellie pay. You track her to an abandoned Seattle movie theater. You confront her in the same cut-scene you saw earlier, now from Abby’s perspective. And then… well, that’s when the ego death really hits.

If you want a sense of what Abby and Ellie’s (first) battle royale feels like, watch the scene from ‘Fight Club’ where Edward Norton punches himself in the face, or maybe Gollum’s schizophrenic monologue from ‘The Two Towers’. Why? Because you are FIGHTING YOUR GODDAMN SELF.

You’re Abby. You’re Ellie. You want to hurt yourself. You want to protect yourself. What even IS a villain at this point?! The whole thing is uncomfortable and disorienting, this knife-turned-gun-turned-fistfight that the game demands you see through to the end. Some might call this inability to opt out a design flaw, but I think it just reinforces the situation at hand: a literal fight to the death. All you can do is keep pressing buttons as Abby and Ellie pummel each other, the previously solid walls between “me” and “you” disintegrating with every punch. Do you wish these two women you’ve grown to love (their murder records notwithstanding) could just walk away, be done with all the violence, find their way toward something resembling reconciliation and peace? Then this game is working like gangbusters.

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The Farm

[EDITOR’S NOTE: kindly play this track from the ‘Road to Perdition’ score as accompaniment to these concluding paragraphs]

For one brief window toward the end of the game, everything is okay. You (Ellie) and Dina are alive, she’s given birth to baby JJ, and the three of you find yourselves living on a farm somewhere. Is it Wyoming? Nebraska? The “where” matters less than the “why,” which is — you’re building a life, a real life together. Sure, trauma still grasps at its edges (I can’t herd sheep without hearing Joel’s dying gasps), but manageably. By my side is this woman who understands me, my pain, who’s gone there with me more than anyone else alive. I (me? Ellie? DOES IT MATTER?) want so badly for this to work, even more than I wish for the eradication of the cordyceps virus, which at this point just feels like a shitty but manageable part of the world. Rarer, more special than even a capital-V Vaccine is this shot at happiness with a partner of matching courage, in a place untouched by hate or anything else. We’ll grow old together and harvest… I don’t know, rutabaga, and one day turn all the pain of Seattle into spooky Halloween stories we tell JJ, and nothing more.

…Of fucking COURSE it all falls to shit.

You want to scream when Ellie leaves to hunt down Abby one last time. Even knowing Ellie’s story was still unresolved, even knowing the game couldn’t possibly end with her happy on a farm… I mean, it would have been nice! But our girl has, to quote Tyra Collette from ‘Friday Night Lights’, “enough hate in her heart to start a freaking car,” and you realize she’s going to have to be swallowed absolutely whole by it before she can even begin to understand what it’s cost her.

Adele, Rolling In The Deep (Live at Largo), 21

Ellie could have had her farm, the same way Abby ultimately finds her beach (the beach after the beach, not the one she’s, you know, left to die on), but it might be too goddamn late by the time she wises up and lets go. That’s what hate does! It toxifies, it corrodes, it makes life less livable, and all of that’s true even when the hate feels justified. Maybe especially when the hate feels justified.

I’m not saying ‘LoU II’  or the negative reactions it’s engendered are a one-to-one metaphor for 2020 and its Million Dollar Pyramid of clear and present traumas. All the bad juju we’re dealing with is too big to be encapsulated in one AAA post-apocalyptic zombie survival videogame, which anyway would be boring as shit if it could be bullet-pointed into some overlong “this equals this” Reddit post [EDITOR’S NOTE: this essay is now 2500 words].

But the parallels are there: A fungal virus that destroys most of civilization; a pandemic that kills one million people worldwide. The choice to prize politics and tribal identification over moral responsibility; the choice to give into hate when the alternative is right there in the farmhouse kitchen, saying “don’t go!”, pleading with her eyes for you to just remember the time you played A-ha in that abandoned record store and sent music echoing through my heart, and the empty streets of Seattle.

(Coincidence that “Take on Me” has been used to prominent effect in both ‘The Last of Us, Pt. II’ AND ‘The Leftovers’, aka the creative mountaintops of their respective mediums? I think not!)

‘The Last of Us, Pt. II’ goes further than any game I’ve ever played to literally reorient your perspective and force you to identify with (aka have empathy for) someone who, hours earlier, you’d wanted to rip apart with your bare hands. Obviously this game trades in fantasy, but take away the zombies and the post-apocalyptic setting and I see a Game for 2020: confronting us all with the stories we’ve told ourselves to survive, asking if we can really keep going now that we know the truth.

…So no, it’s not at all surprising to me that this game has riled people up the way it has! If there are no heroes and no villains — if all we’re really responsible for is just owning our own shit… then what the hell are we supposed to, like, do? Who are we supposed to be?

“We can be better than the hand we’re dealt” is, in the end, what I think this game is trying to say. Certainly it’s what I believe, and if any/all of this essay about it feels heavy-handed, well, this whole goddamn year feels heavy-handed, and I don’t know what you were expecting coming to a blog written by Henning “I got a lotta thoughts and feelings” Fog!

Vote Trump out*. Be good to each other**. The rest we’ll figure out over Zoom***.

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* systemic racism, sadly, does not end with Cheeto Baby Dick, so we’ll call this “step one”
** no notes. I mean, sure, I could be better here
*** Zoom may actually be killing us

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