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The Last of Us Part II: Searching for Empathy

Risk-taking is a big part of human life: for some of us, it pumps adrenaline in our veins while for others it’s something to be minimised. Risk is also lurking behind those creative endeavours that flourish. After all, putting something new in the world requires embracing the unknown. In this article, I explore the narrative risks surrounding the acclaimed and divisive The Last of Us Part II, a videogame that blew expectations out of the water by relying on risk in order to provide a gaming experience and a story that will ultimately define a generation.

Few interactive mediums have evolved in the last decades as much as videogames have. Their productions have reached Hollywood levels, their worlds have become larger and more immersive and their narratives are some of the wildest, most moving and ambitious stories we’ve been inspired by for years now. However, just like in any other big-budget industry, taking risks, narrative risks, often feels like the opening of the Pandora box. Despite the possibility of a great reward, the fear of uncertainty often prevents studios from daring to open it, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line. On the one hand, narrative risks may hold the potential to alienate players, harm franchises and betray expectations, but on the other hand, if done right, they may help push the boundaries of those same expectations and the perception of what a videogame could and should be further down the line.

The Last of Us Part II is perhaps the most magnifying example that illustrates how much allowing risk to step in the creative process pays off in the end. Just like a Stanley Kubrick film, a Nick Cave album or a Goya painting, this is a game that is as much disturbing and intense as it is moving and capable to make us question ourselves and expand our perception on the human condition. But that wouldn’t be possible had it not been for the courage to open the box and the amount of trust placed in the risk that was taken, would it?

This article is a personal take on my gaming experience of the highly acclaimed and divisive The Last of Us Part II. Hopefully by reading it, you will find ways to connect with the story and the characters who will forever linger in the hearts and minds of those who played them, even if you’re not into videogames or don’t have the necessary patience to spend almost forty hours of your life sobbing and gnashing your teeth in front of a TV.

On the other hand, if you intend to play it, I would encourage you to do so before reading this text and having your experience ruined by unavoidable major spoilers. If still, you wish to proceed, let me tell you that no matter what you read or watch here or elsewhere will be able to match the experience of playing this interactive monolith from beginning to end. 

May She guide you.

Seven years of anxious waiting separate the fateful events from the first chapter of The Last of Us, released in the distant year of 2013, from its emotionally shattering sequel released in the Summer of the ill-fated 2020, which forced the vast majority of fans of this cult franchise to endure pain and suffering for its arrival. For someone like me, who had to wait eleven long, thorny years for a TOOL album, I think the fact that I was spared the wait on the second chapter of this monument can only be connected to some kind of divine reward that was kindly bestowed upon me. I consider myself grateful for being so late for this party, but – oh boy! – I’m bringing all the hype!

The Last of Us is a videogame that transcends any category in which one might want to fit it; the only one that will do it justice is the one in which the largest and most ambitious works of art reside. This game completely changed my perspective on the role videogames can play as artistic vehicles capable of changing the hearts of men and passing on valuable teachings and perspectives able to transform and question our assumptions and visions of the world. Between the two, either I spent years playing the wrong videogames, or games with the complexity and narrative excellence rooted in characters so human and tangible, that elevate The Last of Us to the Olympus of the medium, do not abound. The signature of this article is clear evidence that I am gravitating much more towards the latter.

In the bleak world of The Last of Us, the characters are so flawed and palpable that we get the feeling we inhabit them; we get so swallowed up by the narrative that their dilemmas, fears and the dissonance of their actions and choices touch us in strangely familiar ways. At the end of the second game, I felt engulfed by the razing flames of fury and violence ignited over almost forty hours of play, as if I had been reduced to mere ash by an emotional atomic bomb!

This deeply somber and visceral-to-the-gut interactive fresco is a moving meditation on the maddening pain of loss and the strength needed to overcome it. Long story short, it is an amazing tour de force that proves that it is possible to harmoniously combine breathtaking gameplay, gorgeous anxiety-inducing environments and an absolute searing storytelling masterclass. It is a game that completely transcends the post-apocalyptic genre and such a beautiful and overwhelmingly immersive one that no article will ever do justice to. We have to play it and suffer with it until the last broken notes of Ellie’s guitar consummate the desolation which they leaves us to bear with, echoing for days, weeks, forever, in our hearts and souls.

In such a despairing universe, there are no heroes, there are no villains, nor is there any room left for happy endings; only broken human beings forced to make decisions and bear with the insufferable weight of their consequences. This bloodstained epic tale of compassion, forgiveness, grief and the ability to see other people for what they are ends with the protagonists both broken and emotionally exhausted, which literally mirrors how I felt after finishing it. That being said, I can’t wait to return to the darkness. It’s simply that good!

Vanishing Grace (the Outbreak)

To understand the events that take place in The Last of Us Part II, we must go through the first chapter — set in a grim, dismal future in which a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus begins to spread all across the United States. Within several months, roughly 60% of Mankind was either killed or infected with the fungus. In an early stage of the infection, people start to turn violent and then into blind “clickers”, ghastly creatures with horrid fruiting bodies sprouting from their faces who won’t stop until they rip your guts out.

Yes, playing a post-pandemic game in a pandemic time has a narrowly sadistic irony to it, but it’s also a very effective way to put our current troubling times into a broader, far less spooky perspective. This game doesn’t get to use much of its length to convince us that no matter how bad a situation might be, it could always get a lot, a lot worse. And, in The Last of Us, a tearing pandemic is only the beginning of a seemingly endless heart-rending nightmare.

Twenty years after the disease radically ravaged the face of civilization and “the Infected” have become the ruling class, survivors live in heavily policed quarantine zones, independent settlements and nomadic clans, killing each other for food, weapons, territory and whatever they can get their hands on. In the midst of this disarray, we find Joel, a middle-aged man, whose twelve-year-old daughter, Sarah, died in his arms after being fatally wounded by a soldier while trying to escape the chaos in the suburbs of Austin during the outbreak. The first 10 minutes of the game are very telling of the world of pain we’re about to get into and of the trauma these characters carry within themselves.

Once a friendly next-door neighbour, Joel has gone bitter and grizzled, having become the embodiment himself of a world gone astray. Now working as a smuggler, he gets hired by the Fireflies, a rebel militia opposing the quarantine zone authorities, to escort Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of town. So far, Ellie is the only known person to have survived being bitten by the Infected and she must head out West with Joel, in hopes that the Fireflies will figure out a way to synthesise a vaccine from her immunity. But what starts as a grudging small job for Joel, soon transforms into a brutally bloody, poetically transcendent journey across the pandemic-torn United States.

Grey Areas

En route to the Fireflies’ science lab in Salt Lake City, Joel struggles to remain unattached to Ellie at first, but eventually ends up loving her as a daughter. In a quite dysfunctional way, Joel’s slowly unfolding tenderness towards her takes over the vacant father figure role in Ellie’s life; in turn, protecting and keeping Ellie out of harm’s way translates into a catharsis for the death of a daughter he was unable to save. The interplay between Joel’s cynicism and Ellie’s grit and naive enthusiasm, remarkably shaped by out-of-this-world acting performances and all-time arresting cinematic cutscenes, is what allows their relationship to grow in such touching, profound, human ways — a true marvel that makes this game a modern classic to behold and revisit time and time again.

Four bonding, yet quite distressing seasons after they departed from Boston, Joel and Ellie finally reach the Fireflies’ headquarters, where Joel is told that in order for the scientists to develop a cure, Ellie must die. Sacrificing a 14-year-old girl for a greater good would be a morally acceptable choice for any of us to make in a world where morality is society’s binding tissue; but we’re in a broken world here now. For that reason, watching Joel ruthlessly killing everyone in his way to save Ellie from the surgery room and then lying to her about the incident overruns us with a monumental tidal wave of cognitive dissonance. 

In a medium often defined by giving players the power to choose what happens, thus altering the course of action, The Last of Us is a game that asks us to take the flow of events and the characters as they are. Obviously, there are no imperative answers and one can look at this moral conundrum from many different angles, but what I absolutely love about this climax is how it avoids easy judgements about what’s right and wrong and forces us to surrender to the poetic ambiguity of Joel’s decision instead. It’s the most perfect resolution to a morally complex and mature ending that encapsulates the central themes of love, sacrifice and redemption, while reminding us that our flaws and weaknesses are vital signs of our own existence.

Warming, dim lights in the dark

In the excruciating ambience of The Last of Us, it is through Ellie’s eyes that we recall the lesson that however dark our lives may seem, we must lean towards the light to remind ourselves of the beauty that still perseveres. Despite all the severe trauma, she’s endured prior and throughout the game, Ellie keeps finding reasons to supply her own flame, whether by visiting deserted museums on her birthday with Joel or simply by contemplating a vibrant herd of giraffes grassing on the deserted city rubble, now ostensibly claimed by the seemingly ever-blossoming force with which life finds a way to renewal, even from underneath the sullen ruins of civilization.

As Ellie reaches out to gently cuddle one of the creatures with an innocent child-like joy, we are briefly reminded that she’s only a child, albeit deprived of any semblance to a childhood. To her, the moment is a godsend — one that is cherished and deeply appreciated not only by her and Joel, but also by the player, too. One can get so caught up in the game’s glum survival atmosphere and so invested in these characters’ realities that these moments of incredibly tenuous and rare beauty induce us to contemplate the screen in awe, as the giraffes gracefully disappear behind the jungle of trees and buildings on the horizon. Then, after taking this sweet moment of contemplation, we take a long, deep breath, thinking back on the long journey behind us while fearing dangers yet to come — and then move on to the impending end.

The original score by Gustavo Santaolalla is a hauntingly beautiful piece of art by its own right, but the feelings of nerve-wrecking tension, anger, longing and grief it evokes in the listener are elevated to new heights and amplified with meaning as we are solemnly immersed in the game experience. Without the music, moments like the giraffes or the spaceship wouldn’t be slightly as profound, moving, resonating and powerful. Cheers, amigo Gustavo!

The Second Coming

As a result of the acclaim of the first game, the expectations for The Last of Us Part II, fueled over several years by images, rumors, trailers and jaw-dropping gameplays of an impressive cinematic beauty, could not, naturally, be higher. As I’m finished playing it, I can do nothing but praise a title that has not defrauded the acclaim that precedes it. Of course, not everyone will agree, but what makes this game so divisive is precisely what makes it the Sistine Chapel of its medium.

Unlike the first chapter, The Last of Us Part II is a far more polarising title — not because the game is bad at all, but because of the unprecedently ambitious path its narrative took, which picks up four years later with Joel and Ellie living among a small and thriving community in the Midwest.

Visually, it is hard to believe how a title of this graphic grandiosity, bearing such a responsive world whose scenarios once again cover different styles and climatic phenomena, can be run on a PS4. The attention Naughty Dog (the studio behind TLOU and also the Uncharted series) put into every single detail is absolutely stunning; the game looks and feels so real that the lines between virtual reality and reality itself have never looked so blurred — undoubtedly one of its many achievements that has also been certified by the overwhelming amount of Game of the Year awards the game has been collecting ever since its release.

Also, the traditional and unpredictable oscillation between sweaty moments of tension and deep sighs of relief from the first game remains in this chapter, but are taken to an extreme that makes this game unsuitable for heart patients and the use of diapers a legitimate option. It is a direct continuation of a story with whose characters we are forever emotionally bonded to, a connection of which the game takes full advantage to makes us merge completely into their ordeals as we enter a new chapter in their lives. 

For those who waited, the wait might have been long, but it sure was worth each bitten nail.

Fire and Brimstone

If the first chapter of TLOU was a compelling meditation on the rediscovery of unconditional love and the lengths a parent will go to save a child, TLOU II is a downward spiraling journey to the catacombs of violence and vengeance, while also being the most audacious in-depth analysis of the true meaning of perspective and the search for empathy in the history of the industry.

As the sins of the past come calling, Ellie suffers a harrowing loss and heads out to Seattle to settle one of the bloodiest treks in videogame memory. As players, we couldn’t be more invested in Ellie’s hell-bent journey to Seattle to avenge Joel’s gruesome death at the hands of Abby, a woman whom we have never met up until the moment she decides to bleed Joel’s brains out with a golf club and whose motivations for having done such a cruel act, right after being saved by Joel from a swarm of “clickers”, are unbeknownst to us. Joel’s demise is painful to watch, even more so given the presence of Ellie in the room, powerless to save him and unable to say goodbye to the only father she ever knew. It’s a gut-wrenching, shocking and tear-dropping moment, to say the least, that comes out of nowhere and in such a visceral and cruel way that you can’t help but take a break from the game to process this catalysing event. Eventually, as we mourn Joel’s absence and move out to the Pacific Northwest to hold Abby accountable, we are just as consumed by the same blinding pursuit of retribution as Ellie is. In the wake of her hatred-driven journey, we gradually watch her vanishing humanity detach from herself — bit by bit, kill after kill —, until she alienates and turns into a coldblooded murderer and, eventually, a borderline villain.

Whenever the time comes to kill an enemy, their final breath is drawn with a humanising agony, as they plead for mercy, wailing, with blood pouring from their open throats. Humanising npcs (non-player characters) made each moment we kill someone all the more tormenting and intentional, building up an atmosphere of violence both raw and uncomfortable, even for the bloodletting-tolerant standards of videogamers. However, at no point do we feel it is gratuitous or handled in the name of futile glorification purposes. It is, instead, a necessary token that explores with brilliance the characters’ descent into the depths of Hell and their gradually expanding dehumanisation, fulfilling the Confucianist doctrine that advises one to dig two graves before embarking on a journey of revenge.

After spending three long, sacrificing days in the hunt for Abby’s trail under Seattle’s deluge, it is Abby who ends up finding Ellie to confront her. At this massive cliffhanging point, the narrative rolls four years backwards, as we find ourselves back at the Firefly hospital in Salt Lake City, except this time we do not experience the events that took place in Joel’s nor Ellie’s shoes. Instead, we meet teenaged Abby, a Firefly soldier, doing her best to protect her sweet-tempered father, Jerry, who happens to be the surgeon-in-chief helming the creation of a vaccine that would counteract the virus.

The Circle Game

By putting us in Abby’s shoes at mid-game stage to experience the world through her eyes and try to understand the reasons behind her transgressions, Naughty Dog creates the time and space for us to know and hopefully further understand the most hated character in the world at this point. Such boldness catapults The Last of Us Part II into uncharted territory (wink-wink), passing over and far beyond the familiar frontiers of a run-of-the-mill revenge story.

At this narrative-splitting, structural moment, we are given the initially bittersweet chance to find out who Abby is, as the revelation that she’s been on a four-year revenge tour herself is disclosed. The discovery of her brutally slain father would become a defining moment in Abby’s life and pursuing Joel, the man who doomed her father and Mankind’s hopes of restoring peace to a bitter end, her only priority. Until now, Joel was never the villain in our eyes, but, in Abby’s wrathful world, Joel is the evil incarnate and he must pay for the pain he inflicted upon her.

By following Abby’s footsteps in Seattle up until the fateful moment she encounters Ellie and getting an intimate look on her past and present life, we begin to understand that she is neither more nor less good than Ellie. She is just as entitled to her revenge as Ellie is, their blood trails are both equally rightful and necessary just as they are equally pointless. As we experience those same three days in Seattle with Abby as we did with Ellie, a part of us starts to become linked to Abby, too. When Abby’s timeline merges with Ellie’s and we return to the theatre where they confront each other, I was utterly divided between the two, unable to pick sides anymore, I just wanted the bloodshed to stop (even if it meant less playtime). Unfortunately, to aggravate the anguish, it didn’t. And the unhinged cycle of violence took yet another frantic spin… Until it became too much for anyone to bear.

In the first chapter, you don’t necessarily agree with the way Joel handles things at all times, neither is it the point. Rather, the game wants us to see the world the way Joel sees it, through his own eyes. In doing so, we are able to understand him and develop empathy for the character’s decisions and somewhat neglect the impact of its repercussions. When we are asked to play with Abby and give her a chance, the challenge is even bigger but the song remains the same. In the end, even if we still don’t like her (which I do a lot), at least we can understand the path she took and find ways to empathise with her own journey of redemption.

Breaking the Chains

TLOU II is certainly one of the most daring and beautiful games ever made and definitely Naughty’s Dog magnum opus, whose towering achievement lies upon a massive narrative swing that majestically turns players’ expectations against them, turning them into mere instruments in a two-sided tale of violence to tell a broader story, neither about the quest for retribution nor its glorification, but one that focuses on a valuable lesson about the importance of perspective and the ability to feel clemency for someone who caused such a tremendous woe on ourselves.

Neil Druckmann, the creative force behind TLOU, is destined to go down in History as the owner of the biggest pair of cojones that ever populated the industry of videogames. Daring to make an absurdly challenging sequel to an already sacred game, let alone killing off the protagonist of the first title and forcing players to play the second half of the entire sequel with the woman who killed him, are borderline self-destructive and backlash-inviting decisions most creative directors would not dare to even think about. Knowing his Jewish origins and that he spent his childhood in the West Bank, where he witnessed recurrent episodes of violence between two sides locked in countless cycles of carnage, I get the feeling that the violence-begetting-more-violence concept that underlines this story gains an even more powerful dimension as well as a deeper political meaning that makes this game all the more unsettling and worthy of continuous reflection. 

The Last of Us Part II might have sold four million copies in its first week, becoming PlayStation’s fastest-selling exclusive ever, but it has also drawn review bombers’ attention on an epic scale that ultimately culminated in deplorable proportions. Being a game that holds such a bold emphasis on the themes of violence and the emergence of empathy and compassion, it is also a beautiful tribute to diversity and inclusion that ranges from strong female characters to several others that also may stand for the LGBT community and racial minorities, which makes it an easy target for the divisive outrage disseminated in the shadows of ignorance and hatred inhabiting the internet these days. The anger has come out from almost any direction possible.

While fortunately, the vast majority surrendered to the experience, a residual yet significant percentage refused to engage in it and miserably failed to take the opportunity to be reminded of the lessons they forgot along the way, proving that there’s still a lot of work to be done towards a more tolerant, mature, understanding and empathetic society. It is my true belief that in order to appreciate this game in all its glory, we need to unshackle ourselves from the ego chains tied to our own expectations and desires and give in to a story that really tries to push the envelope on so many levels. The legacy of TLOU resides in the little ego-death we must inflict on ourselves in order to commit open-mindedly to the flow of a story that will take us to places we’ve never been before. If we stick to that purpose, hopefully, in the end, we’ll be one inch closer to start healing the world anew.

Final Note

If you have had the experience of playing The Last of Us Part II, we would love to hear your personal take on it. If this article somehow motivated you to pick up a PS controller and explore this fascinating world, “may your survival be long, may your death be swift”.

Transparency disclaimer

Article written by André Oliveira.
Edited by Nuno Tenazinha.


  • Cover artwork from Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC and Naughty Dog LLC
  • All videos from Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC and Naughty Dog LLC

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André Oliveira