The Last of Us 2 is the extremely rare AAA (big budget) game that insists on the integrity of its artistic vision by refusing to pander to the entertainment preferences of a wider audience. Indeed, it is not meant to entertain so much as it is designed to place one within the hearts and minds of characters who carry immense grief and trauma. This direct involvement is the gift that video games, more than any other artistic medium, can offer. In TLOU2 it means making one complicit in the choices and, often brutal, actions that the characters’ unresolved traumas create.
Trauma is painful. It keeps one stuck in the past. If left unresolved, it impacts one’s sense of self by preventing new experiences from being integrated and, thus, new narratives from being written. If I am stuck in the past then how can I possibly imagine a future? This is where we find ourselves in TLOU2. That it is not fun is vital to the integrity of a game about loss and trauma (and eventually redemption). The love, pain, grief and hatred of these characters make for an unspeakably powerful experience, but certainly not a comfortable one.
TLOU2 asks a lot of us. Perhaps more than any game ever has. The meaning and edification of the experience can only be accessed through an abundance of empathy and nuance. The courage of the artistic vision is that, in essence, it puts all of its narrative eggs into one basket: EMPATHY. Can we empathize with the other and see the flaws in ourselves? Are we willing to walk in the shoes of the other? Become the other? Love the other? Can this be the path to redemption? A way through trauma and grief? It is in these questions that we find, not only what is challenging about the game, but the spiritual core of it. It is also the reason the game seems to spark so much controversy and hatred.
It appears that many were invested in the commodification of the game; they wanted a feel-good experience where they could be the heroes of the narrative. Instead they were pulled into a painful and brutal world where the violence is not fun but rather a deeply disturbing symptom of unresolved trauma. They were asked to to empathize with the antagonist; to play as the antagonist, and therefore, forced to experience the world from another point of view. In short, the game threatened to evaporate the fragile illusions on which their false comfort rests.
There is no hero in the universe of the TLOU2. There are just people. People in pain. People who have lost their way. People who are doing their best. People struggling with grief; painfully struggling to create meaning after loss. People flailing in the face of their trauma. There are no heroes or villains because seeing the world through both points of view destroys those concepts. But to acknowledge that is to acknowledge that there are no heroes or villains in our own lives and that the constructs we hold which rest on this are feeble, limiting and even dangerous.
There are a great many intelligent critiques of the game. Critiques about pacing and timing and how the narrative could have been better. I love these. I can feel that there is no hatred within them; that there is no resistance to empathy. They read and sound like the points of view of people who care; whether it be about the game or gaming in general. These voices are helpful to me because they challenge me.
But in the spirit of TLOU2…in the interest of staying true to its spiritual core, I say this to those who are simply angry: I get it. I miss Joel too. I miss his unflappable love for Ellie. I love Ellie and it hurt to watch her lose her way. Sometimes things are too painful to experience. Sometimes when I’m hurting I avoid watching certain films or books because I feel too fragile. Sometimes when we love someone we can feel angry at them for falling; it’s our helplessness that makes us angry. You felt helpless. You wanted something better for Ellie and Joel. I get it. I hope you can acknowledge the fragility that lies beneath your anger. But if you don’t…it’s okay. Sometimes I just feel angry too.