Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
Sometimes it feels like things are in transition more than they stabilise, as though if we blink too long the foundations underpinning us may have shifted. Not that the big things have changed, but the infrastructure may have mutated slightly. The differences so small you have to concentrate to notice: the rhythm of that one friend has become oddly one-sided, and each time you receive a message you want to reply less; your budget is exact, but a week before pay day an unexpected bill arrives you were sure wasn’t due for another fortnight; that one creeping thing you’ve always worried about engulfes you at the worst time like the kingfisher tide; and when you know the person closest to you is lying.
The Last of Us Part II asks if we can live with the lies we bury in the depths of our soul, and if we can survive the truth that comes after. I talked about it for hours, but it was an academic exercise. I worked through the story as a distraction between eating take out and drinking far too much as I tried to remain above water in the aftermath of a breakup.
The narrative is a simple premise: Ellie, our point of view character, lives and thrives in Jackson, a city long recovered in the wake of a zombie outbreak caused by toxic spores. Ellie is immune, a secret she holds close. Her adopted father Joel, butchered a hospital attempting to pass her cure onto all humanity because the procedure required Ellie be vivisected. Our story picks up the threads of their relationship years later. Joel is a pillar of the community. Ellie is a rising star in the patrols around the city.
It’s not long before a group of interlopers, the WLF, arrive and their leader, Abby, murders Joel with a nine iron. We follow Ellie and her girlfriend, Dina, through Seattle as Ellie exacts her revenge on Abby’s friends, hoping to cut the head of the snake and claim her vengeance.
The story is grim, devoid of hope: even Ellie’s friends seem to know the mission is pointless and self-interested, but they help anyway. No one articulates this feeling of hopelessness, this feeling of doing the wrong thing knowingly, but it’s clear in the subtext. Dina’s pinched brow when she ushers you on your journey to the next target. Jesse sneaking out of Jackson to help you, risking his standing and safety in the community, but never quite squaring Ellie’s desires with his own morality.
Ellie herself takes no pleasure in their quest through Seattle. She is obligated to this course of action. Her choices and actions are beyond her control, she tells herself. A constant, quiet, almost invisible fiction threads through Ellie’s mind: they killed Joel, it’s my job to make them pay.
Lying is complicated. Growing up my mother often spoke of white lies, the small, half-truths we use to keep us safe from each other’s inner voice.
“That’s a cute photo.”
“Actually, yeah, you make a good point.”
“At least he meant well, right?”
These are lies of the other: lies we tell for the people around us, to preserve their feelings or because they’ve asked us to keep an admission confidential. Lies of the other are water in a valley, they find their way out eventually, even if it takes years. And so often by the time they reveal themselves, the landscape has eroded and the consequence is a minor diversion into a larger ocean.
Then there are lies of the self. The truths we bury under ego and distance and consumption and status. These are the quiet things that we hold within us, the truths we keep in, allowing them to grow malignant and painful, often driven so far deep we’re barely aware we’re lying to ourselves.
The burning heart of Ellie’s story is the paradox of Joel Miller: Ellie’s adopted father who made her feel safe and loved, but she knows he is a deeply selfish, conversative killer who lied to her, every day. Lied to her again and again: the Fireflies couldn’t make a cure from you, he promises. The lie of the self destroying Ellie is this: she knows - or maybe doesn’t know, but feels - that Joel lied to her about her immunity and its possibility to change the world. She doesn’t know that Joel butchered dozens of revolutionary scientists to save her, but she feels he’s hiding something. Buries that truth deep in herself, lodges it in her very soul.
Just before a (what I thought of as the) relationship disintegrated, I remember discovering she’d been using online dating sites while we were together. We went for dinner on a Tuesday night. Had a few drinks, came home, watched a film and fell into a pleasant pizza and wine coma.
Something across the way woke us up, my neighbour yelling at a video game he lost or a siren blaring from the police station across the road, it’s not important. After tossing and turning, she disappeared to the balcony for a smoke. Equally restless, I poured a whisky and climbed back into bed. An idea for the manuscript in the fire or an article surfaced, and, realising my phone was in the car downstairs, I grabbed her phone, thumbed in the passcode.
The lock screen opened on a message chain with Christian. Or Jeremy. Or Hassan. Or Dui-Kahn. These years later I don’t remember his name. But the outgoing message from Tinder were stamped: sent, three minutes ago. Even these years later, I remember the message she sent like breath on glass. The message simply read: “Maybe we can get a drink and find out.”
Even now those words make my chest tighten, just a little. Not because it still hurts, but because the lies of the self leave lines and grooves and aches on your heart. I took that message and buried it within some larger lie. She was probably on the site to make friends, afterall she’s been ditching a lot of toxic people in her life. Maybe it’s not what it looks like.
The lies of the other take wing the moment you open a window, dispelled in the fresh air and sunlight. But the lies of the self cling like tar on the lung. For months I lied to myself, to her, to everyone. The lies of the self are the ones we use to guard our hearts from reality. The ones that make our chest heavy, the sort of heavy that weighs in the small hours and the long pauses.
Years after her connection with Joel and the hospital, Ellie suffers under the shadow of Joel’s lie. Not just lies to her, but the consequence of his actions. His murder is a blow for the communtiy of Jackson: they’ve lost one of their leaders, a man who is only in his position through falsehood. If they knew the truth, that he could have ended the apocalypse and chose not to, he would not be a pillar of the community. Tommy, Ellie, Jessie and Dina leave the settlement in pursuit of revenge for Joel, removing four defenders of the town and key leaders of the community.
Joel’s lie, and his subsequent death, poison the blood of Jackson. His lie mutates Ellie, a survivor with a dry sense of humour and love for art, into a screeching, blood-thirsty maniac. It takes all of Ellie’s will and the compassion of her friends to pull her back from the breach.
Where The Last of Us Part 1 is the journey of Joel and Ellie finding a way to be vulnerable, to find a reason to live among a fallen world, The Last of Us Part II asks what becomes of us when we have, hold, and lose.
Returning from beyond the breach is an act of destruction, and eventual recreation. Hours in a small room unpicking the various stitches and explaining the scars, saying you want to change. Getting heinously drunk with the few people who truly understand the shape of your soul. Day after day of pretending to exist, rendered as discreet moments, interactions, where you manage to be a person, even for minutes at a time. Eventually, as the wounds scab over and life becomes more tangible, you’re left with the prospect of creation.
You have a life to put together. Some of the old pieces still fit nicely, but others have been chipped so they’re not quite flush. Others are cracked in half, falling out of place any time there’s minor turbulence. And of course there’s the missing pieces that belong to the person you’ve lost. The pieces you’ll never get back. This absence comes and goes like a fever. Some nights the gaps in the jigsaw ache so fiercely you wonder if the whole thing might be broken forever. Other days, and some blessed afternoons, you hardly notice the absence at all.
And, eventually, as you pick up that old hobby, finish cleaning out that one cupboard, you forget there was an absence at all. Maybe forget is the wrong word. To forget is to avoid: jumping into a new relationship, rekindling a forgotten faith, pouring another beer. Rather, as you carry the absence and rebuild, you make it a part of your jigsaw.
The pieces that belonged to them are slowly replaced by the things you learned about yourself. The things you’ve changed and the things that ought to never be changed by someone else. And over time the absence shrinks and shrinks, until the missing piece is a pinprick on a canvas. You go to work. You laugh again. You stay out with your colleagues on a Friday, enjoying their company rather than avoiding your own. One morning you’ll find you can write again, not just bleak essays, but fiction. One afternoon you’ll finally understand your father’s side of the family, and that you’re more alike than you realised. One day you may even kiss a girl in a different city and it will be fireworks and the next morning, foggy headed and smitten, she’ll rest her head on your chest and you’ll wonder if you could ever be unhappy again.
But sometimes that pinprick never goes away. Even if you rebuild, create a renewed normal, sometimes the slow, inching, unresolved wound festers. It’s not just the slow knife that cuts deepest, but the unattended infection that takes all. There is no penicillin for the soul, afterall.
By the time she returns from Seattle, Ellie has become Joel at the beginning of his journey: capable, dangerous, merciless. While Ellie leaves the fighting behind, she never finds a way to dig Joel’s lie from her soul. Even as she lives her life with Dina and their son, JJ, Ellie is haunted by what she has done, what she knows. In the end, she chooses to complete her revenge rather than stay with her family. Even all those years later, she feels compelled to avenge her father, knowing that Dina will leave her. When the story ceases in a yawning spectacle of closure, Ellie is a hardened survivor, capable of withstanding the impossibly hostile new world, something that comes at a heavy price: her father, her partner, her son, her music, and, ultimately, her soul.
In the end, Ellie faces the world alone. She sets off on the road, in search of her humanity one long mile at a time, among the cracked bitchermen and wilderness that swallows the buildings and rusted car chassises, nature slowly consuming everything we left behind, leaving only an aching silence where the last of us used to be.