In the Washington Post, Neil Druckmann, the creative director of Last of Us (LoU) and Last of Us Part II (LoUII), shared the following as an inspiration for the sequel:
The formulation for Ellie’s turn toward darkness can be traced back to the year 2000. Then in his early 20s, Druckmann witnessed news footage of a crowd lynching two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. “And then they cheered afterward,” Druckmann, who grew up in Israel, recalls. “It was the cheering that was really chilling to me. … In my mind, I thought, ‘Oh, man, if I could just push a button and kill all these people that committed this horrible act, I would make them feel the same pain that they inflicted on these people.’"
The feeling faded, though. Eventually, he looked back and felt “gross and guilty” for his intense feelings. With “The Last of Us Part II,” he wanted to explore that emotional tumult on a didactic level.
This post would not have been written had Neil Druckmann not made these comments and is dedicated to all artists who depoliticise conflicts through their craft.
The sequel Last of Us Part II (LoUII) takes Joel’s trivialised execution of the surgeon in the first game and explores the monumental consequences of this decision. The surgeon (viewed as torn in flashbacks for having to conduct a morally questionable operation: the life of an innocent girl for the salvation of humanity) has a teenage daughter, Abby. We follow Abby as she is consumed for her hatred of Joel, which provides the central theme of the sequel—the vicious circle of violence. In LoUII, Abby and her crew of sympathetic friends find and kill Joel, thus spurring Ellie to return the favour—violence begets violence, etc.
In its attempt to humanise violence, the story is essentially a confused spectacle of “there’s two sides to every conflict”. Worse, it seems to indicate that all conflicts can somehow be attributed to this obscure phantom called ‘trauma.’ This is not unsurprising: ‘trauma’ has resurfaced as a great explanatory model, well-situated within a neoliberal era of hyper-individualising social and political issues. The sequel signals a centrist position of conflict-as-personal-trauma—in line, unsurprisingly, with current neoliberal securitisation models. The games thus champions “everything is a matter of perspective,” as if all we’re really lacking for world peace is a better understanding of the other’s “trauma.” Cue racial, cultural and religious awareness trainings so we get to know one another better.
The sequel is not altogether effective at showcasing the moral regression of a beloved character, Ellie, whose loss of innocence was the true tragedy of the first game. Like the Punisher, she tortures and kills for emotional retribution of a loved one which, to be frank, in a post-9/11 world only works with a racialised White woman in the driver’s seat without pandering to a myriad of moral panics. Imagine the political reaction if the protagonist was an Iraqi refugee who shared Ellie's exact pursuit of vengeance--to find and torture those responsible for their family’s death. The significance of White innocence in the dramatisation of revenge cannot be understated, but is beside the point here.
In its exploration of violence, LoUII would work better as a book than a game. On the one hand, the writing and performances are stellar, and easily overshadows other works of fiction. On the other, as a game the LoUII completely disregards the medium’s unique ability to explore player agency, something books and movies cannot afford. I will return to this, especially as it relates to violence. The LoUII is thus a quintessential example of ‘post-apocalyptic’ as a ‘post-imperial world’—thereby erasing race, class, etc.—of survival painted entirely through the thin brush of Western existentialism (“what is the meaning of life in tragedy?”). There are two dramatic issues with Neil Druckmann’s drawing on a political scenario to “educate” us about violence: the commodification of violence and the erasure of power.
Clearly the lynching impressed enough of an image on Neil Druckmann to explore the cycle of violence, but not enough to appreciate the commodification of violence as delivered endlessly through our screens. In LoUII, players are continuously forced to engage in violence to draw the narrative towards its uncertain end, not unlike the War on Terror. For example, there is a particularly disgusting scenario where the player is forced to “press a button” to torture and extract information from Black woman—this is an actual set-piece in the game. The irony here is striking: one of the highest-selling Playstation games of this generation, whose sale of violence benefits the wider military-industrial complex primarily, seeks to “educate” players about the nature of violence. The LoUII thus traps players as producers and consumers of violence—running contrary to the very message of humanity it purports to hold—while lacking the sort of self-awareness found in other games like Spec Ops: The Line.
But this isn’t about the game’s violence, but the morality of violence which guides the entire game. The player is not simply a passive, pornographic voyeur in violence (as one might be watching a movie), but actually complicit in re-enacting these acts of violence themselves. In this sense, Neil Druckmann’s hope of “education” fails spectacularly, conjuring the exact opposite: having depoliticised the player, they are simply ‘following Neil Druckmann’s orders’ to engage in violence. This point of depoliticisation goes further. In life, the cycle of violence (revenge, etc.) does not exist in a vacuum until “someone forgives.” Rather, even at its most basic understanding, violence is the purview of power—often defined by Nation-States, especially colonial superpowers.
What Neil Druckmann saw in the lynching of two Israeli soldiers is artificially fragmented outside of its context, where Israel—the superpower—has allowance to colonise, pillage and otherwise eradicate Palestinian life and land. Neil Druckmann, in his post-apocalyptic vision, not only dismisses the significance of power but erases it altogether. Instead of interrogating “why some violence is considered legitimate, and other violence is not?”, Neil Druckmann simply leaves us with the question “why would someone lynch another?” It is the former which underlines the significance of justice in its interrogation of violence, the latter erases all but the individual.
And so, if Neil Druckmann just said, “well I made this hyper-violent game because I wanted to explore how we're all equally liable to violence”, I would disagree with his approach, but would leave it at that. But if he justifies his direction based on a (violent) act of anticolonial resistance, then he’s tragically enacting a much more real form of violence by erasing the significance of power hierarchies in a (real apocalyptic) world where certain forms (State) violence are given free-pass and others are not.
Neil Druckmann, there are powers who, as you so eagerly desired at one point, not only “push a button and kill all these people that committed this horrible act” every day but take many more innocent lives in the process. As Gaza faces its 9th consecutive day of bombing, life’s true wonder is how modern purveyors of violence get away it, while painting themselves as victims. A game like LoUII, and its director’s inability to truly interrogate colonial violence, provides some clarity. Post-apocalyptic visions provide us an opportunity to question existing power structures, especially as they relate to the global military-industrial complex. To simply reproduce or dismiss them is not a missed opportunity—it’s playing a part in the problem.