'The Last of Us Part II' points toward a more honest portrayal of religion in gaming
When people think of religion and video games, their minds may drift toward the classic "Bible Adventures" for the first Nintendo console.
The game included platforming quests where, playing as Noah, you gather as many pairs of animals as you can for your ark. Another quest had you play as Moses's mom. Your mission: Throw baby Moses into the river. If you knew nothing about Christianity or Judaism, "Bible Adventures" would leave you even more mystified. Historically, the two modes of portraying religion in games are literal interpretations of sacred texts and stories, like "Bible Adventures," or ornamental set dressing, like in the "Assassin's Creed" series.
But rarely do we see characters of faith. That's what makes Dina, the main protagonist's bisexual love interest in "The Last of Us Part II," so quietly revolutionary.
In the game, Ellie, the protagonist, and her girlfriend Dina wander into an abandoned synagogue to look for fuel. Dina, who is Jewish, jokes about not exploding into flames, and muses about how her grandmother always used to "drag" her to worship.
"Do you still pray?" Ellie asks. "Sometimes," Dina says to Ellie's surprise. "I said one when we left Jackson. . . . Sometimes I just say little ones to myself."
"Does it help?" asks Ellie, who is still grieving and angry over the lost of a loved one.
"I think it calms me. Helps me put things in perspective. It's a way to deal with grief, a way to show respect. It's what I know."
As a lapsed Catholic, I've thought and said all the same things, from exploding in church all the way to admitting that even if I don't attend service, I still find time to say small prayers to myself. In Dina, I saw a little bit of myself, someone who grew up around rigid belief structures, ultimately falling out, but still clinging to bits and pieces for calm and clarity. I think of my grandmother too, a devout Christian who was foundational in teaching me how I treat and view other people.
What if we had more video game characters of faith? Their faith doesn't need to drive the story. But what if it gave us some understanding of the character, and the spiritual and philosophical beliefs that guide them?
I felt like I knew Dina more after that scene in the synagogue. She's a woman who fondly remembers traditions of the past, in stark contrast to the game's post-pandemic nightmare apocalypse of death and lawlessness. It's also a striking contrast to Ellie, who has only known loss and suffering her entire life.
There's another point later in the game, where a trans character, Lev, quotes scripture from the prophet of his religious group, the Seraphites. Although we learn little about their beliefs, we know the Seraphites shunned Lev for his identity, and want to kill him for it. Yet, he comforts a new friend in a frightening situation by citing words from his faith's scripture, despite being ostracized violently from his community and way of life. Much like with Dina, Lev's citations are meant to be calming, and to help put things in perspective. And their stories mirror the confusing, chaotic experiences of people who face and have to cope with similar painful rejection.
As characters, we can begin to understand the thought processes of Dina and Lev as they face extraordinary and dire circumstances. I get why Dina wants to move away to a farm to raise sheep and have a family. I get why Lev is able to remain calm despite the horrifying things happening to his home.
High-profile games, such as "Overwatch," have made big steps toward diversity. The game won praise for its inclusion of Ana Amari, a brown-skinned sniper wearing a hijab, who is voiced by Egyptian voice talent Aysha Selim. A Game Developers Conference talk in 2018 celebrated Amari and a host of other Arabic characters from Muslim-centric communities. But we never hear about these characters in the context of their faith. Sure, "Overwatch" isn't a game focused on narrative, so the comparison is imperfect. But "The Last of Us Part II" isn't the only kind of game - narrative-driven, AAA - that can support characters of faith. Developers of all sorts should consider embracing religion in their games.
"There are characters like her that people see, but they don't fully understand what the character is about," said Romana Ramzan, a game design lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University. "Traditionally the image you have of Islam as a religion is not really a positive one in the media or games. It tends to reinforce negative stereotypes over and over again, and you also find that the words Muslim and terrorist are almost synonymous."
Ramzan has spoken out for years on the game industry's long-standing problem with depicting Arabic people. With more than 1.6 billion Muslims in the world across several nations, the faith is observed differently in different cultures. But when games shy away from religion, they cede ground to franchises such as "Call of Duty" - which depicts the Middle East almost exclusively as a hotbed of terrorist activity - doing a great disservice to the diversity of faiths and believers.
"It's very hard to identify with any of these games because you're not really seeing examples of people you know within your own communities," Ramzan said. "Those experiences are never spoken about."
To Ramzan's point, most people think of white Americans when they hear "Christian." But I'm Korean, and Christians make up almost a third of South Korea's population. Ramzan said she doesn't "signpost" that she is Muslim to anyone, and I'm the same. People are often surprised to discover that I'm also a baptized Christian.
That perspective requires diversity in game development studios. In "The Last of Us Part II," it's clear that Dina's Jewish background comes from game director Neil Druckmann's experience, being born in the West Bank in Israel, and living there until he was age 10. In the game, Dina wears a bracelet that is perhaps passed down from family, "a symbol of protection that's literally wrapped around her and held in place with leather and beads," said Ashley Swidowski, the lead character concept artist on "The Last of Us Part II."
"Unable to join Ellie in a segment of the game, Dina places the bracelet on Ellie's wrist and tells her that she believes that it will protect her," said Swidowski. "The charm on the bracelet is the Hamsa hand, a protective symbol in the Jewish faith, Dina's faith. It was a detail requested from Neil who grew up seeing the symbol in the homes of family and friends."
Every time Dina or Lev opens up about their faith and beliefs, it happens after they've spent a certain amount of time establishing trust with another person. This understanding mirrors the real-life revelations that come from simply knowing a person.
"There are key tenets of the faith I follow. They shape my outlook," Ramzan said. "My day-to-day interactions, it's not something that comes to the forefront. That's something that comes as a byproduct as you get to know the person."
It's no surprise that religion isn't a topic handled by the most popular video game studios. Big studios like Ubisoft already twist themselves into knots, insisting that their titles that directly tackle topics like politics and war aren't "political." And what topic could be more fraught than religion?
This task usually falls to independent developers. Take 2019′s "Bury me, my love," a game that plays out like a WhatsApp conversation between a husband in Syria and his wife, who is migrating to Europe as a refugee. Ramzan said it's one of the few games in recent years where its Muslim representation felt genuine, and not a "ticked-off" diversity box.
"By not telling these stories, you're ignoring a huge population of people who consume games," Ramzan said. "We live in a diverse world so it's really important that we try to capture these experiences rather than channel these narrow views. It's about experiencing these voices."
It's why the small spiritual stories of Dina and Lev felt so important to me, because they live in a big-budget, prestige video game narrative. The game's wide appeal means that Dina's Jewish backstory, and Lev's painful struggle with abuse through faith, will reach millions.
This is far from a call for developers to wake up to any kind of spiritual revolution. It's better that developers take the time to get this right, rather than rush to tick off boxes just to meet whatever moment of reckoning might be happening in the news cycle.
Rather, Dina and Lev offer a lesson for how video game developers can deepen their games by telling more grounded, realistic and honest stories about the world's religions and their believers. The experience of faith can often be defined with personal stories of reward, pain, overcoming obstacles and coming to peace with fear and existence.
Games can move beyond depiction of old tales. After all, no one can call "The Last of Us Part II" - a video game criticized for its realistic depictions of cruel violence - a game targeted to the "faith and family" market. But also, not all stories with religious themes have to be like "The Matrix," which metaphorically intertwined religious ideology into its world. Where are the stories of the believers?Washington Post