Being grown never stopped me from being a gamer. And it’s not like there was ever anything to be embarrassed about. Games have become as valid an outlet for storytelling as any other media. I’d go further and say games can be better, because they’re interactive. You’re in the thick of it, live, with characters that feel more real than past relationships. The horror, the triumph, the beauty, the loss… In many important ways, it’s deeper immersion than with a book. You’re experiencing it first hand. You’re participating in it.
It seems silly to admit that one of the most moving and deeply personal stories I’ve encountered was Ellie and Joel’s saga in The Last of Us. From the very beginning it broke my heart again and again. I had never faced such a naked portrayal of what it takes to survive when civilization truly fails and the million comforts are stripped away. Nothing is permanent. Everything and everyone you cherish can be snatched away with a flash of cordite. All you will ever keep is what you can physically hold on to…for as long as you draw breath. Powerful.
The ending was complicated.
Where societies have been torn down by a mutant strain of Cordyceps, Ellie’s immunity might save all mankind. To harvest a cure, however, doctors have to open her skull, killing her in the process.
Joel, having lost his young daughter Sarah during the initial outbreak, is hard and cynical. To him, Ellie’s just a parcel to be smuggled like the pills, guns, and ration cards he’s bootlegged for years. Joel delivers Ellie through a broken landscape of merciless gangs and infected alike to the very doctors who will kill her. But by the end of that journey, he loves Ellie so much he rescues her from the operating table at the expense of the entire world.
I’ve spent hours contemplating that decision. I’ve replayed it countless times. And it wouldn’t matter if there was another option. I would rescue Ellie every time.
No matter how often I’ve run through it, I’m emotionally exhausted at the credits. It’s a gorgeous story of tragedy, redemption, and courage. And as much as I’m spent by that journey, I’m more inspired by it. Even though I know the world has been deprived of its best shot for a cure, Ellie and Joel made it. They have each other to fill the gaping holes torn through them early on. And they get a do over in Jackson, Wyoming with family, friends, community. Peace. Stability. Redemption.
For a while.
In The Last of Us Part 2, we’re shown (brutally) how a violent past without justice or forgiveness will haunt the future. We witness how one act of revenge becomes many and then a multitude as the cycle spirals beyond control or comprehension. We’re made to stare at these atrocities over and over as retaliations escalate to full scale war. I can barely watch as characters I adore with all my heart torture and are tortured to death.
Excitement at reunion with these old friends turns as Ellie becomes hopelessly intertwined with her antagonist, Abby. Both have ample reason for revenge, there’s no question. And both are given chances at a fresh start and new life, repeatedly. But neither can break from the other. They choose hatred every time until they are utterly ruined by it.
This is not the story I wanted. It hurts, like being batted around by rusted, iron hands. And after guiding both Abby and Ellie through so much agony and loss, I feel wrung out. I’ve participated in their crimes against one another. In this world, no one is innocent. But they didn’t deserve that.
Abby and Ellie seem to have no other language with which to relate to one another. The message is certainly not lost. If anything, it’s a strident and recurrent motif that acts of violence escalate and multiply beyond control. More over, there is clear cause/effect between taking revenge and seeing your most precious things destroyed. And no matter how disheartening it is to see these beloved faces turning callous, cruel, sadistic, obsessed… It’s frighteningly realistic. Yes, this is probably what the world would be like. And this is hugely depressing.
Ellie and Joel’s first chapter ended with hope, tenderness, and guarded optimism. There are certainly moments of tenderness throughout this second chapter, given breathtaking realism through modern technology and creativity.
The absence of hope in this second chapter is troubling, as is the dire pessimism. It feels so very real, reflected in our headlines every day. I wished Ellie could find a place to feel safe again. I wished her flashbacks would stop so she could sleep in peace. I wished she wasn’t so steeped in regret. I wished she knew how to recognize what was good for her, what was healthy, and choose it.
But that isn’t very realistic, is it?
If anything, it should remind us how much we lose when we commit to bloody combat. And it should doubly remind us that those who have been through trauma like this deserve our patience, love, and support.