This essay includes extensive spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II.
The Last of Us: Part II (hereinafter TLOU2) is the much-anticipated direct sequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalypse zombie shooter The Last of Us. Upon its release last month, it provoked two drastically different critical responses. The first was overwhelming and effusive praise for the game’s advanced visuals, nuanced and believable characters, and grim and complex story about the fallacy of revenge. The second was frustration and ambivalence at what seemed to be an overly self-important and insincere shooter pretending to be much bolder and deeper than it actually was.
The first of these positions is best exemplified by a much-derided tweet from Jeff Cannata stating that ‘in a medium where everything is John Wick, The Last of Us Part 2 is Schindler’s List.’ The second by Maddy Myers’ considered review for Polygon, where she calls TLOU2 ‘the latest game that exists at the cross section of shaky moral ideas and an incredibly high level of craft.’
TLOU2 is, at once, a remarkably impressive blockbuster videogame that develops characters and places both visually and emotionally to an extent rarely seen in videogames, and also yet another videogame where you satisfyingly shoot a bunch of people and zombies in the head while being told that, gee, this violence thing is pretty bad huh? Both extreme positions are understandable and defensible, but I also find them both insufficient to really situate and understand what TLOU2 achieves, what it doesn’t achieve, what it shouldn’t have to achieve, and what other videogames beyond the blockbuster niche of videogame production we call ‘triple-a’ have already achieved years ago.
Development studio Naughty Dog hold something of a jaded messianic position in videogame discourses. Every time they release a new Uncharted or Last of Us game, we end up in this same discursive stalemate where their games are, at once, bravely pushing the medium forward with their sheer level of craft, and also seemingly holding it back with how they anchor that craft in musty old conventions of running, jumping and shooting your way down a series of corridors.
It’s a cliché to praise a videogame for being ‘cinematic’, but there is truly something filmic about Naughty Dog’s work. Every single moment in these games is carefully authored to occur a certain way before the player presses a button. The story cannot be budged one way or another by the player’s ‘choices’. Characters have a level of nuance to their acting that no other videogame compares to. Moments of tense playable action and chill conversations are interweaved seamlessly with non-interactive cutscenes. In The Last of Us and its sequel in particular, direct cuts between scenes and shots where most games would use a slow fade-in/fade-out (typically to hide necessary load times) are used to great effect to add a transmedial filmic veneer. This in turn helps to consecrate Naughty Dog games in the self-conscious critical discourse of videogames as ‘real art’ because they now look more like a pop cultural medium whose artistic value is better understood (the movie) – despite these games effectively just being videogame re-imaginings of Indiana Jones and The Walking Dead.
But more than these design and aesthetic decisions, it is the positioning of the player that gives Naughty Dog games their filmic feel, and that also leaves many players frustrated and feeling constrained. The typical convention in videogame design is that the playable character or ‘avatar’ is a vehicle for the player to drive, a virtual limb extending the player’s agency into the virtual world. Playable characters in Uncharted and, more so, The Last of Us, are not this. They are already fully-formed before the player occupies them with their own histories, identities, ambitions, decisions. In Naughty Dog games, the player is not the character so much as the actor who is performing the character: you have been handed a script and told what to do, and all that is left to do is get on the set and do it with your own particular flair.
This redefined player-character contract liberates Naughty Dog’s storytellers. No longer do they have to worry about what the player would do or might do – the agency question that so often defangs otherwise effective videogame storytelling- Instead, they can confidently determine what will happen and why, leaving the player no choice but to opt in to that.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this rigidity that frustrates some players, as they find themselves thrust into positions where the characters make choices other than the ones they would have made. It’s here, in the relationship between player and character, that Uncharted and The Last of Us are both so affective for some and so frustrating for others.
TLOU2 pushes apart the conceptual distance between player and character much further than any previous Naughty Dog game.
The player jumps between three different characters throughout the game: Joel and Ellie, and newcomer Abby. At the end of the second playable sequence as Abby, when the player is still unaware of her motives or background, Abby violently murders Joel. It’s a shocking and confronting scene – in part, because the player is so familiar with and has been Joel for most of the previous game; and in part because you, the player, were responsible for directing Abby towards this goal without knowing what you were leading her towards. It feels like a betrayal, an abuse of the player’s trust. But its effect is to make sure the player knows, right from the start, that this isn’t their story. It’s the characters’ story. You’re just along for the ride. Here, you’re not even a single actor anymore but more akin to a cameraperson, observing this story unfold from its numerous perspectives with no say over where it is going to go.
TLOU2 is about revenge and how violence begets violence. It’s not the most original or revolutionary theme, but it’s delivered powerfully and effectively by, somehow, making every single character on each side of the conflict relatable and sympathetic. No one is entirely evil, and no one is entirely good. Every act of revenge throughout the game is entirely justified, and yet only ever makes things worse.
After Abby and her friends murder Joel, Ellie, her partner Dina, her friend Jesse, and Joel’s brother Tommy head to the zombie-infested ruins of Seattle to murder Abby and her friends. Ellie calls it justice, but we know from the start that it’s really just revenge. After a number of increasingly violent and grim scenes that sees the-player-as-Ellie kill off Abby’s friends one by one without successfully finding Abby – culminating in Ellie murdering Abby’s pregnant friend Mel – Ellie and her colleagues finally call off the search only to be confronted by Abby herself, who points a gun at Ellie’s head after killing Jesse.
At this cliffhanger, time rewinds and we are back ‘in control of’ Abby (or perhaps controlled by Abby) shortly after her team returned to Seattle after killing Joel. We hang out and chat with and learn all about the friends and colleagues that we have already seen Ellie murder. We learn that Abby didn’t simply kill Joel for his decision in the previous game to choose Ellie’s life over a vaccine for the zombie fungal virus, but because in the process of that choice Joel killed Abby’s dad, the doctor tasked with killing Ellie on the operating table to produce said vaccine.
At this point, the stories of Ellie and Abby become paralleled and intertwined. Abby treks across the country with her friends to hunt down and murder Joel because he killed her father; Ellie treks across the country with her friends to hunt down and murder Abby because she killed her father-figure. Ellie’s two main friends are her pregnant lover Dina and Dina’s ex, Jesse; Abby’s two main friends are her ex-lover Owen and Owen’s pregnant partner, Mel. Perhaps TLOU2’s greatest achievement is that it successfully gives the player the time and the opportunity to get to know the stories and motivations of these two main protagonists, as well as each of the friends who end up as collateral in their joint destruction. By the time Abby’s extensive sequence converges with Ellie’s timeline, there is absolutely no possibility of an outcome that the player will consider ‘good’ between these diametrically opposed women.
The game culminates in two dramatic, brutal, and exhausting melees between Ellie and Abby. In the first, you play as Abby. In the second, as Ellie. Each fight is difficult to play, as you bash the square button to attempt to kill another character you have spent so much time with.
This long, twenty-five-hour, multisided slog between two women’s search for revenge in which they each lose everything and gain absolutely nothing is grim and exhausting, but it is also profoundly affecting in its well-trodden themes because, by the end, we know these characters and we really can’t say one is any more or less justified in their actions than the other.
Numerous critiques have dismissed TLOU2 as yet another game where the player is forced to do bad things and then told to feel bad. This misses the point and misunderstands the player-character contract that Naughty Dog is asking you to sign up to, and which is it uses so effectively to make us care for all these characters. The player is simply along for the ride in this story of characters making bad, understandable decisions, and then living with the consequences.
However, this ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ dynamic also weakens TLOU2 on another level.
The personal revenge stories of Ellie and Abby are wrapped in a broader struggle between two groups of survivors, the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) and the Seraphites. This struggle is a deliberate and explicit analogy of the Palestine/Israel conflict, with the WLF standing in for Israeli state and the Seraphites standing in for the displaced Palestinians. Throughout the game we see WLF members complain about Seraphite kids breaking truces by throwing rocks at armed guards and ‘death cult’ Seraphites making things worse by not ‘staying on their island.’
The Palestine/Israel conflict is perhaps an obvious backdrop for a story about cycles of violence – albeit one few commercial videogames would dare go near – but a poorly-chosen one when the game’s position is that ‘both sides are equally bad’. In the personal struggle of Ellie and Abby, this centrist position works effectively; in the structural story of WLF and the Seraphites, it is hugely problematic and, as Emanuel Maiberg notes, ‘perpetuates the very cycles of violence [TLOU2] is supposedly so troubled by. ’ When Naughty Dog involve us in the struggles of Ellie and Abby, they are all too happy to tell us the stakes and the history that led both sides to this crossroad. When Naughty Dog involves us in the struggles of WLF and Seraphites, however, they refuse to articulate a clear political stance or engage with power and history, an all-too-common position in the Triple-A industry.
What of other aspects of representation and their politics? TLOU2 has a far more gender diverse cast than is typical for blockbuster action videogames. The main character is a white lesbian, her lover is a bisexual Jewish woman, and her friend is an Asian American man. Abby is muscular in a way that only men are typically allowed to be in videogames, and her group of friends are as racially and gender diverse as Ellie’s (and includes a pregnant woman who isn’t treated as being disabled by her pregnancy). Enemies, too, an important site of representation rarely discussed in videogame diversity discourse, includee women as often as men. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the presence of a transgender character whose gender identity is not only explicit but a central plot point. The game’s numerous queer characters are not killed off as is the typical trope, and form instead, no doubt deliberately, the majority of the few characters to actually survive Ellie’s and Abby’s destructive spiral (though, as Cameron Kunzelman observes, the game’s black characters are not so lucky).
Simply hiring 👏 more 👏women 👏guards 👏 doesn’t automatically make TLOU2 a politically ‘good’ game, however. Maddy Myers rightful notes that
Naughty Dog makes its queer woman protagonist act just as violent and self-involved as the legions of grizzled straight-white-dude video game protagonists who have preceded her. There’s something that feels off about that straightforward swap here; it’s a missed opportunity to explore how the rage of a marginalized character might take on a different form, and what that form may look and sound like.
The structure of the game is still very much one of conservative and masculinist hacker/gamer values, regardless of the diversity of its cast.
In praising the game’s gender diversity, a number of critics have made mention of TLOU2 being the ‘first’ game to present women, queer relationships, or transgender characters in a complex way. These are dangerous and self-defeating proclamations that are only accurate if you ignore all the videogames that women, queer folk, and transgender folk have been making about their own experiences for decades beyond the borders of the blockbuster triple-a industry in games such as Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia and Queers in Love at the End of the World, Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket, Fullbright’s Gone Home, Porpentine’s CYBERQUEEN, Merrit K’s Lim, Sundae Moth’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and Natalie Lawhead’s EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK, to name a few.
That said, it’s equally important not to dismiss or obscure the many female, queer, and transgender developers working within the massive blockbuster studios who have long been agitating for change and representation in these most visible and widely played videogames. Just last week, news broke of Ubisoft executives – now plagued with sexual harassment allegations – rejecting a development team’s decision to cast a woman as the sole lead character in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I have heard numerous similar stories anecdotally and off the record of Triple-A projects at which a marginalised developer pushed hard for more diverse characters only to be rebuffed by management and harassed by colleagues.
TLOU2’s inclusion of a more diverse cast is not groundbreaking for the medium of videogames, even if it is boundary-pushing for the specific subset of videogames where you run around and shoot people in the head. But the game’s more diverse cast is absolutely the result of long and ongoing struggles of usually invisible marginalised minorities working within the Triple-A studio system, and their victory here should be applauded.
I want to return to that tweet highlighted earlier in this essay that stated that in a medium of John Wicks, TLOU2 is Schindler’s List. It is of course easy to tease this exaggerated and overly self-important statement (never mind the offensiveness of comparing a game where you shoot zombies to the grim realities of the Holocaust), but it also stands in as an explicit example of an undercurrent of TLOU2’s praise: that this prestigious game where you shoot a bunch of zombies and people in the head marks the time when games become consecrated as art thanks to the empathetic and diverse characters, strong themes and serious storytelling.
The thing is, videogames are not a medium of John Wicks and never have been. (As an aside, to say a videogame foundationally about the consequences of seeking revenge as not being a John Wick is deeply ironic). Such a claim can only be made if one draws a very deliberate and arbitrary border around which videogames get to count as ‘real games’. For a range of historic and cultural reasons beyond the scope of this essay, Triple-A blockbusters have long been able to position themselves as the only authentic works in the videogame form – everything else is just casual games or amateur games that can safely be ignored. For this reason, something is often considered not to have happened in the videogame medium until a Triple-A videogame does it, despite the fact that it has already probably been done somewhere else by someone with a far smaller budget a long time ago.
When we talk about Triple-A videogames, we are effectively talking about ‘Hollywood action movies’: a particular subset of a broader medium that has a high budget, offers massive amounts of spectacle, and, sure, can tell challenging stories and explore deep themes but doesn’t necessarily have to in order to be successful. More likely, it is going to play things pretty safe to ensure it makes a return on the investment required for said spectacle and budget. For decades now, the situation in much of popular videogame critical discourse is the equivalent of if critical film discourse insisted that Hollywood action movies were the only films in existence.
The ‘endless cycle of violence’ theme that TLOU2 explores so powerfully at the personal level but fails to explore meaningfully at the structural or historic level was already well achieved by Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th in 2003. Themes of new relationships, growing up, and parenting were much more powerfully explored in Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket earlier this year. Themes of queerness and gender have been deeply explored in countless games such as those already listed above – many of which were released back when Triple-A still couldn’t be convinced to include a white straight woman as a playable character. Everything that TLOU2 does narratively or thematically has already been done elsewhere, years ago, by a team with far less resources in a game that more likely takes twenty-five minutes, not twenty-five hours, to play from start to end.
But does this lack of originality or a pioneering element really matter? The critics who find TLOU2 overly self-important and even vapid certainly seem to think so. I find myself more forgiving and ultimately more impressed by TLOU2 as a work, I think, because I do personally think of these sorts of Triple-A blockbusters as simply the ‘Hollywood action films’ of videogames. When I go to the cinema to watch an action blockbuster, I want competent but not necessarily groundbreaking storytelling at the service of more affective registers such as spectacle, exhilaration, emotion, bedazzlement, fear. I’m not necessarily there to be challenges intellectually. Triple-A videogames fill a similar space. The one thing they do that all the smaller, more thematically developed videogames can’t do is offer what I’ve previously called a spectacle of labour: that amazing demonstration of craft that only comes with a vast amount of resources (and, often but not inevitably, the exploitation of workers). Again, in this they are similar to the blockbuster action films of Marvel or Lucasfilm.
This isn’t to say Triple-A videogames shouldn’t be critiqued for perpetuating old-fashioned or conservative ideas, or that critics and players shouldn’t demand they be better. Rather, that we shouldn’t necessarily expect them to be better. That instead of waiting for Triple-A to accurately tell a transgender character’s story, we could seek out the games transgender developers have already made to tell their stories. If we properly situate TLOU2 in the broader medium of videogames, and not just the subfield of Triple-A action blockbuster videogames, both its accomplishments and failings are better tempered and it is easier to evaluate it for what it actually is.
TLOU2 is a profoundly affecting and accomplished Triple-A action game that uses well-trodden tropes and themes to present an endless, exhausting spiral of revenge between two characters. Its grandest accomplishment is using an unconventional dynamic between player and character(s) to make every act of revenge equal part justified, understandable, horrific, and absolutely the wrong thing to do. It does what Triple-A videogames do best, using tried-and-tested conventions to great effect and affect. For the most part, aside from its centrist and ahistorical stance on Palestine and an ill-considered and unnecessary final act, it avoids doing what Triple-A does worst: it is not, despite what many critiques have said, a game where the player is forced to do bad things and then told they should feel bad for doing them; it is a game where the characters do bad things and then have to deal with the consequences, and the player comes along for the ride.
Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that those creators that hold the dominant position within a cultural field do so by working to ensure their cultural field is popularly imagined as only their own work. TLOU2 is spectacular, devastating, beautifully crafted and a huge accomplishment. But perhaps a game primarily about shooting zombies and humans in the head is not actually the daring and pioneering next step for the entire medium of videogames that those journalists and marketers and developers with the most invested in the Triple-A industry’s dominance of the field would have us think it is.