(Hey! As the title indicates, this is part 2 of something! Part 1 is here!)
(Warning: Spoilers. Including the end of the game.)
Somewhere around the halfway mark of Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, Joel, the hardened survivor of a plant-parasite-fungus-zombie-apocalypse that you spend most of the game controlling, finally makes it to his brother Tommy, located somewhere in the vast middle of America. Joel’s there to try to hand off Ellie, a teenage girl who must be taken to the Fireflies, a subversive group located somewhere out West. It’s the second time you’ve seen Tommy. In the game’s prologue, set twenty years before the rest of the action on the day the apocalypse started, Joel, Tommy and Joel’s daughter attempted to escape Austin, Texas. Now, relations between the two of you have cooled. Or, as Joel tells Ellie, “His last words to me were… I don’t ever want to see your goddamn face again.”
The player never learns exactly what caused Joel and Tommy’s falling out, but when Tommy—who now has a wife and helps run a small town based around a hydroelectric plant—refuses to help Joel, you get some idea. Joel tells Tommy that he’s owed this, “for all those goddamn years I took care of us.” Tommy replies, “took care? That’s what you call it? I got nothing but nightmares from those years.”
“You survived because of me,” Joel, tells his brother.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Tommy says, looking at the camera, stricken and haunted.
What could possibly make not-dying not-worth it? Likely, it’s the stabbing, shiving, Molotov-cocktailing, strangling, shooting, archering, punching, bricking, bottling, and IEDing that the player has spent the last seven hours making Joel do to various zombies and humans. The Last of Us is a game that takes its violence and its theme of survival very seriously, and gradually asks the player to do the same. In doing so, we come to realize that Joel, the man we inhabit, may be a survivor, but he sure ain’t a hero.
After the prologue, when we jump twenty years in the future and re-meet Joel as a childless middle-aged man, he is a lowlife. He smuggles drugs, ration cards and weapons, serving up some terrible ownage on people who cross him. He runs in a relationship of sexual and financial convenience with a fellow smuggler named Tess, who will go on to summarize their lives by saying “we’re shitty people, Joel,” and mean it. Later still, after Joel and Ellie take on a group of marauding bandits, Joel reveals to Ellie that he’s “been on both sides of this thing.” When a different group of bandits invade Tommy’s power plant, Tommy asks Joel if he still knows how to kill, but the look on Tommy’s face tells you that he’s disgusted with himself for asking.
Joel, just to be clear, isn’t an anti-hero. Nor is he another in a long line of video game asshole warriors. He’s not a Don Draper or Tony Soprano charming psychopath. He’s actually kind of a piece of shit. Not that he doesn’t have his complexities, particularly in his relationship with Ellie. She sees a goodness in him, the same goodness we glimpse in the prologue, the goodness he appears to have lost. It’s a goodness that, when it’s just the two of them together, The Last of Us dangles in front of us as a possibility. Joel’s a broken man, physically strong and spiritually bereft. A man who has turned off his soul for twenty years, and, over the course of The Last Of Us, we begin to care whether he gets it back or not, just as much as we care about whether he and Ellie ever make it out West.
Much of the time, however, Joel’s like a mix between Rooster Cogburn from True Grit and Theo Faron from Children of Men, sans most of the redeeming qualities of both. What makes The Last of Us so startling is that it knows this. And, gradually, it makes the player know it too.
Naughty Dog became famous over the last decade for a series of Indiana Jones like games called Uncharted that, as cinematic acts of storytelling, are actually better than half of the Jones films and all of Jones’s latter day imitators like The Mummy and National Treasure. In those games, the player controls Nathan Drake, a descendent of Sir Francis Drake and international treasure hunter who gets in over his head having a series of thrilling, funny, genuinely charming adventures having to do with lost artifacts that may hold great power. The Uncharted games harken back to movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Romancing the Stone, the kind of big budget, exotic locale, rakish hero, adventure films that Hollywood used to be able to do well, while removing the problematic racial politics that often make those films unwatchable today.
There’s just one problem: These are, of course, action games. Which means that the player also spends a great deal of time killing people. Hundreds of people, it turns out. After Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception came out, more and more people started raising a stink about this issue. It’s pretty clear that the team on The Last of Us—many of whom also worked on Uncharted—wanted to see what would happen if they started taking all the killing seriously and asked their audience to do the same.
While The Last of Us, like The Walking Dead, takes place in a world hit with a zombie apocalypse, the similarities pretty much end there. TWD’s gameplay functions through dialogue and action choices. The Last of Us has very little choice in it at all. TWD’s graphics are stylized and cell-shaded. The Last of Us uses motion capture. TWD is an adventure/puzzle game. The Last of Us is a stealth/action game.
Most importantly, TWD takes place immediately following the zombie apocalypse, as people learn how to survive. The Last of Us takes place twenty years in, and is set amongst the whittled down population of people who’ve figured it out.
Survival is what The Last of Us is all about on both a thematic and gameplay level. If Naughty Dog were in search of an alternate title for the game, Survivor’s Guilt (with “guilt” here meaning both the feeling of remorse and the state of having done something wrong) would’ve been a good stand-in. As with The Walking Dead—where a series of choices serves as an essay on ethics when you realize death in inevitable—it is this interweaving of theme and mechanics that enriches The Last of Us and makes it work.
In the game you have limited weapons, and all of them have limited uses. You have to worry constantly about making too much noise, alerting nearby enemies. Killing people is difficult, noisy, and time consuming. All of the materials you find are necessary to craft multiple items. You can’t carry very much. There are also many points in the game where you can sneak by adversaries and not engage with them, leading—if you are, like me, both ethically minded and neurotic—to calculations that go something like Well, I’m low on supplies and I bet I could take these guys out and loot their corpses. Wait. Am I seriously contemplating killing six people who aren’t a threat to me for the express purpose of looting their corpses? Oh my God. I’m the worst.
In The Walking Dead, violence is very personal. Most of the time, it is being dealt by or to someone Lee Everett knows. The Last Of Us, on the other hand, primarily features the kind of depersonalized violence that most video games trade-in, it just makes that depersonalization part of the point. Joel—who has survived precisely because he’s selfish— can’t see the people he’s killing as human.
Not that the game is a relentless downer. Much of it is spent wandering overgrown urban landscapes and idyllic vistas talking with Ellie and deepening the bond between the two of them. Ellie is one of the few great characters to emerge from video games. She’s funny, charming and human and feels in many ways like a real fourteen year old. Indeed, any affection the player gains for Joel is likely the end result of loving Ellie, and wanting to love what she loves. For each of the game’s acts (there are four of them, one for each season), Ellie and Joel meet and team up with other survivors, who all prove to be interesting, fully realized characters written and performed with that rarest of video game traits: subtext. The Last of Us is a game where watching facial expressions and listening to tone of voice changes meaning, and the few choices they give you along the way are entirely about character development. You can stop to explain to Ellie what a coffee shop was, or pet a giraffe. You can find comic books to give her to read. You can give a man a Dear John letter from his boyfriend.
Ultimately, however, The Last of Us’s themes cannot be escaped for long. And yet, because it is a very well designed game, it is fun play. And yet, because it takes what it is doing seriously, it’s a disturbing and wrenching and truly, deeply, haunting. The ending of the game is anti-cathartic and disturbing and in no way resolves the central tension between depicting the urge for survival while also problematizing it, suggesting that perhaps, at times, being a survivor means being a monster.
Joel, you see, is presented with the opportunity to save the world, but doing so entails Ellie’s death. Ellie is immune to the parasite that has destroyed civilization, but creating a vaccine from her body would involve removing her brain. Joel saves her life, killing a hospital full of people, and ends any hope of humankind’s recovery. The Last of Us twice hints that Ellie would’ve accepted her death if given the opportunity to choose. But she never knows she had the choice because Joel lies to her about it. Joel, we come to understand, is as selfish as ever. Needing and loving this new surrogate daughter, after having lost his own twenty years before, he is unable to let her go for the greater good.
For those of you reading this who don’t play video games, I want you to understand that this kind of ending—one that is neither triumphant nor cathartic, but instead haunting and true to its characters—basically does not exist in mainstream video games. In fact, it’s the kind of ending that most mainstream blockbuster movies—and The Last of Us is the equivalent in terms of budget, market presence, hype and sales—would never dare attempt.
It’s these kinds of elements—story, theme, structure, subtext, writing, performance—that are responsible for the nearly universal critical rapture that has greeted The Last of Us, and they flow directly out of the thematic integration of gameplay and story, and from questioning the purpose of all the violence the video game marketplace demands. It is in this way similar to Watchmen. By taking its subject matter seriously, it simultaneously is a masterpiece of its form (the superhero comic/ the action game) while undermining the existing status quo.
And that brings me to the ultimate problem with making the resolution of ludonarrative dissonance the ultimate goal and measure of quality of video games. It’s no mere coincidence that The Walking Dead and The Last of Us take place during the apocalypse. There’s a limited number of scenarios that justify the kind of violence that the form regularly contains and that audiences demand from it. While we can get moralistic about this, high body counts have graced our literature since The Iliad, our theatre since The Persians, our films since Intolerance and on and on. As someone interested in video games becoming a richer source of stories, of examining theme, subject, narrative and character through the unique medium of a player interface, I’m less concerned with the virtues of violent games and more by how thuddingly boring and narrow their possibilities often are. As the current “gritty downer” era of superhero comics and films shows, replacing the current narrow possibilities of the medium with a different set of narrow (but critic-approved) possibilities isn’t really a solution, even if we get more games like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us along the way.