BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 14 JUL 20

‘The Last Of Us Part II’ Provokes an Online Skirmish

The latest game in the popular series could mark a sea change in a market long dominated by bigotry 

BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 14 JUL 20

Spoiler alert – this article divulges the narrative of The Last of Us Part II.

When the sequel to the hugely popular video game The Last of Us (2013) was released on Playstation 4 this June, it triggered mass hysteria among gamers. YouTubers uploaded videos of themselves ranting and screaming. Online forums buzzed with accusations of betrayal and ideological conspiracy. Actors involved in the game’s production and employees at the game’s developer, Naughty Dog, were subjected to rape threats and antisemitic harassment. What, you might ask, could possibly have provoked such a reaction? The death of a character named Joel, The Last of Us’s beloved father figure. Murdered, no less, by a woman emanating so much ’big dyke energy’ she could put the national grid out of business.

The Last of Us Part II, 2020. Courtesy: Naughty Dog 

The debacle over The Last of Us Part II is the latest skirmish in an identity-political battle that has been waging online since the early 2000s. On the one hand are those who would like to implement a wholesale societal privilege-check and overturn the cis white hetero-patriarchy; on the other are those who feel themselves under siege from misandrists bent on imposing their rules on a territory they do not own. Because of the gaming industry’s enormous reach – globally, it’s worth more than the music and film industries combined – it has long been a key battleground, and all manner of grifters, nihilists and ideologues have attempted to fan the flames to their advantage. Arguably the most successful among them is Steve Bannon, whose media strategy during the campaign to elect Donald Trump to the White House partly involved harnessing the long-simmering malcontent of white male gamers since 2014's ‘Gamergate’. As recounted in Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency (2017), Bannon learned how to do this, he said, by observing the online communities that sprung up around the game World of Warcraft back in 2005, and realizing that ‘these guys, these rootless white males, had monster power’.

Presciently, given the current COVID-19 pandemic, The Last of Us series is set in a sick US. A parasitic fungus is turning the infected into violent, freaky-looking mushroom monsters. Navigating this nightmare are the two protagonists, Joel and a 14-year-old named Ellie. Joel is the archetypal ‘sad dad’ hero. His hobbies include playing guitar, being egregiously wronged by the world, committing righteous murder with an array of firearms, wearing plaid shirts, speaking in a gravelly voice and defending young girls from evil. (The stuff that MAGA dreams are made of.) After his daughter is killed, he takes Ellie under his wing. During the 25 hours it takes to complete the original game, Joel found place in millions of gamers’ hearts. 

The Last of Us Part II, 2020. Courtesy: Naughty Dog 

Then, just like that, he was gone. Within the first hour of The Last of Us Part II, Joel is graphically battered to death with a golf club. His murderer, a woman named Abby, has the physique of a cartoon bodybuilder. For the rest of the game, Abby replaces Joel as one of the two main characters. Anger at Joel’s death was exacerbated by the apparent queering of the narrative. In the run-up to the release, discontent had already started to surface amongst gamers: hackers leaked parts of the plot, trailers teased a lesbian narrative and the scent of the cursed ‘agenda’ was in the air. In the sequel, a 19-year-old Ellie has a girlfriend named Dina, who becomes her travelling companion as she seeks to avenge Joel’s death. Owing to the skill of the voice actors, and the use of motion capture for the cinematic interludes, their romance is surprisingly tender – their first kiss takes place at a barn dance, their second while high on weed. During the remainder of the game, players also uncover the motives behind Abby’s actions and meet her friends. Included among them is a man named Lev who has escaped from an intolerant religious order. The characterization of Lev, who is trans, has been criticized by those who object to a backstory that involves dead-naming – the use of the birth or other former name of a transgender or non-binary person without their consent.

The Last of Us Part II, 2020. Courtesy: Naughty Dog 

The symbolism of the death of the father figure proved too much for some to bear: Laura Bailey, the actor who voices Abby, has been on the receiving end of apoplectic abuse. It doesn’t take much to invoke the wrath of online chauvinists. Just ask Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian, both of whom became the targets of a ferocious campaign of harassment during the Gamergate incident . Quinn’s ‘crime’ was making Depression Quest (2013), a game about living with mental health, while Sarkeesian’s was creating a YouTube series analyzing gender tropes in video games. Sarkeesian has since become a kind of bogeywoman, blamed for all kinds of man-hating goings-on – including conspiring with The Last of Us’s developers to implement a feminist coup.

The Last of Us Part II, 2020. Courtesy: Naughty Dog 

Despite the backlash and controversy surrounding the game, on its release it sold four million copies worldwide within three days – a new record for the Playstation 4 console. To put this in context, when Beyoncé released Lemonade, the best-selling album of 2016, it took eight months to shift 2.5 million units. In the end, provoking the ire of gaming’s chauvinistic fanbase may even have proved a beneficial marketing strategy. It remains to be seen if the Last of Us Part II represents the beginning of a political sea change in a cultural market long dominated by histrionic bigotry, and whether queer and feminist narratives and characters will become increasingly common in blockbuster games. There is one thing, however, that the game has proven beyond all doubt: the internet has got serious daddy issues.

Main image: The Last of Us Part II, 2020. Courtesy: Naughty Dog 

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London, UK. She is an editor at The White Review. Her book Double-Tracking was published by Carcanet Press in October 2019.