You spend a fair amount of time in The Last of Us Part II scrounging for materials. Ellie finds various screws, bottles, scissors, bandages, and liquids hidden in numerous compartments around Seattle. Those items are a necessity when fighting the infected hordes. But there are other collectibles as well, ones that aren’t as vital, but just downright cool to look at. These come in the form of comic book trading cards. On the front of these cards are illustrative images, with the character’s name and portrait. On the back are bios, along with the character’s power levels and intelligence. Then, on the bottom, is a spectrum that shows where the characters fall between the extremes of hero and villain. Although there is a “neutral” category, these cards imply that in this fictional world, it’s easy to delineate the good guys from the bad ones. The darkness from the light.
That’s not the case in the actual game world of The Last of Us. It’s difficult to reduce any character in this game down to simply good or evil. It’s harder still, to tell whether you should support a character’s actions. Joel’s decision to save Ellie in Part I arguably makes him a monster. Ellie’s safety came at the cost of potentially saving the entire human race. And Joel’s murder of Jerry, who just so happens to be Abby’s father, is what incites the plot of Part II. But Jerry’s willingness to kill Ellie so he can make the cure is arguably unethical as well. Abby’s murder of Joel is cruel and in no way justifiable, and Ellie’s pursuit of Abby leaves countless people dead.
While these characters do have moments that show the goodness that is within their human selves, it is their dark sides that are most readily apparent. But their darkness is no less human than their better qualities, and it’s this fact that enables us, as players, to see their common humanity. Druckmann uses relative morality to show that there are no heroes, and in doing so enables us to empathize with our enemies on a much larger scale. The cycle of violence that each character participates in is only ended when they recognize the darkness not only in their adversaries but within themselves as well.
Naughty Dog accomplishes this by telling their story from two separate points of view. Ellie’s half begins by instilling within the player a deep instinctual rage towards Abby for the murder of Joel. As the player travels with Dina to Seattle, if he or she feels nothing but hate towards the members of the WLF, then Neil Druckmann has done his job well. While the body count that Ellie builds in pursuit of Abby may have players questioning Ellie’s motives and actions, their anger at Abby still resides. The deaths of Nora, as well as that of Mel and Owen by Ellie’s hands, are a major signpost that Ellie’s revenge is taking its toll on her. In both cases, she is visibly shaken by her vengeance. Dina has to calm her after Nora’s murder, and Ellie is shocked when she sees that Mel’s baby died with her.
Then the point of view switches as players are asked to ego-identify with Abby. This is a hard sell at first, as they are no doubt reluctant to play as the character who murdered Joel. But as Abby’s campaign continues, players are given a window into her world. The reason for her anger, that Joel murdered her father, is revealed. However, the lighter side of her humanity is also shown, as she struggles to save both Lev and Yara from the Seraphites. Abby’s internal journey mirrors that of the player, as she learns to see from two of her former enemies’ perspectives. The “Scars” as the WLF calls them, are shown to have a culture, faith, and viewpoint of their own, even though this culture has been warped by dark practices.
There’s a particular set piece in Abby’s section of the game that showcases the Seraphite’s more human elements. Abby comes across an altar that has hundreds of various prayers scribbled on pieces of paper affixed to it, asking the prophet for various favors. When these are read, Abby scoffs at them, mocking the faith. In contrast, when Abby reaches the Serpahite’s island, she experiences the faith of Yara and Lev in a positive light.
Unfortunately, the cycle of violence pulls Abby back into darkness when Ellie murders her friends. Indeed, when seen from Abby’s point of view, it’s Ellie that deserves punishment. After both Mel and Owen are killed, she confronts Ellie in the game’s first boss fight between the two characters.
Many have criticized this encounter, claiming that they did not empathize with Abby enough to desire Ellie’s death. They’re missing the point. This battle is meant to make players feel uncomfortable with Abby’s revenge. Her vengeance serves as a counterpart to Ellie’s, bringing them both to the same dark monstrous level once again. Only innocent Lev can prevent Abby from slitting Dina’s throat and adding to the carnage.
Ellie’s life a year later is picturesque. She lives on a peaceful farm with Dina as well as Jesse’s son. All the violence seems to be in the past, but she’s now suffering from PTSD, as she has flashbacks of Joel’s death and cannot sleep. Tommy’s arrival and his information on Abby’s whereabouts pull Ellie once again back into the cycle of violence. She’s so tormented by everything that has happened that she craves closure and is willing to sacrifice the perfect family life to have it.
When Ellie attempts to engage Abby in combat for the final time, Abby refuses to fight back. After living through so much violence, both committed by her and to her, she’s exhausted. But Ellie forces her hand by threatening Lev. This fight’s depiction is brutally violent. By the end of the struggle, Ellie has lost two of her fingers. Nonetheless, she’s able to force Abby under the water. Only seconds before Abby is dead, Ellie has a mental image of Joel peacefully sitting on his porch with his guitar. At this moment, Ellie releases Abby from the chokehold and allows her and Lev to go free.
The reason Ellie relents isn’t explicitly spelled out, but rather implied. During the final scene of the game, when Ellie returns to the farm and finds it empty, she attempts to play Joel’s guitar. Unfortunately, her missing fingers make the task impossible. Instead, her mind flashes back to a conversation she had with Joel when he was alive:
Ellie: You’re such an asshole.
Joel: I’m not trying to–
Ellie: I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered. But you took that from me.
Joel: If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment, I would do it all over again.
Ellie: Yeah…I just…I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But, I would like to try.
Joel: I’d like that.
Ellie’s flashback to Joel during the fight implies that what she values most is the times when Joel was at peace. She stops choking Abby because she wants to honor Joel’s memory. Ellie recognizes the darkness in herself and knows that if she progresses further down the road she is on, she won’t be able to forgive herself, much less forgive Joel for his own darkness. She definitely hasn’t forgiven Abby, but letting Abby go allows her to start on the road towards peace within herself. The fact that this is the final flashback of the game is no coincidence. Although Ellie has lost Dina and J.J., she now realizes the importance of letting go of her resentment towards Joel. She is on the road to forgiving him. Leaving his guitar behind is an act of putting to rest her anger and conflicted feelings towards Joel.
By telling a story in which Joel, Abby, and Ellie all struggle with their inner darkness, Naughty Dog teaches players the importance of empathy and seeing others’ perspectives. In the world of The Last of Us, moral relativity becomes a tool not for darkness or nihilism, but for breaching the gulfs characters have between them. If we can carry this way of looking at the world over into real life, we will all benefit.