And She was Less Than a Dog Zaire Lanier Just now·7 min read It’s no secret that I love The Last of Us series. It’s one of my favorite games, and it does so much well, but with The Last of Us Part 2, I am once again struggling with how Naughty Dog represents Black and Brown bodies in the TLoU universe. I do enjoy how the TLoU universe repeatedly puts Black people front and center. It means a lot to see myself represented in a beloved franchise. Black people exist in the apocalypse, and they don’t feel like stereotypes. They feel just as human. They laugh, they love, they hurt, and bleed just like me. Then, as inevitably as I will one day, they die. That is where the similarities end. None of these characters have a happy ending (or as happy as one can get in this situation). When they die, it feels like we are only encouraged to get close to these characters so their death can be a catalyst for someone else’s story. The first game gives us Sam, Henry, and Marlene. Sam and Henry are two Black siblings who have been surviving on their own and get close to Joel and Ellie, staying with them for a while until Sam gets infected by the series’ cordyceps virus and Henry, the older brother, kills him. Then, in his immense grief, he kills himself. Because of these deaths and Ellie’s survivor’s guilt, her drive to reach the revolutionary militia, the Fireflies, is strengthened. On the other hand, there’s Marlene. Leader of the Fireflies and the very person who sets the entire game’s plot in motion. In the first game’s climax, Joel dispassionately kills Marlene to protect Ellie. It sends a clear message that Marlene doesn’t matter anymore, despite being the person that brought Joel to Ellie. The prequel DLC, Left Behind, has Riley, Ellie’s friend. They share a loving kiss in an abandoned mall. We watch them play an arcade game together, explore a Halloween store, and more. Ultimately, the DLC ends with the two of them bitten and infected. “Let’s wait it out. You know we… we can be all poetic and lose our minds together.” Riley dies but Ellie would not only live, but also likely watched her first love turn and had to put her down, the root of Ellie’s immense survivor’s guilt. TLoU2 enacts this same violence: Nora, Isaac, and as a minor character, the Scar Brother with the hammer. The Scar brother fight bothered me. He is larger than life and practically a caricature. When he fights Abby as they try to leave the settlement, he is brutish and evokes the stereotype of Black men being brutes and having an inhuman tolerance for pain. Abby herself is nothing to scoff at, but this game gives her what seems like a literal monster to fight. The optics feel weird, as far as mini-bosses go. We actively interact with this character during the fight. He is the same as every other character that we cut down in our journey for revenge, but the way he is represented as an enemy feels distinctly different. Isaac’s death reminded me of Marlene. Their “occupations” are similar; they both run groups who believe they are freedom fighting, and both make decisions that change the course of the story. Marlene sends Ellie off with Joel. Isaac’s decision to martyr the Scar’s leader led to this war. In the end, he is shot in the back as he’s preparing to kill Lev, who is unarmed. They both have little screen time, but their existences are integral to the story, even as background characters. Without Marlene, there is no Ellie and Joel. Without Isaac, Abby likely does not become the killing machine she is. Marlene clearly cared about Ellie, but Marlene also cared about humankind. This says nothing about the other characters of color. Jesse, Manny, and Whitney. All of these characters also die to advance the story. Manny in particular bothered me because he felt like such a stereotype of a Latino male character. Then we get to Nora. Nora. Nora. Nora. This was one of the hardest deaths that I have ever experienced in a video game and I believe this was purposeful. Ellie’s quest for revenge takes us to Nora at a hospital, where she chases her through the hospital and tackles her into a hole that is infested with spores. We can hear Nora struggling for breath. It’s horrifying, especially with the echoes of “I can’t breathe” so fresh in my head last summer. I expected a cutscene just like with every other “main death” in the game. Something scripted and beyond my control. This doesn’t happen. Nora sits on the floor, covered in sweat, arm shattered by Ellie breaking it with a pipe. Ellie asks Nora where Abby is and if she tells her, she will make her death quick. Nora refuses and Ellie’s face contorts in the red lighting into a mask of hate. Then, the square button pops up on the screen. I sat for a few minutes, surely this isn’t what Naughty Dog wants of me. Nothing happens. I press the square. I’m treated to a wet thud and Nora gurgling in pain. Blood flies into the frame. This happens again. The music swells and Ellie hits Nora with the pipe and then a third time. The third and final time, there’s a cut to black. This is the moment in which I came to hate Ellie. Nora’s death is off-screen. It’s the only main/secondary character death that takes place out of sight. Nora’s torture and death are left to the annals of our imagination. Nora is dust in the wind, fleeting and unseen. She’s erased. All we know is Nora suffered and suffered greatly. ButEllie is the focus of this scene for a reason. Before this, Ellie had killed, yes, but she mowed down trained soldiers and people that would actively harm her. Nora was different. She sat defenseless and dying when Ellie approached her. Ellie killed her out of rage. Ellie crossed a line to get information. We are then treated to a cutscene in which Dina comforts a shaken and bothered Ellie. Ellie is traumatized by what she’s done. She’s gone beyond the pale and will only continue to do so. Dina stands by Ellie’s actions because she loves Ellie. As a Black woman, it was hard to watch. This brings me to my title, “And She Was Less Than A Dog.” Every enemy you kill in this game has a name; every WLF soldier, every Sepharite, and every dog. When I shoot a dog in the head with an arrow and its trainer finds its crumpled heap, the trainer mourns and curses my name. I’ve heard so many people mention how hard it was to kill the dogs in the game and read countless articles on has Naughty Dog done too much? For me, the dogs were enemies just like everyone else, stopping me on my quest for revenge. This makes me question how games and gamers view Black women. Our mere existence in an IP is often considered political. What makes an enemy hard to kill? Why are the dying yelps of various dogs, who aretrying to rip my throat out worth more than the bloody gasps of Nora? How are people reaching the end of the game and still gloating over her visceral death while mourning having to kill dogs? Even after learning everything they have about Nora nothing seems to change. She died tortured and alone in the bottom of a spore-infested hospital while trying to protect her friends. Her death wasn’t one of the tens of hundreds of people I stabbed in the throat or carefully placed a trip mine to kill. She wasn’t in the game’s main rhythm. She was different. She was special. Nora was wholly dissonant. Until this point, Naughty Dog had put me in what I consider two pairs of shoes: a detached observer during cut scenes or an active participant in someone else’s story. I am playing a role, but I am not making choices. I wasn’t asked to step into Abby’s shoes and deliver Joel’s final killing blows while the camera focuses on my hate-filled face. Naughty Dog doesn’t ask me to kill Mel and her unborn child or Owen. But the game forced me to directly take part in Nora’s death. I didn’t passively sit and watch. Some people say I could’ve just turned the game off or chosen not to press square, a poor attempt at a gotcha. TLOU is linear and this directorial choice is purposeful. The game doesn’t continue until I deliver those final wet and final blows. I still don’t quite understand the choice, but I found it impossible not to notice. Is Nora’s death simply to serve as Ellie’s tipping point? because if so, I found that not enough players got the memo. They reveled in her death and that hurts me deeply. The number of comments saying in the vein of “I enjoyed killing tha tblack bytch because of what she did to Joel” or “Hearing her whimper was so cathartic” were too many to count. There was no sympathy for Nora. Her whimpers of pain and final wet gasps meant nothing to so many people. The sheer violence of Nora’s death is reflected to us later when we play as Abby. We see other facets of Nora: she’s a doctor, a healer. She’s gathering supplies from the hospital to bring back to the WLF main camp. This makes the sting of Nora’s death even worse. It’s intentional. Nora is fully made flesh. She has hopes, dreams, and a purpose. Her final words are admonishing Joel, “Do you know how many people died because of what he did?” She’s full of righteous indignation for what Joel did to humanity. This makes her dying alone, off-screen while trying to protect her friends even worse. I can’t even say Nora died like a dog. Nora died like a rat: tortured and left in a trap to die.