The Last of Us, as a series, is deadly for its Black characters. Marlene, Henry, and Sam from the first game. Isaac and Nora in the second. From a representational angle, it’s a problem. How is one supposed to see Black life lived fully in the resurrection of the world after fungal annihilation? The familiar counter rears its ugly head. “This world is full of death,” says the contrarian. “It's a world in which the vast majority die, and these characters are simply more bodies on the pile, undifferentiated in their end from any other person who crosses the gun barrels of our characters and their enemies or the tearing claws of the infected that fill the world.”
And it’s true, I guess.
When we talk about representation in games, we’re often talking about whether or not a person exists in a game. In Sam Greer’s history of queer representation in games, for example, she is largely interested in whether games do or do not have queer characters in them. Similarly, Jordan Minor’s rundown of what video games owe to Black people invokes the concept of representation to talk about the “charge” he gets “seeing Black characters” in videogames, even if some of them “ride a fine line between representation and stereotype.”
The question of representation is based on seeing, from the Latin repraesentare, “to bring forth.” Black people are represented in that they are brought forth, the same as all of the other characters in the game. And like those other characters of various backgrounds, they often die. What I am interested in here is not the “yes or no” of whether representation happens or not, but instead the aesthetic structures through which we are asked to align ourselves with certain characters. I am interested in editing, cutting, and the way the game’s direction in turn directs us as players.
What I am going to walk through here is a reading of a scene in The Last of Us Part II in order to argue that it is formally anti-Black. By this I mean that the way that Part II is constructed, the way that its narrative and its imagery and its mechanics are put together, comes together to produce conditions that are hostile to Black people. Following Frank Wilderson in his latest book Afropessimism, I am less interested in the stated politics of the game or how it makes me feel when I experience it and more interested in what formal analysis of the game reveals about how it labors. When I sit down to play the thing, and when I analyze that play, I can break it down into its parts and evaluate not what they intend or what they aim for, but instead what the images and sounds in front of me accomplish in their composite being as a videogame. It’s a way of looking without idealism or hope. It’s a way of talking about the reality of the thing.
When I say that the game is anti-Black, I mean that in the sense that kihana miraya ross does when she writes that anti-Blackness is “the inability to recognize black humanity. It captures the reality that the kind of violence that saturates black life is not based on any specific thing a black person—better described as “a person who has been racialized black”—did. The violence we experience isn’t tied to any particular transgression. It’s gratuitous and unrelenting.”
The Last of Us Part II’s specific inability to recognize Black humanity, its anti-Blackness, appears most clearly in how it treats Nora.
Players of the game will likely remember the segment where Nora appears on Ellie’s radar after she’s made her way to Seattle. On her mission of revenge to kill Abby, the ex-Firefly who murdered Ellie’s adoptive father Joel, Ellie carves her way through several of Abby’s allies, and Nora is just another person on that list. She’s going to tell Ellie where Abby is, whether she likes it or not, and we take control of Ellie as she shoots and crawls and sneaks her way through a hospital being stripped for parts in her dead-eyed mission to reduce Nora to a memory receptacle. She accomplishes that goal by torturing her. I’ll return to that in a moment.
Later in the game, long after we see, and participate in, what Ellie does to her, we learn a lot about the life that Nora lived with the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) before Ellie came. She’s fixing people up in the medical tent. She’s organizing the lines of medical supply in their skirmishes against the Seraphites. She’s looking out for her friends in the ways that she can. She’s a normal person, as fully enfleshed as anyone else.
It’s what makes the sting of what Ellie does to her so brutal and, to be clear, this is the intended effect. In playing as both Ellie and Abby, we’re supposed to sink deeply into the gravity of what we do: we see the humanity of the people we killed so that we, the players, can know how awful we’ve been. It’s the grand narrative version of every NPC screaming the names of their friends when you gun them down during regular gameplay. It’s the mocapped and blocked version of every dog having a name and someone who mourns them when they die. It’d feel less cheap if they didn’t drive it directly into the dirt.
The things that we do as Ellie would be less horrible if they were just rote killing, the kind that populates every encounter and narrative beat in the game. Instead, when we find Nora, we enter into a chase sequence, and control Ellie as she pursues Nora through the bowels of St. Mary’s Hospital, the ground zero for Seattle’s experience of the fungal plague that began nearly 30 years before. We skirt around corners and mantle obstacles in a very Unchartedesque way, until Ellie takes Nora hostage as other members of the WLF surround them. Behind them a large hole yawns, and in it are the infected and, more importantly, the spores that confer zombification. If you inhale them, you’re dead, turned over into something inhuman.
Ellie doesn’t need a mask. She’s immune. Nora is not immune. Inhaling these spores will damn her to an agonizing suffocation and then a cruel, warped death. Ellie yanks them both backward into the hole.
There’s a lot of cruelty in this game, and there are a lot of excuses made for it+. To listen to the developers, we’re going on a journey of revenge, and it’s one that we’re meant to feel bad about at every step. As director Neil Druckmann put it, “we can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”
We’ve got all the tools to see why someone would turn themselves into a single purpose weapon to avenge their father. But I can’t see the point of it, that misery of the thing. I just can’t see it. Ellie drags Nora down into a death sentence.
It’s an act unlike any other in the game. Most deaths in these games are nasty and short: shot in the head like Manny or gunned down like Yara or slowly stabbed in the throat like so many of Ellie’s kills, both important and unimportant alike. Some are surprising, others are unfair, and they all fit into a balance sheet of expansive death across this world full of it. What Ellie does to Nora, though, is beyond that. She condemns her. She delivers her into a state stripped of humanity. It is a purposeful unmaking of her personhood.
I can’t get over it, I really can’t.
And it doesn’t end there. Ellie then has to get information from the choking, dying woman, and so she tortures her by beating her with a pipe.
Or we do.
Everything I have said so far happens at what we can call the level of representation. We experience the chase. We watch the drop into the pit. These things exist fully within the world of the game and how it presents information to us. We get the longform gameplay section and a standard cutscene, each of which feel familiar because that’s been the entire play of the game so far.
However, there are ways that videogames generate meaning for us beyond the representational, beyond what is given to us in the “normal” modes of gameplay and cinematics. Videogames have ways of constructing meaning, their form, and sometimes that’s at odds with their representational content. Sometimes this is expressed as Marshall McLuhan describes it, where: “the medium is the message,” meaning that the way information is conveyed actually controls what that information communicates. Other times that’s expressed in other ways altogether, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s refocusing on content and expression. They propose that there are component parts in the world that communicate with each other differently depending on context, with each moment of engagement between a person and a piece of art reflecting different key parts of the content.
This is all held at the level of a medium, in this case a videogame. In her book Queer Times, Black Futures, Kara Keeling discusses the filmmaker John Akomfrah’s arguments about the transformation in Black cinema that is afforded by the movement from physical film to digital creation. She writes that “none of the film stock produced by Fuji (whose primary hue was blue), Kodak (whose primary hue was red), or Agfa (which privileged brown) particularly appealed to cinematographers filming subjects with dark skin tones.+” The technical capacities of the medium determined things about how people with dark skin tones could be represented, smuggling a racial ordering into the entire cinematic apparatus through the back door.
We have videogames now, though, and infinite control over color and brightness and contrast and framing. We create fictions from labor (and here you should go read about the reported labor abuses at Naughty Dog, the developers of The Last of Us Part II). But in the same way that the technical capacities of specific film stock were the product of chemists and engineers who made choices about what kind of color palette would be captured on their film, creating an implicit stylistics, there are directorial choices made in the digital world of the videogame.
This is all to say that when I remarked on the structural anti-Blackness of The Last of Us Part II at the top of this piece, what I am talking about is that the way the world is presented to us, the decisions made at the level of what is shown and what is not, prevent players from witnessing scenes that would allow us to see Nora as a full human being. Instead, we are so fully focused on Ellie and her revenge mission that the game is able to formally sweep what Ellie does to Nora under the rug. And it does this with the formal mechanism of the cut.
Ellie finds Nora collapsed against a door. She disarms her of a pipe and then hefts it herself. Some threats are issued. It’s clear what’s going to happen. A button prompt appears. The player hits the button. Ellie’s face goes angry, and she swipes with the pipe, causing blood to fly across the screen accompanied by a wet tearing sound. We do not see Nora. We are in a reverse shot, seeing only Ellie. Nora gasps and tries to recover, but we have another button prompt, and when we press it the motion repeats. Ellie does it a third time, and in the middle of a scream from Nora, in the middle of yet another wet ripping, the screen cuts to black.
This cut is structurally anti-Black because it does not allow the visual universe of The Last of Us Part II to consider the racial coding of the violence that Ellie is performing in the scene. This is slightly different than the representational racism that we see in other places in the game, most notably the giant, hulking Black man Abby fights near the end of the game. He’s so visually stereotyped that he might as well be from a David Cage game, and his ability to continue surviving in the face of the extreme damage done to his body over the course of the scene evokes the racist stereotype of always-bigger, stronger Black men. In the case of that fight, though, there is nothing about the camera work or the framing of the scene that differs from any other in the game. He is misrepresented but the way that he is represented is not any different from anyone else.
That’s not the case for Nora. Her death is closed off from visuality itself. It is unwitnessable, unconsiderable. The cut to black is a cut across time and space, eliminating Nora as a person who we’re supposed to have thoughts and feelings for and instead transforming her, ironically, into something that happened to Ellie. In the scene that follows the cut, Ellie returns to the theater where Dina is hiding, her hands shaking, and experiences a moment of care. The torture and death of Nora is considered in the game only in the effect that it has on Ellie, as if the decision to torture someone is something that happens to you instead of a choice.
Of course, it’s not Ellie’s choice because Ellie isn’t real. She’s a fictional character who exists at the whims of the hands of a team of creative professionals at Naughty Dog who wrote and tested and reconfigured this scene over years. We’re supposed to forget that artifice, though, and the complete obliteration of Nora to quickly get back to Ellie and Dina’s moments of sincerity is emblematic of what Neil Druckmann said around release: “We want you to try to empathize with that character, understand what they're doing, and say, ‘OK, I'm going to role-play ... I'm going to try to think the way this character thinks.’”
What’s being spoken over here is that the work of developing the game is setting parameters on what the player can think when being so strongly focalized on a character. That framework, the formal structure of the game, is one in which a Black woman is killed by the protagonist while the game itself is unwilling to engage with representing that violence. There is no body. There is nothing left of Nora but a specter that exists entirely to be consumed by Ellie’s guilt-ridden whiteness. The entire visual framework of Part II’s universe bends toward the exclusion of Blackness as anything other than death to be absorbed and processed by whiteness. No dignity, not even in death.
There is no logic to it. This exclusion can’t just be due to the severity of the crime. After all, it’s not that much later that we see Ellie kill a pregnant woman, something so bleakly evil in this world gone to hell that it is almost post-apocalypse parody. We see people slowly murdered by being stabbed in the throat over and over again. We see someone shot in the back of the head while they’re facing the camera, blowing a baseball-sized hole through their face. We watch a child get their arm smashed with a hammer. We see people hanged and gutted. The Last of Us Part II revels in all of it.
We don’t even know what happens with Nora’s body. Presumably she’s still down in that hole, liquefying into fungal growth.
David Marriott opens his Haunted Life by tracking Damilola Taylor through CCTV screens. He moves through library grounds, up and down, and then gets on an elevator. He exits the screen, is cut from the surveillance system, and then later he’s found bleeding to death in a stairwell. For Marriott, being able to trace Taylor’s journey up to a point and then losing him, knowing that he will next appear dying and then dead, points to how the medium of television works in a broader sense. To watch Taylor walk through his life in the footage still means that he is framed by the “irreparable cut” of when he leaves the frame for good. Marriott wonders “what kind of gaze are we being asked to identify within the tranquil flows of CCTV; what kind of mourning or penalty is at work when the subject represented is either dead and/or raced?”
These are pertinent questions for Nora’s cut in The Last of Us Part II, but I would transform them slightly. What is the gaze we have access to? It is one that has an anti-Black politics and produces a structure unable to see Black people as deserving of representable, witnessed death. What kind of mourning is at work when the subject is dead and raced? It is only a mourning for someone else’s lost innocence. The game can only understand Nora’s death as something that must be passed through to show how serious and adult and mature the game is, how far Ellie has fallen, as if the reality of senseless murder for dubious reasons is a far-off possibility rather than a core component of the American republic. As Saidiya Hartman puts it, this is a moment of the “translation of Black suffering into white pedagogy,” a moment where routine dishonor and death is made into a system that extracts lessons for a white-aligned aesthetic field.
Ellie gets to go home and ruin her life. She gets to have grace and catharsis. And Nora is still in that hospital, somewhere, erased out of existence by a cut to black.
+ I was particularly struck by this Kenneth Shepard piece that makes the claim that players are never culpable for the actions of in-game characters. I see this as a limited view of what the affective relationship is between players and games, and I think this is decidedly more complicated than the strict bifurcation that Shepard makes.
++ See Yussef Cole and Tanya DePass, “Black Skin is Still A Radical Concept in Video Games.”