Words: 8222 Approximate Reading Time: A Fucking Lot (55-70 minutes)
Spoiler Warning: This essay will contain significant plot spoilers for Aeschylus’s Oresteia – a trilogy of Ancient Greek plays written nearly 2,500 years ago and which you probably would have read by now if you were interested – as well as The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II – video games released in 2013 and 2020.
In the days of the infamous Console Wars, I wasn’t exactly picky. My family owned a Super Nintendo, then a Nintendo 64, and eventually a Gamecube. We were a Nintendo household for the most part, but in the same way most households were – we just owned a popular console effectively at random. I was fortunate enough to personally own a Playstation and then a Playstation 2, and even an Xbox. I was doing pretty well as a kid.
When I got older and went to college, most of the consoles had been sold off. I brought my Xbox with me, but didn’t have much opportunity to play. But then I got an Xbox 360 for my birthday from a family member, and I was back in the game.
And then my uncle helped me put together a new PC, and that massively expanded my horizons.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I wound up missing some games in the Console Wars because I just didn’t have access. Games on the Playstation 3 and the Wii were things I didn’t really think much about. And eventually the next generation of consoles came out. I was on my Xbox 360 and PC for a while.
But those games I missed held some appeal, and as I started getting into watching certain Lets Players on YouTube I used them as a way to experience games I’d missed. One of those games was The Last of Us. It had been a game that was highly acclaimed for its storytelling, and when I saw it played I thought it was interesting, but I wound up not having any further interest in the game.
But once I had saved up some money of my own, I was able to go out and buy a Playstation 4. That PS4 came with a copy of the remastered edition of The Last of Us. I didn’t actually bother with it, though. I’d bought the PS4 to play Bloodborne, and dammit that’s what I was going to do.
So the copy of The Last of Us languished for a couple years, until a friend of mine had suggested I give it a shot. Not because he loved the game, but because it came out of a discussion about storytelling in video games. I ended up enjoying the experience, and I’ve shared some thoughts in the past about TLOU’s story. But overall it made me interested in playing The Last of Us Part II, which was nearing the end of development by the time I finished the first game.
After playing TLOU2, I had a roughly similar takeaway: it was pretty good, overall enjoyable; I had my criticisms here and there, but it mostly did well in being a good story. My core argument from both games was that while they had good narratives, they struggled a bit in being good video game narratives – stories that really made use of the medium of video games. They did have particular points which did a good job, but overall it felt very much like a movie with gameplay spliced between.
There was a ton of discussion and criticism of TLOU2, a lot of it very dumb. I recall seeing some reviews of the narrative that were just downright silly, but there was a somewhat common refrain among various critics who disliked the game’s story – which is arguably its biggest selling point.
That refrain? The Last of Us Part II’s basic theme is revenge and how it sucks, so you shouldn’t do it. That’s a boring theme, because we all know it. Therefore, the story isn’t that good.
This take was something that I absolutely loathed. It was a take that sounded reasonable on its face, but ultimately missed the point of storytelling more broadly. And I wanted to use this take as a way of stepping back and examining what storytelling and themes are ultimately for – that our expectations for storytelling are often mangled because we can find ourselves reaching for the lowest-hanging fruit in the orchard.
But why do this essay now, and not much earlier, if it has been bothering me for so long? Well recently I’ve been part of a little reading group that has been going through the surviving tragedies of the Greek playwright Aeschylus. And the most famous set is his trilogy the Oresteia, a story about the cycle of revenge and ultimately trying to put a stop to it. If you wanted to say that “the cycle of revenge is bad” is an old and well-worn trope, you could easily just point to these plays as your proof.
And so I wanted to do a sort of side-by-side comparison of the two works. Because while in the abstract it’s true that both the Oresteia and TLOU2 are about cycles of revenge, that’s not what actually matters. What matters is how the two works A) present the basic narrative that is meant to convey the theme, and B) explore that theme. Because a single theme can be explored in multiple ways, and even the same perspective can be presented in a new light with a different narrative. And by seeing the comparison of these two stories, we can see how themes really work.
The Oresteia: Revenge in Greek Tragedy
So this section will be pretty long, because the Oresteia is a trilogy of plays. I’ll try to simplify them a fair amount and not discuss every little detail – because there’s more going on that just revenge – but it will still require some time.
The Oresteia is a set of plays that follow the family of Agamemnon, a Greek king of the city of Argos and the leader of the army that besieges Troy. This is the famous story of Helen told in Homer’s Iliad, in case you were curious. The plays follow Agamemnon being killed, then his son avenging his father’s death, and then the son trying to cleanse himself of the blood guilt for killing his father’s murderer.
Unfortunately, we need to do some setup, which is given to us in the first play.
You’ve probably heard about the Greek gods, and know that they liked to bicker a lot and toy with humans. So in Aeschylus’s telling, an eagle (the symbol of the king of the gods, Zeus) killed a rabbit (a wild animal, which falls under the purview of the goddess of the hunt, Artemis). Artemis was angry about this, and so essentially got her revenge by halting the winds that were supposed to carry the Greek army to Troy. In order to resume the winds, Agamemnon would need to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.
Agamemnon does just that, and this sacrifice angers Clytemnestra – Iphigenia’s mother and Agamemnon’s wife. So while Agamemnon and the Greeks are off attacking Troy for a decade, Clytemnestra hooks up with another dude named Aegisthus (more on him in a bit), and the two of them plot to kill Agamemnon once he returns.
And of course, Agamemnon returns, victorious. And once he gets back to the city, Clytemnestra is very sweet and endearing. She brings him into the castle and draws a bath for him, and once he steps in she throws a net over him and stabs him. Thus ends the life of Agamemnon.
A brief digression about Aegisthus, because this is after all a bunch of tales about revenge. Agamemnon’s grandfather was a guy named Pelops, who is only important to this essay because he had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. One day Thyestes seduces and sleeps with Atreus’s wife, which makes Atreus rather mad. So in return, Atreus has Thyestes’s two sons killed, chopped up, and served for dinner at a banquet to Thyestes. Upon realizing what has happened, Thyestes swears revenge, ultimately has another son, and that son carries on that oath of vengeance. The third son of Thyestes is Aegisthus. Meanwhile, Agamemnon is one of the two sons of Atreus. So Aegisthus isn’t just here as some random dude: he is also carrying out a generational cycle of revenge.
The Agamemnon kicks off the cycle, and shows how all of these different feuds all coalesce into one act. Agamemnon bears the responsibility for sacking Troy, and also his sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (which is itself bearing the responsibility of Zeus’s eagle killing Artemis’s hare), and also for his father’s transgression against Thyestes. The story illustrates all of these different threads of transgression and revenge stretching back for generations upon generations. Those familiar with Greek myth (such as the audience that would be viewing the play) would know that the starting point given in the play isn’t the real starting point: Agamemnon’s family carries a curse for transgressions that go even further back.
Vengeance is not a one-time thing, but is something that is carried throughout time. Nor is it something that is ever really “done.” A transgression spurs on a vengeful action, which then demands more vengeance in turn, which demands more vengeance, etc., etc. We often refer to it as a “cycle” precisely because it only ever really ends when everyone involved is dead.
The story takes place not at the beginning, but the middle of the cycle. Although the play is called the Agamemnon, the king himself is barely present. Instead, much of the story is doing setup, and the main character is really Clytemnestra. Our focus is drawn upon her and her suffering – she hates Agamemnon for killing Iphigenia, and feels completely justified in her action. Because she is such a prominent character, we as audience are naturally drawn to her perspective. While what she is doing is heinous, it is also something that we can sympathize with. Which is important: even though we talk about revenge being wrong in the abstract, it is not an act driven by irrationality or madness. People seek revenge for serious wrongs, and we can’t ignore those pains. We might condemn the ways in which they try to right those wrongs, but talking about this merely in terms of a cycle ignores the human element.
The play ends basically with Clytemnestra victorious, taking control of Argos along with Aegisthus and ruling as queen and king. Which sets the stage for…
The Libation Bearers
The next play in the trilogy focuses on Agamemnon’s son, Orestes. Orestes has been gone from Argos for a while, but has now returned because he has heard news of his father’s murder. And he’s here to get revenge.
The plot of the Libation Bearers doesn’t require as much setup. Instead, its primary focus is going to be on the next step in the revenge plot. Which means that as long as we’re familiar with the Agamemnon, we have the setup that we need.
So Orestes returns to Argos and visits his father’s grave. There he swears vengeance upon his mother (Clytemnestra) and Aegisthus. He is driven to this by a command from a god: Apollo has demanded that Orestes carry out this revenge, and promises protection; if Orestes should not follow through, then Apollo will punish him. The first big chunk of the play is largely about Orestes talking about the travesty of Agamemnon’s death and the betrayal by his mother.
Orestes carries out a plan to infiltrate the palace, and once he’s there he pretty quickly and successfully launches his plot. He cuts down Aegisthus, and then chases down his mother. Clytemnestra begs for compassion, citing her blood relationship with Orestes – surely it’s wrong to kill your own mother, right? Orestes refuses to listen to these pleas, though, and kills her. But the last thing that Clytemnestra does is curse Orestes for his bloodshed. And while Orestes is standing victorious, he is suddenly hounded by visions and must flee. This ends the second play, and sets up the third.
The Libation Bearers focuses on duty to one’s family, and how that duty binds us. Orestes is required to get revenge for Agamemnon – not only does he feel a great love and respect for his father that demands vengeance, but he is spurred on by Apollo both through commands and threats. But of course, in seeking that revenge Orestes must kill his own mother. And the shedding of familial blood is something that even today we see as a great crime, and in Ancient Greece that perception was even stronger. Hence why one of the things that the play does is try to harden Clytemnestra as a villain: she is chastised for having essentially abandoned Orestes and secretly hating him, giving Orestes a feeling that Clytemnestra isn’t really his mother, and giving us the audience a kind of “escape” from guilt when she dies. But that escape is just an illusion: we can’t get around the fact that at the end of day Orestes is killing the person who gave birth to him.
And of course, Orestes is going to be haunted in a very literal fashion by this murder. While Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are both dead, the cycle doesn’t end. Rather, it is carried forward by the Furies, ancient gods who were responsible for hunting down and punishing those who transgressed against ancient laws (such as the shedding of familial blood). The Furies are sometimes portrayed as the personification of various forms of wrath, whether divine or human, for those who commit serious wrongs. But we can also see the Furies interpreted as the feeling of guilt: the internal tortures that we may use against ourselves. In both senses, revenge can never end, because there is always going to be someone looking to punish us, even if we perceive ourselves as being in the right.
Which brings us to the last play…
The Eumenides is the final play in the Oresteia trilogy. It is the story that serves as the end to the vicious cycle of revenge, which requires some ingenuity.
The play begins at a temple, where Orestes is seeking protection from Apollo. Orestes is being hounded by the Furies and needs help. Unfortunately, even though Apollo promised protection, he can’t provide it – in a sense, the Furies outrank him, because they are much older gods who exist specifically for the purpose of punishing people like Orestes. Apollo would essentially be upsetting the natural or divine order by sending them away. So all Apollo can do is send Orestes to the city of Athens. There, he says, Orestes can seek supplication from Athena.
So Orestes does just that, and the Furies follow soon after. Before the Furies can tear Orestes apart, Athena steps in to figure out what’s going on. Both sides make their claims – Orestes asking for protection and the Furies asking to be handed Orestes. Athena decides that the best way to settle this dispute is with a trial, a suggestion which both sides accept. So Athena gather together some Athenian citizens, and both sides make their case.
The next chunk of the play is set up as a literal trial, with the chorus of Furies playing the role of a prosecutor and Apollo serving as the defense lawyer for Orestes. The two parties go back and forth about bloodshed. The Furies say that their job is to hunt down people who kill their parents. Apollo attacks them for how narrow that job is – they’re going after Orestes for killing his mother, but not Clytemnestra for killing her husband, because Clytemnestra and Agamemnon were not related by blood.
After the arguments, the jury seems split, but whether through a deciding vote cast by Athena or a rule laid down that in the case of a tie vote Orestes would be declared the victor (there’s a lot of confusion about the voting), Orestes ultimately winds up being freed of his blood debt. He is allowed to return home cleansed and no longer hounded by the Furies. The Furies, of course, are absolutely enraged, and threaten to curse Athens for this decision. However, Athena is able to placate them: the city still needs the power of vengeance on its side, and so asks that the Furies accept a new role to be controlled by the city.
The premise of The Eumenides focuses essentially on the need to end this cycle of violence. Each death creates a new blood debt, and vengeance does not “pay” that debt, but instead just spawns a new debt in its place. There must be a way to end this cycle of revenge, and the answer in the Oresteia is law. The city must ultimately determine whether a given killing was fair or not, and then mete out punishment as required by law. Since Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra was ultimately determined to be fair, no punishment was needed.
The answer, of course, may feel insensitive. We can read the Furies’ rage as a broader reaction to the idea that someone has to be responsible for death: Clytemnestra was killed, so her killer should be held to account for that crime. But the problem is that if we keep pursuing that vengeance, then we are right back where we started: a cycle of violence that never stops.
The Oresteia trilogy helps show a pathway for dealing with the cycle of violence. But it also helps illustrate how that cycle plays out. When we talk about a cycle of revenge or a cycle of violence, we can often talk about it as a sort of brief window in time – one person did one thing, and then another person seeks revenge, and then someone else seeks revenge against that second person. The idea being that the “cycle” is really just a dispute between three or four people. The point of the Oresteia’s construction is to show how these cycles are much older and rooted in causes that precede the particular acts in question. The Furies are seeking revenge against Orestes, who sought revenge against Clytemnestra, who sought revenge against Agamemnon, who killed Iphigenia, because Artemis was seeking vengeance against Zeus…
We often try to isolate actions: if we just investigate this particular act divorced from everything else, we can reach a solid account of responsibility. But that only works in very isolated contexts. It works in the court of law, for instance, though only barely. But the real world is messy, and we as humans don’t do well at removing actions from their broader historical context. We can’t isolate actions in this way. And so attempting to examine one incident without stepping back becomes a fool’s errand at best. At worst, it is deliberately ignoring harm.
So these are the basic themes of the Oresteia and its take on the cycle of revenge. I know it’s long, but I wanted to present all of this because it serves as a nice example to juxtapose The Last of Us Part II against. Because TLOU2 is also about revenge. And our first instinct may well be to say that since Aeschylus had tackled the theme 2,500 years ago, there’s not really anything new to be examined. But that is where we would be wrong.
The Last of Us Part II: Revenge in Video Games
So before leaping into the sequel, I need to do a bit of setup, by talking about the first game.
The Last of Us follows two characters – Joel and Ellie – trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world filled with what are effectively zombies (strictly speaking they are humans controlled by a fungus in their brains, but the end result is that they behave like zombies, so it’s an effective shorthand).
Joel is a loner who has a very self-centered view of things: he has a couple of friends, but mostly distrusts everyone else. He doesn’t like to do anything altruistic, because he knows very well that he could be (and likely will be) taken advantage of. His primary concern is just living to the next day.
Ellie is a young girl who is immune to the infection turning everyone into zombies. Which means she may hold the answer for a cure or vaccine that could potentially rescue human civilization itself. She has seen many of the people closest to her die, and so feels that her use as a cure could give her a sense of purpose in life.
Joel is tasked with leading Ellie to the base of a group called the Fireflies, who are trying to find a cure for the infection. But to get there, Joel and Ellie need to brave a pretty significant swath of the US, which is filled with gangs looking to take out easy targets for supplies, as well as zombies.
Throughout their journey, Joel and Ellie start to bond more and more. Joel – who lost his own daughter at the beginning of the outbreak years prior to the main game – begins to see Ellie as a new daughter. And Ellie in turn starts to see Joel as a sort of father figure.
At the end of the journey, they find the Firefly base. There it is revealed to Joel that in order to develop a cure, they need to study Ellie’s brain – which means removing it, and killing her. Joel is unwilling to accept this, and the final sequence of the game has you going through the Firefly base (in an abandoned hospital) mowing down Fireflies and even killing the doctors to rescue Ellie. Keep in mind that the Fireflies are a group dedicated to helping humanity and resisting against the authoritarian military structures that are oppressing everyday people. They are, to a pretty significant extent, the good guys.
I want to stress this final point as much as I can. I’ve talked about this final sequence before, because it’s been a source of plenty of discussion among players. Is it right for Joel to save Ellie? The game is technically ambiguous – you could decide that he shouldn’t, but to do so you need to just shut off the game and stop playing. To see the story through to the end means killing all of these people. But a way for players to rationalize this killing is through a “sour grapes” defense. The Fireflies couldn’t possibly succeed, which means Ellie would die for nothing, and so of course she should be saved. This of course ignores the fact that the Fireflies aren’t brutally killing a girl for fun – they’re still trying to do good in the world. But this defense is a way of pretending that the killing is okay. Hence why one of the things the developers said is that the Fireflies would have been successful in creating the cure. The moral quandary is actually interesting if that possibility exists. To ignore the possibility entirely is to pretend that there is no quandary. It becomes a form of intellectual laziness.
So that’s the setup. The Last of Us itself is a game about violence and surviving, and presents some interesting ideas, but it’s not the focus of our investigation here.
Part II’s Revenge Cycle
Some years after Joel rescues Ellie, they both settle down at a compound run by Joel’s brother, Tommy. Joel and Ellie have a rocky relationship because Ellie discovers what happened at the hospital in the previous game, and her struggle to truly forgive Joel is something that follows Ellie throughout the whole game.
But the game itself begins by following three characters. Joel and Tommy are out doing reconnaissance when a blizzard hits. Ellie goes out in search for them. And a third character – Abby – is also out in the wilderness. The three end up converging on a house where Abby’s friends are holed up, which is when everything goes to hell.
It turns out that Abby is in the area to find Joel and get revenge on him. We find out later that the doctor Joel kills in the final sequence of the first game was Abby’s father. So she is here to seek vengeance. In a rather brutal scene, Abby and her friends beat Joel to death, and at the last moments Ellie barges in only to be subdued, and she sees Joel killed in front of her eyes. She basically swears revenge on the pack then and there, but they knock her out and then leave.
Soon after Ellie recovers, she wants to chase after the killers, and eventually is able to sneak out successfully. Although not before she berates Tommy for not also seeking revenge, to which he finally responds by heading out as she asks.
About half of the game follows Ellie as she attempts to find Abby and Co., usually following in the trail of bodies left by Tommy. Ellie brings her girlfriend, Dina, with her, who is there to help her through events in various ways.
The other half follows Abby, as she attempts to resume her life. She is haunted both by her memories of her father and of what she did to Joel. As she journeys she encounters a young boy named Lev, who belongs to a cult that has been fighting the militia Abby belongs to. They effectively become friends, and Abby sees protecting Lev as a way of righting the wrongs she has committed, both against others more generally and against Joel specifically.
Ellie’s journey through the territory has her tracking down several of Abby’s friends to try and track down Abby. She eventually chases down a few characters and enacts rather brutal acts of violence. The brutality is part of the point, because the player’s participation is key. I’ll talk about that bit later.
Abby’s friends start dying because of some invader into the militia’s territory, so she starts seeking out that invader. That eventually brings her to Ellie’s hideout, where she encounters Tommy and Ellie. Abby shoots Tommy in the face (though he survives), and there is a fight between Abby and Ellie. Abby wins and nearly winds up killing Dina until Lev stops her. Abby realizes that further killing is not worth it, and moves on. With their group wounded, Ellie and friends need to return home.
Thus ends the first attempt. The cycle is already played out to an extent – Joel kills man, Abby seeks vengeance, Ellie seeks vengeance, etc. We could end the story here and it would have a fairly satisfying ending. The basic theme that revenge isn’t worth it would be hammered home pretty well.
Why? Well, firstly, because we’d be seeing Abby’s guilt and her journey towards absolution. We would see a recognition from her that she has done wrong, and needs to atone for it – though not by simply lying back and dying, but by actively trying to help others. Which is why she is so intent on helping her friends, and later on trying to rejoin the Fireflies.
Secondly, when Ellie, Tommy, and Dina return to the compound, we see how their lives have changed. Ellie and Dina have a child they are raising, and the farm they are living on seems practically idyllic. It seems like Ellie has come to terms and moved on…but then it is revealed that she hasn’t. She undergoes a traumatic episode which leaves her screaming in terror, and shows that she still suffers from what she witnessed. This becomes even more obvious when she realizes that she won’t “feel” complete until she gets revenge for Joel’s death, and leaves. Dina pleads for her not to go, but Ellie goes anyway.
Thirdly, we see what happens to Tommy. He is disfigured, and his personal life has essentially fallen apart. His wife has not quite left him, but they are “on a break.” Whether they will be able to reunite is unclear, and is possible, but Tommy’s quest for revenge has left him broken. He arrives at Ellie and Dina’s house to reveal that he has still been tracking Abby. He has information on her last whereabouts, and wants Ellie to go after her. When Ellie refuses he is angry. Tommy is also unable to move on.
To end the game here would convey the different ways to approach revenge and escape the cycle without merely being about the old phrase “if you plan to seek revenge, dig two graves.”
Nevertheless, Ellie uses the information to track down Abby. It turns out she and Lev were captured by a band of marauders. Ellie kills the band and frees Abby, to trigger one final fight. In the fight Abby bites off two of Ellie’s fingers, but since Abby has been weakened Ellie is able to win and starts drowning Abby…until she relents and lets Abby go. Abby takes Lev and escapes. Ellie breaks down crying.
Upon Ellie’s return to her home, Dina has left. Ellie is alone.
Revenge, Connections, and Loss
So there are several ways to examine this theme of revenge. Let me start with the idea of “connection.”
TLoU2 juxtaposes the experiences of Ellie and Abby, and in a sense their journeys are shown as contrasts.
Ellie’s experience is shown as being about the loss of connection. There is of course the immediate loss of Joel through his death. But throughout the game there are various flashbacks that show her bond with Joel, up to the point where she learns that he destroyed the Fireflies and effectively betrayed her – he robbed her of something that gave her meaning. When Joel is killed, Ellie has still not properly forgiven Joel, in fact her final interaction with him is one where she basically tells him to leave her alone. She feels a sense of guilt about not holding onto that relationship when she had the chance, and now that connection is gone. Her trauma in turn stems from that loss – she feels incomplete because she thinks she needs to avenge Joel.
We can also see the loss that comes when she returns to the homestead. Dina and the child are gone. Ellie had something worth holding onto, and threw it away in the pursuit of revenge.
However, this loss of connection isn’t just portrayed through the narratives and cutscenes. Even bits of the gameplay showcase this loss. In particular is the guitar and music. At a few points in the game Ellie can pick up a guitar, and there’s actually a very in-depth mechanic for playing chords on it. But the root of this mechanic lies in the fact that Ellie learns to play from Joel. And that itself is introduced by Joel writing a song for Ellie. So the first time that you play the guitar, you are guided through the first couple chords of that song Joel made for Ellie. Although Joel is gone, there is still a bit of a connection that Ellie can conjure through music.
At the very end of the game, when Ellie returns to the homestead, she is now missing two fingers. And so when Ellie goes to the attic, she finds a guitar, and attempts to play. However, she can’t play anymore – she stumbles over the chords. She has now not only lost her connection to Dina and their child, but she has even lost her connection to Joel.
Conversely, Abby begins having already lost her connection to her father because of his death. She has already undergone the trauma that Ellie is undergoing and is now trying to deal with the guilt of carrying out her revenge. Abby’s journey is focused on the redemption after revenge. Although she is a member of a militia controlling a safe zone, and thus has experience with taking lives, she is starting to realize that the people she is killing are…well…people.
So Abby is trying to figure out her connections to others. Firstly, she’s got her friends: the various members of the militia that were all former Fireflies. They’ve formed their own little band that has stuck together through thick and thin, but now they feel less and less certain about their place in life. And of course, they don’t all get along perfectly. So trying to navigate the particular troubles of social relationships is something that Abby struggles with after getting her revenge.
There’s also a more direct relationship between Abby and her ex-boyfriend, Owen. One of the particular problems of the group is that Abby and Owen used to be in a relationship, and then they broke up, and now Owen is dating Mel, a different member of the group. This forms a sort of love triangle that sours much of the relationship between Abby and other members of the group.
I bring up these two facets because of course as Abby tries to reforge these relationships, she is also losing friends as Ellie and Tommy kill off members of the group. So Abby is also losing some connections as a direct consequence of her choice to get revenge.
But there’s also the successful connection that Abby forges with Lev. In rescuing Lev from a community that hates him and becoming his guardian, Abby tries to find redemption. And that connection is ultimately possible because of the guilt she feels over killing Joel – she realizes she has done something wrong, has killed another human being, and must reexamine her future actions.
So connection is a core theme of the revenge plot. Seeking revenge results in a loss of connection, but also we can make choices about what we do with the connections we have. We could imagine different possibilities – Abby choosing to move on from the death of her father and finding solace in her group of friends; Ellie choosing to move on from Joel’s death and find solace in her family; Abby becoming more hardened to death and thus becoming a sort of killing machine; Ellie being successful and finding that her own successful vengeance doesn’t actually fill the hole in her life. All of these possibilities exist within the story.
Now of course, we could look at this and say “well, yeah, pursuing vengeance is destructive.” But that response would be missing the key point: Abby’s journey. Because Abby gets revenge. Obviously, that revenge plagues her with guilt, but it also spurs her into changing and becoming better. Whether we as observer find her morally redeemed is subjective. But even if we think she isn’t fully redeemed, we cannot simply ignore that the revenge – somewhat ironically – has a positive impact upon her.
Which is why revenge is much more complicated. In a sense, we may find a bunch of players wishing that Ellie would get revenge on Abby and living a happy life, which would fundamentally run counter to this idea of “revenge is not worth it.” But in doing so, we’d be myopically focused on one side of the equation. The cycle of revenge may need to stop, but in order for us to talk about it stopping it needs to begin. And the “good” ending requires someone finding redemption, not through death, but through something else. We need to be able to identify what that “something else” is.
Alright, so I’ve laid out both the Oresteia and The Last of Us Part II and explained their basic themes of revenge. Perhaps at this point you can already see some differences between the two stories. But I want to now step back and ask a fundamental question:
If both stories are ultimately about revenge, why bother making The Last of Us Part II? Why not explore a different story or theme altogether?
This is what I find to be the core problem with the criticism of TLoU2’s theming. The idea is that because two stories share the same theme, the later story isn’t worth making. But that take misses a lot.
Principles of Theming
For one, while they are both “about” revenge in the abstract, they do not have the exact same thing to say about revenge.
The Oresteia tackles revenge through a few different lenses. There is the “in the middle” component – that revenge really is a cycle that existed long before we enter the picture. Which means that that cycle will continue until someone or something breaks it. And the emphasis is that the “breaking” is through the intervention of the political body – we need some entity to step in and keep people under control. There is also the component of duty or obligation – sometimes revenge is actually required of us, thus becoming the moral thing to do. Orestes’ vengeance, and the vengeance of the state for that matter, would both be examples of this idea. And finally there’s the complex interplay of various factors that go into revenge – revenge is rarely for just one thing, but often a result of multiple issues coalescing into a single act.
Meanwhile, TLoU2 is focused on loss, connections, and redemption. There is a very human cost to seeking revenge that is highlighted in this story, both through Abby’s and Ellie’s perspectives. This loss plays out in terms of death, in terms of relationships, and in terms of our own humanity. The theme of revenge also interweaves with the connections we share with others. As explained above, this is explored both in the negative sense (how revenge destroys connections) and in the positive sense (how revenge can encourage us to forge new connections). And then there’s redemption, particularly explored in Abby’s perspective. If you’ve killed someone in vengeance and are haunted by guilt…how do you escape that? Again, whether we think Abby is truly redeemed is secondary to the question of how someone can be redeemed.
Now of course that they have different focuses does not mean that there aren’t also common elements. The cyclical nature of the revenge. The fact that we are meant to sympathize with the decisions that all of the actors in the story make. The ultimate lesson that the cycle needs to be ended somehow. Both stories share these common elements. Most stories about revenge are going to share these elements.
But what is key is that even when both stories are focused on the same abstract theme of “revenge,” that theme can be explored in different ways. Which is the fundamental flaw with the criticism – it is a way of ignoring how theming works by just reducing all stories about “revenge” into a single simple box. When revenge is a much more complicated question than any one story can truly tackle.
Principles of Narrative
Okay, but let’s ignore for a moment the richness of the theme itself. Let’s imagine that TLoU2’s basic thematic message was the same as the Oresteia’s. Would that be grounds for saying that the former is boring or played out?
Not really. To say that two stories with the same theme are mere copies of one another ignores the fact that narratives matter as well. We’d want to not just ask what the theme is, but what is the story that is communicating that theme.
Aeschylus’s Oresteia may have covered the theme of revenge nearly 2,500 years ago, but the story that is presented in that trilogy of plays is one that many people may not get access to. It’s uncommon to read Greek plays in many educational systems. So having just one story about revenge – or any theme – means that a lot of people just won’t encounter that theme in the first place.
The point of having more stories that explore similar themes – even the same theme – is accessibility. Each individual story appeals to a different audience. Plenty of people might read or see and enjoy the Oresteia (I certainly did), but there are also plenty of people who might not care for the plays. For any number of reasons. Maybe the rootedness in Greek mythology is too much for newer readers. Maybe the language is too complex. Maybe the only way you’re able to access the play is through text, which misses a lot of material that would come across in a play. Or maybe our own problems with figuring out how the play was performed means we’re missing too much in seeing it performed today.
So sure, older stories about revenge exist. I’ve selected the Oresteia not because it’s the only story out there, but because it is the best test case regarding the take I was citing at the top of this essay: that The Last of Us Part II has a rather boring story because it’s “just about” the cycle of revenge. It’s one of the oldest stories on this theme that we have. If the Oresteia is sufficient, then we shouldn’t need any other stories that target the theme of revenge.
And when we put it in those terms, the premise becomes rather silly. But the extension of that realization is that oversimplifying narratives to their themes – often by oversimplifying the themes themselves – means we are forgetting a significant portion of why stories exist.
TLoU2 tells a radically different story, and that story is important on its own. It is an opportunity for people to consider the theme of revenge through narrative that might otherwise be missed.
When looking at themes, we shouldn’t be focused on “is this a theme that others have written on before?” We should be focused on “is this a theme that is communicated well by the narrative?” Does the story appeal to the audience and compel them to reach the end? Does the narrative’s message come through to the audience? How well is that theme explored? These are far more useful questions.
Principles of Games
The last thing to consider is that even if you’re dealing with a similar narrative and similar themes, the medium through which that story is told matters. We shouldn’t merely be focused on what story is told, but how it’s being told.
The Oresteia is a play, and so even if we’re experiencing it as originally intended, we as the audience still sympathize with characters and actions through the lens of “this is happening to someone else.” When Clytemnestra betrays Agamemnon, when Orestes swears revenge, when the trial occurs, all of that action and emotion is still separated from us by the stage. We can, of course, still feel emotions from these events. To evoke those feelings is ultimately the point of good writing. But it is a very particular way in which we interact with the medium – we are merely watching things happen.
Comparatively, The Last of Us Part II is a game, and its narrative and themes are designed to make use of that aspect. The way in which various human characters react to the death of their comrades – when you play as Ellie and shoot down various members of the militia, you will often hear those still living shout something akin to “They got Bill!” – is designed to remind us that Ellie’s journey for revenge requires killing people who have done her no harm. The splitting of the perspective and having us play as both Ellie and Abby is meant to get us to see the world through their eyes and better sympathize with their feelings. The way in which various scenes of brutality require player input to get through is a way of reminding us that in a game we are participating in the narrative – we aren’t just watching things happen.
All of these interactive components of the game therefore change how we relate to the story and the actions of the characters. So even if TLoU2 was telling the same story as the Oresteia, the way in which the medium of the video game changes what the author can do with the action and how the audience understands that action is important. It would be worth creating that game and telling that narrative and exploring that theme. Because even if you have those underlying similarities, the way that narrative and theme are conveyed matters, too.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about The Last of Us Part II. It would certainly make sense to conclude that it is a game I absolutely adore, even though that’s not the case. I think it’s a good game, but most certainly not a great game. I think the story is good, but that is the best thing going for it. I think that the gameplay often feels repetitive without having any kind of significant payoff for the player or without really furthering the narrative in any significant way.
So why bother with all of this? Well, as I said at the beginning, there are some takes on this game’s story that have bothered me for a long time. There are plenty of perfectly fair criticisms to level at the game’s narrative. We could argue that it doesn’t take sufficient advantage of the medium of the game to communicate its story. This is certainly one place where I would claim the game falls short. Although I’ve shown places where the medium of the game is definitely incorporated, those places are minimal, or are so tenuously linked to the narrative that you could wind up telling the same story just as well through another medium such as film.
We could disagree with particular narrative choices. I think the narrative is ultimately good, but a lot of people really liked Joel as a character and therefore felt a huge sense of loss at seeing him die. It’s perfectly reasonable for a member of the audience to decide they don’t like the story because of that. Of course, that feeling isn’t necessarily “right” in the sense that it is how the story “should” go. It is just that people can have that visceral reaction and decide to stop experiencing the story.
But there are limits to the validity of these reactions. Certainly a huge part of the backlash against the game was that Joel died, and therefore people decided that Abby must be a poorly constructed character. This idea reached its zenith with various people attacking the voice actress for Abby and effectively personally blaming her for Joel’s death. These kinds of misogynistic attacks hold no validity, and are things that we should condemn in ourselves and others.
And just as there are certain visceral reactions that are invalid, there are certain critiques that are invalid as well. In talking about narratives, there is a trend in popular criticism (i.e. not professional criticism) to remark how Thing X is similar to Thing Y. This kind of shorthand is useful in various contexts, but becomes a tool for denigrating the newer media. If one story resembles in some ways another story, then the newer story must be just a rehash of the older story. The newer story is thus boring. The ideas are played out. We’ve been over this before. It’s all been done.
And I find this approach infuriating for its laziness. There are, now and then, literal copies of stories and themes. Where the narrative action is beat-for-beat the same, and there is genuinely nothing new. But this form of criticism basically assumes that if you have some overlap, then that’s sufficiently equivalent to copying.
And so when I saw all of these takes about “sure, The Last of Us Part II is about the cycle of revenge, but that’s a boring idea,” I became incensed. Because the claim would make sense if the commenters were to dig down into the themes, explain how TLoU2 was exploring that theme, and explain how the ideas had already been done by other stories. But that’s not what is happening. These commenters are simply pointing to some general “understanding” that the themes already existed, and thus anything that attempts to explore those themes is inherently invalid as a consequence.
So I wanted to use this essay to explore that tendency. And since I’ve both been on a thematic essay kick recently and happened to have made the time to read the Oresteia, this seemed a good opportunity to do just that.
At the end of the day, to engage in criticism requires having a good standard from which to criticize. If we’re arguing merely based on our personal feelings, that ends up being fine, but then we need to communicate our ideas with that basis in mind. A theme isn’t “played out” because you don’t find it interesting. A story isn’t “shallow” because you refused to do any digging. So if we’re going to make sweeping statements – and often criticism involves these sweeping statements, if for no other reason than that they can more easily get clicks and engagement – we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard. We need to take extra care about the pronouncements we’re going to be making.
 In a point of fairness, this was certainly not the only criticism of the game. Nor was it the only take offered about the game’s story. There were plenty of people who argued that the story was compelling and really dug down into the theming. There are quite a few takes that illustrate how TLOU2’s narrative was interesting and nuanced, although I am somewhat skeptical of those that say it’s specifically not a revenge story.