Matt and I have been playing The Last of Us Part II for a few weeks. There's a lot going on in our experience. The first game was devastating, as any scenario which purports to be about the apocalypse but is actually about the people who survive the apocalypse generally is. This one is almost unbearable. The two main groups of characters struggle against each other bloodily, murdering each other until almost no one is left.
I haven't been able to get the title out of my head.
The game recounts stories of the last of us - the remaining members of the human race after a zombie-making virus has wiped out most of us. The title chills me more the longer I meditate on it. Last indicates a dwindling, a winding-down. Us indicates the community of species we all share, no matter our values. The end of humans. The closing chapter of our long, long story.
Yet in this game, the characters are driven by revenge and tribalism to murder other humans, rather than just the zombies that threaten their lives. It would make sense for the last of us to band together against the common threat, to make more people, to perpetuate our existence rather than closing down more and more lives. But the drive to be correct about the values by which we live is apparently stronger than the drive to survive at any cost.
That sentence demonstrates the hardest part about playing this game at this moment in the lifespan of the human race. We are murdering each other, softly or the hard way, every damn day, out there in the real world. We're not taking the coronavirus seriously enough to do whatever's necessary to survive, and for months I've thought it was because: the virus takes a long time to curdle and kill; it's not a sure thing (in the game, one bite and you're definitely dead); and there are enough of us that it doesn't seem like a species-wide existential threat, not really.
But playing The Last of Us II has made me think differently. It has made me believe that tribalism and cursed American individualism are stronger than our survival instincts. In observing the past month or so of national behavior, I have begun to understand just how many people think that rules do not apply to them. Even in my little universe: the rich people at the barn don't wear their masks, they leave them around their chins. Maybe they think the risk is minimal, outdoors and with only a small handful of other people around. Or maybe they just...don't think the rules apply to them.
In my early 30s, I started to think that greed was the worst human quality, the drive that caused the most suffering. Whatever single word expresses the trait of "surely they don't mean I have to follow the rules" is causing far more chaos in our world right now, although greed surely isn't helping. And the tribalism underlying the (supposed) ideological implications of who wears a mask...ugh, it's so horrible, causing such excessive needless suffering. But that's not what's going on in The Last of Us II. It's something more primal, and a tiny bit less petty (although not much).
Years ago I wrote a novel about a secret race of people, Viking descendants, living in a massive cavern under Greenland's ice sheet. (I know it sounds awesome, but it was a failed novel; one day I'll rewrite it to be better.) I imagined a struggle for the throne of this kingdom on the level of the old English monarchy: poisonings, conspiracies, betrayal. Matt asked me whether I thought it was realistic that people would struggle so hard for a throne that meant so little, in the scheme of things. The power that anyone can hold in a closed community is naturally limited.
This was a rare moment in which Matt was wrong. He is never wrong about human nature, or almost never - in this instance, as the years pass, I grow surer that he was. People struggle most bitterly for the smallest fiefdoms, I have found. English departments at colleges and universities are the primary example I'm aware of, but there are many others. The smaller the pond, the more fish get eaten, so the biggest one can grow fat. I don't know why humans are so dogged about what they control, and so much more so when what they control is minor, but they are.
The Last of Us II is a beautiful, harrowing exhibit of this behavior. In light of the sunset of the entire species, you'd think that matters of revenge would fall by the wayside in favor of survival. Alas, no. The two main characters cut through dozens, hundreds of human beings in order to try and kill each other. (I think it's possible that the player kills fewer zombies than healthy people in this game.) Their strength, their will, could bolster entire communities, help them thrive; instead, they expend their resources on ending each other.
They are compelling characters. Their choices are organic and agonized, and they make terrible mistakes, which always jump-starts a narrative. But I cannot stop thinking about what it means that they are the last of us. The very qualities that make them so good at surviving the apocalypse have also buried vengeance and bloodlust deep down in their natures. How does one dig those qualities out to cooperate with the others who have lasted, instead of killing them?
Some version of this behavior exists within each of the two parties in our political system right now, and between them. Here I started writing some examples, but realized midway that you are likely to get mad at me for some of them, because that is how deep tribalism goes: it's impossible to read criticism of one's values without feeling personally insulted. We cannot even unite against the common enemy of the virus, a phenomenon that could swipe away a major chunk of our population, because we can't agree on the deeper meaning of wearing cloth on our faces. What the fuck.
So the revenge and murder in The Last of Us II is striking deeper than it might at any other moment in American history. Five years ago it might have seemed like pure fantasy - the only way revenge stories feel good to me is if they are fantasies, because revenge is always going to harm more than help - but now it seems extremely realistic, that the last of us are killing each other rather than the common enemy. And God, how that aches. How it stings. How I wish it were not so relevant, so true to life. How I wish we were not in so desperate a fix.