On Video Game Violence, Dehumanization, and Becoming Joel: An Ode to The Last of Us Part II

SPOILERS AHEAD. The overwhelming majority of what is discussed here will only make sense if you are already familiar with The Last of Us (2013) and The Last of Us Part II (2020). Proceed with caution. 

Joel Miller:

Loving Father

Beloved Brother

Mass Murderer

I think those who cite the unceremonious nature of Joel’s death as a reason to despise The Last of Us Part II (2020) either forget, or just plain don’t care, about what Joel has done or who he was in the eyes of others. People who try to diminish the validity of Abby’s desire for revenge don’t understand, or don’t care, that Joel was just as much the villain of her story as she was to Ellie’s. They say that Abby is unjustified because her father, whom Joel murdered at the end of the first game, was immoral for wanting to kill Ellie for the vaccine. They ignore the things they saw Joel do in the first game, the things they did playing as Joel in the first game, and the things he all but admitted to doing.

Ellie: “So, you’ve killed lots of innocent people?”

Joel: *sighs*

Ellie: “I’ll take that as a yes.”

            They don’t care that Joel might be one of the most significant mass murderers of the post-apocalyptic world, that he condemned this world to continue to exist as the hellhole that it is, that potentially millions of people are dead because of him. They only care that their gruff, stoic, action movie daddy didn’t get to go out like a hero.

            But Joel wasn’t a hero. Neither is Ellie. Nor Abby. Nor Tommy.

            These characters are not the heroes of their own stories.

            They are each the villain of someone else’s.

            It is only in realizing this that they find any peace.

            But the people who ignore Joel’s morality, who refuse to recognize Abby as a human being, don’t want peace. They want more bloodshed if it means that the characters to whom they are already attached get to come out on top. To these people, Joel is the only actual person in this story. Abby is just a misshapen monster, a final boss, for them to destroy.

            I love this game. And I especially love how it seems specifically designed to anger those whose beliefs are predicated on dehumanization.

*          *          *

            Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I understand if this game did not work for you. No one is a bad person or a bigot simply because they did not like a video game. Those who hated the experience because it is so miserable, because it forced them into positions they did not want to be in, are perfectly justified in their feelings. Those who have qualms with the storytelling, who believe that it fails, are just as right as I am in believing it to be a masterwork, because that is their experience. Just because it is different from mine does not mean that it is invalid or wrong.

            This piece is not a response to everyone who disliked the game. It is a response to those who hated the game for very specific, very disheartening reasons.

*          *          *

            Dehumanization is in some ways necessary to survive the kind of combat so often exhibited in video games, especially combat as vicious as seen in The Last of Us Part II. And yet, this game’s narrative and gameplay actively push back against this. It is not an accident that the Seraphites lynch their enemies (the validity of using this imagery as somewhat divorced from its history as a weapon in the oppression of black people in the United States would be a much more fruitful discussion than the simple chastisement of dumb bigots, but I am not prepared to have that discussion here) or that the WLF’s underground POW dungeon evokes images of Guantanamo Bay or that the very redneck-esque Rattlers display a flag reminiscent of the Gadsden flag. Each of these factions deny their enemies any semblance of humanity. WLF leader Isaac even refers to former Seraphite Lev (a child) with “What” rather than “Who.”

            The factions in this story are coated with imagery associated with dehumanization and the protagonists are those whose very existence has been historically denied humanity – a lesbian, a Jewish person, a woman, a transgender boy, and two people of color. And this makes the bigots who play these games very uncomfortable. I will not cite specific examples or names of such bigoted players because they do not deserve the attention. But I will say that I love that this game makes them so mad.

            There is already a myriad of brilliant essays that explore the game’s themes, and ones that discuss the pathetic controversy surrounding its story before it was released, far better than I could. I will link a handful of my favorites at the bottom. However, I do want to offer my perspective on the tension between the gameplay and the messaging of the story.

            Many have described this tension with the term ludo-narrative dissonance, arguing that the very typical expectation of the gameplay for the player to indulge in the combat and the upgrade system and the ridiculous variety of weapons conflicts with the ideas communicated in the cutscenes.

            I understand the discomfort with this; I felt it myself during both my playthroughs. But I argue that this discomfort is entirely the point. I think that classifying this gameplay-story tension as a problem or a failure limits the themes of the narrative to just those of revenge and forgiveness and “violence equals bad.” It ignores the previously discussed prevalence of dehumanization throughout the story and thus ignores how it contributes to the experience through the gameplay.

            As I said earlier, you kind of need to dehumanize your enemies in the moment in order to get through the kinds of situations Ellie does without becoming overwhelmed with the trauma and guilt of having killed a fellow human being. This is why NPC enemies in most, if not all, other shooters go unnamed and why they behave as ruthless killers. The combat would not be fun if the player were constantly reminded of the humanity of those they kill. Yet The Last of Us Part II refuses to let players be comfortable with the violence they inflict. The first game already started pushing back on the dehumanization of NPC’s a little when overpowered enemies would start begging the player for their lives. The second game pushes even further with the reactions of other enemies as their comrades are killed. They shout their friend’s name and watch/listen in horror as the person you just shot screams in agony and bleeds to death. To you, to Ellie, they might just be assholes getting in the way of your goal; but to them, you, Ellie, are the monster picking them off one by one. In many segments of the game, Ellie and Abby basically become the equivalents to slasher villains in the eyes of the NPC’s. They become monsters under the beds of the other faction.

            When an NPC enemy calls out their dying friend’s name, that is a microcosm of the messaging in the broader narrative. Everyone has their own story.

            This is what Abby comes to recognize when Lev stops her from killing Dina. It’s what Ellie realizes when she finally remembers Joel in a positive light. And it’s what Joel never learned until it was too late. Youtuber Celly’s video on the game (linked below) argued that Ellie was trying to be Joel throughout her journey and that doing so only brought her more misery. I greatly appreciate this point because I think it sets up my main takeaway from the game. She was doing “what Joel would have wanted,” but only in the sense that it’s what he would have done if he were in her position.

            I think I was more prepared to handle the loss of Joel than many other players (even though it was still incredibly difficult, in no small part because this sequel made him even more nuanced and human than he already was). I had already come to terms with Joel’s faults as a person long before the sequel was released. I had come to terms with the fact that he was a murderer, that he was selfish, and that he did not care for or recognize the humanity of those who opposed him. So, I love the end of Ellie’s journey, that she finally chooses, not necessarily to forgive Abby, but to let go of the hatred for her, to let go of her loyalty for someone she will never get back.

            I love that Ellie finally tries not to become Joel.

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