“The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature.”
-Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles,
What are the differences between video games and movies? As time goes on and technology advances, the differences have become increasingly minimal. Can we expect games that are 100% cutscenes with quick time events in another 10 years or so? In what sense would they still be video games and not interactive movies? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
By 2013, video games had embraced their evolution toward becoming more “adult”. Like any true maturing entity, gaming generally derided the cartoonish whimsy of the retro era and adopted hard-boiled anti-heroes, gritty realism, language, sex, and violence. The former became old hat while the latter became mainstream. The Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 delivered experiences which could appeal to mature audiences without flinching. Of course, there was the Wii, as well, busily outselling both on the grounds of its (in hindsight) gimmicky motion controls and party games, but the Wii’s simple fun didn’t define what games had could resemble now. Not really.
The industry had reached a point where games could begin to tell stories in cinematic fashion. We could sit back, set our controllers down, and watch full-fledged cutscenes which play out like movies, lasting for minutes on end. With the advent of voice acting, casting real actors, face mapping and motion capture, creative direction, orchestral sound design, and talented screenwriting, the possibility arose of creating games which could engage players the same way that films engage audiences. The gap between film (a universally accepted art form) and video games (in 2013 still perceived by the general populace as “kidstuffs”) had shrunk. A big part of that shrinkage belongs to the contribution of the game under my microscope today.
2013 saw the release of The Last of Us by Naughty Dog, a game which was definitively “adult” in the gaming sense of the term (that’s important, more on that later). The Last of Us was universally acclaimed by critics and gamers alike. It quickly became one of the best selling games of the seventh generation of consoles, selling over eight million copies in just over a year and some change. It helped sell Sony’s PlayStation 3, which got off to a rocky start, on the basis of profound exclusives. Undoubtedly, one of the strongest games of its generation, decorated with “Game of the Year” awards, The Last of Us is a bleak, depressing, extreme, and personal journey predicated on obstinate survival, the persistence of hope, and the loss of innocence.
I vividly recall that nearly every gamer I knew was playing this game at some point that year. I owned a PS3 but it wasn’t a title that I jumped at. There are a few reasons for that which will become apparent as I go on but primarily it’s because I don’t jump at rated M titles, especially “zombie apocalypse” games. I’m not of the persuasion that simply because something is more “adult” that it magically has better storytelling or presentation than something which isn’t marketed on the basis of being “mature”. On the contrary, I’m more than leery when the term “adult” is thrown around because that can often mean shock value, splatter films, torture porn, or just actual porn.
But I do own one of my friends an apology. Mr. Miller (the jr.), I am sorry I made fun of you for “jumping on the bandwagon to play yet another zombie game”. Had I been assured of The Last of Us’ quality as distinct from its genre, I probably would’ve come on board sooner. I can only say that I look at it this way, by way of consolation: at least I had the chance to avoid the hype.
Hype, possibly more so than even nostalgia, is a creator not of rose-colored glasses but of blindfolds.
Nothing capsizes personal impressions more than being bombarded with volley after volley of faceless opinions saying exactly the same thing, generally positive or negative in the extreme. When positive, that’s hype. The only way to stand against it is to wait until hype dissipates like a vapor and discover for yourself what remains: maybe a smoldering crater, maybe a polished gemstone. That’s why retro-centrism is such a recurring theme in my writing on this blog. Reviewing the classics gives me a chance to stand apart from the hype of ten, twenty, thirty years ago, even before I was born, to examine things with eyes unclouded. Thankfully, I had the pleasure of doing just that with The Last of Us, as I played the original game for the first time four years after its initial release.
With narrative at the forefront of its concerns, The Last of Us follows the journey of Joel and Ellie, detailing the bond that they form over the course of a year. Story is a massive part of the appeal of The Last of Us, so here is the premise. This game has been out for a few years but just in case, here’s a SPOILERS warning. I’d suggest going in as dark as possible because you want to be surprised by this game’s presentation and not have anything ruined for you.
The story begins in 2013 with Joel and his daughter Sarah living in Austin, Texas. An infectious outbreak occurs causing ordinary civilians to turn insane and violent. Joel and Sarah together with Joel’s brother Tommy attempt to flee the city as the infection spreads. Narrowly escaping, Tommy remains behind so that Joel and Sarah can get beyond the city limits. A soldier runs into them and receives orders to shoot unidentified, at the risk of infection. Tommy arrives and kills the soldier but not before Sarah is gunned down. Joel’s daughter dies in his arms. The tender father in Joel dies as well. This scene defines the game and frames it with intense sadness.
Cut like a knife to twenty years later. The world is in upheaval with vast stretches of ruined cities and suburbs infested with the infected. The Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infection and its origin, curiously, are never expounded upon. There are only hints from newspaper headlines in the background. This is a nice touch since this sort of thing is usually belabored in the zombie genre. There is enough information in the game to showcase the idea that humans were infected by a Cordyceps-like fungus. Cordyceps is a real world parasitic fungi which grows inside hosts (insects) and slowly displaces their tissue.
As horrific as it sounds, imagine that happening to people. The fungus in The Last of Us grows inside the brain, affecting behavior and turning the infected into carnivorous monsters. The newly infected are known as Runners, yes, running zombies. The more advanced infections lead to a group of infected known as Clickers. These hosts have been so infected that the fungus has begun to eat away at their faces, rendering them blind. They produce a clicking noise as a kind of echolocation (which makes little sense based on the gameplay) and they must listen in order to find their prey. Bloaters are humans with such advanced infections that fungal plates have begun to protrude from their bodies, making them highly invulnerable. The final stage of the infection seems to be where the fungus replaces all of the host’s tissue. The fungus then releases spores into the air which are obviously not good to breathe.
Quarantines have been set up in this post-apocalyptic world and they’re run like military-states with martial law and food rations. Other human survivors are called Hunters, who prey on other people for food and possessions. Everything is scarcer now. Another group, a rebel cause called the Fireflies, stands against the quarantine police and focuses on searching for a cure. Not a fun time to be alive but fortunately, everything in The Last of Us is out to kill everything else. That’s not hyperbole. Between the quarantine police gunning down anyone possibly infected, the Fireflies acting like urban-terrorists, the hunters acting like head hunters, and nearly everyone murdering each other without impunity or allegiance, it’s remarkable (if not unrealistic) that anyone is alive at all!
Joel is now an older man and a smuggler, a calloused scumbag and hitman living in the Boston quarantine zone. He and his partner Tess receive a job from the leader of the Fireflies to smuggle a young girl out of the city in exchange for a weapons cache that was stolen from them. The girl’s name is Ellie and Joel and Tess soon discover how special she is. She was bitten but the infection didn’t spread. She’s immune and perhaps she’s the key to finding a cure. Joel finds it hard to trust in anything anymore but when Tess finds herself infected, she sacrifices herself so that Joel and Ellie can escape. The hard-edged old man and the young girl who has never known the world as it used to be spend over a year together over the course of
Logan The Last of Us, their bond growing as they learn to protect and rely on each other.
The Last of Us plays out as a series of cutscenes interspersed by encounters with the infected or hostile humans. It’s very much a showmanship kind of a game and one that must be watched as much as it is played. It tells its story in cinematic fashion and this is undoubtedly a part of what made it (and makes it) instantly appealing. It’s quality of acting and sense of its own weight are both top notch.
Even as games like The Last of Us (perhaps not a pioneer but an exemplar) closed the gap between film and game, one thing remained. Only one thing stood between the presentation of cinema and the presentation of video games and that’s interactivity, that pesky, persistent mechanism that (sometimes) gets in the way of games becoming as cinematic as their creators evidently want them to be.
In The Last of Us, this wrestle between cinema and interactivity leads to some very interesting and uncomfortable moments. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out what I mean.
The 8-bit Review
First, let’s talk about one of the many impressive elements in The Last of Us. It’s no exaggeration when I say that this is one of the most visually breathtaking games that I’ve ever played, and I’m not even referring to the later remaster. The original isn’t a current gen game anymore but it clearly used the PlayStation 3’s power for all it was worth. Heck, it looks better than some games I’ve played on the PlayStation 4! Certainly that’s nowhere clearer than in the department of facial animation. Compare the detail, flexibility and emotive capabilities of the PS3 faces in The Last of Us with games that came after it.
I just have to ask how? How did Naughty Dog achieve so much and later developers with better, more powerful technology achieve so little (broadly speaking)? I can only attribute this to Naughty Dog’s attention to detail and perfectionism in this case, in which they seemed to spare no expense. Treating the game as if it was being directed for the silver screen seems to be at least partially what led to such a triumph. Motion captured actors and face mapping created some of the best animated video game characters I’ve ever seen, indeed the best which I’ll expect to see for years to come.
The face is the single most expressive part of our bodies. We can gesture with our hands and create subtle body language to convey our emotions but consider that with a single movement of a tiny muscle we can demonstrate the difference between interest and disgust. Facial cues silently enrich our languages through speech illustration (raising the eyebrows when inquisitive) and cognitive pauses (pursing the lips when depicting thought). Some of these things we even do without thinking. A raised eyebrow, a curled lip, narrowed eyelids, a wrinkled nose, a furrowed brow, baring the teeth can (not all at once) express an array of emotions with very little effort. I think this is what so few video games with terrible facial animations get: the smallness and impact of facial expression. If they want to showcase realistic human emotion then they can’t treat their characters like Kabuki theater! Simple as that.
I’ve talked quite a bit about the impressive characterizations thanks to the facial animations but there’s much more to The Last of Us’ visuals, namely the settings that the characters find themselves in. They can move a strand of hair off their forehead or wipe sweat from their brow but they do those things in masterfully crafted, highly detailed environments that look as if they have the realistic disarray of random chaos. Not once did I detect any kind of copy-and-paste going on in the backgrounds and settings. Every area, without seeming bizarrely diverse, looked different from the last, just like real life.
No HUD or complicated UI crowds the graphics, so all you get to take in are the characters filling the screen with the shattered remains of this terrible world around them, illuminated with a superb sense of the importance of lighting, soft and diffused, not just direct. One of the great things about The Last of Us is that it’s a survival horror game which is actually well-lit.
As natural as the facial animations are, the voice acting is even more so. There’s not a character in this game that devoid of personality, the kind of personality that only comes from actors delving into their characters. Clearly, they approached the project with the same determination and self-seriousness as actors would for a film with the same tone. So much is riding on emotions in The Last of Us so having the best possible voice acting must have been an essential concern. I knew at once that this game was going to feature some of the best voice acting in the gaming industry.
Beyond that, the score by Gustavo Santaolalla is a work of genius and not just because of its content but also because of its placement within the game’s presentation. “All Gone” (above) is representative of the sensation of the entire score. Silence is a big part of this game’s pacing, so when it uses music it does so with purpose. Apparently, Santaolalla, an Argentinian composer, was renown for his minimalism and he brought that approach to this game. Other compositions were created by Anthony Caruso, Andrew Buresh, and Jonathan Mayer.
The result is music that sounds like witchcraft and woods. It’s empty, hollow, trembling, steely, and abrasive but undeniably enchanting. It’s rustic and folkish without seeming unsophisticated or hipster-level pretentious. It echoes tribal rhythms for the hunters. It masks its darkest moments in brooding, reverberating shadows.
There’s a recurring motif throughout the score which represents the bulk of the soundtrack’s themes, and the music itself never seems to stray to far from it. It’s limited and it perhaps couldn’t work in a game of lesser quality and with lesser focus, but because The Last of Us essentially maintains a relentlessly depressing mood for virtually the entire game, right up to the end, the approach of crafting a limited score was the best choice. It’s as if it is the natural sounds of this ruined world.
The Last of Us occupies the survival horror niche, quite obviously. Between the cutscenes, dialogue, and exploratory areas, Joel and Ellie have to survive encounters with quarantine zone police, merciless hunters, and the infected. While the game never puts true and constant emphasis on horror, the survival aspect is present in full-force, even in the few scant boss fights which the story makes room for.
The gameplay centers around stealth, though there are several encounters where you’ll have no choice but to plow through your enemies and leave their bodies in your wake. Joel is not a sharpshooter and I felt that there was a realistic degree of sloppiness to his marksmanship. Firing weapons too often is where it gets tough because there are only so many supplies to be found as you make your way through each area. You’ll undoubtedly feel like you have to conserve every item, every strip of binding, and make every bullet count.
Joel can craft items out of supplies he gathers and is able to make first aid kits, explosives, shivs, and Molotov cocktails among other things. A lot of his items can be deadly but they’re best reserved for emergencies. Resource management will demand that you rely on stealth where ever possible to sneak up behind enemies and take them out silently, just like Batman. Unlike Batman, though, Joel cannot rappel up the sides of buildings or glide away to escape, so players must be smart and strategic about the lay of the land and enemy patrols.
I really enjoyed the sound physics in this game. Enemy AI (ally AI, too) is ramped up pretty high in The Last of Us and part of that is their ability to hear your movements and attacks and disrupt their normal patterns to corner and flank you. The limited assortment of enemies isn’t too big a deal considering they made them so smart and sensitive to your presence. Hunters armed with guns and Clickers, who can kill you instantly, are particularly dangerous and require extreme care to navigate around and combat. Fortunately, Joel can crawl slowly and listen for the footfalls of his opponents, lighting up their silhouettes through walls and other obstacles. This was absolutely crucial to me beating the game. Though later enemies will lie in wait for you, rendering Joel’s Listen Mode worthless, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to play through the whole game on harder modes without this ability to hear.
Almost all of Joel’s weapons are also found through the areas he and Ellie pass through: a shotgun, a bow (my favorite), even a flamethrower. Your bow and arrow is not as loud as a gun going off, so you can be sure I spammed some deadly arrows to the knee to take out enemies from a distance while being stealthy. Using these weapons at the right time is again a demand of resource management but I love how fluid the gameplay is with allowing you to reload your weapons on the move.
The structure of the game has enough in it to avoid feeling like a series of encounters interrupted by cutscenes, though there were times when yet another encounter felt somewhat wearying. What else could there be, though? At least the exploratory portions of rendered areas were great. I was surprised at the size of some of these areas, like the hotel early on in the game.
What are some things I didn’t care for? Not much, in terms of gameplay. This was a game I actually had that feeling that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Even after it’s over, I kind of miss just playing through some of the encounters. I don’t know if I’d suffer through the depressing story just for that again, but there’s a relic of a multiplayer mode and some DLC to scratch that itch, provided it’s itchy enough to warrant scratchy.
Anyhow, things I didn’t care for. It’s no secret that I detest quick time events. I rolled my eyes as soon as I saw that first button-mashing command during the intro of the game. I have to mash a button to kick a window open. Really? What is the purpose of these? Immersion? It’s quite the opposite for me since I don’t think tapping a plastic button is anywhere close to being analogous to breaking out of a choke-hold or lifting up a warehouse door. I’m just tired of these and they seem to be more and more over-used as time goes on. There were a few moments when they helped my body flood with adrenaline but those moments were few and far between.
These quick time events are really distracting but non-detracting complaints, so something which I actualy took issue with was the lack of save points or checkpoints. The game is constantly auto-saving and if you screw up you can manually restart the encounter, taking you back just a few minutes in time. Even though some areas were challenging, this hand-holding feature turned a few tense minutes into exercises in repetition. Maybe the game could’ve been made less hard but more anxious if you had to actually reach a next area in order to save, preferably manually, to ensure survival. As it stands, there were so many auto-saves I felt immortal and no threat could make me feel otherwise.
I understand that the focus was on the storytelling and not getting stuck and therefore delaying the next scene would be crucial but this is one aspect in which the inherent quirks of gameplay clashed with the needs of narrative. It’s not such a big deal, from a story standpoint, to have so much handed to you with auto-saves since that moves things along more nicely but from a gameplay perspective I think playing could’ve felt more intense and more progress could’ve been at stake if you were forced to survive for any real length of time before being able to save.
To tidy up this Gameplay section, here are a few last things I enjoyed. No plodding tutorials, and hints were not intrusive. Swell! Thank God Ellie wasn’t talking the whole time to tell me what I should do to get to the next area. Holy roly poly, if she had told met to press triangle to climb a ladder every time… I’d have lost it. Temptation seen and avoided so high five to you, Naughty Dog.
I’d also like to see more of that L3 focus feature employed in future games. In this game, you could hit the input and turn to face whatever it is the other characters were talking about. A lot of games I play have NPCs following me around but when they mention something like “Hey, Noct! Check this out!” and I turn to look at literally dozens of interesting and intentionally placed objects, it’s somewhat frustrating. More L3 focus feature!
In case you are still reading this and you haven’t played The Last of Us, I highly suggest that you skip ahead by hitting Ctrl+f and searching Cast to bypass the SPOILERS in the Narrative and Themes sections.
Still here? Good.
It’s no secret that The Last of Us is propelled by heart stabbing emotion, beginning with Sarah’s death at the start of the game. The story is structured around the passing of seasons and the ends of Fall and Winter were of particular impact. Come to think of it, so was the end of Summer. So just about every section of the game ends with this brutal, jarring cut-to-black before the story picks up later in the year. As a narrative technique, it’s used brilliantly to move the characters ahead without having to be slowed down, and it suspends our disbelief over the pace of Joel and Ellie’s developing bond.
When I think about it, The Last of Us is less a game about a journey than it is a game centered around “scenes”. Thinking back, the most memorable moments where the cinematic scenes in the game: being chased through alleys by the hunters’ tank, running into the infected for the first time, losing Tess, watching Henry commit suicide, taking down the sniper, escaping through Bill’s town, running into Tommy again, seeing Joel fade and thinking he’s dying in the Fall, wading through the blizzard in Winter, fighting off David in the burning restaurant, carrying Ellie down the corridors of the Fireflies’ hospital. Scenes like these punctuate and define this game, and they’re all dialed up to the max in terms of their energy and intensity.
I fully expect that a lot of The Last of Us’ moments are going to stay with me for a long time. However (and this is a big “however”), while the story of The Last of Us is often touted as one of its stand out features, if not its greatest feature, it is with this assertion that I simply must disagree. Not only did I have no profound emotional response to the game, i.e. I didn’t cry, but there were also several things in the gameplay and the presentation which took me out of the experience enough to prevent me from enjoying parts of the game and truly feeling immersed, immersed enough to take it all in in real time, divert the brain and hit the heartstrings.
To my mind, this is somewhat of a disappointment. Given, I didn’t expect I would bawl or break into a sob over this game. I’m unconsciously put on high alert, I guess, whenever I consistently read people saying about a movie or game or book “I cried the whole time!” or “Oh the feels!” I blame that for a part of my lack of response to the (sometimes) overwrought sadness of this game, but on top of that there’s the fact that I cry often for movies but cry very much less often for games.
I shed tears at various times in my life during Homeward Bound, Toy Story 3, Where the Wild Things Are, Daylight, The Dark Knight Rises, Batteries Not Included, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Elephant Man, The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, Titanic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Schindler’s List, Grave of the Fireflies, The Wind Rises, Up, Final Fantasy VII and X, Kingdom Hearts, and Les Miserables (the book) just to name a few examples of my emotional robustness for all those who doubt I have no heart.
Allow me to quote an excellent blogger who shares my opinion on one of the moments that’s supposed to hit home with emotions but didn’t for us:
“So passionate were the voice actors that they reportedly broke down in tears during certain takes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the prologue. Troy Baker’s delivery as Joel helped sell the character’s deep emotional trauma, and it could very well be the most convincing death scene in any game I’ve ever played.
“The writing isn’t without its flaws, however, and the story’s first misstep occurs within that scene. Powerful though Sarah’s death scene may have been, Mr. Druckmann was in too much of a hurry to kill that character off. Consequently, we know nothing about Sarah outside of a few hints. If he wanted the death to have a real impact, he should have established why we should care about these characters before allowing the situation to spiral out of control. That way, we’re more likely to feel something when bad things happen to them. This problem could easily have been fixed by extending the prologue to develop both Joel and Sarah as characters. The developers could have then peppered this section with action sequences, culminating in a tragic scene at the end where Joel was unable to save Sarah from a surprise attack or from being infected by the deadly fungus. Instead, the significance of her death lies in the fact that she was the protagonist’s daughter and a minor to boot. It’s a heartrending, poignant, yet wholly unearned moment.”
-Red Metal, extralifereviews.com
I concur with this assessment. Sarah’s death actually left me confused, believe it or not. Going in as blind as I did with this game, I actually assumed Sarah was the same girl on the cover art, maybe with her hair dyed a different color. It’s not like I studied the cover of the game, or anything, but her death happened so quickly and under such chaotic circumstances that a character I thought would be significant turned out to be only significant as a catalyst for her father.
The story masks over its underlying predictability by keeping the dialogue curt, playing on the audience’s easy assumptions, such as Tess saying “I get it” to Joel when we all know he’s thinking of Sarah after smuggling out Ellie. These moments are examples where the writing does excel and the game only seldom expounds rather than allows its characters to act out their stories. I appreciate that because there’s always a degree of predictability in this genre, but I felt The Last of Us circumnavigated a lot of that.
I originally suspected that Joel was going to get infected and then Ellie would be asked to execute him, or something like that which would test their bond and Ellie loving him enough to put him out of his misery rather than let him change blah blah blah blah blah of course none of that actually happened.
The ending that did happen, however, was completely less than I expected considering how many people remarked to me “Oh [deity of my choice], that ending!” So of course I expected some heart-rending loss or some tragic heroism. Instead, I got the word “Okay” and lie-detector music (thanks, Honest Game Trailers for that zinger).
I didn’t cry. What’s the payoff? Where’s the triumph? I felt like I missed something. I scoured the internet during the credits because I wondered if maybe there was a second ending that had to be unlocked or something. The game doesn’t even end in sadness. It ends on distrust, a sad thing but not sad in the sense of moving one to tears. Sad in the sense of smallness or pettiness, and this all comes back to what the game does in throwing away Joel’s character, the man we played as for most of the game’s duration who is ultimately just thrown away. Rather than sacrificing himself nobly somehow, as I expected, Joel ends up just being sacrificed. But to what? The sake of a sequel? A low view of the goodness of humanity? The refusal to put anything at all wholesome in any character in this game?
“The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature” is the quote that opened this article but it is untrue in the context of The Last of Us. Applied to Joel it’s a downright misstatement because he never becomes Ellie’s father, not even close. I’m going to go beyond saying Joel is just a “flawed character”, nor is he some kind of “protective father figure” at the end of the game. He’s worse than any of that.
It’s almost as if he becomes Ellie’s kidnapper, like David, only his is a prison at the end of the game is made of lies and not iron bars. Also, like David, he only cares about what she represents, not just a female body but a daughter figure. A stand-in. She might as well be an object because the narrative from Joel’s perspective completely objectifies her in this way and considering everything they went through it’s completely disgusting, the last middle-finger to the player in a game with a fetish for the F-word, at times suspiciously attempting to seem more “adult” than actual adults.
Joel doesn’t have the heart of a father by the end of the game, so essentially his story arc ends in that house in autumn when he said to Ellie: “I’m not your dad. And you sure as hell aren’t my daughter.” The game ends right there for him. Sure, he eventually went so far as to save her life and give up everything else, even a cure for humanity, to protect her but he never treated her like his own daughter: an autonomous being with personal intellect to be respected and encouraged in her independence.
Said Neil Druckmann, creative director for the game:
“We knew we wanted this arc where we started with someone whose life has been horrible for the past 20 years. He’s pretty much dead. He’s a very different person from the father you saw in the beginning of the story. He has very little humanity left him. The more time he spent with Ellie, she would pull these aspects back out of him.”
I understand that and I see that this is where the game was indeed headed. You’d guess that this is where the game was headed. This is Joel’s story and the reason why we started to like his character and the softening of his heart that allowed him to become a true protector for Ellie, who herself is a great video game character.
“The reverse of that, for Ellie, would be a coming of age story. The more time she spends with a survivor, the more she takes on those qualities herself. All this worked toward a climactic moment where their roles would flip, both in story and in gameplay. The 14-year-old girl becomes the hero. She’s the one saving him and essentially bringing him back to life. That was our earliest intention for those characters and their arcs.
Ultimately, at least for Joel, it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid. Each step of the way is a greater sacrifice. At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at. But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity. When he has that final lie with Ellie, he’s willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line in order to save her.”
Save her from what? Greatness? Destiny? Salvation for humanity? Certainly not from living a lie and wasting her existence in a game that constantly tries to remind you that “everything happens for a reason.”
He said “it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid” but I’ve got to ask, did Druckmann even have a father? Was he an abusive one? Where did he get this concept that Joel is treating Ellie like his own daughter, because who would do the horrific things he did for Ellie for their own children? I would kill if I had to to protect my sons but I wouldn’t maliciously torture someone for them, and make no mistake, there is a massive difference between survival instincts and sadism. Joel represents the latter and he never escapes it. Don’t be taken in by his Southern accented charms or his affection for physical abuse.
I’m a father and I know several fathers, and I know that fathers don’t blatantly lie to control and manipulate their own children to selfishly preserve them in a glass box, completely ignoring their own wishes and mutilating anyone that could ever take them away to do good in the world. It dawned on me that Joel would almost be the equivalent of a father slaughtering members of the military to prevent his daughter from enlisting in the armed forces (or even knowing about enlisting) for a dangerous war, and in that case there may be no widespread analogy to him in the real world at all! Consider that he protected her merely for himself. That’s not love, love which fatherhood is predicated on. Love is selfless. Joel’s actions are entirely selfish, they have been since Sarah’s death, and they never stop being selfish even by the conclusion of the game. This whole sweeping epic of a game and nothing changes in Joel.
Now the obvious rebuttal to this is: “Yes of course Joel is a hypocrite. Nobody ever said he was the ‘good guy’.” That’s true. Usually defenders have said to me that the hyperviolence and the depressing setting and the hypocritical character(s) are part of art that’s making a statement, which is important for art to do. Yeah, that’s fine but what’s this important statement that The Last of Us makes? That human beings suck? It doesn’t take art to convince anyone of that.
The rebuttal continues: “Joel’s character is flawed which gives us insight into human nature. Hypocrites are just the way we are. We are selfish.” I agree with this as well but my point of contention is that the existence of an occasional flawed father in real life certainly doesn’t necessitate Joel being an immoral monster, apparently irredeemably so as far as this one game is concerned. Real world dead beat dads (or serial killers) may provide the possibility for a character like Joel’s to exist in a story like this but they don’t automatically prescribe that he have incomplete character development, which to my mind is not the mark of competent writing or of a particularly stable or even healthy view of human society and family life.
Characters must grow and mature and develop over the course of stories. We all know this. This is why Ellie is such a better character, but clearly the story is not about her. I almost could wish it was because she starts off as a distrusting little girl with a mouth and turns into this pillar of strength, a savior and truly selfless protector, notably without sacrificing her femininity or turning into some over-macho action hero. We see that coming-of-age arc that Druckmann mentioned when she goes from teenager to responsible adult with her own dependent: Joel after his injury. Ellie is one of the gaming industry’s great female heroines.
Fundamentally, we understand the difference between characters that go from point A to point B and characters which don’t move at all, which remain unchanged, and in The Last of Us there’s the perfect and unfortunate example of both. We call those cardboard cut outs.
In Joel’s case, what’s the most interesting thing about him? That he’s from Texas? That his daughter died tragically at a young age? That he became a smuggler? That he’s willing to commit any atrocity to get what he wants? All of the information we get about Joel in the game merely informs us that he was once a sympathetic victim who became an unrelenting and selfish psychopath, and that information never evolves. That’s it. He never changes. The most significant thing about Joel is he lost his daughter twenty years ago but he apparently learned nothing from that loss in terms of development or heck, the sanctity of life because at the end of the game you the player are forced to be in Joel’s body when you make him gun down an unarmed surgeon who only wanted to find a cure for humanity, and that’s one of the most sickening things that a game has ever made me do.
That “shock value” act doesn’t make the game great merely by its presence nor does it make Joel great as a character for being forced to do it. This is a moment in the game in which its existence as a game interposed interactivity between myself the player and the cinematic experience to completely remove me from being immersed, because I didn’t want Joel to kill the surgeon since I didn’t see or agree with his point of view but unlike in a film where I could’ve watched a character like him commit the crime on their own, I actually had to make him commit the despicable act against my own will (unless I chose not to finish the game). The interactivity itself broke immersion and removed any empathy I had for the character. Though Joel ran down that pediatric hallway, bearing an unconscious Ellie in his arms and tenderly cooing “baby girl” to her, I’d already stepped away from his character entirely.
Essentially Joel’s no different than the faceless grunt who gunned down the innocent Sarah at the start of the game, and Joel’s loss becomes a catalyst only for bitterness and selfishness and nothing else. What makes this even more disgusting is that it does nothing to honor the bond between Joel and Ellie that the game spent hours creating.
To have come so far with Joel and to have seen him go nowhere is truly repellent without being pitiable. He’s not like characters who don’t learn anything from their journeys and end up in tragedies, because his journey just ends with a whimper. And the fact that the game forces its interactivity upon you and makes you the player complicit in his murder, failure, and lack of character development is what makes the ending anything but profound. It makes it flat. I mean, at least I didn’t have to “tap X to lie to Ellie’s face” but it is only sad that a father lost his daughter and is projecting upon a girl who is not his “baby girl” no matter how many times he says it to himself, and that’s it. Nothing comes of it. It makes the whole journey worth nothing and amount to nothing. It makes Joel less human. It makes this story that is about him (of course it’s about him!) go nowhere. Why cherish this character at all? Why say he’s a great character in gaming? Because he tortures prisoners? Because he kills unarmed people? Because he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants? This makes him detestable and hateful, not worthy of remembrance. The role reversal of making the protagonist a villain isn’t enough of a gimmick to warrant the game getting perfect scores.
Rather than a full-fledged character, Joel’s reduced to patently obvious marketing for the inevitable sequel for a game this successful, a fourth-wall-breaking billboard of a human being. His actions become slaves to universe building, that haunting promise of a future cash cow necessitated by this game’s profits and demanded in advance by its creators, apparently. Will we eventually see Joel pay for his lie to Ellie with her distrust toward him? Probably, but actually I’m expecting they’ll just kill off his character because at this point his death will probably mean a lot more than his life has.
Fitting that the game ends with Ellie saying the word “Okay”, since that’s exactly what I thought of its conclusion.
In a game that’s supposed to feature a realistic and adult world, there’s very little real and adult about the end of Joel’s journey. This is all barring the sequel of course, but should we force ourselves to become accustomed to sequels tidying up after their predecessors? I got into so much of the game’s story in this incredibly dark world but Joel’s character was a big disappointment at the end. If a game is going to take itself this seriously then it should be able to withstand serious criticism.
While portions of the narrative were enough to put me on the fence about how I felt about the game in general, I did think there were some very complex themes, complexity being a mark of content being “adult” rather than just throw swear words around all the time.
Loss of innocence is tremendous in Last of Us. “There’ll come a day when kids can just be kids again” one character muses. One of the scenes I’ll always remember is when young Sam cannot take the toy robot with him, Henry reminding him that there’s no room for something like that in his life with so much riding on practicality and survival. That’s moving. Even children are pushed into a life of extreme frugality, and though Ellie shows a kind gesture to Sam by giving him the toy, which she smuggled, in a later scene, Sam is infected and he turns the next morning to attack her.
Note that this is the only infected child in the whole game, at least any prominent one. I think that’s no mistake. Loss of innocence is a part of the game but so is this concept of purity. Ellie is young and she shows a swath of purity in her selflessness later on in Winter. The purity of Sarah’s memory and death is a motivator for Joel’s callousness. There are few children in the game. In one scene (that was hard to stomach and I had to turn the system off for the night), bodies of children are discovered lying under a blanket with the words scrawled on the floor beside an adult’s body: “They didn’t suffer”, meaning they were killed before they could be infected.
Next, I’m convinced that the creators at Naughty Dog have a bleak view of humanity, if their work is of any testament. The game has a very bleak outlook on human nature with little in the way of goodness: the story is told of people standing up against the hunter factions in the beginning and being killed for doing so by a mob; Joel is reluctant to care for Ellie at first and even refuses to stop for a family with a child when the first infections occur. One of the notes by “Ish” talks about having faith in humanity, that we’re still capable of good but even by the end of the game this isn’t something that the creators appear to believe in, to the point of being ludicrous. How would anyone still be alive twenty years after the outbreak if there’s so much frivolity about killing in the world of The Last of Us? Everyone kills each other so easily and without a moment’s hesitation that it starts to fly in the face of humanity surviving at all, or at least questioning why they should survive at all. Without any sanctity of human life, then why go on living other than for reasons of pure selfishness? And that’s Joel’s entire character right there but it’s a depraved perspective.
Only a few sparks of hope in the purity of children prevents the entire story from being overwhelmingly bleak, though it’s borderline. While the “Us and Them” mentality pervades the game, perhaps influencing the title, there are symbols of innocent joy to be found. Late in the game, Ellie spots giraffes with delight and she pauses to idly watch them before Joel, the adult, breaks away to begin their journey again, Ellie following. When she does, the last giraffe disappears into the distance. Her delight and any semblance of the idleness of childhood disappears with them.
There is I’m sure a lot more to talk about in terms of themes in The Last of Us, but we’re approaching encyclopedic scale with this review. It’s over 9000. Words. Besides, there are far better researched and more talented writers out there with a firmer handle on these themes whose work your should hunt down.
I was interested by the recurring imagery of the color wheels in drawings, toys and paintings around houses, and also the chess sets I kept running into. I could guess that maybe the color wheels were hints at Ellie’s orientation but that’s only a guess.
This is one of the best acted games of all time. I’m sure it’s a combination of high quality direction and actors, as well as access to technology in order to capture and convey these performances in video game format. This may not be something that would change the world in cinema but in gaming the work of these actors was revolutionary. The actors didn’t just “do voices”. They came in for motion capture performances and you can tell the difference between voice actors reading a script in a sound booth compared to the energy of actors seeing other actors’ faces and moving around to portray their parts.
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who contributed ideas for their characters as well as their performances of them, are stand out examples of the possibilities that can be reached with gaming actors. I knew Baker most recently as the Joker in Arkham Origins and Snow in Final Fantasy XIII, but he transformed for this role and sounded completely different from any other I was familiar with. Both Baker and Johnson gave completely believable performances. I actually started to worry that they made an actual 14-year-old cuss as much as Ellie did, but Johnson was an adult.
There’s not a single other character in the game that had that hokey feeling of putting on a stereotypical voice symptomatic of video game voice acting. I think of that fetch-quest dude in Galdin Quay in FFXV with the most ridiculous east coast accent ever and I’m so thankful that none of that ham-fistery made it into The Last of Us. Taking the acting seriously paid off.
There’s a lot of fatigue in the entertainment world. Over the past few years we’ve seen trends turning creative ideas into dead horses to beat. Remember when everything was about penguins? Penguin fatigue. How about pirate fatigue? FPS fatigue? We’re even seeing mounting superhero film fatigue. One of my personal anti-favorites is zombie fatigue: for a while it seemed like everything was going to turn out to be about zombies. It was enough to make rotting corpses off-putting. I know, what a shock.
I’ve just about checked out of every zombie apocalypse story there is, and while I shrugged off The Last of Us upon its release and subsequent ironically zombie-like devotion by the masses, I’m glad I finally came around and had the chance to experience this game. What an experience it is. The characters and world have an impact and intensity that’s unforgettable.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
All that said, the question remains whether I actually enjoyed it or not. I didn’t hate it but I don’t love it, either. That’s because I can’t say, especially as a parent now, that I “enjoyed” or was entertained by the awful things in this game like children being executed or a minor almost being raped. Those thoughts are intolerable to me in the magnitude of their injustice.
The immediate response to this is the one which likely popped into your head just now, especially if you’re one who had an emotional response to this game and are quick to defend that very personal experience, validating your perspective. “Art is meant to show us life and that means even the worst parts about humanity”. That response is valid and true, let me be clear in saying so. Art takes a variety of forms and covers any subject imaginable, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy or have to enjoy every art form or every subject covered. Some subjects are just too extreme either in content or presentation to appeal to me: the torture porn film genre, slasher horror stories, and quite a variety of rated M video games.
Of course real life horrors really do happen and terrible deaths really do occur, tragically, but clearly that doesn’t necessitate that I must enjoy or be entertained by their portrayal in media as a statement of reality, nor does it prove that The Last of Us must exist. I can’t be entertained by some of its content, in fact.
This has nothing to do with the question of whether the extreme examples mentioned above are art or not but everything to do with the reception of the perceiver, which is me in this case since this is my article and I played this game. My perception of The Last of Us is that it is a forcefully told story, a work of art in its skillful craftsmanship and presentation, with some of the greatest voice acting and facial animations I’ve ever seen but with some flaws in character development and immersion, possessing an emotional sharpness pervading the entire experience that will surprise, shock, and haunt (but maybe not bring you to tears).
Am I excited for the sequel? I’m interested in seeing what happens to these characters. I’d be interested to find out if Joel changes at all or if they just kill him off, but I’m not excited at the prospect of diving into the violence and filth of humanity again. And, please, my philosophy specifically for gaming doesn’t have anything to do with my not wanting to see the world as it is, or wishing everything was sugar and saccharine, so please don’t accuse me of that. Mine is not some kind of escapism.
There’s this overarching mentality in modern gaming that I’m speaking against: the story is not better simply because its characters swear constantly or because it depicts near sexual assault. Think of this as equating to the kinds of films that always win Best Picture without fail because of their tenor and tone. Looking back, I wonder why so many people assured me that the ending was this fount of emotion, why this game was resoundingly the greatest there could ever be…
Merely throwing the worst things in real life into a video game and calling it art doesn’t solely make a game great, right? There were some moments in The Last of Us when I felt like this was the case, when the developers were trying to impress me with shocking content, just like kids ironically pretending to be mature. Was there nobody present on the development team who could say the words “Dial it back just a smidge, Mack”? Take out even half of the most extreme situations and scenes in the game and it would still be demonstrably “adult”. Further, it would have a mark of adult storytelling, namely nuance.
Fortunately, there’s enough excellence in The Last of Us to make the unsettling stuff worth wading through but I refuse to say The Last of Us is great because it showed that games can be “adult”. That’s not what made this game amazing. Not only were there other games before it that did show that games could be adult via complexity or subtlety (something foreign to Last of Us) but those games were able to do so without appealing to the most graphic content possible, which in this game is used to such frequent effect that watching the protagonist get his face torn off by a Clicker for the hundredth time or brutalizing another stranger becomes desensitizing rather than shocking, especially in cutscenes.
The Last of Us is disturbing. This is where I get off the train because I come to video games uniquely to have fun, more so than in coming to film or literature. As a family man, I also approach gaming with the vision of its sociability and sharing in its experiences with my wife and children, but this is clearly not a game I’d show to my kids. Psh I probably wouldn’t even show it to my wife. I love her too much to be this depressed. My gaming philosophy is why I gravitate toward the games I choose. Best of all, you can’t argue against my philosophy because it’s my personal preference. It’s why I love that “magical” feeling some games achieve in their simplicity, style, and beauty. But there’s little beautiful about The Last of Us (moments but only a few) and while seriousness in gaming is nothing I take issue with, I’m sure I don’t want to fill my life with disturbing things and thoughts.
Should you play The Last of Us? Definitely, if you can stomach it’s intensities and you don’t mind the possibility of having no emotional reaction to an immensely popular game that makes you feel somewhat isolated. It’s one of the most potent games I’ve ever experienced, a game which is very much unlike other gaming experiences I’ve had before the 2010’s. I can appreciate it for what it is but it’s too unsavory, too unlovely to champion. You will likely never forget it, just as I expect that I won’t, but even then this is not something that I plan on going through again, playing new game plus, grabbing all the goodies, or popping every trophy. I know several people who swear by it, but this is a story that I’ve taken in once and once is plenty.
That’s no slight to the game itself. The Last of Us is just that powerful, a fact which cannot be denied.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
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Categories: Game Review