PTSD While Gaming: Processing Black Death In The Last of Us Franchise

A reckoning with Naughty Dog.

A still image from The Last of Us Part II (2020).

CW/TW: Explorations of mental+physical trauma, Death

WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!

I CAN’T SHAKE THE VIOLENCE.

In the weeks since The Last of Us Part II (2020) debuted I haven’t been able to shake the violence. The copy/paste human enemies I’ve somehow been able to compartmentalize, perhaps because their function is so fundamentally rote (or if you play stealthily you can bypass them all together). The brutal death of the Black female character Nora Harris however cemented for me that Naughty Dog Studios isn’t adept at telling stories with Black characters, nor understands the impact of Black death. After the first game concluded I was devastated, with The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC (2014) my patience wore thinner, and with this recent chapter in the series I’ve had to completely shelve all of it and walk away. As much as I want to eke out a feeling of inclusion, I cannot. **In my previous editorial about the character Abby, her identity resonated with me as a weight/powerlifter, but at the end of the day I’m still a Black person that wants to see our lives matter.** The Last of Us was not made for me or people who look like me — especially because our narrative purpose is to further another white character’s emotional angst — which may be another insidious form of fridging.

Nora Harris: The Last of Us Part II (2020)

The narratives tropes of ‘Black person dies first’, ‘bury your gays’, and where the term fridging originates ‘Women in refrigerators’ all involve the death of a central character who in turn becomes pseudo-sacrifice that motivates the actions of the main character to seek revenge (and in the case of Black death) elevates the perceived danger of the situation for the surviving white people. Furthermore, in Naughty Dog’s attempts to tell ‘raceless’ gaming stories, the people of color, especially Black characters have suffered the most. Racially, Black characters have the most visible screen time and dialogue across all of the games thus far. Yet, they have all met the same grisly fate. One could make the case that they aren’t the main characters, so their lives could be short in the narrative, and you would be right if other white characters attached to Joel and Ellie respectively didn’t survive to the game’s conclusion. Moreover, the visual trauma of seeing Black death is made hyper-visible by proxy of the reality we live in.

BEING ‘WOKE’ ALL THE TIME

The Take: A History of Black Stereotypes Onscreen

I have a tough time liking things (fledgeling career as a pop-culture critic aside) especially when said thing can cause me mental and physical harm. Note: it would be unwise not to be critical of everything one sees as ‘entertaining’ or ‘entertainment’. There’s a lot in the media we ingest that we’ve been grappling with how to digest due in part to its subtle or blatant sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. I’d rather have a problematic media thing preemptively squashed to never see the light of day than be retroactively hurt — thank you very much! However, that’s not the world where we currently reside and these mistakes keep happening because people in positions of power (predominantly white) don’t have the baggage of being woke all the time or the constant media literacy that’s attached therein.

The Take: The Strong Black Woman Trope, Explained

I don’t intend or necessarily find satisfaction in being the killjoy, but navigating history juxtaposed with life and death constantly has completely altered my personal politic, including the fraught relationship I have with the labeling of the ’strong Black woman’. *Look into all of the ways this negatively harms Black women and children, please!* The subconscious is a powerful tool that’s been wittingly or unwittingly tapped into by the media we consume. Thus, the more you learn early on about the power of the image, the more you realize that positionality within media matters especially in regards to humanization. When people, Black characters, in this case, are represented as constantly disposable, the value of their lives is dually erased in media and daily life. Particularly, trying to enjoy one of my favorite film genres is a Sisyphean task at times, because in the apt words of Tananarive Due during the documentary of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), “We’ve always loved horror…it’s just that horror hasn’t always loved us.”

Gayly Dreadful: The Quagmire of Race and Horror in Cinema

The EFFECTS OF POST TRAUMATIC STRESS

In my editorial about Janelle Monae’s science-fiction dystopia Dirty Computer, I referenced the scholar Dr. Brittney Cooper’s TED Talk entitled, “The Racial Politics of Time.” In particular, her extrapolation of the feelings of foreshortened future by many young Black people was an additional confirmation that I didn’t realize I had been seeking and been trying to vocalize about the overwhelming PTSD that I and many other Black people are experiencing constantly whether we know it or not. Potentially traumatic events categorized by The National Center for PTSD are combat, incarceration, crime victimization, natural or man-made disasters, accidents, and life-threatening illnesses. Trauma may be on an interpersonal relationship basis or experienced secondhand, to include may be a single or ongoing event. In the lives of Black people, Post Traumatic Stress is not only constant, but epigenetic, and results in physical weathering to our bodies even before we’re born. The criterion for PTSD diagnosis has been categorized as follows by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Criterion A (Stressor):

The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s):

  • Direct exposure
  • Witnessing the trauma
  • Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma
  • Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma,

Criterion B (Intrusion Symptoms):

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s):

  • Unwanted upsetting memories
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
  • Physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders

Criterion C (Avoidance):

Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli after the trauma, in the following way(s):

  • Trauma-related thoughts or feelings
  • Trauma-related external reminders

Criterion D (Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood):

Negative thoughts or feelings that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):

  • Inability to recall key features of the trauma
  • Overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world
  • Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma
  • Negative affect
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Feeling isolated
  • Difficulty experiencing positive affect

Criterion E (Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity):

Trauma-related arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):

  • Irritability or aggression
  • Risky or destructive behavior
  • Hypervigilance
  • Heightened startle reaction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping

Criterion F (Duration):

  • Duration of the disturbance (Criteria B, C, D, and E) is more than 1 month.

Criterion G (Functional Significance):

  • Symptoms create distress or functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational).

Criterion H (Exclusion):

  • The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., medication, alcohol) or another medical condition.

With Dissociative Specifications:

  • Depersonalization. Experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself (e.g., feeling as if “this is not happening to me” or one were in a dream).
  • Derealization. Experience of unreality, distance, or distortion (e.g., “things are not real”).
  • Delayed Specification. Full diagnostic criteria are not met until at least six months after the trauma(s), although the onset of symptoms may occur immediately.

When reviewing the criterion for PTSD, to include the dissociative specifications, Black people tick every single box and the consequences for holding in and on to these violent and traumatic experiences is grave. Depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, and suicidal ideations amongst many other forms of mental health issues are rampant throughout our communities and the manifestation of each differs for every person but impacts society collectively. So, when I stated at the onset that seeing Black death constantly in The Last of Us series was traumatic (and triggering) this is the who, what, when, where, why, and how of all of it that I have to just sit with to get to the end of every game.

Video Games Aren’t Just A Time Capsule.

Like other pieces of pop culture, video games exist in this interesting ‘gray area’ where the shelf-life of the medium is indefinite and can be examined and pontificated upon ad nauseam. This means that video games and the associated characters can theoretically exist forever and act as a time capsule for the era in which they were created. Also, video games are akin narratively and visually to books and films with similar story beats, characters, real/imagined locations, etcetera. There’s nothing inherently bad about video games and many consider them to be pick-it-up put-it-down entertainment.

Siblings Henry (left) and Sam (right): The Last of Us (2013)

Well, they mean much more than that to me, and every other video game stan out there. I’m stating my age (proudly) here and rejoice that I’ve literally grown up with almost every video game console except Atari and the Magnavox Odyssey. I’ve seen the wax and wane of many consoles, gaming studios/franchises, and characters. Along the way, each game I’ve played, handheld or otherwise, has made a deep and permanent impact on my life. They represented places of solace and refuge when the world was just too loud. They were childhood memories that my sister and I could both bond over. They were tests of my fortitude and moral character. As I grew up, so did video games and I learned that anything that exists in the world and is consumed by the masses has a subconscious potency associated with imagery (and emotions).

RACIAL AND ETHNIC IDENTITY

This brings the conversation back to The Last of Us Part II and Naughty Dog Studios. Their position as one of the shining stars of the gaming world has been hard wrung and I’ll give them their due in that regard. It’s no small feat to survive decades of console platforms with your good name intact, but somehow despite all of the controversy in the past few years with their ‘culture of crunch’, animators and designers alike still desire to be associated with the company. However, in the midst of all of their success, there has been a key series of elements that have been missing from their games especially when they’ve delved into the lives and identities of people of color. For example, Nadine Ross from the Uncharted series (2007–2017) has a unique racial and ethnic identity as a Black South African that could have been explored more in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017) when contrasted with the Indian-Australian Chloe Frazer storyline.

Chloe Flazer and Nadine Ross in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017)

The game’s story delves into racial and ethnic purity discussions that would have been fascinating for both characters to engage with for more than a few seconds here-and-there of dialogue. The name of the game alone ‘The Lost Legacy’ had me enthralled with the infinite possibilities for engaging with topical discussions like identity and community but alas there’s more character/relationship growth weaved throughout the story — which was phenomenally done by the way — than really heavy topics like race and gender. (Thank goodness for fan fiction because a lot of writers took the brush strokes from the game and ran with it.) After The Lost Legacy released, I also had to sit with the fact that Naughty Dog (even though they got a ton of backlash for it) still voice cast Laura Bailey who is white as Nadine Ross.

They are a studio who up until this point had practiced same color casting (when people of color were even present) and I commended them for it. The irony that there’s a collective discussion now about the morality and importance and career opportunities inherent in voice work is really something. When people of color were pleading and begging various entities not to participate in ‘digital blackface’ they were largely ignored and even targeted with harassment and violence. Oh, how the world tips on a new axis especially when a reckoning about targeted racism emerges. The physical and digital protests against police brutality and support of Black Lives Matter have permanently gained traction — I hope.

DEATH DOESN’T EQUAL DEPTH.

I also realize that Naughty Dog shouldn’t be the bastion of inclusive gaming for me, but they presented themselves to the world this way with their public and private ethos. *And if we find out in a few months or years that they have nefarious goings-on beyond the exhaustive workday policy stuff, we’ll drag them accordingly, but until then…* They took the leap and the lead in many ways with the people that they included as visual representations of the world. The brilliance of utilizing the post-apocalyptic story format that they did was showing that life continues even after tragedy and societal upheaval. By explicitly having Black people in your world, you/they are acknowledging that Black people exist in the future and that their lives are precious and valued.

Marlene: The Last of Us (2013) + The Last of Us Part II (2020)

In the first game alone, three (and if you get technical about the timeline regarding The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC four) Black characters die in-game. If these characters weren’t so few and far between in the first place — with other Black characters to balance the weight of their deaths — perhaps (and this is a BIG perhaps) I wouldn’t have wrestled with the queasiness I experienced then and now. The Last of Us Part II follows the same formulaic trajectory of Black death with the brutal (thank god off-screen) torture of Nora Harris whose eerie and shallow breaths as she dies from damaged lungs was too horrific to describe, especially as the rattle of ‘I can’t breathe’ echoed in the periphery of my subconscious. Plus, the leader of a militaristic faction akin to the Fireflies from the first game (whose character arc echoes that of a Black Woman named Marlene) named Issac Dixon dies off-screen. When the dust settled towards the game’s conclusion there were no more Black character’s stories to engage with and the only person of color left alive was a young Asian boy named Lev.

Abby and Issac Dixon: The Last of Us Part II (2020)

The fact that the playable white characters throughout the series were actively or partially responsible for so many deaths of Black people and other people of color stings, especially with the hindsight of racial equity and their glaring absence from the narrative in retrospect. Soberingly, Naughty Dog Studios, in the pursuit of grim post-apocalyptic storytelling has a race problem. I was excited when I first saw the stories unfold for the Black characters in The Last of Us. I naïvely believed that they would make it to the games’ conclusion. Naughty Dog tried and ultimately failed to incorporate Black characters into its world and story by ingratiating them into key story moments for its main characters to interact with, but effectively did away with them when they no longer served a narrative purpose or were required to give one of the main characters an emotional cathartic release. If the first gut reaction for a writer to make a moment impactful is death, then they need to go back to the foundational elements of the craft and think bigger and think broader. Death doesn’t equal depth and vice versa.

BLACK LIVES (SUPPOSEDLY) MATTER.

Imagine what the franchise would have looked like if more of the Black and people of color cast members had been allowed to live and the stories that would have emerged as a result. Instead, they linger like ghosts. In Naughty Dog’s precarious and perhaps misguided attempts to navigate raceless gaming experiences ‘for everyone’ they are perpetrating even greater critiques about racism at large because their Black characters are summarily and systematically killed from their storylines. Moreover, if a sequel is greenlit and past stumbles aren’t rectified internally within the studio’s writing department, their trend of expendable Black people will continue into further installments. What’s jarring from a writing and player perspective is their keen attention to detail and poise in matters of gender/sexuality and religious exploration, but stumbling into these chasm-sized holes regarding race.

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Riley Abel: The Last of Us Left Behind (2014)

Even as a Black person, I understand unpacking and exploring race is very very difficult and I’ve been doing it since day one (i.e, understanding what my physical positioning in the world means.) It’s a sticky wicket to write characters that you don’t know without falling into stereotype or placation. The main characters in The Last of Us Part II traverse a cross-country bloody vengeance story wherein they become further and further traumatized and increasingly disenchanted with violence and that’s where the story kept me riveted. My humanity and similar life experiences kept me engaged and disgusted in equal measure. Amidst my exhaustion surrounding this franchise, I think about all of the memorable gems I’m trying to buff up. And for the sake of what, I keep pontificating? The Last of NONE of Us. I know the higher-ups at Naughty Dog may never read this, but just know that it hurts to be an afterthought and moreso prematurely eulogized. Think before you write.

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Editor: We Are Horror Magazine. Writer: An Injustice, Fanfare, Gayly Dreadful, Haw Creek Horror, Rely on Horror, Something Ghoulish, and SUPERJUMP.

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