In October 2000, two Israeli Defence Forces reservists were killed by a mob in Ramallah, Palestine. Footage of the incident – later referred to as the “Ramallah lynching” – was broadcast around the world. Among those watching in horror was 22-year-old aspiring video game designer named Neil Druckmann.
“It was the cheering that was really chilling to me,” he would tell the Washington Post. “In my mind, I thought, ‘Oh, man, if I could just push a button and kill all these people that committed this horrible act, I would make them feel the same pain that they inflicted on these people.’”
Druckmann grew up in the West Bank settlement of Beit Aryeh-Ofarim – a community of largely secular families connected to the Israeli aerospace industry (his father was a flight test engineer). The Druckmanns would later move to the United States. But the memories of the hatred between Israel and Palestine stayed with Neil, who went on to create The Last of Us video game franchise and has overseen a new remastered Playstation 5 edition of The Last Of Us 2, released on January 19.
The brutality of life in a conflict zone is a theme of 2013’s original The Last of Us, in which grizzled smuggler Joel becomes reluctant guardian to lippy teen Ellie in a zombie apocalypse America. Unveiled to huge acclaim in 2013, the game was reborn in 2023 as a hit TV adaptation. Starring Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie, it gave prestige network HBO its biggest smash since Game of Thrones, was the most pirated show of 2023 and received 24 Emmy nominations (only to slouch away empty-handed).
In light of its success, it was inevitable HBO would adapt the 2020 sequel, The Last of Us 2, in which Druckmann and Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin will once again serve as dual showrunners. Cameras are set to roll in the coming weeks with Kaitlyn Dever (Dopesick, Booksmart) recently announced as Ellie’s nemesis, Abby.
The Last of Us was universally praised. As is often the case with long-awaited follow-ups, the second game proved more divisive. That’s partly down to several shocking twists (see below for spoiler-filled details). These made Druckmann the target of a segment of the fanbase that wanted part two to essentially rehash the first Last Of Us. But there has been disquiet, too, about its politics. In particular, Druckmann’s explanation that the intense loathing between key factions in the game was informed by his experiences growing up on the West Bank and by the Ramallah lynching.
The enmity Druckmann had experienced towards those who killed the two Israeli soldiers would fade. Later, he would feel “gross and guilty” about those emotions. With The Last of Us 2, he wanted to explore the ways in which such negative feelings can consume a person. How they can trigger a perpetual cycle of violence – as happens to Ellie and Abby, who destroy their lives in their frenzied desire to get even with one another. (Warning: spoilers follow.)
The big pivot early in the game is the fate of Joel, hero of the original Last of Us. In part one, he killed a doctor who was carrying out a procedure on Ellie that could potentially create a cure for the zombie plague that has destroyed humanity, at the cost of Ellie’s life (she has a unique immunity to the fungus that turns people into the chittering, mindless “Infected”). Those chickens come home to roost in the Last of Us 2 as the surgeon’s vengeful daughter, Abby, tracks down Joel and beats him to death with a golf club – in full view of Ellie.
Ellie vows to get her own back – and is soon on the trail of Abby, who has headed west to Seattle. But then halfway through comes another twist. Druckmann plays a game of switcheroo by having the player take on the part of Abby. We see her with her father hours before he is gunned down by an out-of-control Joel. We experience first hand her hatred of Ellie, who tries to kill her in a torturous “boss battle”. And we see her risk her life to protect a trans teenager named Lev, who is fleeing religious oppression.
It’s a powerful lesson in empathy. Both Ellie and Abby have justifiable reasons for their hate. Both are good people at heart. Their weakness has been to let their thirst for revenge consume them – a message that stays with the player long after they have finished the game.
“I landed on this emotional idea of, can we, over the course of the game, make you feel this intense hate that is universal in the same way that unconditional love is universal?” Druckmann told the Washington Post in 2020. “This hate that people feel has the same kind of universality. You hate someone so much that you want them to suffer in the way they’ve made someone you love suffer.”
Ellie and her companions travel to Seattle in pursuit of Abby, who has joined the de facto rulers of the city, the Washington Liberation Front, or Wolves. They’ve taken over Seattle but are locked in conflict with a religious sect called the Seraphites – referred to as “Scars” owing to disfigurements they cut in their cheeks as part of their spiritual awakening.
To some, The Last of Us 2 draws unambiguous and distorted parallels between the WLF and the Scars and Israel and Palestine. The Scars are described as “religious fanatics” and worship at a location called the “Martyr Gate”. They are presented as intolerant of minorities, such as Lev. And they get around Seattle through a loop of “sky tunnels” that seem inspired by the network constructed by Hamas beneath Gaza.
Political metaphor is in the eye of the beholder. Many gamers have played The Last of Us 2, oblivious to any real-world analogies. However, others have criticised Druckmann. “The cycle of violence in The Last of Us Part 2 appears to be largely modelled after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” argued Vice magazine, which said the portrayal of the Seraphites as “fanatical” served to “marginalise [s] Palestinian experience in a manner that perpetuates a horrific status quo”.
The last thing Druckmann or anyone involved with The Last of Us television series will want is for it to be derailed by a controversy around Israel and Palestine. Going into season one, Druckmann was keen to clarify his statements about the Ramallah lynchings and their impact on Last of Us 2.
“There’s a slight nuance there that I think is important, based on the conversation that happened on the second game, and I never talked about it,” Druckmann told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper last year. “But it was inspired by, not based on. That’s a really important nuance because my inspiration is… my feeling towards a cycle of violence that I experienced as a child growing up in Israel, growing up in the West Bank specifically, coming to the United States and observing it then from the outside, vs. being in it.”
He was particularly anxious that the game not be regarded as an allegory for any particular conflict. “The game deals a lot with tribalism,” he continued. “Sometimes tribalism on a very large scale, between two groups that are fighting for land – and again, that has obvious similarities to stuff that happens in the West Bank – but sometimes it’s tribalism within its group, of like religious people vs. secular people, or people that have experienced violence and feel – and that’s another theme of the story – a sense of a group that feels righteous. And when you’re righteous, it’s very easy to diminish another group and say, ‘They are less than me, and I’m correct, and they’re wrong,’ and therefore that gives me permission to inflict violence upon them.”
Ahead of season two, Druckmann and Mazin have promised to include more of the zombie-like Infected after fans complained about their scarcity in the first season. Raising the zombie count is a no-brainer. The bigger ask is tackling the Wolves-Scars conflict in a way that does not invite further comparisons to Israel-Palestine. Druckmann was no doubt disappointed by the Emmys pointed snubbing of The Last Of Us. But he knows the real challenges are yet to come.