When Revenge Turns into Forgiveness in The Last of Us

What the Game Has Done is to Equally Show the Fault Line of Sin that Runs through Everyone

Blake Nail / 9.28.20

Today’s video games are far more than what they used to be. Nowadays video games aren’t just a quick match of paddling a ball back and forth on a screen. Now we have grand narratives and entire worlds being built and developed within the product. While there are still your basic shoot em’ up or classic arcade games, there are also games that can be described as cinematic, where the credits roll as long as or even longer than some of your favorite movies. One of these phenomenal games is The Last of Us.

The Last of Us, Part Two was released earlier this year and is a continuing story from the first one which came out six years ago. The first story was set in an apocalyptic world, where an infection had spread which transformed a vast majority of the world into zombie-like creatures. Joel, the main character, starts the story off by witnessing his daughter die. It jumps then to twenty years later. Joel is a smuggler and is tasked with smuggling a young girl, Ellie, to a rebel group called the Fireflies, who are working to find a cure for the infection. Along the journey the two grow close, as Ellie fills the void of Joel’s lost daughter.

After a treacherous journey, one filled with plenty of infected and villainous enemies, Joel and Ellie reach the Fireflies only to find out the cure they are searching for is Ellie herself. She’s immune to the disease, and in order to develop the cure, the researchers need access to her brain. This means she would need to give her life. Well aware of this, she offers herself willingly because of the losses she and those around her have experienced. She wants to put an end to it all. But Joel has other plans. He already lost one daughter; could he lose this new stand-in? In a hail of bullets and blood Joel kills everyone in sight at the Firefly research center and ‘rescues’ Ellie. Ellie, unconscious from pre-op, wakes up as they are traveling back to their hometown. Joel tells her it was all a lie, and they never had the cure. That there were multiple immune people and they hadn’t figured it out yet. She would have given her life for nothing, he says. He promises it’s the truth.

It wasn’t.

That is how the first game ends. A noble, loving character who trades the healing of the world for his own personal joy. While Joel isn’t the most honorable character, he sure is relatable. Who can’t relate to such selfishness and concern for one’s own feelings over others’?

Then we enter The Last of Us, Part Two, which was just released earlier this year in June. Set five years after the events of the first one, we find Joel and Ellie still surviving in the post-infected world. However, there are people who remember what happened with the Fireflies, and they want revenge. Joel is eventually captured and killed — right in front of Ellie’s eyes by a girl named Abby, whose father was a Firefly killed by Joel.

This sets Ellie off on a mission for revenge. Anger consumes her as she puts herself and others at risk to go after Abby and her group. Throughout the game, you play as both Ellie and Abby, which gives you different perspectives on the events. And it confuses the game-player; who deserves my compassion? On one hand, Abby killed a beloved character, Ellie’s father-figure, whom players grew to love in the first game. On the other hand, as you learn about Abby’s side and her relationship with her father who was killed, you see she wasn’t acting differently from Joel and Ellie. All along the game you find random collectable cards of superheroes. On the back of them is a spectrum from hero to villain. It begs the question: Who is the hero and who is the villain in this whole story?

What the game has done is to equally show the fault line of sin that runs through everyone. The confusion we all find within ourselves and others when we try to justify our actions or place ourselves on some scale from hero to villain, good to bad. It even makes the player start to wonder about themself and where their convictions lie if they are somehow rooting for a murderer one way or another. In a way, it shows that the lines are blurred. We do wonderful things for terrible reasons and horrible acts for good-hearted ideas. On each side of the aisle we are convinced we’re fighting for just reasons, blinded by our own desire to be seen as righteous in our actions. The law comes for all of us no matter where we try to place ourselves on the spectrum.

In the end, Ellie sacrifices safety, a family, two fingers and almost her entire life just to seek out her revenge. But when she has Abby finally in her grasp, she chooses to let her go. The game cuts to a scene before Joel’s death, where she’d already found out he lied to her about the details of the first game. She promises she will try to forgive him for it, but she was never able to because of his untimely death. With her grip tightly on Abby’s neck, the power of death and revenge in her hands, she chooses to give freedom. She chooses to forgive.

The last scene of the game is Ellie attempting to play a song on the guitar that Joel taught her. She can’t anymore because she’s lost two of her fingers on her revenge mission. The house she sits in is empty because she gave up her family in the pursuit of her revenge. It seems as if the cost of revenge is high. But really it is the cost of forgiveness. The cost of redemption. Ellie learned to forgive, and often that costs us.

While some claim The Last of Us, Part Two, is a story of revenge, it appears to be a story of forgiveness. A story of characters, player included, realizing people aren’t on a scale from heroes to villains, but rather, we are all fallen, sinful, and confused beings. There aren’t teams of good people and bad people, there are only sinners. And the cost of forgiveness is high. In reality, we are more like the character you never even play as Part Two, Joel — dead and in need of forgiveness that we are unable to earn. Thankfully, there is one like Ellie who has chased down forgiveness for us. One who has also been scarred and forsaken for us. One who doesn’t judge us based on where we fall on the spectrum from hero to villain, good or bad, but sees us as the messed-up sinners we are. One who freely gives us the forgiveness we so desperately need but don’t deserve. One whose forgiveness doesn’t leave us dead in the ground but gives resurrecting life.

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One response to “When Revenge Turns into Forgiveness in The Last of Us

  1. Brian Jack says:

    Just finished the game today and had known about this article but didn’t want to spoil the story so came back to it now. Loved the game and love what you lifted from it about one who chases down forgiveness for us the undeserving. Powerful story, powerful image you’ve lifted from it to tell the old old story anew. Thanks!

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