In a summer that will be remembered for people asserting their humanity, we still find ourselves immersed in vehement disputes about the things that don’t matter: video games, movies, TV, and tweets. As streaming platforms removed art that could have been viewed as racist, and online pundits spent months trying to decide what “canceled” means, the release of the sequel video game “The Last of Us Part II” saw its share of controversy, demonstrated by over 140,000 reviews on the review aggregation website Metacritic. The first “Last of Us” game, released in 2013, has only gathered around 12,000 audience ratings.
Although 93% of professional video game critics reviewed the game positively, it was still review bombed with an audience rating of 5.6/10, overloaded with negative reviews by people who had and had not experienced it. To put this in perspective, the first “Last of Us” game received not only significantly fewer audience reviews but those that were overwhelmingly positive, with an average rating of 9.2. These reviews point to a broader phenomenon in cultural discourse, in which spectacle becomes reality and facts lose all meaning.
Like the first game, “The Last of Us Part II” is a survival action console game set in a world several decades after a zombie apocalypse. The player plays the first half of the game as “Ellie” as she embarks on a quest of revenge after the brutal murder of her companion/father figure from the first game. In the second half, the player plays as “Abby,” the killer, and the player gains insight into Abby’s motivations and her own attempts to care for a transgender child rejected by his family.
So why did players turn on “The Last of Us Part II?” Many of the negative reviews cite specific in-game events, and indeed, professional critics are split on the game’s attitude toward graphic violence and narrative. A game about the brutally meaningless cycles of revenge has been accused of making violence fun, and some say the two narratives have left the story full of “pacing issues” and unsubtle in its ideas about human nature. But the seeds of this disparity between critics and audiences are buried much deeper than the game structure.
The game was long-awaited, as the original has been called one of the strongest examples of the medium after its release in 2013. The production of the sequel was full of delays, so expectations were high. However, details were leaked by anonymous sources in April 2020, which is when the pushback truly began. Fans of the first game were upset about the death of a main character and the two-part narrative structure, but for some, the introduction of a muscular woman character and a trans character was seen as the latest chapter in an ongoing culture war, where the “Social Justice Warrior media elite” attempt to push feminism and queer characters into a hegemonic culture. This led to a predictably passionate (albeit infantile) outpouring of criticism, some of which involved death threats directed at the actress who played Abby, Laura Bailey. “It’s kind of horrifying,” said game director Neil Druckmann.
All of this is deeply predictable because the primary lens that is used to understand the online culture for the past decade has been the “Gamergate” theory, which broadly refers to a “proxy war” between socially progressive analyses of video games and the angry, bigoted, sometimes violent response from more conservative gamers. The common narrative among liberal media circles is that gamers are “radicalized” into bigotry. “The Last of Us Part II,” with its LGBTQ+ and female characters and outpouring of industry and media support, is a prime example of a Gamergate scenario: a predictable outrage spectacle that occupies certain corners of the internet as they pick their sides in the cultural dispute.
The reality, as always, is much more complicated. While safely placing the unpleasantness solely on the loudest bigots, the narrative of “gamers are bigots and this spiraled into the alt-right” oversimplifies larger existing intricacies of culture. For example, we can see that the beginnings of the harassment campaigns in gaming culture were present in the earliest digital spaces, before gamers really developed their communities. More pressingly, the decline in living conditions for all but the wealthiest no doubt plays a much larger role in people’s baseline anguish around their cultural choices than anything else. Though it is tempting to read culture wars in simplistic terms of heroic progressives and villainous bigots, we need to resist this impulse, and instead ask why is it that people are so disconnected from the Real that they work incredibly hard to convince themselves that any of this matters.
If we are to understand any text — be it online discourse, or game plots — and can acknowledge that this summer, we were overburdened with texts that needed deconstruction, we need to look at those who are engaging with it with empathy and a truly open mind. When I look at “The Last of Us Part II,” I see a failure of any kind of critical engagement with video games as a medium. I see a generation, my generation, profoundly disconnected from the Real, living totally in a hyperreality of news, simulated lives, and muddling the public and private, to the point that a death threat becomes banter. I see corporations eager to check off identitarian markers to win brownie points and distract from the need for radical change. I see people so profoundly un-held in any way that fantasy is the best escape, and violations of this fantasy are unacceptable. “The Last of Us Part II” is in no way surprising because, as this summer made abundantly clear to those who have been living under a rock the past decade, these problems are present in every cultural text. Things have not been going well in people’s lives, and the predictable meaningless fights about cultural texts like “The Last of us Part II” reflect this banal miserable ennui.
Like most art, “The Last of Us Part II” is flawed, but it has moments of real beauty. The culture war around it is another example of the reality we have created, and there is no reason to lump the blame all on this one game. But when thinking about it, playing it, talking about it, or writing about it, keep an open mind. The gamers are insufferable, aggressive, and often bigoted, but that is not the whole story. We need to look wider, at our entire, collapsing society, to get a full picture of the controversy around the game.