Major spoilers. Do not continue reading if you haven’t finished the game.
As children we instinctively use our feelings in order to interpret reality, resulting to a simplified version of it. There were some cases during our childhood that we truly believed for some brief moments that our mom was inherently bad for not buying us the toy we wanted. In the very moment that we realized we wont take what we wanted, unpleasant emotions emerged, sadness and anger, caused by our own mom. So our mom must be bad, she doesn’t love us enough, why else she makes us feel that way? Or maybe she actually did bought us that toy, in which case we believed that she was the best human being in the world. An emotional roller coaster. The thing is that neither is true, people are not only good or bad. As children, we couldn’t understand the complexity of the world and the reasons behind our parent’s or any other people’s actions. This mechanism had also the effect to idealize people. We believed that our parents, our teachers or even most adults know pretty much everything and that they are always right.
Growing up is a process, during which we gradually identify less with strong feelings and we gradually understand the complexity of the world. People are not either bad or good, based on how they make us feel. People are complex beings. The world is not black and white, it’s pretty gray. People have reasons behind their actions and even if something feels good it doesn’t mean it’s right or ethical. And as a result, the emotional attachment that we have to some people lose its grip and we can see more clearly if they are indeed right or not.
Playing Last of Us II made me experience a light version of this universal process. Before starting the game I was really excited to see what will happen to Ellie and Joel, these two characters that we all loved in the first part. Suddenly, this masculine girl, Abby, comes and brutally kills Joel in front of Ellie with no apparent reason. I instantly empathize with Ellie, I am angry. Ellie wants revenge, I want revenge. We play 15 hours as Ellie trying to find and kill Abby. And then right when we reach climax, the game give us to control Abby. I couldn’t imagine that I would play half of the game with a character I do not care so I thought it would be a temporary flashback. But it kept going. I don’t enjoy playing with Abby. I do not really care for her or her friends. Why the game do this to me?
Then the game starts to show us her background story, moments of her childhood, the connection with her dad. This simplified two dimensional version of “the masculine evil girl” starts to have some depth, as we get more information about her. We get the Ellie’s scene in the museum and Abby’s in the aquarium, which from an emotional perspective is similar. Are Ellie and Abby as much different as our good vs bad perception of the world suggests? So the game continues and show us how the “wolfs” live. We walk with Abby in their stadium, in their infirmary, where WLF members are suffering from their wounds and makes us wonder: why this suffering exists? What kind of lives would these people had if Joel made a different decision in the finale of the first part? Are there any reasons of why Abby is so much angry with Joel, that our emotional attachment with him force us to ignore?
Let’s be honest. The wise and rational thing to do from an ethical point of view is to allow Ellie die in St Mary’s Hospital and create the vaccine. It is actually pretty selfish to save Ellie. Ellie is unconscious, she is not going to suffer, she will never know what happened, and we end up with saving millions of people from agonizing suffering, we bring back civilization as we know it. The only person that will truly suffer from creating the vaccine is Joel. Ellie’s loss will produce negative emotions and suffering, but only to Joel. Saving Ellie means that his suffering (of losing a beloved one) matters more than the suffering of millions (caused not only by losing their beloved ones, but by just existing in such a world), something just not true. So he decides to kill more people to save Ellie (including Abby’s dad, the only person that could create the vaccine and save humanity) and condemns millions to live in suffering until they die painful and brutal deaths. The suffering that could be prevented is just unimaginable. This is the point of view of Abby. Is she wrong? Not really, because even if saving Ellie feels good, doesn’t make it right. Now, in this point of the game, I am a bit angry with Joel, his immaturity and his lack of this kind of wisdom.
Of course seeking revenge and brutally killing Joel does not change a thing, this is the part where Abby is blinded by her emotions creating even more suffering (to Ellie, Tommy and in consequence to herself). This is another core concept of the game: revenge leads to a pointless cycle of violence and suffering. Even if you feel that revenge will alleviate the suffering from a previous loss, it will actually create even more suffering as we see until the very end of the game, but the characters fail dramatically to see how all these work, creating suffering to their future selves. Then, Ellie wants to take revenge from Abby and the vicious circle begins, resulting to torturing Nora and killing a pregnant woman. So both girls were normal children loving and loved by their friends and families ending up brutally murdering people, motivated by revenge. Are Ellie and Abby that different? Or are they just different sides of the same coin?
Here is the point where the player starts to see the grayness and the complexity of the world. Started with white and black, Ellie and Abby, good and evil, and finally ended up with empathizing both of them. They are both gray, maybe a different shade of gray, but the contrast doesn’t exist anymore.
Abby starts to see it too: the most notorious Scars killer starts to help some of them, even killing WLFs when necessary. She seems to have come to the understanding that tribalism between WLF and Seraphites is another filter that distorts reality to this black and white version. The story with Abby and Lev immerse the player into the world where tribes kill each other by the masses, creating massive death and suffering and lacking the basic understanding that they are all part of the same team. They live and die with the illusion that the members of their own tribe are humans and the members of the antagonistic tribe are less of a human. But, they are part of the same team, the living humans struggling for survival, fighting a common enemy, the infection.
Of course tribalism (another core concept of the story) is just a different interpretation of the same phenomenon: reality is too complex and we want to simplify it in order to understand it. However, tribalism was useful in the past: caring about your tribe in such an extent is evolutionary advantageous. So it is no surprise that our brains work in this way, as we inherited them from the ancestors that survived and reproduced due to their tribal instincts, providing us with “tribal” genes. We can actually see this mechanism in ourselves, while playing the game: Ellie, Joel and Tommy is part of our tribe, the only ones we truly care. The first impression we get from Abby is that she attacks our tribe, we instantly hate her. Also familiarity and tribalism are closely connected. Ellie’s team is familiar to us, we know them, is our tribe, we have to protect them. Abby is not familiar. Even Abby’s appearance is unusual (hence not familiar), something which may enhances the effect of the outsider, the enemy. But the game slowly and beautifully show us that there is more to that, the world is indeed more complex.
The game touches a lot of concepts in an organic way and is capable of making the player to experience their effects first hand. Experiencing the process of outgrowing the black and white ideas about a situation and developing different emotions for the same situation, is a great example of proper storytelling. The amazing graphics and the world design (every map was carefully designed in detail) in combination with this story makes the game a unique 30-hour experience. I know many had a totally different experience from playing the game, but based on the above I would say that Last of Us II is a masterpiece.