Playing the Enemy: Shifting Perspectives in The Last Of Us

*Spoiler warning: this game discusses the plots of The Last Of Us and The Last Of Us Part II in their entirety*

In July 2005 at the dedication of a plaque honouring the late Roger Ebert outside the Chicago Theatre, the renowned film critic spoke of how films are a machine that generate empathy. We are stuck inside ourselves, he suggests, a product of where we’re from and what we’ve experienced. Films allow us to see into the lives of others, then, and empathise with them. Interestingly, Ebert also once threw the internet into a frenzy by declaring that video games are not and never will be art, without pausing to consider that video games are in many ways actually better poised to allow us to empathise with others. As Carolyn Petit says in her fantastic piece on The Last Of Us Part II, “Isn’t that kind of the whole thing with games? The way we’re there? The way we feel it?”

Art is a nebulous concept with a definition that’s open to varied perspectives. Art was invented by humans, and the word “art” itself was subsequently also made up by humans, and this makes it hard to define – there is no one correct interpretation. The word “art” is not, as Ian Danskin points out in his video on the subject, comparable to something like the term “prime number”, which refers to a mathematical pattern innate in the universe to which we simply gave a name. Prime numbers are a thing, that’s just a fact we observe. Art is more of a concept, one we analyse and study, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you to define it for yourself.

Ebert’s scepticism likely came from the fact that although video games have now been around for decades, always evolving at a rapid pace, they are still (even more than a decade on from his original article) in many respects in their infancy as an art form. Whilst film has long been accepted as art, from hokey blockbusters to gritty dramas, gaming is still often seen as childish or a waste of time, regardless of whether it’s endless games of Fortnite or a “walking simulator” with no real challenge but tons of plot and atmosphere. Such criticisms should be invalid even if games were always designed as nothing but mindless fun, people should be free to spend their time however they wish, but they’re built on the notion that games are always games in every sense of the word – they are played, not experienced. Ebert’s piece mirrored this: “For most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” It’s the distinction between whether you want to be engaged or whether you just want to be occupied. A game can do either, but they’re credited with the latter far more than the former.

Part of this is down to the fact that games are still largely played by younger generations, and one of the key reasons that this perception is slowly shifting is because we’re gradually moving past the first wave of creators who have been asking questions of the format, working out kinks and figuring out what makes a game fundamentally good or bad. At the same time, people raised on games are growing up and having a greater impact on the wider perception of the format.

Having an aha moment in Seattle.

In the constant striving for progression in the medium, developers are steadily but surely uncovering and subsequently refining the tools that video games have in their arsenal, and perhaps the defining trait that gaming has over any other form of storytelling is indeed that ability to quite literally put us into the shoes of others, allowing us to take control of their part in a story. Many technological advancements in gaming have been built around this very premise, whether it’s better graphics making the action feel more real, systems like the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect encouraging you to physically act out the action or virtual reality further bridging the gap between the real and the unreal.

A game doesn’t have to have a story to have artistic merit, just look at whatever the fuck Proteus is, but storytelling has been a strong aspect in various artistic forms over the years, and video games are uniquely positioned to offer their own distinct approach. In any storytelling medium, for instance, it has always been important to understand the motivations of a story’s characters, and video games have the ability to let us see more wholly from their perspective in a particularly intimate and yet more vivid manner. 

When there’s villains, this goes for them too. In TV, series will often have entire episodes dedicated to a villain’s backstory so that you understand how they became who they are. Video games can do this just as effectively through cutscenes, essentially borrowing the language of film and TV, but where appropriate they can also let you quite literally become the villain for a time. Some games, of course, explicitly make you play as an evil character, but what I’m referring to here is games where the nemesis is not the main character, but is still playable as part of the main campaign. This is something the medium has explored for years now, particularly if you consider the “evil campaign” modes available in some games.

From a storytelling perspective, though, it’s something that games are still ironing out. Dishonored did it in its own fascinating way, but reserved it for its DLC The Knife Of Dunwall, in which you took control of the nemesis from the main game, the assassin Daud, with the second story-driven DLC ultimately concluding with Daud’s fate at the hands of the player protagonist Corvo during the finale of the main game’s story. This DLC gives you the opportunity to see the game’s climactic event from both sides, and that’s something that can only be realised so vividly in games. Dragon Age: Origins did something similar with the Darkspawn Chronicles DLC, in which you were tasked with killing many of your companions from the main game, showing you a world in which your player character had never existed to help save the world. Other examples exist, of course, but in recent years The Last Of Us Part II unquestionably became the biggest and most ambitious exploration of this concept in gaming history.

The Knife Of Dunwall DLC lets us experience the events of Dishonored from another perspective.

The plot of the first The Last Of Us was little more than standard genre fare, with its key overarching theme essentially boiling down to a cliche statement like “man is the real monster”. What made it so engaging was the relationship between Joel and Ellie and the way it grew so naturally throughout the course of the game. Interestingly, though, the game also made no attempt to disguise just how ruthless and selfish its protagonist, Joel, could be. Burdened with the guilt of survival after the death of his daughter twenty years prior, we find him involved in smuggling whilst residing in a totalitarian quarantine zone, but this is the least of his crimes. In one section he and Ellie are ensnared in a highway trap by a large gang preying on smaller groups – Joel sees it coming because he’s “been on both sides” of such traps. “So, uh, you kill a lot of innocent people?” asks Ellie. “Hmm,” is Joel’s reply. This is not merely about survival (though that is Joel’s defence when his brother Tommy mentions the horrors they endured), Joel has been a bad guy. He just happens to be the protagonist of our story. Later, he tortures and kills two men to find out where Ellie is, unable to face the prospect of losing another daughter. And, most notably, during the game’s finale, he slaughters countless people to save Ellie, likely damning the future of mankind in the process.

Because the game put you into Joel’s shoes, empathy with his character was not only easy, but almost unavoidable when playing. When Naughty Dog killed him off early on in The Last Of Us Part II, the backlash was so fierce because Joel was so beloved, warts and all. Some even seemed to have completely overlooked or even forgotten those warts, so dear was the character to them. The Last Of Us was, therefore, a game that subverted the traditional video game hero archetype. Its successor, which came a full seven years later, took this idea and doubled down on it.

Almost half of the second game is spent playing as Joel’s killer, herself a victim of Joel’s acts in the first game. Alongside Joel’s early death, this is the other main source of contention about the game, and it’s something that was hidden by the developers until release, with them sending out review copies only under the condition that the game’s second half could not be discussed. It is this concept of dual narratives that the entire game is built around, meaning it takes a solid fifteen hours to actually begin saying what it wants to say. Abby’s section is meant to colour your opinion of the rest of the game in a manner similar to the dramatic end of the first game.

A sequel to the first game was always going to have to reckon with what Joel did at the end of the first. In any other tale, he’d be the villain. Sure, his motivations are understood by the player, but like any other villain in broader zombie fiction he has essentially doomed mankind for entirely selfish reasons. The difference is that instead of fighting him as a final boss, you played as him, experiencing his entire journey from young single parent to resentful misanthrope too afraid to stare loss in the face again.

The Last Of Us Part II trailer.

The second game is explicitly Ellie’s tale from minute one, but it also pushes this notion of perspective to the forefront. The Last Of Us Part II is all about how powerful shifting perspectives can be in works of fiction (and perhaps by extension nonfiction as well). There’s been plenty of tales across various mediums that explore similar concepts, but The Last Of Us Part II does so in a way that’s completely unique to the interactive medium of video games. The first game followed Joel’s point of view, and the ending is so effective because you have naturally formed a sort of bond with him that becomes complicated when he shoots his way through a hospital, stabs an innocent doctor and then murders Marlene. I remember on my first playthrough expecting there to be a choice at the end. Even though I had grown to care for Ellie, I stood in that surgery room for some time, hoping that through inaction the player could choose not to rescue her.

What the sequel chooses to do narratively, then, is in hindsight a natural progression from the first game. It cannot attempt the same trick again so instead it makes better use of its status as a video game. The first game could easily have been adapted into an HBO limited series, and is in fact about to become one, but the second much more skillfully blends its cinematic storytelling with its mostly linear gameplay. The areas are more open (even if you exclude the faux free-roam section when you reach Seattle) and the narrative is blended more naturally into the long sections of gameplay that happen within them. The gameplay is also more responsive to player choice as well – rather than feeling like you have to fulfill your role in each encounter exactly as the game expects you to like some bizarre trial and error exam, as was the case in not only the first The Last Of Us but in most of the Uncharted series as well, the action feels more willing to bend to your playstyle and the decisions the player makes in the moment. This compounds to make the player feel like they have a more active role in the story than they did previously. Though the story is just as scripted, the action during gameplay encounters is not, and because of this the veil between player and gameworld is slightly thinner.

This more investing gameplay is used in both Ellie and Abby’s sections in an attempt to make you connect as profoundly with two characters on the opposite end of a fight as you did with just a single protagonist in the first game. Instead of the shifting perspectives being between just the player and Joel in the game’s final act, it instead becomes between Ellie and the other characters within the game’s story, most notably Abby. The Last Of Us ends with you committing an act of cruelty, whilst the sequel begins with one being done to you. The reason the game hides Abby’s motivations for killing Joel (though they can definitely be guessed at) for so long is because it wants you to be angry too. It wants you to feel what Ellie feels – a blind fury and a complete lack of understanding.

The problem here comes when the game seemingly expects you to be on par with Ellie in her rage-fuelled pursuit of revenge. Her actions are quite plainly reprehensible from the get-go and for me personally it’s perhaps my biggest point of contention with the game that it seems to want to implicate you in her deeds, conflating whatever anger you felt with Ellie’s willingness to commit murder. Perhaps this wasn’t the developers intentions. After all, such questions would never be asked of a film or book. But The Last Of Us Part II seems so invested in exploring the potential of video games specifically, perhaps to an even greater degree than the first game (which seemed to directly address the concept of ludonarrative dissonance following the lighthearted murdersprees of one Nathan Drake), so it’s not invalid to feel that the potential disharmony between your goals and Ellie’s goals is a flaw on the game’s part. As YouTuber NakeyJakey summarises in his video on the game, “I didn’t want to do any of this… But none of that matters, because this is Ellie’s hollow and inconsistent story of violent actions and motivations, not mine. The game made that extremely crystal clear as frequently as possible. I have nothing and want nothing to do with it.”

After the prologue, in which the game foreshadows your eventual time with Abby by putting you in her shoes right before she shoots Joel’s leg to bits and caves in his skull with a golf club, we don’t see anything from Abby’s perspective for another dozen hours or so. Ellie’s acts become increasingly callous in this time, so perhaps the intention is for the wedge between the player and Ellie to start forming more gradually, reaching a breaking point at which you’re finally shown Abby’s perspective in its entirety. 

Downtown Seattle concept work from The Last Of Us Part II.

In the game’s first half, the WLF are posited as the aggressors – a group of them journey to kill Joel and upon reaching Seattle they attack on sight. In the game’s latter half as Abby, we see further confirmation that the WLF is a callous organisation but we also see that for those living within it, it is all they have. We see its footsoldiers humanised as people just trying to get by like anyone else in this bleak world. At the same time Ellie is dealing with relationship drama following Dina’s newly announced pregnancy and Jesse’s unexpected arrival in Seattle (note: less of this trailer switcheroo shit please Naughty Dog), Abby is struggling with her role in the WLF’s endless war while her closest friends are dying one by one.

If the game’s core conceit is that your enemies have backstories too, then it takes this to every extreme it can. Not only does Ellie’s enemy, Abby, have her own perspective, but so too do Abby’s enemies, the Seraphites, specifically Yara and Lev. But the game isn’t just interested in making you understand where each of the main characters is coming from, it also wants you to be overtly aware that each and every life you snuff out is as real as Ellie’s or indeed Abby’s. This is why the developers gave the enemies you’ll be fighting names and even gave them cute dogs that you’ll have to mercilessly put down unless you’re incredibly stealthy. It’s also why the combat is so gruelling. That’s not a new concept in games, and often some of the most gory games are the ones in which violence means the least, but watching Ellie plunge her savage little switchblade into someone’s neck as they gurgle blood is categorically meant to make you feel at least a little uncomfortable. 

The issue this raises is whether the game is essentially criticising you for engaging with it. The enemies are depicted as real and thus worthy of empathy, but the game denies you any opportunity to actually show any empathy, so what gives? This game world’s lack of compassion is understandable though – it’s a world of violence, and the ruined Seattle is governed by those who show no remorse for their enemies nor for trespassers like Ellie and Dina. The characters in this world can’t envisage a nonviolent option, so the player doesn’t get one. This is another source of contention and something that has spawned multiple thinkpieces exploring the disconnect between the game’s message and its gameplay. It’s an interesting debate and ultimately I think one that’s down to you as an individual to decide. Does it bother you that the game wants you to feel what the characters feel but only to a point?

It’s not until the game’s latter stages that you’re given free reign to revel in the violence, as you’re put up against The Rattlers. You don’t learn a lot about this group, but you see enough to know they’re bad people, and when they’re surrounded by chained up zombies that you can unleash upon them, it’s clear that the game is no longer judging Ellie (or you) for your ruthlessness. This fairly short section is of course merely the prelude to the final showdown between Ellie and Abby though. After their first fight in the theatre, in which your control of Abby continues (the game eschewing any attempt at subtlety by literally making Ellie the villain), you now control Ellie as she attempts to finally kill Abby. In many ways, it makes sense narratively for her to just go through with it, given how she has already so thoroughly given in to the cycle of violence handed down to her by Joel. By this point, it’s likely that the player does not want Abby to die, and they certainly don’t want Lev (sweet, sweet Lev) to die. The wedge the game has driven between Ellie and us as the player is at its most severe, but it begins to mend, just a little, as she realises that this whole quest has been because she never reconciled with Joel, despite being about to extend an olive branch, and that her actions thus far run counter to anything he would have wanted for her. The beginning of the game, where Ellie is at the very least safe and experiencing some kind of “normal”, is closer to what he wanted for her. It’s why he did what he did, deplorable as it was.

A highlight from Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last Of Us Part II.

Earlier I mentioned that we’re only just moving past the initial wave of video game creators who are exploring the potential of the medium. The Last Of Us Part II feels like an explicit attempt to seek out those limits with regards to shifting perspectives and the way that an interactive medium can explore those different perspectives so vividly and in such depth. Whether it works for you is dependent on how successful you think the game was in this pursuit, and whether you think it was necessary at all. To understand Abby’s motivations, all you really need is the context of who her dad was. To understand Ellie’s, all you need to see is Joel’s death by Abby’s hand. Would then the game have been more profound had it focused on just one of these characters, perhaps with the other’s story relegated to DLC like Dishonored or Dragon Age? Personally, I’m hard pressed to say that the final image of Ellie sat in the sea, reflecting on the pointlessness of her revenge quest and what she gave up for it as Abby sails away to freedom would be as powerful as it is had we not experienced both characters’ point of view so intensely.

The Last Of Us Part II is not a perfect game, and it does not pull off its ambitious aims with the precision we might hope for, but it can at the very least be regarded as a moment of progress. Small, incremental progress perhaps, but progress nonetheless. It’s a game that makes me excited for the future of the medium, and I profoundly hope it has opened the door for others to further explore the concept of perspectives in video games from an artistic and storytelling point of view.

The Last Of Us Part II by Naughty Dog is available on PlayStation platforms.

Words: George Parr

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