header is screenshot from The Last of Us Part II
Absent Mothers
Natalie Flores

The Last of Us Part II’s climax ends in an abrupt switch from Ellie to Abby, revealing itself as a story about two women protagonists. But, as the following scene begins with Abby running through a forest while repeatedly calling out to her father, it’s clear that this is a game as much about two women’s fathers as it is about these two women. Although Ellie and Abby’s fathers are killed nearly as soon as they're introduced to the game's plot, their dead dads are perpetually present forces that often feel more alive and tangible than these women’s individual selves.

The “dadification” of videogame stories—the likely result of a significant part of male game developers becoming fathers and wanting to highlight parenthood—was the most popular storytelling trend of the last decade. God of War (2018), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Dishonored, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us—these winners of various Game of the Year awards and titles of massive cultural impact are just some of the high-profile games centered on playable father figures from this era. Mother figures have been far more rare, often killed off or missing entirely to create room for stories about parenthood that, more often than not, strangely define parenthood solely through fatherhood. Part II, despite marking a new decade, is one such story. 

Ultimately, Part II is a daughter game, and the role of a daughter inherently requires connection to a parental figure. Even though it’s told through the perspectives of two women, it still manages to be about fathers at its core. It’s the story of Ellie as she, accompanied by her girlfriend Dina, embarks on a mission to kill Abby, the woman who murders Joel in the game's prologue. Seven years after the release of The Last of Us, it’s Ellie’s turn to lead the story now, but her actions are controlled by Joel from beyond the grave. Almost everything she does—from leaving the safety of Jackson to leaving Dina and their child—is in the service of, or in reaction to, Joel. It is only at the very end, after she loses almost everything, that Ellie is able to let go of him as the primary motivation behind all her actions.

Despite being killed in the game’s first two hours, Joel remains at the center of Part II’s narrative. The game never goes on for too long before bringing him back, honoring him through constant flashbacks that explore his complexity. He is depicted as both a selfish patriarchal figure who robbed Ellie of her agency, possibly dooming humanity forever in the process, and a tragic father who allowed himself to love again so fiercely that he sacrificed the world to keep his adoptive daughter safe. 

That Ellie and Joel aren’t blood-related is never relevant, for The Last of Us is arguably most intimately a story about the concept of family—about how, after the end of the world, the connections we form may not necessarily be tied by blood, but bound through less tangible but stronger things like love, trauma, grief, and survival. In a decayed world where constant violence is the cost of survival, Ellie and Joel’s relationship in The Last of Us is the lifeblood that sustains them.

The problem lies not in their bond, but how, in The Last of Us' world, mothers are barely acknowledged as afterthoughts, much less as figures of importance and relevance to the narrative. It’s established earlier in the series that Ellie’s mother, Anna, died a day after giving birth to her. She is mentioned several times throughout The Last of Us and in the tie-in comic The Last of Us: American Dreams, but in Part II, when Ellie loses her only remaining parental figure, she never expresses a yearning for her maternal comfort. There is one mother in this story by the end, Dina. But as soon as she embodies the role, the story leaves her behind.

The story of Abby, the game’s second protagonist, only cements The Last of Us’ reluctance to engage with motherhood. When Part II switches perspectives and puts you in control of Abby, it immediately works extremely hard to make you like her father. He’s a charming and affectionate doctor who cracks jokes, is perceptive of his daughter’s love life, and goes out of his way to perform a risky rescue on a zebra who has just given birth. It’s all in the service of characterizing him enough so that you empathize with Abby when she finds him dead. He was the surgeon at the Salt Lake City hospital who was going to lead the operation on Ellie to develop a vaccine for the cordyceps infection at the end of The Last of Us before Joel killed him, and everyone in the hospital, to rescue Ellie. This tragedy is what defines her life for the next several years, as she sacrifices friendships, love, and part of her humanity in her journey to avenge her father. 

But Abby’s father didn’t need to dominate her story if The Last of Us didn’t want him to. The parental figure Joel murdered in that room could have been anyone. It didn’t need to be the surgeon who was going to lead Ellie’s operation—the lives of everyone in that operation room were as important as his. For while he’s stated to have possibly been the only person left who could develop a cure, this isn’t something that matters to Abby and, subsequently, the player. At no point is she shown to lament humanity’s lost opportunity to heal; her desire to avenge her father revolves entirely around her personal and individual pain as his daughter. When Ellie screams that she’s the one who Abby wants because she’s the immune child from the Salt Lake City hospital, Abby doesn’t react. She doesn’t care because it’s irrelevant to her—it always was, but even more so in the face of all the people Ellie assassinates to reach her. This never gets to be a story of grief over losing a parent alongside any hope for the future; it is only about Abby’s father. The prioritization of fatherhood above all else is all the more glaring in how the story doesn’t meaningfully explore Abby’s politics as an ex-Firefly and Washington Liberation Front member, for although she leaves their system, she shares their ideology enough to seek out their remnants at the end of the game.

Abby’s story could’ve focused on her mother, and this likely would have elevated it. If it was necessary for her father to have been the surgeon, her story could’ve still explored her grief over losing him while also acknowledging the existence of her mother. Her mother could have lived through the tragedy, with Abby hating Joel all the more for the pain he left her and her mom with. Instead, you’re left to presume she’s dead because the story doesn’t care about her enough to allude to her existence at all. Where no mention of a father would very likely feel like a noticeable missing piece of her story, given how much videogames prioritize fatherhood-centric stories, the absence of her mother—and the lack of an acknowledgement of said absence—is normalized. 

And yet, Abby’s section of the game is what provides any hope that this series is willing to tackle motherhood in the future. Abby’s relationship with Lev could be interpreted as replicating a mother-son as much as a big sister-little brother dynamic. They’re a direct parallel to Joel and Ellie in the first game. Abby is the cynical guardian figure who has lost sight of the light after losing the most important person to her, while Lev is the child who gives her reasons to keep surviving. Her relationship with Lev allows her to remember her humanity in a world that has left little room for it. It’s through her love for Lev that she gains not only hope, but also the opportunity to be redeemed after killing Joel. If Abby’s story focused on a mother figure, it would’ve also complimented Lev’s storyline in potentially beautiful and moving ways. 

This is because, aside from Dina, Lev is the only avenue through which Part II explores motherhood to some degree; however, that exploration is entirely off-screen despite being facilitated through two mother figures. One is Lev’s actual mother, whose transphobia and inability to accept her son forces him and his sister Yara to try finding a better life. Her character is barely fleshed out through secondhand accounts before Lev experiences the trauma of accidentally killing his own mother—off-screen, of course—in an attempt to defend himself from her attacks. The other is the prophet of the cult he grows up in and is eventually cast out of, the Seraphites. Alongside the sprawling foliage that has claimed the edges and surfaces of buildings all across Seattle is elaborate graffiti of her face and likeness. The Seraphites worship her profusely, uttering, “May she guide us,” a deeply matrilineal remark in contrast to the Washington Liberation Front’s, “May your survival be long and may your death be swift.” 

Despite the violent ways in which the Seraphites execute their prophet's philosophy, Lev guides himself through his belief in her teachings and writings. His religion is his moral compass. But, in his struggle to reconcile with how both motherhood figures in his life shape his identity, he loses his real mother and is left with the spiritual one that will never have a tangible impact on the narrative. Even though the spiritual mother endures for as long as Lev believes in her, the exploration of her religion—what the Seraphites actually believe, how they give their members a group identity—could’ve been much deeper.

Motherhood isn’t valued even through the stories of Part II's secondary characters. Manny, Abby’s best friend, has a touching moment with his father early on. You learn that his father, Mr. Alvarez, has arthritis, hates Manny’s beard, and is getting progressively sicker. Mel is visibly pregnant with the child of Abby’s ex-lover and, unlike Dina, her pregnancy is at a stage where she is still able to exert her agency and fight. However, she is not the game’s dominant image of pregnancy. Ultimately, Ellie kills her and her unborn baby in a fit of rage, an event that triggers a panic attack in Ellie as she thinks of her pregnant girlfriend, sick and waiting for her to come back to their hideout. Maria resembles a motherly figure for the Jackson community, but her existence is largely ignored once Ellie and Dina leave. After that, she’s only mentioned once by Tommy during the section in which Part II’s narrative briefly provides the illusion that it will focus on something other than Joel. 

It ultimately never does. One of the many reasons why I want a third The Last of Us game is because Ellie deserves to be known as more than an extension of Joel—as more than a growing product of his love, violence, and ego. Joel will always be one of the most significant parts of her life, but he doesn’t need to be the only thing that defines her. While Dina and Ellie’s relationship is vital to Part II's core themes, their on-screen moments amount to less than three hours in a game that spans more than 20. Through them, and Abby and Lev, I can imagine a game in which women aren’t perpetually under their father’s shadow. 

And, as much as I adore The Last of Us Part II, I can’t help but feel infinitely more excited when I imagine a game about something besides fatherhood; about women and motherhood. A game in which Ellie reckons with being a mother and the fact that she was so traumatized that she had to abandon her role as one. A game about whether she returns to that role, and how, or if, she relinquishes it altogether. A story about two queer mothers in a post-apocalyptic world, their complicated relationship, and how they build a family while trying to rebuild themselves after immense trauma. A narrative that The Last of Us has failed to conceive thus far: one that finds a focus on motherhood to be as easily imaginable as a long-dead world.


Natalie Flores is currently Fanbyte’s Featured Contributor. She has been published on Paste Magazine, VICE, Polygon, RPG Site, and more. She is constantly emotional over video games, including The Last of Us Part II, on Twitter.