The second chapter of Last of Us proposes ethical reflections that test the player’s morality and encourage him to reflect on the very nature of the human being, fitting into an ancient philosophical and literary tradition. The attempt to get out of the hyper-violent survival horror pack is at least partially successful.
The initial ethical issue
The beginning opens with a flashback. Chapter one ended with one of the classic dilemmas of ethics. Ellie, the protagonist, is immune to the virus. Her plasma represents salvation for the whole world, but at what price? L’aut aut is so conceived: sacrifice one little girl and save all the others or choose that one at the expense of the global population? Yes, because in order to turn into a cure, Ellie had to die.
This is the so-called trolley problem, for the first time exposed by the English philosopher Philippa Foot. There’s a train out of control, there are five people on the track who can’t avoid the impact with the iron. We can operate a lever and deviate the trajectory, but this action has a precise consequence: on the other stretch there is again an individual who would be sacrificed instead of the other five. The choice reflects two separate philosophical currents, utilitarianism and deontology. In the latter case it is not a matter of consequentialistic ethics. The choice of how to act is not entrusted to the weighting of consequences, to their impact on the whole system. Deontological ethics anticipate a series of rules that intend to prescribe what is good to be achieved, beyond the effects of actions. The system of values by which the rules are defined may depend on internal (pleasure, categorical imperative, super-ego) or external (jurisprudence, religion) sources. Utilitarianism starts from an economic norm that prescribes only the maximisation of benefit for the greatest number of individuals. However, in order to achieve this prescription, it is essential to anticipate the effects of actions, the consequences linked to the context.
But the ethical dilemma of Last of Us is also reflected in the classical conflict between family justice and law well represented in Greek theatre; particularly in Sophocles’ Antigone.
I wonder if operating the lever, intervening on the course of the train, is not, however, inconsistent with the principles of utilitarian free trade. In classical economics we speak of automatic regulation of the system, so that if everyone pursues his own interests, an Invisible Hand will balance, in the most rational way, the effects of individual actions. The State is excluded from economic decisions because justice cannot be defined a priori. The costs and benefits are not preventable and even every economic intervention project appears counterproductive. Justice is something that emerges as an unintentional result of the affected actions of individuals. For Joel, the protagonist of the videogame, saving Ellie was putting his own interests, his own happiness, first. Therefore, from a liberalist point of view, this could have been the most rational choice.
However, it is necessary to define the Invisible Hand of ethical choices. In the non-economic spheres, how would self-regulation of the system be explained? Is there a deonic, moral counterpart to the law of supply and demand?
Just as the State does not intervene for an effective greater economic benefit, even in the example of the train, choosing not to intervene, saving five instead of one, could prove to be much more rational in the long run. Perhaps those five would have become dictators, rapists, murderers, while that one would have discovered the cure for cancer. The maximum benefit is not really predictable, the variables are too many. On a physical level, it’s the chaos theory that clarifies this difficulty. The unintended effects that a flap of wings can unleash in a complex system are unpredictable. The causal chain is therefore unfathomable both backwards and forward-looking. This makes any possible anticipation of advantages and disadvantages vain. That is why the only solution could be not to intervene or to choose by adopting a deontological ethics. In this case the justification for individual action would be based not on an unfathomable purpose, but on a precise idea of good, endowed with coherence.
There is one more justification that approves Joel’s choice to save Ellie. If we assume the philosophical systems of Spinoza and Hegel as good, the existence of evil would remain incomprehensible if we continued to interpret it from the human (or sub specie temporis) point of view. If everything that exists, since it coincides with God, is necessary, what is the meaning of error, physical evil and moral evil? In reality, evil is only a relative point of view. The Spirit (Hegel) or Nature (Spinoza) balance actions, guiding them towards a larger project of rationality, which may remain incomprehensible to us. To understand evil one must adopt the perspective of a God. In short, we must play a theoretical God Game. In the light of this, saving Ellie may have been the most rational choice, and this is only because it has been realized. Everything that is real is rational, even if apparently the opposite seems to be the case. If, as Spinoza says, Nature is God, what exists is not a choice, but a necessary fact – which, in fact, is much more than “better”.
Goodness vs Evil
The Last of us 2 is a game in which diegetics is really well structured. Here morality is constantly put to the test. There is no room for trivialization of roles.
I’ve often argued that video games are the equivalent of fairy tales. Every social structure has its superstructural counterpart of stories and myths. The current system requires other modes of storytelling, the fairy tale of tradition now struggles to justify our liquid social norms, and hesitates to accompany the child into the community.
The video game, like the fairy tale, always provides a test. Life confronts us with numerous problem solving and we must be prepared to face them. The ideal simulations, the narrative ones and also the game serve to train the ability to solve the puzzles of life. An example of this is even provided by The last of us 2: at the beginning, to train the player to the battles, you try the commands in a nice snowball battle.
Unlike the fairy tale, in which each role is clearly identifiable, in video games, and especially in this one, signed Naughty Dog, you have difficulty to label the characters. In the fairy tale the distinction between good and evil must always be clear. In fact, it must transpire the teaching that good conduct is necessary and sufficient to solve, for the benefit of good, the initial problem. The objective is to stimulate the construction of a super-ego, which, freudianly speaking, is necessary for civil coexistence. By clearly cutting out the roles of the protagonist and the antagonist, the traditional fairy tale is a preliminary training, in which the process of judgement is simplified. In videogames like The last of us you want to dig deeper. Today’s society doesn’t aim to produce definitive responses and even consumerism aims to make people buy both good and evil.
An Alternative point of view
New fairy tales teach perspective. More Nietzsche and Spinoza and less absolute dualism of good and evil. Every choice is both good and bad, depending on the context in which it is evaluated. There is no inconsistency to empathize with the antagonist of the video game.
The structure of The last of us 2 guides us towards doubt. The moral is not to give in to easy attributions.
The videogame allows all this by exploiting the prerogatives of the medium: every now and then it makes us impersonate Abby, the one who should be the antagonist, and every now and then we live in the shoes of Ellie, the heroine, whose choices put our sinderesis to the test. The Guardian, in one of his (so far) three analyses of videogames (in the face of those who still say “they’re just videogames”) wrote that Last of us 2 is the videogame that most allows us to understand the reasons of the Other.
We can also add that with Last of Us 2 videogames have shown all their ability – compared to other media and art forms – to show the point of view of others, perspective.
Move a sprite every now and then and every now and then its rival is an exercise in emotional intelligence. In The last of us 2 it’s easy to sympathize with the characters: expressions, body language, tone, lexical choice are taken care of in detail. There is a fine psychological and philosophical research of the pragmatics of language.
The conclusion we should come to is that the truth is not up to us. One, none, a hundred thousand, in short. The magma, the fluidity of contemporary society escape easy categorization. Action takes on multiple meanings. The cristico “nolite iudicare” has never been so à la page.
A lot of violence and an immersion into mother nature
Finally, violence is another element that fairy tales and video games have in common. If the Grimm brothers have collected the traditional myths, sweetening them on purpose, it means that already at the time the rawness of stories was a debated topic. However, today as then, inserting it into the stories seems natural and therefore necessary. Stepmother Nature was well illustrated in fairy tales through allegories and rhetorical instruments.
When Little Red Riding Hood transgressed his mother’s veto and ventured into the woods, running into the wolf, he wanted to educate children to obedience, showing the danger of a Nature not yet dominated by technological means. In videogames, cosmic pessimism is represented by human wickedness or by a Nature not totally controllable, of which pandemics are the best example. Sometimes technology is the element that ends up escaping human control, becoming the “malignant artificial Nature”.
When it comes to what should be Seattle, the city appears devastated by three “plagues”: the military, disease and finally de-urbanisation. The victory of the vegetable over the mineral is one of Sartre’s dearest themes. Often, in his texts, one reads the horror aroused by the fluid, the softness of Nature. Man tries to imitate the calming fixity of stones. He uses them to build his society and takes them as a model to solidify himself into a stable identity. However, as Nature will always invade human constructions, winning on every wall, on skyscrapers, on bridges, even the Ego will succumb under the flow of becoming. In the video game, Seattle appears chewed by abandonment. Nature has won by decimating the population and replacing cement. The fluid is also that law that goes to deny any rigid categorization. It embraces every construction, both physical and mental. At first it may seem like a support, but in the long run that embrace always turns out to be a buoy.
The choice of Seattle, located in Washington state, is, in my opinion, an important detail for another reason. It is home to some of the largest technology companies. It exposes in its urban fabric the social division that afflicts America: on the one hand the radiance of Bezos’ smile, on the other the degradation of “exterminated” slums, plagued by drugs and unemployment. Seattle is already a real battleground.
There is so much violence in Last of Us 2. On both sides of the barricade. Violence sometimes seems to be the real protagonist that conquers everyone’s feelings, even those who – with love and their own kindness – could seem immune to it.
As in The Lord of the Flies of Golding there seems to be a message that if the laws are skipped, the beast, the violent and chaotic nature of the human being, resurfaces. That it can be repressed but never completely suppressed; ready to leap out if conditions permit. So, the zombies are (also) us, ready without any more thought to throw ourselves against each other: a message that is at the basis of the birth of the genre, from Romero’s Dawn of the Living Dead (1968) to Sclavi’s Dylan Dog (who went further to suggest that the real monsters are the apparent “normal” ones).
Already in these reflections it can emerge how violence in Last of Us 2 if on the one hand is instrumental to the popularity of the game on the other hand can be read in a critical key; as well as in other blockbuster games (GTA is perhaps the best known example).
There’s no certainty about that. And perhaps not even solutions that risk watering down the prerogatives of the medium itself.
Be that as it may, it is undeniable that The last of us 2 is a game in which, in addition to the player’s reflexes, ethics is tested. It’s a moral simulation that doesn’t stop at the game. Not by chance, the criticisms that it has attracted, in particular for the choice to have inserted a homosexual protagonist, show that the questions that this videogame raises don’t stop at the game play, but concern a much wider external context.
Introducing an LGBT character is always risky. At the very least, one is accused of “agendising”, of politicising productions. On the more extreme side you can suffer an avalanche of ignorant criticism from homophobes and reactionaries. The great quantity of disgusting and uncivilized comments that attracted The last of us 2 shows, however, that inserting a bit of rhetoric and political correctness is, in any case, right. Choosing to reserve a place in diegetics for a minority is an educational urgency. We need to give space to these issues, if, still in 2020, we read a storm of criticism because the female character of a video game kisses another girl.
At least for these aspects it is clear the game’s attempt to go beyond the survival horror pack to which perhaps often condemns its gameplay. At least in part successful.