The Last of Us II: A Meditation in Self-Defense
The Last of Us II was controversial on its release, to say the least. A revenge story that makes you play as the target for the second half of the game? Intriguing and frustrating, it was something I'd never seen in a video game before. You get to know every person, even the dogs, that Ellie kills while hunting to kill the second protagonist of the game, a very muscular-looking woman named Abby.
You learn the depths and complexities of these "victims" as you traverse post-zombie-apocalypse Seattle. You learn about the people that love them and rely on them. Families, friends, partners.
You learn about all the things they should have thought about before they threatened Ellie and tracked down her pseudo father-figure, Joel, to torture and kill him.
We learn that Abby and her crew target Joel for the righteous killings delivered by his hand at St Mary Hospital years earlier (the climax of the first volume in the Last of Us franchise). You see, Abby's father was the head surgeon Joel killed. We are treated to a flashback of Abby's dad saving a cat (Zebra) and being a mentor to other kids Abby's age. We're meant to empathize with this man before the rug is pulled out Abby's father wants to surgically remove Ellie's brain - while she is still alive - in an attempt to make a vaccine for the fungus that's turned the majority of the world into zombies. We also find out he's going to do this without asking Ellie or Joel for consent. Abby tells her father that if she was the one with immunity, she'd want him to do the surgery on her.
Vaccines for fungal infections are not possible now, with the full medical research infrastructure intact. It would be impossible for a surgeon to make one in the apocalypse. The first game even implicitly informs players that probability of this vaccine working is extremely slim. We are left to assume that Abby's father was going to kill a 13 year old girl just out of desperation and delusion.
In the present, Abby and her friends have returned to their normal life as members of a fascist military community called the Washington Liberation Front (the "WLF"). Her best friend and partner is Manny, who spit on Joel's corpse as they left. We see Mel, the medic who wrapped a tourniquet around Joel's leg so his torture could be prolonged. She's several months and very visibly pregnant. They pick up Alice, a trained attack dog, who's playing in a pen with another attack dog, Bear.
We spend some time with Abby's fellow kill squad members on patrol, heading to meet the WLF leader. Things are tense between Abby and Mel, with the latter exhibiting trauma due to her role in helping Abby torture Joel (a man who SAVED the life of a 13 year old girl from having her brain removed in some sick science experiment) but still insisting he deserved worse. The people of the WLF are mostly just people trying to live a safe life. There's zombies and raiders in the world. There's a death cult at war with them to control Seattle. Abby's ex and Mel's current boyfriend Owen, who also helped track down and kill Joel, is AWOL, having been disillusioned by the war. We see Abby and several member's team just trying to survive, sometimes in. . . . gratuitous, graphic and immoral detail.
And one by one, over the course of three days, Ellie and Tommy kill all of them but Abby.
First is Jordan. Jordan attacked Ellie while she was trying to save Joel and tried to kill her before being talked down by Owen. Jordan managed to capture Ellie and wanted to torture her for information. She managed to escape her bindings and stab Jordan while he's trying to kill Dina, Ellie's pregnant girlfriend (who, to be clear, was NOT impregnated by Ellie, who is also female).
Ellie and her girlfriend are in danger at all times during this story. The WLF is on a shoot-on-sight protocol which Dina points out is immoral. "What if we'd been refugees?" In order to bring her adoptive father's torturers and executioner to justice, Elli is forced to kill nearly any person or any thing that stands in her way - including several of the guard dogs that we see later.
Next is Nora, who attacks Ellie after Ellie tracks Nora down in her hunt for Abby. Nora, facing Ellie once again, reiterates that Joel deserved to be tortured. Nora refuses to give up Abby so Ellie is once again forced to get the information by applying the same method they used on Joel.
Eventually Ellie finds her way to Owen and Mel, but not before being forced to kill the dog Alice in self-defense. Owen attacks Ellie and is shot in the chest. Mel tries to stab Ellie, who disarms her and stabs Mel in the neck with her own knife.
Its then that Owen reveals that Mel is pregnant, currently hidden by a heavy coat.
There are many more scenes like this through out this game. While many look at this game as an exercise in empathy, it is really a full throated endorsement of self-defense. At no point in Ellie's quest is she ever not in danger. The enemies can cry out their friend's after they're killed all they want, but they chose to join this paramilitary organization. They made the choice to take these patrol details. There's even moments in the game where the enemies will beg for their life. If Ellie tries to spare them, they will try to kill her anyway. The pregnant woman who Ellie stabs makes no attempt to tell Ellie that she's pregnant. She doesn't stop to think about her unborn child. She throws herself and her child in harms way in a moment of passion and gets them both killed.
How many of Abby's friends have to die because Abby needed to torture a man who killed her own murderous father?
All of them.
That's why we shift perspectives. We need to see what all of these people threw away to go after Joel. Because of their actions, dozens of WLFs are killed. Several dogs. The organization's leader dies. An unborn child.
And for what?
Every person in the world has someone who cares about them. Someone loves them. Someone relies on them. Their absence would be felt for years. These are things to consider before acting in self-defense.
But these are things they should've considered before pointing their guns at Ellie. Threatening Ellie's family doesn't just put Abby in danger. It threatened and ultimately resulted in the mutilation of nearly everyone Abby cared about.
The genius of The Last of Us II is that it shows us the ripple effects of Abby's selfish drive, and how that cascades into a whirlwind of tragedy for everyone around. Joel was acting in self-defense when he killed her father. But her need for revenge put everyone she cares about in danger. It causes all of them to act rashly and put Ellie in self-defense situations.
All of these people, these relationships, lost in the Seattle rain.