Surviving in a Real-Life Dystopia 101: The Last of Us Part II as a Social Critique Concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic

© Copyright 2022 Sariya Adnan, Ryerson University


The Last of Us Part II is a dystopian video game taking place in a post-apocalyptic world caused by the outbreak of a horrid virus, the monstrous victims of which are called “infected.” The protagonist, Ellie, seeks revenge on Abby, the woman who kills her surrogate father. Players begin the game as Ellie but later replay the narrative from Abby’s point of view, learning that there are two sides to every story. This exhibit will ask how The Last of Us Part II and its medium-specific conventions as a dystopian phenomenon suture players into an experience that makes them reflect on life during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to act as a warning to instill both the fear of a failed future and the need for change. This exhibit will answer this question by examining the visuals of The Last of Us Part II, its gameplay, and the way it evokes empathy.

The Visuals of The Last of Us Part II

Ellie stands before an abandoned, forgotten world
Florent Lebrun. “Supermarket Roof Vista.” Concept art. Cook and Becker. ©2020 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC

The visuals of The Last of Us Part II play a vital role in mirroring the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighting the image of a feared future. As Brendan Keogh writes, “a video game’s mechanics and audiovisuals are symbiotic, a singular and irreducible component of video game play.” As a result, games fully immerse players and make their world appear real, striving to make players believe in the plausible dystopian environment they create. A prominent and consistent visual motif implemented into The Last of Us Part II is the empty streets, as pictured on the right. The streets are completely deserted, occupied only by infected and the wreckage of a world that no longer exists. This is strikingly similar to the real world during the COVID-19 pandemic in which even the once most engaged settings, such as the Kaaba in Mecca, became completely deserted because of the widespread virus. In this case, the infected become a metaphor for COVID-19, for the entire real and fictional world shut down due to both terrors taking over the streets.

Ellie and Dina's son, JJ, watch the sunset atop a tractor
Naughty Dog. Video game screenshot. The Last of Us Part II. ©2020 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC

While most of the game is accompanied by daunting visuals and melancholy, this is not the case for the entire game. While dystopias function to mimic a despondent world in which one would not wish to live, one of their defining characteristics “is the effort to prevent the dystopian world from being too pessimistic or from being immune to some kind of positive transformation that could correct it” (Schulzke 324). The Last of Us Part II, despite its negativity, has a handful of positive aspects integrated into its visuals and narrative. For instance, Ellie and her girlfriend move into a beautiful farmhouse to raise a child together, the scene bathed in the glow of a sunset, as seen on the left. Because this appears out of place in the dystopia, it represents that, though it seems impossible, the characters are able to leave behind their unhappy lives and instead find something content and normal, as can the players. In other words, it demonstrates that the hardships of a broken world are not unchangeable, nor do they last forever; there is always beauty to be uncovered.

The visuals of The Last of Us Part II warn players by providing them a literal look into a possible future. While harrowing, the glimpses into a beautiful world within a failing one show that there is always good amongst the bad, thus giving players hope. By doing so, players will strive for change; they will not simply accept their poor situations as they are. Instead, they will desire and strive for something better, for both themselves and the world.

The Gameplay of The Last of Us Part II


Because it takes place during the aftermath of the outbreak of a dreadful virus, the gameplay of The Last of Us Part II mimics a more amplified version of what the majority of the world is facing, or has faced, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While works of fiction, video games “embody some of the most important aspects of contemporary society,” such as the pandemic (Muriel and Crawford 3). Though it is a traumatic event, there remains a desire for some to experience a reality that reflects the world in which they live as opposed to a fantasy (Muriel and Crawford 122). Many of the narrative aspects of The Last of Us Part II do exactly this; for example, just as the real world is divided, there are many groups in the world in which Ellie lives that are divided as well, such as the Fireflies and Seraphites, and a town called Jackson. Each group believes strongly in their own values and looks down upon those who are not their own, usually killing them when given the chance. Here, the dystopian game portrays “the consequences of bad policies, flawed organizing philosophies, and unsustainable ways of life by manifesting these in extreme forms and transforming them into the structural conditions of fictional societies” (Schulzke 323). As of late, bad policies and flawed systems have been viewed across the globe as wars have broken out or excessively worsened, such as Russia’s attacks on Ukraine or Israel’s assaults on Palestine. These events tend to come to mind when the game forces players to kill people who are a part of groups like the Fireflies, who, when it comes down to it, are just like Ellie; people who are simply trying to survive as she is and, therefore, like the players. The game makes players feel guilty for killing these people, reinforcing the mindset that many do not deserve retribution and are merely struggling to make it to tomorrow.

Scavenging for Resources

One of the aspects of The Last of Us Part II that stands out from a variety of other video games is the idea of scavenging for resources. From ammo to first aid kits, the game requires players to explore their environment in order to find the items they need to survive. This is far more difficult than it sounds. Resources of all kinds are scarce; players are often forced to search an entire house just to find a single item, and even then, they may come up empty-handed, leaving them frustrated. This experience is similar to what many people were or are forced to endure during the pandemic—a variety of necessary resources, such as toilet paper and effective masks, became almost sacred due to the high demand yet terrifyingly low supply. A problem such as this magnified in dystopias like The Last of Us Part II “is based on showing the potential outcome of allowing social problems to persist” (Schulzke 323). Therefore, by establishing the potential state of the world if circumstances remain unchanged, players gain a sense of concern and even fright. This internalizes the responsibility that if players are to avoid such a world, the flawed social problems and systems revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic must cease.

The Infected

Concept art of the infected in The Last of Us Part II
Hyoung Taek Nam. Concept art. ArtStation.

When thinking about The Last of Us Part II, one of its defining images is that of the infected, which are arguably the most prominent and difficult obstacles of the game. When a person becomes afflicted with the virus, their state and appearance mutate and evolve in stages, as pictured on the right. In other words, the infection gets worse over time. If not eliminated in the early stages, the infected become more unpleasant and it becomes increasingly difficult to terminate them. Evidently, this is greatly similar to COVID-19, which also mutates and must be handled as soon as possible in order to avoid a worse situation. Countries such as Canada reacted slowly to the outbreak and are still dealing with hardships as a result. Countries like Australia, however, shut everything down immediately and reopened establishments once the outbreak died down, and are thus doing far better than countries that are too slow in realizing how to permanently eradicate the virus. Like the lack of resources, the role of the infected is to represent the outcome of the real world if certain problems continue to persist. Specifically, they act as a warning to show players that the outbreak of a virus is not to be handled lightly. Rather, governments should change the ways in which they approach the pandemic by, instead of serving short-term solutions, implementing appropriate, long-term plans, allowing countries to begin to return to a pre-pandemic state.

The gameplay of The Last of Us Part II suitably acts as a deterrent to create a sense of fear and need for change in players by portraying the implications of a pandemic as an amplified mirror of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a magnification highlights the flaws in the real world by showing the consequences that can arise if players do not take action to solve them, thus urging them to change their ways and world for the better.

How The Last of Us Part II Evokes Empathy

In order to effectively instill the fear of a failed future and the need for change in the minds of players, The Last of Us Part II must create a sense of empathy. One of the aspects of video games that separates them from traditional media is the way they create empathy in players by positioning them in different situations, allowing them to build connections with these varying experiences and to learn how to understand situations with which they are unfamiliar (Smethurst and Craps 273; Muriel and Crawford 115). Empathy is one of the ways in which players become invested in video games, for it allows them to feel for the characters they grow to love; almost as though the characters are real people.

Facial Expressions

Ellie screams as she watches her surrogate father, Joel, get murdered
Naughty Dog. Video game screenshot. The Last of Us Part II. ©2020 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC

An important feature of how The Last of Us Part II evokes empathy is “it frequently shows [players] the faces of the characters and lets [them] see all the work put into creating easily recognizable and convincing facial expressions” (Smethurst and Craps 284). The significance of this lies in the way physical representations of emotion are perceived by players: when one views the face of another in a state of emotion, one emulates that emotion themselves, which, in the context of video games, is how a person can experience characters’ pain (Smethurst and Craps 284). One such representation of trauma is seen at the beginning of The Last of Us Part II when Ellie watches Joel, her surrogate father, die. Ellie’s face, pictured on the right, hauntingly expresses every emotion she is feeling: the horror, the grief, the desperation. Even without the heartrending voice acting, one can feel Ellie’s pain simply by looking at it. Evidently, the intensely realistic animated faces in the game and the extraordinary way they imitate real human emotion cause players to empathize with the characters and thus feel the need for reformation in real life so as to suspend and avoid parallel circumstances of suffering and struggle.

Complicity: Kill or Be Killed

Interactivity is not only a large part of the unique immersion of video games but also a necessary tool in generating empathy. By commanding the characters’ actions with a controller in hand, “players become complicit with the events portrayed” in the game; they are participants as opposed to spectators (Smethurst and Craps 277). This complicity creates a sense of responsibility and guilt in players if they act in a way that they, or the game, perceive as wrong. Even when the game does not provide a choice, just as The Last of Us Part II does not, it has the same effect. Constraints are a clever way for dystopian games to force players to become complicit in the dystopian world because they require specific actions in order to progress; when these constraints “are closely related to the problems the dystopia is designed to express, then those mechanics can draw players into the underlying logic that governs the dystopian world and cause players to become participants in creating dystopia” (Schulzke 328). The Last of Us Part II has a strict narrative structure that players must follow whether they would like to or not, forcing them to perform certain actions of which they may not approve. For instance, throughout the game, players must kill enemies in order to get past certain areas. Typically, this is simple—one can sneak up on a character or fight them head-on. Occasionally, however, some characters will get on their knees and beg for mercy. If players feel kind enough to walk away, the enemy will either die anyway or resume attacking the protagonist, giving players no choice but to kill them. In other words, all choices result in the enemy’s death.

Similarly, at the end of the game, players take on the role of Ellie as she faces off with Abby one last time; this is after players experience Abby’s side of the story, thus potentially acquiring a positive view of the character. Therefore, when they are forced to fight Abby as Ellie, players may not wish to inflict harm as they did at the start of the game—they realize that she is like Ellie, just a girl trying to survive in a terrible world, thus feeling guilty as they are obligated to hurt her. This guilt, provided by the interactivity, empathy, and complicity, causes players to feel responsible for the traumatic events portrayed in the game (Smethurst and Craps 278). By making players fight for their lives using any means necessary and consequently affecting the pandemic-ridden world around them, players understand that they themselves are the source of many of the fictional society’s existing problems, therefore internalizing the mentality that whatever they consider wrong in the virtual world is wrong in the real one. In effect, this mentality and responsibility fueled by empathy applied to the players’ actions drive them to recognize immorality and change the way they behave in the real world.


To conclude, The Last of Us Part II and its medium-specific conventions as a dystopian phenomenon enforce players into an experience that makes them contemplate the COVID-19 pandemic in order to act as a warning to create both the fear of a failed future and the need for change through its visuals, gameplay, and evocation of empathy. Despite their reputations as mind-decaying sources of entertainment, dystopian video games play significant roles in social critique in ways that no other mediums are able. Players must take these critiques to heart and use them to reform both themselves and the imperfect world in which they live. One must seize the warning and opportunity for change swiftly, lest the world transform into a fictional dystopia which not even the most adventurous gamers would dare to explore.

Works Cited

Keogh, Brendan. “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism, Jan. 2014, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022. 

Lebrun, Florent. “Supermarket Roof Vista.” Naughty Dog, 2020,

Muriel, Daniel, and Garry Crawford. Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society. Routledge, 2018,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022. 

Nam, Hyoung Taek. “The Last of Us Part II: Infected.” Naughty Dog, 2020,

Schulzke, Marcus. “The Critical Power of Virtual Dystopias.” Games and Culture, vol. 9, no. 5, 1 Sept. 2014, pp. 315–334., Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

Smethurst, Toby, and Stef Craps. “Playing with Trauma: Interreactivity, Empathy, and Complicity in The Walking Dead Video Game.” Games and Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, 1 May 2015, pp. 269–290., Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

“The Last of Us Part 2 – Ellie and Dina on the Farm.” VGS – Video Game Sophistry, June 20th, 2020. YouTube.

“The Last of Us Part 2 Joel Death Scene.” High Quality Gaming, June 19th, 2020. YouTube.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.