The Last of Us Part II and Empathy in Video Games

This post contains full spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II, I’d recommend against reading this until you’ve finished it

Last Friday, Naughty Dog released the long awaited sequel to their seminal Playstation 3 title, The Last of Us. It’s fair to say that it’s received a somewhat mixed reception, some for valid reasons, and others seemingly just because it’s got lesbians in it. While I loved the game, I’ve noticed a lot of interesting discussion online surrounding how the game links, and associates, the Player with the Protagonist. Personally, I find this kind of thing fascinating, so below in this article I will be having a look at how TLOU2, and also Video Games as a medium, can use, manipulate, and break these links in order to create meaningful experiences.

To me, at least, the single most unique aspect that differentiates Video Games from other mediums, in regards to how they can tell stories, is how they can make the Player feel like the Protagonist. While film, and literature allow us to naturally feel sympathetic towards a character by framing shots from a character’s POV, or allowing us insight into a character’s internal monologue; as passive media there is inevitably some form of detachment with the actions of a Protagonist no matter how sympathetic we may be to them. Ultimately in these media, we don’t actually have to carry out the acts or the decisions of it’s Protagonists, even in a vicarious sense.

The key difference with Video Games is that we actually engage in this activity through the act of play. In this sense Games, have the unique potential to make us feel not just sympathetic to the actions of the Protagonists, but to allow us to empathise with them. They can ask us to actually experience, and come to a visceral understanding with experiences that we do not share in our everyday lives, to actually walk that mile in someone else’s shoes. Now, it should be pretty obvious that most Video Games do not utilise, or even attempt to utilise, this innate quality to the fullest; particularly when it comes to the primary themes and narratives within them. The Last of Us Part 2 is the rare game however, that utilises, and comments on this relationship as a core part of it’s message.

Ok, so this is where I’ll have to get into a bit of plot overview. We play through the majority of the first half of the game as Ellie, who is trying to avenge the murder of her complicated father figure Joel (Who was the protagonist of the first game). Joel dies at the hand of another character who we briefly play as in the introduction, called Abby. Now, Ellie spends her time tearing a hole through the post-apocalyptic Seattle over the course of 3 days, taking out pretty much everything, and everyone, in her wake. All until Ellie finally comes face to face with Abby, at which point the game switches POV, rewinds 3 days, and makes us play as Abby, experiencing her side of events up until this confrontation.

This was a bold move from Naughty Dog, to tear us away from the character we’ve grown to care about over the course of two games. I know I’m not the only one who categorically did not want to play as Abby, as up until that point we felt the same hatred for her that Ellie did. Although it felt uncomfortable at first, I slowly grew to like Abby, and care for her goals. We find out details on why she killed Joel, and how her journey acts as a parallel to Ellie’s. By the 2nd or 3rd day in the timeline, I was fully invested in Abby as a character, and her safety, because though the gameplay we are trying to survive as her. And then we get back to the theatre confrontation with Ellie in Day 3, where we now have to fight Ellie, as Abby.

This section of the game has increased weight because it has taken the time to set up these characters, and make us not only care for them sympathetically; but to empathise with them to the point that we feel the pain caused by both parties. It is genuinely, viscerally uncomfortable to play through, because all though we as Players care for Ellie and don’t wish to see her hurt, we play as Abby who very much does. It’s compounded by the fact that we can truly empathise with Abby, and fully understand why she is willing to fight Ellie to the death for what Ellie has done to her friends. It’s a very powerful sequence which uses the medium to it’s fullest to make the impact land.

The game continues on from here though. Abby lets Ellie go at the end of the fight, and they both head their separate ways. An issue that many people have with the game is what happens after this point and, also how we don’t actually have a choice in what Ellie does in narrative moments. Regardless of whether we want her to or not (I certainly didn’t), Ellie will leave her relatively nice life with her girlfriend Dina to pursue Abby, to set out to achieve what she initially could not. Long story short at the end of all this Ellie decides to let Abby live after a harrowing scene where she tries to forcibly drown her after beating her to a pulp. You don’t get a say in any of this apart from to turn the game off if it is too much. And personally, in this instance, I think the game is much more impactful for refusing the Player that choice.

Look I understand why people wanted, and even expected a choice in letting Abby go at the end. Most games would have given you the choice here, and for a good reason. Often games want us to make a decision on the events, to enable us to further project ourselves onto the character and allow for a narrative which takes into consideration our morals. Decisions in many games play into the power fantasy, of having control in situations where we do not in everyday life. That’s not a criticism of games who do this, I love a lot of games who use choice as a power fantasy to fuel our relationship to the Protagonists; it’s often an excellent use of the interactivity in Video Games. But to be honest, if you thought that TLOU2 ever had any interest in giving you that fantasy; or even that a choice would make sense in terms of the message of the game, then you weren’t paying attention.

The Last Of Us Part II never gives the Player any choice with what to do in a narrative sense. The summation of choice in the game amounts to how you navigate combat arenas, and maybe if you’re lucky or skilled enough; avoid combat with some of the enemies. You don’t get a choice when Abby brutally murders Joel with a golf club before Ellie’s eyes, you don’t get a choice when Ellie beats Nora with a pipe for information on Abby’s whereabouts; you don’t even get a choice when Ellie inadvertently kills a pregnant woman while using psychological torture techniques on Abby’s friends. The game does not care about what the Player wants to do in the moment of these scenes, not because it doesn’t care about the Player, but because it’s trying to challenge the Player’s sense of empathy with the Protagonists.

It’s not a game which provides an easy resolution for any of the themes it raises, so to provide a choice at the end would imply that those easy resolutions exist. If the game was solely about revenge, then maybe a choice would’ve been fitting, but that is just not what the game is solely about. It’s primarily about empathy. Empathy with other people, and how their trauma is as valid as yours; as shown with the dedication to providing full context of both opposing Protagonists. Empathy with the fact that people come from different backgrounds, and face vastly different hardships; as emphasised by the relationship between Abby & Lev. And ultimately, empathy with how people come to make the difficult decisions they do, and the ability to forgive their worst ones; as portrayed in the final scene between Joel and Ellie.

Now The Last of Us Part II is certainly not the first game to focus on the portrayal of empathy through both narrative and systems design (You could play NieR: Automata for a start), but it is probably the most high profile and as such I feel that though it should be commended for attempting it in such a bold way. But hey, if the game succeeded at nothing else, it at least managed to make Pearl Jam have emotional resonance.

I’m a 24 year old student from Derry, Ireland. Rock/Metal enthusiast. I like talking about video games too.