The Last of Us Part II has twisted strong extremes out of the audience, and the narrative of Naughty Dog’s play raises a number of issues that are worth examining from a psychological perspective.

Maybe so much time has passed and so much pro-cons has been believed that it is possible to talk about the impact of a game without tempers, taking into account professional aspects. I’m aware that The Last of Us 2 didn’t come in for everyone, yet I would stand by it, if only because I think it’s a very brave experiment that has never been seen before in video games. The developers weren’t deterred from creating a story that envelopably shared players and alienated a large camp of former fans (to put it mildly). However, this was not done for no reason. They wanted to elaborate on everyday, yet defining themes in the game that are deeply thought-out and could thus have a positive impact on the lives of the players.

Revenge above all

It was already known from the trailers that the main theme of the game would be revenge, only it was not clear (until the leaks) who was revenge for Ellie and by whom. This is followed by spoiler content, and I’ll cut into the middle of it too: the developers sacrificed Joel because that way they could ensure that we really feel like players, identify with Ellie’s anger. They could have killed Dina, too, and we probably would have felt Ellie’s pain even then, but since Dina is a new character unknown to us, the feeling would have been far from as bone-penetrating as Joel’s loss.

So the goal of the developers was to get us through the anger and the desire for revenge, to think without killing everyone who had the slightest part in Joel’s murder.

And this is not difficult to identify with, because revenge is thought to be a cathartic experience, the only thing that can bring peace and reassurance in such a situation by providing justice, thus restoring world order.

However, research paints a very different picture of revenge. One important finding in psychology is that revenge is cyclical in nature. The reason for this is that we are biased against ourselves: if we take revenge, we feel that we are serving the truth and restoring the order of the world, while if we are taking revenge, we feel it is exaggerated and unjust, and therefore we consider it justified by another to avenge the grievances inflicted on us.

The same cyclical dynamics can be recognized in the game. Abby swears revenge for her father, then Ellie swears revenge for Joel, then Abby swears for her friends, then Ellie swears for Joel again, and of course they both feel their revenge is legitimate, which will eventually reset the balance and bring them the reassurance. However, this could not be further from reality.

The game beautifully shows that, in the end, neither Abby nor Ellie is what revenge is all about. What’s more, in Abby’s story, it shows up very plasticly: since her father’s murder, she’s been tormented by nightmares that don’t go away at all after her revenge is fulfilled.

What ultimately brings Abby inner peace is the moment she begins to care for the two children and save Yara. And to my sincere pleasure, at the very end of the game, Ellie realizes that revenge isn’t the solution, but more on that later.

Revenge, according to science, is also very rarely satisfactory. Although we assume that it will bring reassurance, catharsis, practice shows otherwise: research proves that those who take revenge feel worse than those who do not have the opportunity to do so. And the possible explanation is that those who have the opportunity to take revenge will chew on what happened for a long time even after their actions, thus remaining in a negative emotional state.

In contrast, those who have no way of revenge will move on after a while, focus on other things, and feel better. The only exceptions to this are cases where the culprit gives feedback that he understands that revenge was the result of his action. At such times, the avenger may feel that revenge has made sense, and so he too can move on.

When our hearts really break

Another central theme of the game is empathy. Moreover, I will go further and say that The Last of Us Part II is nothing more than a very interesting experiment in empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand, feel, and respond to the feelings of others in an appropriate way, with compassion, taking into account the other’s point of view.

Empathy basically develops in childhood, but research shows that it also has genetic roots and can be developed beyond childhood. For this, they also suggest various practices that appear to be effective based on research.

Such a practice is, for example, to listen to others, even strangers, with sincere attention, focusing entirely on their point of view, not thinking about what we are going to answer or why they are wrong. Volunteering is also an effective practice when we experience first-hand how members of other social groups live and think.

Another good example of this is the story of his 1984 writer, George Orwell, who, with a privileged social background, decided to try what it was like to live with the homeless. He also wrote a book on this as a Tramp in Paris.

The Last of Us Part II forces us into a similar situation. The Naughty Dog expects nothing less from us than to pick up the shoes of “our father’s” killer and walk in it for about 10 hours. And this is really a man-trying task, and some players are unwilling to do it.

I’ve heard opinions that it would have been plenty enough to show that Abby is the daughter of the doctor, it wouldn’t have taken such a long Abby playing time to understand what the game was going to be and to be able to deal with her empathy.

I agree with this in that I also had a few moments to start empathizing with Abby, and I even liked it very quickly, but at the same time I feel that the 10 hours of “joint” play has developed a different, much deeper connection between us.

Even if we were able to feel his situation for the first time, we really knew and loved him through playing with him (who doesn’t have a shirt…), we started to become attached to him, to worry about him. Which is all essential for the two bossfights to work the way the developers wanted them to. As Abby, we fight Ellie, and vice versa, and in both cases we feel miserable because we understand, love, and want to see both characters happy.

It is also interesting in this regard that while some of the players were open to this attempt at empathy, others were rigidly rejected. We also know from research that empathy is a scale on which we are placed in different parts. I would guess that the degree of rejection acceptance is most likely to be related to who ranks where on this imaginary scale of empathy.

However, since empathy can be developed, ND’s experiment is certainly remarkable and psychologically incredibly exciting. And here I would throw in the commonplace that video game as a genre is best suited for this: not only do we imagine what it would be like to walk in the other’s shoes, but we actually pick it up and wear it for a long time, which is a completely different level of experience.

You have to let go once

Well, let’s get back to the central themes of the game. While at first it may seem that the game is about revenge, in reality, both revenge and empathy are just tools. I think the main message and central theme of the game is forgiveness. And it unfolds this beautifully, step by step, holding surprises until the last minute. Ellie embarks on a revenge campaign that we can very easily identify with through our own attachment to Joel.

By the end of the journey (game), however, we realize that Ellie doesn’t really have to take revenge, but has to learn to forgive. He walks (and as a player we walk) the terribly painful path of losing everything and everyone to get to true forgiveness. And the ingenious screw comes here.

Even though he sets out to kill Abby twice, the second time that our hearts are literally broken because of it, it’s not Abby who Ellie has to forgive, but Joel and herself.

Ellie guesses all the way through and then makes sure that Joel lied to her and can’t process it. He feels that Joel has deprived him of gaining real meaning from his life (through his death). Plus, they can’t even talk about it (mainly because Joel doesn’t dare to be honest with him), they just suffer while loving each other more than anything.

Then it also turns out that before Joel’s death, they finally managed to talk honestly with each other, and Ellie wants to forgive, which is a huge relief for both of them. Ellie, however, then has to go through a very long and very painful journey to really get to forgiveness, which in the meantime has become even harder with Joel dying.

The idea that forgiveness primarily dissolves the one who made the mistake holds strong. And the fact is that if someone makes a mistake, repents of it, and asks for forgiveness, that forgiveness provides a release, but it is a mistake that if we are angry with someone, we are primarily harming them by not forgiving them. The lack of forgiveness is primarily detrimental to those who resent the other.

The simple reason for this is that anger, rage, or resentment are negative emotional states that are very harmful. Research clearly demonstrates that anger has a number of detrimental health consequences: for example, it increases the risk of heart attack, weakens the immune system, and is linked to depression. Therefore, when we forgive, we are primarily doing ourselves a favor. It is also important that forgiveness does not mean approving what has happened (e.g. in the case of a rape) and is independent of whether the other deserves it or not.

The essence of forgiveness is that we accept what happened, the way it happened, we don’t chew on it anymore, we don’t want to change the past, and thus we are able to move on and be happy again.

And in that sense, Ellie doesn’t need Joel to forgive her. Strange as it may seem, you can do it without Joel alive anymore. It is also common for us to have difficulty dissolving because we don’t realize that we are actually angry with ourselves.

And this is also wonderfully exemplified by the game through Ellie. We believe for a long time that the anger and rage he feels is primarily directed at Abby. Then by the end of the game, it slowly becomes clear that Ellie is at least as angry with herself for pushing Joel away from herself as she is for Joel or Abby. And in spite of a lot of suffering and loss, I felt happy about the story because through forgiveness, Ellie will finally be free again and somehow, and the way will open up for her to a happier future.

All in all, then, I can say that this is an insanely exciting game that explores very serious topics and is incredibly bold to experiment with, thus expanding the boundaries of video game as a genre and its potential. And that’s why (if we discuss other elements as well) in my opinion, Naughty Dog definitely deserves praise.

Orsolya Király, a researcher at the Addiction Research Group of the Institute of Psychology at Eötvös Loránd University, who studies the psychological aspects of video games, especially players’ motivations and problematic use (or “addiction”).

  • Developer: Naughty Dog
  • Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Platform: PlayStation 4
  • Style: Action, Adventure, Surviving Horror
  • Appearance: 6/19/2020

In the second part of the cult The Last of Us, we go five years after the events of Naughty Dog’s survival adventure, when the infected are still a huge threat to survivors, but other living people often cause an even bigger problem: Ellie experiences this on her own skin when we take over take control of it in a brand new, more exciting, emotional and fantastic story than before.