“Authentic” Cityscapes and Violence in The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Part II's Seattle. Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/last-of-us-2-walkthrough-part-2-downtown-seattle-d/1100-6478540/
Ryan Banfi examines how The Last of Us Part II creates authentic city spaces by reimagining urban environments as spaces of gamified violence that represent humanity's dystopian decline.

For many videogame players, the cityscapes in The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog, 2020) are real replicas of American landmarks. This enhances gamers’ experiences because they can become better immersed in the game’s fictional world. In this way, they are able to believe that their “in-game” decisions matter. Neil Druckmann, the director of Part II, chose Seattle as the backdrop for the game’s narrative “because of how many diverse locations it has…. So [Naughty Dog] studied a lot of the architecture of the city, the foliage that grows in that part of the country. They scanned different materials so we can make them authentic.”1Jonathan Dornbush, “The Last of Us Part 2 Director on New Factions, Bringing Seattle to Life,” IGN (June 2, 2020): n.p., https://www.ign.com/articles/the-last-of-us-part-2-director-on-new-factions-bringing-seattle-to-life The “authenticity” in the game, however, is less about producing a copy of Seattle’s landscape and more about constructing a diverse environment for the characters to fight in. Since the videogame industry’s infancy, violence has been a part of gameplay.2Nicholas David Bowman, Daniel A Bowen, Melissa C Mercado, Lindsey Jean Resignato, and Philippe de Villemor Chauveau, “‘I Did It without Hesitation. Am I the Bad Guy?’: Online Conversations in Response to Controversial in-Game Violence,” New Media & Society (April 2022): 2. https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448221078865. Authenticity, in this regard, will be examined in relation to ludology throughout this paper. This article argues that The Last of Us Part II becomes authentic not because Naughty Dog reconstructs Seattle (or other U.S. cities) but rather because they re-envision these environments as spaces that can produce gamified violence that mirrors the dystopian deterioration of humanity.

Videogames are designed according to the philosophy of world-building. For players to become immersed in the decisions that they make in videogames, the game must provide the player with a tangible space–one where their interactions feel meaningful. Jesper Juul argues that “videogames are real in that they consist of real rules which players actually interact…To play a videogame…is to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world, and a videogame is a set of rules as well as a fictional world.”3Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005), 1. The rules in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) part I and Part II are to eliminate the enemies without dying. If Ellie (one of the playable protagonists) is shot multiple times, she would indeed perish. The Last of Us series depicts the fragility of human life.4Some developers–including Naughty Dog in their remake of The Last of Us Part I (Naughty Dog, 2022) – have made “permadeath” (or “permanent death”: a finalized game over, as the game’s playable character cannot respawn) a part of their games. This option creates a more realistic experience for players as “the risk of permadeath hang[s] over the heads [of players], the enemies are also a real threat to the player” as it creates “a fail state from which the game cannot be continued but instead must be started from the very beginning”; Eoghain Meakin, Brian Vaughan, and Charlie Cullen, “‘Understanding’ Narrative; Applying Poetics to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” Game Studies (2021): n.p. http://gamestudies.org/2102/articles/meakin_vaughan_cullen. Yet, videogames allow for repeated tries (e.g., multiple “lives”) at completing a level as “almost all games…are reliant upon the mechanic of repetition and replay…. repetition is often necessary in learning a given game.”5Christopher Hanson, “Repetition,” in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Perron Bernard (New York: Routledge, 2014), 407. Dying in videogames is part and parcel of repetitive play. It has “a didactic function and take[s] place on the ludic level of the game and not on its narrative level. Dying leads to ‘game over’…but [players] may be able to re-enter and replay the game. Playing a game means…to submit to the rules of the game, internalize them, and follow them.”6Karin Weinz, “Death,” in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Perron Bernard (New York: Routledge, 2014), 595. On a narrative level, death is crucial to the realism in The Last of Us series. Joel’s demise is the impetus for Ellie’s revenge. Loss of life is also reflected in the narrative via the replicated (but deteriorating) American cities in the game. As the buildings crumble so does civilization. In this way, the rules (surviving) become intertwined with the fictional world (dystopia). Moreover, Ellie’s in-game deaths do not affect the game’s narrative. At the end of Part II, Ellie is still alive. As Part II is a game, it does rely on repetition. Most players will die when playing the game. But The Last of Us series is not so much about “winning” the game as it is about progressing through an immersive narrative that is dependent on the hostile environments that players must traverse. Repeatedly dying plays into that.

Ellie Hides from the Seraphites. Source: https://www.ign.com/articles/the-last-of-us-2-collectibles-guide-chapter-3-seattle-day-2-the-seraphites

Mark Wolf argues that videogame “worlds also contain a minimum of text and narrative, relying mainly on visuals; but the addition of interactivity…. means that instead of creating worlds merely as thought experiments, the worlds can become laboratories in which actual experiments in the social sciences can be performed.”7Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: the Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012), 151. The cities in The Last of Us act as laboratories for the players to not only play but to experience dystopias that have undermined civilization. According to videogame developers and academics (more on the social science studies later), Naughty Dog created effective “laboratories” in that they constructed copies of real American environments which allow for players to believe that they are traversing a dystopian version of a space they know well. Kiernan Mourtisen, a videogame journalist, writes that “many fans who are familiar with Seattle will recognize the city’s iconic locations….most locations are not only structurally accurate but also on the same street as they are in reality.”8Kieran Mourtisen, “Last of Us 2 Video Shows Off In-Game vs Real World Seattle,” Game Rant (June 20th, 2020): n.p. https://gamerant.com/last-of-us-2-seattle-real-life-comparison/ Upon closer examination, the Seattle monuments align with the city’s actual landscape. The major multi-purpose stadium in Seattle is called Lumen Field (formerly known as Century-Link Filed). Naughty Dog changed the stadium’s name to Soundview Stadium. In Part II, “The Seattle Great Wheel” is named the “Pier Point Ferris Wheel.” The Seattle Great Wheel is a 53-meter-tall Ferris wheel at Pier 57 on Elliott Bay in Seattle. The Seattle Aquarium (which is named “The Seattle Waterfront Aquarium” in the game) resides on Pier 59. It is 470 feet north of Pier 57, which is where the wheel is. On the game’s map, these landmarks correlate with the locations of the actual monuments. These spaces are diverse. From waterfront establishments to massive stadiums, Seattle provides the player with a varied set of places to do battle, rather than to sightsee. For The Last of Us part I, Naughty Dog included Boston’s MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) T map as a background detail in the Boston chapters in the game. In the same way that players might be familiar with Seattle’s landscape, the representation of Boston is “a familiar sight to anyone…who has lived in Boston….the map is represented to add authenticity to the experience.”9Colin Moriarty, “Artist Accuses Naughty Dog of Stealing His Map in The Last of Us,” IGN (June 25, 2013): n.p. https://www.ign.com/articles/2013/06/25/artist-accuses-naughty-dog-of-stealing-his-map-in-the-last-of-us Cameron Booth accused Naughty Dog of using his “redesigned transit-map of Boston’s MBTA rail map…without his permission and without compensating him.”10Owen Good, “Artist Says The Last of Us Ripped Off His Boston Subway Map Redesign [Update],” Kotaku (June 25, 2013): n.p. https://kotaku.com/artist-says-the-last-of-us-ripped-off-his-boston-subway-575667219 Thus, the games developers have gone to great lengths to authenticate their own city spaces not just to produce a tangible world, but one that is not ludologically redundant.

However, these cities are not reproduced but rather remade into rotting spaces. This becomes apparent not just by the sight of the dilapidated buildings and untamed nature but also by the artifacts that the player can find in the game.11“Artifacts” is the term in the game that describes the letters, audio recordings, and journal entries that the player can collect and examine. Artifacts in The Last of Us act as “paratexts” that better explain the game’s main narrative.12Ryan Banfi, “Ellie’s Journal: Para-Narratives in The Last of Us Part II,” Game Studies, (Aug. 31, 2022): 22. http://gamestudies.org/2203/articles/banfi For example, one of the artifacts that Ellie can find in the game is a map of Seattle. Ellie can mark the locations that she has explored on the map–thus making it an interactive artifact. As the game progresses the map of Seattle becomes covered in blood. It develops a red tint. Ellie’s blood-soaked map represents her violent traversal into the game’s various areas, not to just explore the city, but to deal death within it.

The blood-soaked map is a subtle representation of the violence that Ellie brings to this environment, and it creates verisimilitude in the game. Seattle and the objects themselves change throughout the game which increases the realism in Part II. For Alexander Galloway, a game designer’s ability to construct an everchanging environment is part and parcel of how videogames convey experiences. He writes that the videogame’s world “exists as a purely aesthetic object in the ambience act….it is detached from the world, a self-contained expression. But there is always a kind of ‘charged expectation’ in the ambience act.”13Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 11. This charged expectation is one that the developers create by instilling a “ludic loop.” The weather in the game is varied, the music transitions from one song to the next, A.I. enemies develop new attack patterns to prevent Ellie and Abby from progressing through the game, and environments adjust. The Last of Us Part II places an emphasis on how the violence that Ellie commits affects not only the in-game ecosystems but also Ellie’s trajectory and her objects (such as the ever-changing map).

In this way, Naughty Dog sets the stage for unrelenting bloodshed to occur in a place that lacks civility. For that reason, the rule of the game is to survive. Gerald Farca and Charlotte Ladevèze write that The Last of Us “initiates a counter-narrative through various devices of its discourse and suggests as a potential solution to dystopia a return to nature and the utopian enclave of a life…As opposed to the city, nature spaces have a calming and liberating effect on the player.”14Gerald Farca and Charlotte Ladevèze, “The Journey to Nature: The Last of Us as Critical Dystopia,” DiGRA (2016): 2. But earth overtaking the cityscapes also showcases savagery. Nature engulfing urban areas produces landscapes that are not maintained, and for that reason, it is easy for the characters in the game (that the player controls) to maneuver past enemies. Stealth is a prominent approach to how players can play the game (or they can attack their enemies directly). In The Last of Us Part II, players use an avatar (Ellie) to commit violent acts. Ultimately these actions are not the gamers’ decisions. They are playing as Ellie (and Abby) who is enacting revenge. Yet, many players have been disturbed by the violence in the game as they have felt that they have been complicit in Ellie’s crimes.

Many academic studies and journalistic reviews of Part II claim that player reactions are authentic responses to gamified violence. For Stefan Schubert, Part II “forces its players to experience (narratively), look at (visually), and perform (ludically) acts that are excessively violent and disturbing, only to make them realize the full extent of these actions later, appealing to their empathy.”15Stefan Schubert, “Playing as/against Violent Women: Imagining Gender in the Postapocalyptic Landscape of The Last of Us Part II,” Gender Forum 80 (April 2021): 49-50. The participants in Karoline Anderson’s study “expanded their moral agency and reduced emotional tension by empathizing with characters…The realism of TLOU characters provoked emotional arousal and increased player-character proximity.” Anderson suggests that “players resolved emotional and moral conflicts through mentalizing and integrating player-character contextual knowledge, resulting in empathetic engagement as a means to reconcile moral dilemmas.”16Karoline A. Anderson, “Moral Distress in The Last of Us: Moral Agency, Character Realism, and Navigating Fixed Gaming Narratives,” Computers in Human Behavior Reports (5 March 2022): 6. According to Valérie Erb, Seyeon Lee, and Young Yim Doh, “the players who only had affection for Ellie and Joel until the end did not have a high enjoyment of the game, since those characters did not have good outcomes in the narrative.”17Valérie Erb, Seyeon Lee and Young Yim Doh, “Player-Character Relationship and Game Satisfaction in Narrative Game: Focus on Player Experience of Character Switch in The Last of Us Part II,” Frontiers in Psychology (September 12, 2021): 8. The Last of Us Part II is an action game, yet it also asks a question about ethics: are these characters bettering themselves by enacting revenge? The game does not present answers to these questions, but rather a space to explore the theme of hate, which according to the game’s director, Neil Druckmann, is the main theme of the text.18Ethan Gach, “The Last of Us Part II Will be a Game about ‘Hate,’” Kotaku (December 4, 2016): n.p. https://kotaku.com/the-last-of-us-2-will-be-a-game-about-hate-1789662506

Evidently, many players became upset because of Ellie’s decisions. And in the case of Erb et al.’s study, those who liked Ellie did not enjoy the game because of her “outcome.” These player experiences are dependent on the believability of the game’s world. Yet the authenticity arises through the decisions that these characters make. Part II is a set text. In that way, players do not have agency in that they cannot alter Part II’s narrative—many players have grown accustomed to being able to contribute to the game’s outcome. Even when the player dies as Ellie or Abby, they are not affecting the game’s narrative but are rather engaging with the game to experience its narrative. In Part II they must accept Ellie’s and Abby’s trajectory, which has unsettled players.  

By players questioning their own morals when playing as Ellie, they are also engaging in the theme of “hate” in the text. Ellie hates Abby. Abby killed Joel, Ellie’s surrogate father because Joel murdered Abby’s dad, Jerry Anderson. Anderson was going to distill a vaccine from Ellie’s body as Ellie is immune to the fungal infection known as the “Cordyceps Brain Infection.” This vaccine was not distilled, and it is unlikely that a cure will be created for this infection. And even if an antidote was made, is Naughty Dog’s world worth saving? An answer to this question becomes evident in the last sequence of the game. Although Ellie lets Abby live because she realizes that Abby and her father wanted the same thing that Ellie wanted (a vaccine for the disease), the final scene shows Ellie returning to her farm in Wyoming to find her home vacant. Ellie’s girlfriend, Dina, left. Ellie attempts to play Joel’s guitar. She can no longer remember the notes that he taught her, hence her fading memory of Joel. Joel and Dina are two of the only characters in the game who loved Ellie. Ellie’s decisions have placed everyone who she cares about at risk.

Ellie plays the songs that Joel taught her on the guitar. Source: https://www.polygon.com/2020/6/23/21298940/the-last-of-us-2-guitar-ellie-songs-covers-naughty-dog-playstation-ps4

Naughty Dog’s world is a dangerous one where players are asked to survive by any means necessary. Although the game’s setting is inspired by American cities, its authenticity arises not from the re-envisionment of the U.S. but from the players’ connection with Ellie. Despite the partition between Ellie and the players who control her (e.g., Ellie is not them, and they can “die” while playing as her), many gamers were affected by the violent decisions that she made. What disturbed players was not that violence was occurring in the world that they know (i.e., cities they are familiar with), but in the diegesis of a fictional text. In this way, players have a connection with the gamified violence. Although this bloodshed is attached to real American landscapes, this article has argued that these places are constructed. What is not assembled by the designers is the player’s connection to the protagonist. The designers can endeavor to create verisimilitude, but ultimately it is the decisions that the characters make within the game that can influence players. Thus, while gamers may be able to identify with specific locations like Seattle where players may have grown up, the authenticity of the ludology does not arise from them being able to traverse these locations but rather from the violence that playable characters enact within it. That is what is authentic.

Notes[+]

Banfi, Ryan. “'Authentic' Cityscapes and Violence in The Last of Us Part II," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 3 (September 2022).
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