Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.
I know what it’s like to lose something, to have it ripped from your hands without any warning—and with no one around to answer why. Survivors of sexual assault experience loss of trust, freedom, and identity. We mourn the person we were before the attack. We mourn the body we no longer recognize, let alone feel comfortable existing in. We live in fear. We seek revenge. We go through the stages.
Despite being a repeat survivor of trauma, nothing could prepare me for the relentless and unforgiving 30-hour journey through the five stages of grief that is The Last of Us Part II. Nothing.
The First Stage
Sure, grief is already a prominent theme within the universe of The Last of Us. Much of the violence and anger experienced by Joel, our lovable yet morally corrupt protagonist, stems from the death of his biological daughter Sarah. It’s this loss that leads Joel to Ellie, an orphaned teenager who possesses a rare immunity to the disease that has ravaged the entire world. What was supposed to be a simple mission for Joel—deliver the girl, get paid—turns into a beautiful and unexpected familial relationship that results in the two depending on each other for more than just survival.
Joel and Ellie’s blossoming father-daughter relationship is the crux of the first game—the player becomes emotionally invested, largely due to incredible storytelling and character development from writer Neil Druckmann. Because the two are no strangers to loss, they immediately resist forming a bond out of a mutual fear of abandonment. However, as the game goes on, Joel and Ellie slowly but surely learn to care for one another. We feel warm when Joel takes Ellie to the zoo to see the giraffes, showing her that there is still beauty in their plague-stricken, dystopian society. We can’t help but tear up when Joel gives her his beloved guitar and promises to teach her how to play.
It’s because we’re so invested that we don’t really seem to mind when Joel kills the surgeon who is seconds away from cutting Ellie open and harvesting her immune brain. We don’t want her to die, or for Joel to lose his second chance at a daughter.
Little does the player know, Joel’s seemingly selfless act of love would go on to directly cause an unending cycle of violence, anger, and pain. This unending cycle is the crux of Part II.
The Beginning of the End
I think death hits the hardest when we can’t see it coming. I think this applies to trauma, too; there are some things we can prepare ourselves for, emotionally or otherwise. Most of the time, the events that shake up our world are sudden. We move through our day-to-day lives, and then, without warning, something happens that changes the very nature of our being. It’s only natural to react with our fists clenched, to start kicking and screaming. Sometimes, the anger comes later on, after we’ve had time to process. Other times, it’s immediate. It boils over before we can stop it.
Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II begins with a murder. Much like in real life, the game gives us little time to prepare. Shortly after the player is introduced to a new character named Abby, she beats Joel to death with a golf club while a helpless Ellie is forced to watch. I don’t know if it was the brutal nature of the killing or the horror of it happening right before Ellie’s eyes, but, unlike other players who were shocked at the game’s trajectory, I wasn’t at all surprised by what came next.
I’m sure the average player, one who grew especially fond of Joel in the first installment, wanted immediate revenge. How could you not? We watched him go from a jaded shell of a man to a father, a caretaker. We were happy when he was happy. We loved Ellie the way he loved Ellie. How could Naughty Dog kill off the reason we even picked up the sequel in the first place? Well, the player isn’t the only one who seeks revenge. Joel’s physical death brings about the metaphorical death of the sweet, wide-eyed girl we met in Part I.
This is where fans of the franchise seemed to either fall in love with the sequel or write it off entirely: after Joel is murdered, Ellie cycles through the five stages of grief and becomes a cold-blooded killing machine.
It made perfect sense to me. At the end of the first game, Joel robs Ellie of the choice to sacrifice her body in order to save humanity and develop a vaccine for the Cordyceps infection. Being forced to live in this world knowing that she, and only she, is the only hope for a cure fills her with a type of survivor’s guilt that I can’t even fathom. “My life could’ve mattered,” she says to Joel. “You took that from me.” In an attempt to ease this guilt, Joel lies and tells her that the Fireflies (the rebel group he was supposed to deliver her to) gave up on looking for a cure.
Part II begins with Ellie discovering this lie, and the subsequent strain it puts on their relationship. It diminishes Ellie’s sense of identity; who is she without Joel? After he dies, she loses herself completely. The existing resentment Ellie has for her father figure complicates the grief. She was angry at him for lying, and now she’s angry at him for leaving. She doesn’t know how to navigate the world without him. It felt natural for her to seek revenge against Abby and embark on a murderous rampage. For other players, it didn’t make any sense at all. Mashable’s Jess Joho argues at length against Ellie’s blind dedication to Joel, pointing out that he isn’t her real father and reminding the reader that he never really wanted to become her father figure in the first place. I think this actually speaks to the process of grief as a whole—we don’t know why we do the things we do in the wake of a sudden loss. We go crazy and we can’t explain it.
As the player, I was excited to help exact her revenge. I wanted Ellie to get closure as quickly as humanly possible, as it’s something we never truly get in real life. Closure is a myth, a fantastical idea that keeps us stuck in the past, but I wondered if maybe it could exist in this fictional realm. I wondered if that was the goal of hunting and killing every single one of Abby’s friends. All of the slaughter would eventually lead us to Abby, who we would kill, and then game over. Everyone lives happily ever after, or as close to that as they can in a nuclear-level pandemic world. However, closure never comes. Naughty Dog had other plans.
Empathy for the Devil
In a turn of events that feels both frustrating and pointless, the fourth chapter of the game forces us to play as Abby. It’s here that we learn her motive for Joel’s murder: the surgeon he killed in the first game, in order to save Ellie, was Abby’s father. This is also the point in the game where I absolutely lost my mind.
In an hour-long video essay entitled “Naughty Dog’s Game Design is Outdated,” commentary YouTuber NakeyJakey criticizes the game’s linear narrative structure and cites it as one of its ultimate failures. He refers to TLOU2 as a linear roller coaster, explaining that “the player is on a set path in a set story and is going to experience that story in a predetermined sequence of events that [Naughty Dog] has curated for the player.” This isn’t an open-world game where we can make our own choices and have multiple endings. We have to do what we’re told, the way we’re told to do it, or it’s game over.
Ellie’s motivation is to kill Abby. But because you play as Abby, you involuntarily develop empathy for her. You understand her. Still, your loyalty lies with Ellie and in helping Ellie heal in this horrific, bloody way. But even if you wanted to go ahead and kill Abby, you can’t. The game won’t let you. This adds a level of frustration on top of the intense emotions you already feel, causing you to spiral in a way similar to that of the characters you’ve been playing.
It implies that Ellie wouldn’t reach the final stage of grief if she went through with killing Abby. I don’t know if that’s true, but Naughty Dog seems to think so. Abby lives, and the game ends with Ellie hanging up the guitar she can no longer play (because Abby bit her goddamn fingers off) and walking off into the distance.
This is complicated for me—is the game implying that we should have empathy for those who’ve wronged us, that this is how we’re supposed to heal? I’ve never given any real thought to the “why” behind my sexual assaults, or what demons they could’ve possibly been battling that caused them to hurt me. In my mind, when someone hurts me, any and all of their redeeming qualities are automatically stripped away.
In his video, Jakey comments that Ellie has no real reason to empathize with Abby. On one hand, I agree. The justification of “Ellie loses her father figure because Abby lost her father” isn’t enough for me. My abusers have been abused and assaulted themselves, but knowing this didn’t cause them to appear to me in a different or better light. But if Ellie had succeeded in killing Abby, would the cycle of violence have simply continued?
While the linear narrative adds further complication to both the player’s emotions and the story itself, I can’t imagine it any other way. You’re forced to let Abby live, even though you—for Ellie’s sake—wanted her to die. You’re forced to kill all of these seemingly innocent people, or game over. Jakey calls this a failure of the game. I think it’s a strength. I think it forces the player into the complex mindset that comes with sudden, unexplained loss. I think it forces the player to rethink the concept of grief as a whole, and to understand that it’s something bigger than we could ever possibly imagine.
Everyone should play The Last of Us Part II. Everyone. Forget the big gamer magazine reviews or whatever comments you might’ve seen on Twitter. We learn best by doing (in my opinion), and I think this game puts you as close as humanly possible into the mindset of someone who’s experienced sudden loss and the extremely complex healing process that follows. Empathy is hard to teach. It’s something we either have or don’t. If you’ve never understood why people lose a part of themselves (or themselves entirely) when they lose a loved one, you will now.
If you’re a trauma survivor like me, one playthrough is enough. It’s kind of a trigger fest, especially since the game is basically designed to make you feel a plethora of emotions at every turn. It’s weirdly healing in a way, because the game lets us know that it’s okay for there never to be a clear or ideal resolution. When Ellie puts down Joel’s guitar and walks away, the player knows that she’s reached the acceptance phase. She’s done all that she can possibly do in order to deal with Joel’s death. But this doesn’t mean she’s fully healed, or that she’s finally let go.
One we’ve accepted what’s happened to us, the grief sort of just lives dormant inside us for the rest of our lives. I don’t think Part III is going to give us a magically healed Ellie, one who’s happy-go-lucky and isn’t plagued by PTSD flashbacks. If anything, I hope we get to see how much stronger, how much more resilient she’s become. I hope Ellie continues to be a beacon of hope for survivors, to the edge of the universe and back.