WARNING: This post definitely, 100% contains spoilers for The Last of Us. Don’t ruin it for yourself! At least go watch a walkthrough on YouTube. Look, someone even turned it into a movie for you.
I think I’ve gained enough distance from The Last of Us that I finally have most of my thoughts in order, so I’m going to take a break from talking about Bioshock Infinite to get some of these thoughts on paper (or pixels) before they escape me.
With most games, I would sit here and tick off boxes on what amounts to a glorified checklist:
Does this game have non-white characters? Yes. Three black characters, to be exact.
Does this game have any age diversity? Yeah, it’s not too shabby. There’s an older protagonist (compares to most video game protagonists) and a fourteen-year-old girl.
Does this game have women characters? Yes. A whole bunch of central characters and plenty of NPCs and enemies as well.
Does this game have any gay characters? You bet.
Then I would keep going down the list and expand on the most interesting or important characters. I would talk about whether they’re believable or fleshed out or what unfortunate stereotypes they might fall under.
I don’t feel like I have to do this with The Last of Us. The game is so consistently well-written and the characterization is so consistently strong, that the question of whether or not a character is “good” becomes petty in context. Because they are good and complex and fully imagined — across the board — with the possible exception of a slightly flat villain in David.
So I would prefer to talk about something a little different with this post: violence.
This game has aroused a lot of debate because of it’s violence. The demo at E3 2012 ended with Joel shooting a guy in the face, which was one of the factors — along with other really violent demos that year like God of War: Ascension — that led to a debate among gamers and games journalists about the use and utility of violence in games. If you go Google search “The Last of Us violence” write now, there are a ton of editorials about the violence in the game. The general consensus seems to be that the violence is justified, and I’m glad of that. Because, damn, was the violence well done in this game.
Both Joel and Ellie encounter violence and perpetrate violence against others. Violence affects them differently and actually works to inform their characters and help the audience learn how to relate to them. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
The gameplay, for both Ellie and Joel, pushes players toward close, personal, and brutal violence. It’s quieter (and therefore smarter, because, seriously, this game wants to kill you) to sneak up on an enemy and choke them, whack them, stab them, etc. than it is to shoot from a distance. Hand-to-hand violence also happens to be much more personal and grotesque close-up than shooting. And, while you’re taking your time being stealthy so you can do some up close and personal violence, you’re treated to a conversation between the people you’re about to kill and maim. Maybe some idle gossip, maybe about their bacon stash, or maybe about the crazy guy stalking their group and killing them.
Basically, this game wants you to feel the violence. It wants you to feel it and feel bad.
Conversely, although the level of violence is off-putting, it’s used to make the player understand Joel. Because a very good way to understand Joel is to witness and execute the anger and frustration he feels.
Naughty Dog deals with what should be an unlikable/unsympathetic protagonist brilliantly. It’s very, very rare that we get any actual insight into Joel’s feelings. He doesn’t have an internal monologue, and he certainly isn’t open about expressing himself to others. Yet the player always knows exactly how he’s feeling.
This clarity is partially accomplished through excellent character animations and dialogue, but it’s also conveyed through Joel’s constant and, importantly, unflinching violence. Without that violence, he might seem like a pretty relaxed guy. He’s been through a lot, sure, but he tends to take it in stride well. He doesn’t usually shout or get too bent out of shape when interacting with others.
But once you see him in action, it becomes obvious that he is in turmoil under his calm exterior. He is a product of unimaginable circumstances. Joel has lost absolutely any investment he ever had in humanity. At the beginning of the game, he’s living for very little. Really, he’s living just to live — he doesn’t have a purpose or goal in that life. It’s a sad and empty existence.
Throughout the game, combat sequences are the only times that we consistently see him express strong emotions — in this case, rage. The rest of the time, he keeps his emotions securely bottled up. Violence becomes his personal catharsis.
It’s not a question of morality. He knows that it’s technically immoral — he doesn’t want Ellie to kill, for example — but he doesn’t personally care. It’s been twenty years since he lost his daughter, and I don’t think he’s cared about “humanity” as a concept since. He obviously has affection for Tess, but I doubt he cares at all about the rest of the anonymous humans that cross his path.
Actually, it makes sense that he’s survived so long. The types of people who managed to live in a nearly lawless post apocalyptic world would mostly be those who are willing to kill to survive. Not for any higher purpose — just to live for the sake of living. And these aren’t likely going to be the kindest people.
The game chronicles the reawakening of feeling — specifically fatherly feeling — for another person in Joel. He loves Ellie and would do anything for her, but it’s a feeling that’s specifically reserved for her. It isn’t extended to anyone else. In fact, if others get in the way, Joel doesn’t hesitate to kill them.
After getting to know his character so thoroughly, the ending of the game makes perfect sense. Once the circumstances line up, the sequence of events is inevitable.
It’s not just that Joel has no hope that a vaccine or cure could be created — he doesn’t care if one is created at all. To him, Ellie is infinitely more important than humanity, and the choice between them is as simple as choosing between gummy worms and maggots. While I predict most players will be split on what they would do at the end of the game, I think the vast majority of people would at least think through their options first. Not so for Joel.
And this is only right. A lot of games have multiple endings and storylines that are strongly influenced by player choice and interaction with the game world. This type of open-ended narrative would cheapen The Last of Us. In the end, your own desires as the player don’t matter. The game will inevitably draw comparisons to The Walking Dead, but this isn’t a game about choice. No one is asking you, as the player, if you would choose humanity or Ellie. You are playing Joel’s story, and Joel gets to make the decisions.
I think this is part of the reason we play as Ellie for the very, very last section of gameplay. Playing as Ellie instead of Joel allows us to separate from him a little more. He has just performed one of the most selfish acts a person could make. He hasn’t taken Ellie’s desires into account at all. Not to mention the absolute massacre of the Fireflies. Heck, he murders the surgeon who had the knowledge and ability to possibly save humanity mostly because he’s in the way. Joel’s dealt with a lot less than a scalpel before. (Does anyone know if it’s possible to not kill the surgeon? I didn’t try.) He’s thrown all of humanity under the bus to save one girl. Players are not necessarily supposed to endorse what he’s done, but it’s likely that they don’t entirely condemn his choice either. I expect a lot of people, like me, were and still are conflicted.
A little bit of actual physical distance from Joel allows a few moments of critical distance before the final few moments of the game. It allows the consequences of Joel’s actions to really sink in.
In the end, the question of violence in the game doesn’t come down to whether it’s “too much” or not. The violence doesn’t just fit into the game’s world. It does narrative work that helps us intimately understand a main character that is very disturbed. Violence is how he expresses his fear and anger. Ellie kills people as well, but do her kills ever feel as brutal as when Joel basically curb stomps a man?
The centrality of Joel’s decision making through the medium of violence can be seen in the double meaning of the title. Does “the last of us” literally mean those people who are left? The sort of people who, like Joel, will do anything it takes to survive? Or is it the choice he makes at the end of the game to let humanity die off, so that this game is really about the last of our species? Either way — or both! — violence is implicit in both meanings.
Before I get into this, I’d like to applaud Naughty Dog for allowing us to play as a richly written fourteen-year-old girl. I already thought it was interesting that they put us in the role of a helpless seven-year-old earlier in the game, and it was thrilling to get to play as Ellie as she really came into her own. Seriously, just… applause. I’m sending you virtual applause.
Ellie goes through a lot of the same violence that Joel does, since, you know, she’s there. However, whenever she commits acts of violence herself, it’s a little clearer that it’s an act of self-preservation. But I’d like to talk about another type of violence.
The Last of Us is a great example of how to handle the threat of sexual assault in a respectful and subtle manner. David’s pedophilic interest in Ellie and the sexual threat he poses is almost more horrifying in what is left unsaid. From a purely writing point of view, he would have been less scary if he had come right out and said, “I want to rape you.”
I also found the very subtlety of the whole encounter to be more respectful and truthful than other depictions of sexual violence that I can think of in games. (Feel free to point others out, because I’d love to check them out.) Typically, rapists do not announce their intentions or broadcast them so transparently. David uses force, but he tries to wheedle Ellie into compliance before resorting to violence.. He’s a manipulator and all the more terrifying for that realism.
The whole incident also adds the punch of truth to Marlene’s advise to Joel before he kills her: it really is only a matter of time before one of them gets killed or raped. It’s already happened. Joel almost died, and Ellie was almost raped.
If anything, I never felt like the threat of sexual assault was added to the game for cheap thrills or as a lazy way to make the player sympathize with a character. We already care about Ellie by that point. And it’s not the only threat she can possibly face as a woman. I can think of some other games where it seems like a female character is faced by the threat of sexual assault or harassment from every corner. (I’m looking at you, Heavy Rain — oh, will I be talking about that at some point.) Ellie faces plenty of zombies and people with murderous intent that are not looking to rape her.
And, importantly, Naughty Dog lets Ellie take care of herself. In real life, of course, there’d be absolutely no problem with Joel intervening and saving her from David. (Seriously, everyone can feel free to stop all the sexual assaults they want.) But since this is a game and decidedly not real life, it’s refreshing that a woman gets to save herself. I see David as being Ellie’s “final boss.”
The parallels drawn between David and Joel in the back-and-forth narrative of Winter are also worth discussing. Joel tortures a man to find out where Ellie is (that knee stuff caused serious whinging) and David and his people have resorted to cannibalism. These are both widely condemned practices and both men do them in the name of necessity. Both are violent and arguably on the edge of sanity — if sanity is defined by compliance to socially defined normalcy, both men are way over the edge.
If you haven’t gotten it by that point in the game, Joel’s actions aren’t excused by the game. Sure, he was attacked by David’s men first. But the fact remains that they had families and lives and Joel killed them. How can violence be justified in a real world setting when everyone involved is a person and not just an NPC?
So, yeah, I don’t think The Last of Us was too violent at all. This is one of a few rare instance when the violence is not only justified by the narrative but enhances the narrative. It was needed to fully immerse the player in Joel’s mindset. We needed it to understand his story. I hope to see more games in the future use violence with real thought. Hopefully, we can see more wonderfully confident games like The Last of Us before the tail end of next generation’s console cycle.