The Last of Us and the Exploration of Agency and Revenge

This article only highlights my personal experience and what I got out of the game.  It should be noted that The Last of Us has been called out for transphobic and harmful portrayals of LGTBQ characters.  Below are links to a few sources, and I believe that they are extremely relevant and absolutely must be included in any discussion about the controversy surrounding these games.  The first condenses these thoughts in a concise manner, while the second is a longer, yet just as vital, link to a fellow blogger’s analysis.  Happy Pride.

LAST OF US PART II DEADNAMING PROMPTS OUTCRY FROM LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY AND ALLIES: Game developers, don’t do this.

THE LAST OF US PART 2 – LET’S TALK ABOUT VIOLENCE, QUEER NARRATIVES, AND REVENGE


The Iliad was written almost a millennium ago, but it is read, dissected, and referenced often.  You know the story: A woman leaves one man for another, a man is killed and then a brother, and all grieving parties seek revenge on the other.  It is a tale as old as time, and it is as trope-filled as they come.  The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta, Hamlet, Carrie, The Princess Bride, John Wick, Genesis 34, The Mask of Zorro, Kill Bill, The Wrath of Khan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the list goes on and on. Themes and tropes repeat themselves because they work, but rarely are they original.  Art in all mediums make us feel a certain way, and unless immortality and eternal boredom and apathy become normal, we will always get something out of it.  Revenge stories are no different. The Last of Us Part 2, however, manages to examine revenge in an entirely unique way.

WARNING: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US AND THE LAST OF US PART 2

The Last of Us was released on the PlayStation 3 in 2013 to universal acclaim, and while it was not new or original in its gameplay, it built upon its developer’s reputation as a narrative adventure video game juggernaut.  Naughty Dog had been working on TLOU while the immensely popular and incredible Indiana Jones-like Uncharted 3 was being enthusiastically devoured by the gaming community, and it was almost inconceivable that ND could outdo themselves in their script writing and their storytelling.  And yet they did, in large part because of performances like these:

Here you see the game’s protagonist duo, Joel and Ellie, barely escape the fungal infected terrors of their world and meet Bill, one of the many compelling supporting characters the player will encounter along their journey.  At the very beginning of the game, the player controls neither.  As Joel’s daughter Sarah, you give your dad a watch for his birthday, you fall asleep watching tv together, he tucks you in, you awake and are unable to find him.  You then witness the horrific start of an apocalyptic nightmare, get into a car crash, and after Joel carries you to what you think is a safe haven, you are shot to death by the military attempting to contain the outbreak.  In Joel’s arms, his daughter, who you were playing as, is murdered by the entity you thought was going to be your protection.

Cut to years later, and now you play as a grizzled Joel, who illegally smuggles contraband in a martial law controlled quarantine zone and does whatever he needs to in order to survive.  Before long, his close partner Tess becomes infected and she sacrifices herself in order to allow you to escape with your latest cargo, an immune girl named Ellie.  What enfolds is a perfectly developed relationship that is obviously influenced by Sarah, but also is wholly unique.  Joel and Ellie develop a rapport, they support each other, survive traumatic experiences together, and Ellie ultimately coaxes out the personality Joel has been violently suppressing since the death of his daughter.

Moments such as these are what made TLOU a truly great game, and why people who did not even play it have watched cinematic movies of it on YouTube and why, hopefully, HBO will adapt it into a really good tv series.  Finding the humanity in the repulsive makes for a great story.  Yes, you had to murder dozens, maybe hundreds of people and fungus corrupted monsters to get to this moment, but you made it.  The bond you have created with Ellie is immense, and Ellie, who is immune from the fungal plague, will provide humanity with a vaccine.

Once you arrive at the hospital, however, you discover that Ellie will have life ending surgery to remove the mutated fungus in her brain.  Joel is told that this is the only way that a vaccine can be produced, and that Ellie has no knowledge that the surgery is happening.  Ellie will die, and neither her nor you have any say in the matter.  Out of respect for doing his job and delivering his cargo, he is allowed to walk out, at gun point, and move on with his life.

In the subsequent cinematic, Joel kills his captor and then you as a player take control and have no choice but to embark on a warpath, shooting and goring your way through anyone.  Whether or not you think you are doing the right thing, you are playing as Joel, who will commit whatever atrocity he has to in order to reach Ellie and prevent the surgery.

You reach the hospital room in question and see the three surgeons.  You see Ellie unconscious on the table, and realize the choice you have to make.  Except you are not given a choice.  One of them grabs a scalpel and brandishes it in your direction.  As a player, you can either turn off the game, or kill them.

The Last of Us ends with Ellie waking up from her drugged stupor and asking Joel what happened.  He lies, and the ending is left ambiguous as to whether or not she believes him.  Ethically, morally, and personally, the player has to come to terms with what they wanted to do in that scenario.  And yet it does not matter.  Joel was going to save Ellie no matter what, and as a player how you feel means nothing.  It is truly hard to convey the depth of emotion that the game leaves players, and this is why it works so well as a video game.

joel and ellie


Agency in video games is complicated.  The level of control a player has over a world and over its characters is obviously limited, but the ultimate reason TLOU endures to this day is because it explores this complex concept in an ethical, moral, and personal way.

Which is why The Last of Us Part 2 is a perfect sequel and a great video game.

AGAIN: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US PART 2

I successfully dived into TLOU2 relatively blind.  I had seen a little gameplay, a trailer or two, and most importantly I managed to avoid all leaked spoilers.  So when I started playing the game immediately after it finished downloading at 12:30am the day of release, I was working through a bizarre set of feelings.  The game had been twice been delayed for months and months, in part because of Covid-19, but also because the staff at Naughty Dog were exhausted and overworked.  I was giddy with excitement, finally ready to play arguably the most anticipated game in the last decade (it sold over 4 million copies in the first three days, fastest in PS4 history).  But I was also heavy with dread and weariness.  Like a lot of people, I have spent some time wallowing in the disaster that has been 2020.  I’ve been lost, depressed and riddled with anxiety, and there I was, playing a heavy, dark and brutally violent survival-horror video game set in a post apocalyptic nightmare.

After a few hours of playing, I turned off my PlayStation and fell asleep, unsurprised that that I was feeling a little stressed out at being back in TLOU’s setting, but fascinated at getting the chance to spend time with Ellie again.  I also felt relieved, because I had made it to the first big plot point in the story and could more or less extrapolate where it was going. I did not play the game again until two days later, and I continued to take a lot of breaks until the final chapter of the game in which I literally sprinted to the finish during an all-nighter because I just had to know what happened to Ellie.

The game’s marketing campaign had made it clear that Ellie was furious about something and that one of the central themes was revenge.  The catalystic event, however, was not what most of the fandom was expecting, and right off the bat the game became controversial.  Joel is beaten to death with a golf club right in front of a screaming and pleading Ellie.  She does not know why, but what is important, is that you–the player–had up until this point been playing as the killer, a woman named Abby.  Some players admitted online that upon witnessing his death at the hands of a mystery character you were just playing as (Joel even saves her life from a pack of infected), they rage quit in disgust and did not even finish the game.

Ellie is mercifully let go by the enigmatic faction of humans who clearly had beef with Joel, and she spends the next few days numb with grief.  She moves as if through molasses, and as the player you are forced to move at that pace, no matter how much weight you put on your controller’s forward button.  Ellie decides that she is going to go on a warpath of her own and chase after the group responsible, and what unfolds is a gruesome tale of revenge.

In a fascinating and ultimately incredibly important decision by Naughty Dog, the player spends only about half the rest of the game playing as Ellie, instead playing as none other than Abby, the golf club wielding mystery woman responsible for Joel’s fateful demise.  I will not lie, at first I hated playing as Joel’s killer, and in my mind that is all she was to me for awhile, “the woman who killed Joel.” The more time I spent playing as her, however, that relationship got increasingly more complex.

During the time spent controlling Abby, it becomes revealed that she is the daughter of the head surgeon that Joel (the player), kills in order to save Ellie.  Ellie, who at this point is fully aware of the events that transpired in the hospital, discovers Abby’s identity and elects to finish her quest for revenge despite knowing the validity of the motive to kill Joel.  The pacing and structure that the game chooses to reveal all of these plot points is extremely choppy, but it was nonetheless a well done narrative worthy of the first game.

A lot of the fanbase is upset the game chooses to spend so much time with Abby, and that is understandable. The Last of Us is regarded as one of the best games of the 2010s for its gritty storytelling and its gripping relationships, none more than Joel and Ellie’s.  As upsetting as it was to completely destroy that at the beginning of the game, I came to terms with it.  Some macho and opinionated gamers argued that if he had to die, he should have died heroically to save Ellie.  Well, he did, except it was years after he murdered his way through fire and hell to save Ellie from a fatal surgery.

Furthermore, Joel is anything but absent.  My absolute favorite moment in the game is a flashback sequence in which Joel takes Ellie to explore a museum of natural history for her birthday.  She runs around in glee, geeking out among the abandoned and yet largely intact exhibits, scenes I heavily identified with.  When Ellie and Joel sit together inside the replica of a space capsule, he gives her a tape with a recording of a launch, and she closes her eyes.  For a brief moment the world is free of worry and death.  She quietly comes back to earth, turns to look at Joel, and they share a smile.

I had to pause the game and cry outside on my balcony for a while.


Let me be clear, I do not have sympathy for Abby, and I will not forgive her for shattering the bond between Joel and Ellie.  What TLOU2 manages to achieve, however, is expand the story of the first game without retconning it to the point of absurdity or gross fan service.  Am I mad that Joel is dead? Absolutely, but now I know some of the consequences of his/my actions.  Joel killed, and therefore he destroyed the lives of those left alive, setting off a chain of events outside of his control.  Abby killed, and therefore set off a chain of events out of her control.  As controversial as the game is right now, I am convinced it told a stellar story next to its predecessor.  It almost would have been a disservice for the game to have a happy ending, because that was not the point of the first one, despite Joel and Ellie living relatively well in the years after.  If anything, the debate within the fanbase proves how great the story is.  Unanimity, after all, can be quite dull.

When I initially completed the first game and reached the ending, I tried to spare the surgeons.  I wanted both to save Ellie and quell the bloodshed, or at the very least ask the doctors if there was a 100% chance at a vaccine, and ask Ellie for her consent to do the surgery.  When I had no other choice but to kill them, the consequences of my actions and my inability to control the outcome left me with a feeling I cannot describe.  The Last of Us 2 is no different, as it continues to explore player agency within the ethical and philosophical quandary of Joel’s and the other characters’ decisions.  This is of vital importance: It was Joel’s decision, not the player’s.  Joel refused to lose another daughter, and that was that.  The meta layer of the player controlling Joel is why TLOU and TLOU2 make the moral questions of revenge and murder that much more compelling and original, and why they work so well as video games.

Ellie fights Abby at the very end of the second game, and the player is entirely unsure if they are controlling one or the other.  It is deliberately ambiguous, and the finale is nothing short of staggering.  You understand the motivations of both and have not only spent extensive time forming a relationship with either character, but again, you have been guiding them through their respective stories. Unlike reading a novel from the point of view of different characters, the added layer that accompanies the video game medium is monumental within the world of fictional storytelling.  This “final boss” fight is brutal, it is futile, and it is without a winner.  The fight is the old adage “when seeking revenge, dig two graves,” perfectly put to video game screen, and the result is nothing short of devastating.

When HBO does release their adaptation, the themes of action and consequence, trauma, regret, and the endless cycle of violence that stems from an obsession with revenge that these games explore so masterfully will not resonate as powerfully without the inclusion of player agency.  The Last of Us are not what would widely be considered as fun games, but they invite pertinent discussion and are as thematically captivating as they are narratively compelling.  Tropes and clichés may be tried and true, but when they are done this well and executed this uniquely, they feel new again.

“Everyone I have cared for has either died, or left me. Everyone … fucking except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.”  –Ellie to Joel, The Last of Us

Ludonarrative Dissonance: The disconnect between what players do in a video game (ludo is Latin for play) and the story that the game tells (narrative).