After hours of stultifying bloodshed, Ellie and Dina, two of the protagonists of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, find a brief reprieve at an isolated farmhouse out in the Wyoming wilderness, where together they establish normalcy and a home where they can raise Dina’s newborn child, JJ. The spare, halcyonic moments we spend here are starkly discordant with the grim tone of the rest of the game. The setting sun bathes the farm’s wheat fields in a warm, umber glow. A record is placed on a wind-up gramophone and a tinkling bluegrass melody joins the sounds of Dina tidying up around the kitchen. Sheep bleat in unison outside, as drying clothes flutter on the clothesline. This is heaven, or something close to it, at least if one ignores the perimeter fence which encircles the ranch, keeping anything unwanted out. Their sojourn is cut short when Ellie, unable to overcome the trauma of witnessing her surrogate father Joel’s death abandons Dina and their child in order to return to the game’s main narrative thrust of bloody, ruinous revenge.
We’re not really meant to question, as an audience, why the farm’s nostalgic Americana aesthetic makes it the obvious safe haven which Ellie must regrettably turn away from. But it’s inarguably cast, along with the sleepy old west town of Jackson, as the ideal way to live out one's life at the end of the world. Meanwhile, the urban centers in both The Last of Us games are hellish, decaying places, crammed with the infected and plagued by seemingly endless conflict between highwaymen, government forces, and political guerrillas. It’s the country out beyond the checkpointed borders of the cities, the rural stretches of America and the suburbs built in their individualistic image, that offer the only chance for peace, and a little respite from all the turmoil of a society fighting infection and itself in equal measure.
In June, critic and academic Ian Bogost wrote a piece for The Atlantic listing the benefits of suburban life when it comes to weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. He describes suburbs as “aspirational, despite all their downsides.” According to Bogost, they are the most ideal solution to America’s “bet on individualism: to socialize the ability to hunker down safely and comfortably, whether from plague or any other threat.” This is because “the suburban life is one of independence, a self-contained homestead where the American family can realize its desire and potential, unperturbed by others.”
That “others” goes undefined, but has historically meant black, brown, and poor people, not only reveals the unsettling tone deafness of Bogost’s essay, but also highlights the central obfuscation so important to the suburban and rural identity. It’s about keeping people out, without having to explicitly mention which people these are. It’s about false odes to diversity without addressing the history of why these spaces are so homogenous to begin with. Part II, in basing the aesthetic of its safe havens around historically segregated spaces, and setting most of its battlegrounds within cities, samples from this contradiction. In offering us a version of the promised freedom and safety of the frontier homestead it necessarily stands upon the violent shoulders of those responsible for the homestead’s establishment.
In the 1940s, when increased wartime production brought more black families to work at the auto plants of Detroit, nearby white suburban neighborhoods rallied together to enforce their borders and maintain the homogeneity of their communities. Citizens of one working class suburb, Oakwood, wrote hundreds of letters protesting the pending plans for a federally funded black housing project, ultimately preventing its construction+. One resident, in a precursor of NIMBY ("Not In My Backyard") sensibilities wrote “I do not want negroes living in my neighborhood, as we take pride in our homes and streets.” Another claimed the project “will deprive us of the peace and equanimity we have enjoyed and turn the whole area into an armed camp.” Racism and division were, as they remain, couched within the euphemistic cover of safety and peace. These men and women didn’t want to fight, but they certainly would if you made them.
More recently, residents of the small town of Bethel, Ohio made good on the promise to exert violence in the name of safety when a local rally held in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was assaulted by a much larger and more heavily armed counter protest. One of those attacked, Anwen Darcy, described to reporter Anne Helen Petersen some of the underlying resentment that led to the confrontation: “A lot of people have gotten something, whether it’s a little house or a truck or a piece of land, and they’re happy about it, and they don’t want it taken away … ” Peterson infers that “To them, the protests signify a move to take that little bit that they do have, that they’ve worked so long to achieve.”
In Part II, safety, stability, and, just as importantly, tradition, are seen as equally tenuous and hard won. If the first game was about the dangers of living on the outside, the second one’s POV shifts within the walls of the settlement. It’s about keeping out, through force, anyone who might present a threat, whether real or perceived, to the nascent communities which have since developed. This applies even to nonconforming behavior within the community. When Dina and Ellie share a kiss at a barn dance in Jackson, another townsperson, Seth, polices them, telling them it’s a “family event” and calling Dina a “loudmouth dyke.” In a separate scene we see that Ellie is later encouraged by the town’s de facto leader Maria to entertain Seth’s apology for the sake of the town. In the same way that the town’s borders are policed, we see here that divergent lifestyles are policed as well. Back in the real world, an ironworker from Bethel gives voice to this ideology, remarking about the protests: “I just don’t understand why people don’t just keep to themselves.”
This sentiment is arguably reinforced by the moralizing bent of Part II’s narrative arc. When Abby shows up in Jackson and murders Joel, her group is encroaching on the safety of Ellie’s community. When Ellie retaliates by invading Seattle and exacting her revenge on Abby’s crew, she is doing the same. In the game’s ideal world both parties would stick to their own communities, their own homesteads, flawed and restrictive as they are. Behind barbed wire, concrete barriers and gun posts, safe in their own discrete units of individuality.
Remember, these havens are presented as the good parts of The Last of Us’s world: apocalypse and chaos lassoed and held in check by patriarchal white dominance. Tommy and Joel got to commit countless atrocities before the story of The Last of Us even began, but the town that Tommy established in Wyoming, that he and Joel protect with their horse bound rangers and their scoped rifles, is a good town. They’re not good men, no, but they’re the only thing standing between survival and chaos. Their role is to tame the frontier, whether that means chasing off human bandits or clearing out “nests” of fungal zombies, their status relegated by this point to that of an invasive species rather than existential threat. Joel and Tommy represent the same sense of justice and Apollonian order, the same “peace and equanimity” that Detroit’s Oakfield residents crave, and they protect it as violently as has always been deemed necessary.
The tools they protect it with are made curiously universal according to the game’s design. The same tactical flashlights, the same weapon stocks, the same magazine extenders, the same long guns, the same knives are used by every playable character in the game, no matter their faction. Even Abby must outfit the technical luddite Lev with the gear he’s missing so that he can fit into her specific mode and plan for survival. Along with emotionally adopting him, she also transforms him into yet another survivalist, another doomsday prepper, weighed down with ammo and gear like a walking bunker. Part II is, after all, a vision of the world that the prepper both fears and subconsciously yearns for: lawless chaos where only desperate hoarding and extreme violence can protect you. So it makes sense, of course, that everyone who lives in this prepper’s nightmare would seek to resort to using the prepper’s tools.
It’s important, then, to question what these tools represent, the ideology embedded in them. What does it mean that both Ellie and Abby can plop their firearms down on any available workbench, strip and clean their guns, disassemble them, and add new upgrades with professional ease? What does it mean that the world is littered with military field manuals with titles like “Stealth Combat Weapons and Tactical Movement” or “Improvised Traps and Area-Denial Techniques,” and that Abby or Ellie can pick up these manuals, flip through them, and instantly become more brutally efficient killers?
The former Senator of Wyoming (fittingly) Alan Simpson once said: “Without guns, there would be no west.” The gun, in settler hands, was the primary tool for separating Indigenous people from their homes through the violent and indiscriminate use of force. The gun was the precursor and precedent necessary for the establishment of the settlement, the ranch, the town, and so on. Its legacy has remained long after its role in clearing the frontier became moot. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes in Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, “When firearms were no longer needed to appropriate Indigenous Peoples’ lands, the firearm became a representation of ongoing racist domination—a kind of war trophy—not just of Native Peoples and their territories, but of African Americans and the world.”
The apocalypse, at least the genre-bound version that The Last of Us Part II depicts, is a resurrection of the idea of the frontier in the same way that white Americans’ obsession over hoarding stockpiles of defensive weaponry has always been. Cowboys are finally back, and their endless arsenals with them. The premise that supports both prepper fantasies and suburban paranoia is the same: protect your own, enforce your borders, shoot first and check the bodies later. It’s what drives our protagonists to do the violence they do, and it sits quietly in the background of even the game’s most peaceful scenes and its most communal spaces.
And where are the non-white people in all of this? We certainly fill up the spaces of the hideouts, and we populate, to a troubling extent, the battlefields: our necks fall beneath Ellie’s blade, our spines get crushed by Abby’s arms. Yet, with the exception of exactly three scenes spent with the WLF’s leader, Isaac, we don’t get to see ourselves in charge. We don’t define the mood or the tone of these groups or their camps. Instead, our personalities, like our skin, are added color. We don’t question the ideologies undergirding Part II’s isolated prepper settlements, or the brutality necessary to keep them solvent. We just pick up the gun and head for the front, to die in the same ways, and sometimes worse ones. Like Nora, a black woman who is a friend of Abby’s and a medic for the WLF, our main purpose is to shuttle Abby’s plot along and die gruesomely in the interests of Ellie’s character development. And like Manny, the stereotypically sex-crazed Latino dude in Abby’s crew, we may be allowed to pepper some of our language awkwardly into the conversation, but we don’t get to make it to the end. It’s not our story.
Perhaps if Part II offered a different kind of vision of what lies beyond civilization’s veil, one that didn’t see cities as charnel houses, beyond redemption, with or without infection, didn’t see suburbs and farms as precarious castles, meant to be protected by militarized force, didn’t see people of color as fodder or scaffolding for the stories of the largely white protagonists, things might have turned out different. A story of two women finding love in one another, a story of children learning how to evolve past the mistakes of their fathers: these stories and others should still be allowed to happen in ways that don’t reify the conservative individualism of Part II’s ideology. We still want Ellie and Dina to find their own version of happiness, of safety and security. But only if the rest of us get to have it too.
+ The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, by Thomas J. Sugrue
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.
Thanks to Vivian Chan, for consulting on the ideas discussed in this article.