The Last of Us Part II: A philosophical review (big spoilers)

“Before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” Confucius.

Last week the video game “The Last of Us Part II” was released. I have previously written on how video games can be a useful way to communicate philosophical problems and ethical dilemmas. And after playing, this game is no exception. Before I write any further, there will be significant spoilers in this review so do not read this unless you have completed the game.

The theme of this game is the idea of revenge. I have always enjoyed a good revenge story. One of my favourites is The Count of Monte Cristo, a classic revenge story. The game is played from the perspective of two characters: Ellie and Abby. Ellie’s story follows from the The Last of Us part I. The world of The Last of Us is basically a zombie apocalypse, and Ellie is the only human immune. A man named Joel took her on a journey to provide a group called ‘The Fireflies’ the means to create a vaccine against the zombie virus. However, Joel discovered that providing the vaccine meant killing Ellie. So, Joel rescued Ellie from the Firefly facility and killed many Fireflies in the process.

In the Last of US part II (once again spoiler time) Joel is tortured and murdered by the other character Abby. The story reveals that Abby was the daughter of a surgeon working for the fireflies. And this surgeon was the one who was going to do the fatal surgery on Ellie. Joel murdered this surgeon whilst rescuing Ellie. After Joel’s murder, the story follows Ellie whilst she pursues Abby. Roughly halfway through the game, the story becomes dedicated to Abby, both before and after murdering Joel.

This approach to story based video games is a brilliant approach to this issue of revenge. From playing both perspectives, this provides a means for empathy for both the protagonist and the antagonist. This can be done in movies and television. However, having both the protagonist and antagonist as playable characters distributed equally throughout the game has an additional advantage. This advantage was observed by Marcus Schultze (2012), who argued that video games have the ability to make the audience an active participant in a story instead of a passive observer. From this active participant perspective, this allows for more of an impact on the consequences of the character’s actions.

Feeling the consequences of Ellie’s pursuit for revenge at any cost was done both brilliantly and brutally. The first half of the game whilst as playing Ellie you kill and torture in Ellie’s pursuit of Abby. In the second half of the game you play as Abby and the game drives deep into the love and friendship she has with the people you killed whilst playing as Ellie. This drew out an emotion in me called ‘agent regret’. Agent regret was coined by Bernard Williams, who explains this as when we regret something even though we couldn’t have done otherwise. Williams gives the example of a trolley driver who runs over a person who steps on to the track. Even though the driver is blameless, she feels a sense of regret beyond that of a passive bystander. Williams argues that most of us would view this reaction as reasonable.

The reason I felt this agent regret was because even though I had no option (other than turning off the game of course), I felt the regret of Ellie’s actions. This would not be same regret as watching a film with all of this playing out. By playing as the character, I inherited a share of the responsibility. This is the effect Schultze was referring to in his contrast between active participant and passive observer.

This approach also created a moral dilemma. There was a point in the game where I was playing as Abby fighting Ellie, but I didn’t want to win the fight. This is where the game did something ingenious where the player didn’t want to win the game (gladly winning the fight did not result in killing Ellie). However, at this stage the game had done enough character development for players to want Abby to win. Thus, the game completely turned the tables on the common revenge story of ‘good guy pursues and defeats bad guy’.

Overall, this game did a great job at putting us in the drivers seat on the destructive path a journey of revenge can leave behind.

If you are interested in the political philosophy of identity politics, my book Contrasting Identities is available for purchase in the link below: