The Last of Us Part 2: Empathy by Perspective

(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Seriously, you should play and/or watch the game first before reading.)
This is an odd review for me to write. The Last of Us (part 1 or part 2) isn’t really my kind of game. I get too anxious to enjoy playing a game like this. I’m more of an RPG player, though I’ve flexed a little over the years (it started with Mass Effect, which is a FPS/RPG hybrid, and I can play the recent Tomb Raider games). But the story here really spoke to me, and I feel like I have to talk about it.
So, I haven’t actually, technically played either the original The Last of Us or part 2. I’ve watched them both on YouTube, and the reason I can do that is that I have a good YouTuber to watch: TheRadBrad (link below). Watching this game has been an amazing experience, and it’s also been a fascinating journey watching and listening to his unfolding understanding and interpretation of this game.

So my review isn’t from the perspective of someone who physically played it, but since these games are so much like movies, it’s from the perspective of a professional storyteller who was really, really moved by this story.

I see The Last of Us part 2 as being about pain, coercion, and loss, just as the first one was, and one of its major tools is PERSPECTIVE. The first game forced us to sympathize with Joel by putting us in his shoes—if we’d seen his villainous turn before we played him, it would be just like playing Abby’s story. I could hear him warming to her and figuring out story options that would make her more sympathetic.

There’s this narrative out there where “it’s hard to care about Abby”, and I don’t think that’s true. If we could care about Joel–a person in hard circumstances, birthed in tragedy, who cares deeply about others and forms a particularly tight bond with a child who needs protecting, who then does one really terrible thing–then we should be able to care about Abby, about whom all of that is true.

Abby is essentially the opposite of Joel: whereas we built empathy for him from the beginning only to see his heel turn at the end of the first game, we see Abby’s villain moment at the beginning and can only build empathy afterward.

And the game gives us plenty of grist for seeing Abby as a person worthy of our sympathies. Her flashbacks show her cute, snarky, caring side, establishing real relationships with a bunch of people… people we, the player, have ruthlessly murdered earlier in the game. People we thought were the enemy.

And they were… from that perspective.

Why do we dislike Abby? Because we see her kill Joel, a bad guy we’ve been conditioned to view as the hero, and cause pain to Ellie, who we sympathize with for similar reasons, but in Ellie’s case, she’s relatively innocent. She hadn’t done evil the way Joel did at the end of the first game… but throughout this one, she’s constantly struggling with that impulse, and for entirely understandable reasons.

The reason we love Joel is we played as him for so long, we saw how much he loved Ellie, and we saw how much she loved him. If you assess his actions not in that context, he’s an absolute villain.

The only reason we don’t hate Ellie too is that she’s (initially) ignorant of the terrible things done to and for her, and Joel lies to her to preserve her innocence. (Though we ultimately learn she knows the truth.)

Why do we hate Abby? Because we love Joel, and she kills him. That’s how we meet her. We don’t see the context—she’s just a cruel villain. If we had known about the context beforehand, we wouldn’t have nearly the same emotional reaction, and that was what we needed to have. The game does this 100% intentionally.

I don’t see this as a weakness in the game but a strength—inviting you the player to sympathize with someone who is an utter villain based on our initial introduction to her. At first, we see her as a goddamn monster and we can sort of assume what her vengeance is about, but later we viscerally SEE it. Why she hates Joel so much, and at the end of the day, can you really blame her?

Yes, probably. And no, at the same time.

If we had seen this story from her perspective from the beginning (as Cosmonaut points out in his video, link below), we’d think SHE is the hero, and Joel the villain and Ellie his villainous sidekick. And we’d be right, too.

And if we had, then we wouldn’t have conceived the love for Ellie we needed to make the first half of this game work.

Joel WAS a bad guy: a mass murderer in the context of the game, because of reasons, yes, but he was a violent monster. And his choice at the end of the first game was totally understandable and also totally wrong. He basically dooms the world by extinguishing its one last chance. If you ask utilitarian philosophers (or Spock for that matter), he did great evil, sacrificing the desperate needs of the many for the good of the one. Heck, even ELLIE condemns him from taking that choice away from her, in the flashback at the end of this game.

That doesn’t make us not love him, nor does it diminish how good he is as a character.

What the game is inviting us to see is that these are just people forced into impossible, violent situations. None of them are good, all of them are bad, and what really matters about them is the tiny bits of humanity we get to see as their stories unfold and crash into each other. They are violent and at times really dark, but human.

The game invites us to stretch our empathy.

This was exactly what we got from the first game, only expanded upon. Taken to the next level. The next step.

It’s harsh, it’s brutal, and it’s cruel, and JESUS is it traumatic, but what we’re seeing is humanity. Mostly the darkness and vileness, but sometimes little spots of joy. We’re invited to sympathize with people we thought were the absolute worst.

And at the end, when Ellie doesn’t kill Abby, it shows that she has learned the lesson Joel couldn’t: that the world isn’t black and white, and continuing to brutalize each other only hurts all of us.
tloupii-preview-screenshot-04

This woman is PISSED, for reasons both righteous and wrong, but always relatable

A couple specific things:

1) About Ellie, whose arc in the first game was already great, and this just expands on it in a fantastic way. She is becoming Joel, and sometimes in the game that is VERY clear. It is also remarkable to see a woman who unabashedly loves women, and that being a source of strength for her, not weakness. I am not a woman, let alone a lesbian, but I suspect if I were, Ellie would give me hope.

Also her relationship with Dina is fantastic and core to the story, just as was the he relationship between Joel and Ellie in the first game. Only now, they’re more equal—they’re friends, rather than parent and adopted child. And that changes how it develops and how it ends.

2) About Abby, it is distracting how meaty she is—not because that’s bad (quite the opposite), but because it’s so unusual in a video game. We just don’t see female figures with believable functional strength like hers. Abby looks like a goddamn powerlifter, not a body builder or a gymnast, and she loses not a single bit of her female identity in the process. She’s so much like Ellie (above), and yet so different at the same time. She’s a pretty great character, even more so BECAUSE you hate her so much at the beginning. By the time the stories smash into each other again, you might still be hating her, but you probably can’t honesty tell me you don’t sympathize even a little with her.

3) Lev and Yara: I said earlier that I was reserving judgment on the trans stuff in the game until I saw it myself, and now that I have… mixed feelings. Which I gather is how the trans community views it as well.

On the one hand, having archery badass Lev in a triple A action game with this much hype and cultural resonance puts trans stories on a MASSIVE stage, and that should be applauded. And I find it refreshing that Abby respects his boundaries—one great exchange is when the psychotic cultists are deadnaming Lev, who then asks Abby “do you want to ask me about it?” and Abby says “do you want me to ask you about it?”, at which point Lev considers, says no, and Abby agrees. Only when Yara explains a little more later do we get the context. We shouldn’t be applauding Yara outing her brother as trans, but it’s mitigated by the fact that she asks Abby what Lev has already told her, and they share the understanding that Abby already knows. And still, the word “trans” isn’t used.

On the other hand, I wish they hadn’t gone to the “trans teen cast out of family” narrative. Perhaps they couldn’t think of another way to code the character definitively as trans, like including a gay character with a same-sex love interest, because that’s the most obvious way to say hey “this character is gay” (and not pull a Dumbledore). Also, yes, that’s a common experience for trans people, and a lot of us cis people just don’t understand or sympathize on a visceral level, so maybe the game can offer a way to engage with this story in a way that makes us empathize more.

And yes, obviously one shouldn’t have to see people’s pain on display to empathize, I agree. I’m only looking with despair at the low likelihood of cis people engaging in media that contains trans stories, and this might open up some minds.

Is that the purpose Lev serves? To provide representation and engage the game’s largely cis audience with a narrative they might have heard of but not really understand? Or is it a token inclusion to make us cis people feel better about doing so?

I think the key is the quality of the character: the writing and the mechanics. Which are, generally, pretty great. At no point is Lev a burden or an annoyance, and he is pretty great pretty much all the time, including his contribution to the moment when Abby has the chance but doesn’t kill Dina or Ellie. He is a reminder of empathy, of the growth Abby has made over the course of the game–and of the growth Lev himself has made, even as a relatively minor, supporting character. Whether they did well or not, Naughty Dog certainly took their effort here seriously, and it’s perhaps promising to see a AAA studio taking these things seriously.

And while the voice actor for Lev is indeed a trans man, I wish the industry in general hired a few more trans designers, particularly but not only for trans story content. Indeed, our games could use some more perspectives to enhance and expand their stories, and the trans experience is one we cis people ignore to our peril and, mostly, that of trans people. Trans people need to be included at the table. They need to be not just welcomed but ACTIVELY INVITED to participate in safe, mutually respectful contexts.

4) Last but certainly not least, a very important related point: Naughty Dog has a long-running problem with crunch and an oppressive culture for its designers. We can and should enjoy the fruits of their labor, but we should not lose sight of the suffering that brought it into being. I’ll include some links below.
Further Viewing/Reading:
TheRadBrad’s walkthrough of the game, which has some good insights from his perspective. His game movies tend to be really solid: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLs1-UdHIwbo54PcRVvyoEr6z_jUL6EmYY
A largely spoiler-free review that’s pretty darn positive: https://youtu.be/DPi0VNj9MMI
A video about the game saying many of these same things but in more detail, especially about empathy: https://youtu.be/jmivMh8Dpug
About Lev, from a different trans writer, a bit more positive: https://www.vg247.com/2020/06/23/the-last-of-us-part-2-trans-representation-lev/

Curio’s analysis of the game and the discourse: https://youtu.be/v7wcvMIrK2w

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