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Grief Makes Ghosts: Hauntology and The Last of Us Part II / Brandon North

This essay is found in full at my Substack, The Appreciator. This is the first section of it. It is very long and works best on Substack. There are pictures!

Nearly four years after its launch, The Last of Us Part II still haunts the gaming landscape and has lodged itself in many gamers’ memories. The original game, The Last of Us Part I, ends with a moral dilemma I’ll probably never stop thinking about. The Last of Us Part II is arguably just as impressive in crafting a narrative that sticks with people. But the sequel was far more divisive than the first, for many reasons—none larger than the haunting ending that divides opinions as much as anything else in the recent years of explosive growth in gaming.

Spoilers ahead. You probably won't understand the text here if you haven't played and finished both parts of The Last of Us. I do my best to summarize the narrative, but the games’ collective story is dense. This essay is geared toward people who have played the games, so you should do yourself a favor and play them both. Or at least watch playthroughs on YouTube.

People talk about Ellie’s choice at the end of part two in very reductive, black-and-white ways. Though the game series is anything but black and white, people treat the end of this game as essentially just a trolley problem to be solved (many treat the dilemma of the first game’s ending like this too, but far less often). Though people have analyzed this game from many different perspectives, I'm here to give one I haven’t seen: a hauntologically informed close reading of the game’s narrative. Hauntology (haunt and ontology = hauntology), for my purposes here, offers a set of perspectives that coalesce around a foundational notion that things of the past, whether of cultural or personal importance, return or echo onward in the present time, coming back to us like (metaphorical) ghosts and causing temporal dissonance in our perceptions. Our minds flashback and/or insert aspects of the past into the present, often the aspects we aren’t emotionally able to leave behind when we’re traumatized, and this experience is like being haunted. The temporal dissonance of haunting is prompted by physical sensations, objects, places, or people that connect us via memory to the past. This is what people are getting at when calling a place a “haunt”—it is a place where time is disjointed because it suggests so many memories. One proponent of hauntology, noted critic Mark Fisher, claimed that cultural objects like songs or films come back “'on YouTube or as a box set retrospective’ like the looping, repetitive time of trauma" and that hauntological art deals with confronting "the failure of the future." I think objects of personal importance, mementos, and the like, as well as the living bodies that signify and hold onto the past, also tend to haunt us by triggering memories of trauma and in turn provoking experiences of grief; often these triggered memories are also at odds with the reality of the present and symbolize a hope for a future that never came to be. And this is what happens in the stories of TLOU.

The Last of Us Part II is one long ghost story—and so is the story of the first game, since the plots of both hinge on lost futures and painful pasts. Ellie’s controversial choice at the end of the second game is ultimately made because grief-stricken memories haunt her and her enemy Abby as they struggle to move forward fully into the present. A large part of why the lens of the ghost story best explains the game’s seemingly irrational ending is because ghosts themselves represent irrationality in humanity. In ghost stories, people do irrational things out of complex, overwhelming, and mishandled emotions. There aren’t literal ghosts in either game (though the recently released creators’ commentary in TLOU2’s remastered version revealed there was originally a ghost version of Joel that Ellie would somehow speak with, as hinted at in the game’s reveal trailer), but there are complex, overwhelming, and mishandled emotions. These emotions stem from being haunted by the ghosts that exist through grief and grief’s often attendant traumatic memories. My analysis here lays out the baffling logic behind the actions taken by Ellie and Abby to show that they are motivated to make peace with the ghosts of their pasts, even though ultimately their decisions cause more grief and trauma along the way.

A warning: this essay is very long (about 13k words). It’s a bit rhapsodic as I address many aspects of the game beyond just the narrative to bolster my argument that the ending, and therefore the whole game by extension, is best understood hauntologically. And yet there’s still enough I don’t mention to turn this into a book. I find that most essays online about this game are too short, with far less evidence than opinion (surprise, surprise). They insufficiently perform close readings of it as a text (there is a lot of content to manage), so my analysis strives to be granular and thorough, looking at everything that follows hauntological logic to explain the narrative choices, particularly through examining the trauma and grief of the main characters. I’m trying to not miss m(any) of the resonant details threaded in the easily 20-plus hours of gameplay because that is what many do. I get that a lot of people will be tempted to check out, but if you stick around, you might just appreciate the game even more—or for the first time. So grab a drink and get comfy.

(If you like what you've read so far, take a look at the full thing. I plan on writing here about literary-quality video games in the future, too. Thanks for reading).


BRANDON NORTH is a working-class, multi-genre writer from Ohio. He is the author of the chapbook From The Pages of Every Book (Ghost City Press), and his poems and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Annulet, The Cleveland Review of Books, Bridge (Chicago), and elsewhere. Find him @brandonenorth.


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