Beyond Cinema (Part 3): The Last Of Us

This is a multi-part series of articles about narrative-driven games. Why not start at the beginning, here?

If the last narrative-driven game that I wrote about was a left-field decision, the choice for this article could be considered the obvious choice. If you haven’t heard of The Last Of Us then you either dislike computer games or have spent the last few months in a submarine or trapped in a Chilean mine. It’s been one of the big hits of the year and you probably already have your own opinions on it before reading this, or at least have read the in depth reviews that are out there. That’s probably for the best because, you know, SPOILERS.

It’s a long, sprawling, entirely linear game with a small number of main characters and interlinking cut sequences with player controlled action to mix game-play and story elements. The game-play action is familiar third person shooter and the story is voice recorded by professional actors who we also motion-captured in several of the key scenes.

So far, so much like a million other games.

So, what makes this game different? After all, I spent a lot of time in the first part talking about how the killing/cut scene/more killing formula of computer games as seen in Max Payne or Bioshock rarely actually works very well at all because the emotional nuances and hard storyline landmarks of the plot clash unnervingly with the free-roaming kill-anything-that-moves arcade-ness of the gamplay. In fact, you might say that since The Last of Us doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of game-play mechanics or player-engagement why it’s worth talking about specially in this series at all?

Of course, if you played the game, you know why.

The plot of The Last of Us goes so much further than other games to overcome the limitations of its medium and is truly of a story quality that could stand alone in its own right. The reason for this is that the themes are universally experienced emotionally driven themes that are hard wired into the plot. A game like Gears of War  may have introduced themes of familial and spousal relationships between Marcus and his father and Dom and his wife but those were quite clearly and obviously side plots. For those more interested in war-play and shooting, they could easily be ignored without suffering any problem understanding each mission and what was going on. Neither of the relationships felt like they existed outside of the core plot, meaning that we wouldn’t even meet Marcus’ father unless he was a scientist vital to the war effort, nor would we get to see anything about Dom’s wife unless the war put her in some danger. The key part of the plot was an exciting but somewhat childish romp through playing soldiers and any deeper narrative was absolutely subjugated to the care free game-play, literally drowned out by the noise of whirring chainsaw blades. The plot of such games wants to talk about war as a complex and emotional issue but ultimately playing these games, whilst incredibly fun, doesn’t feel like this at all, it feels like a fun shoot ’em up without much empathy for any of characters or events.

Playing The Last of Us feels different. It feels like the reason that there are these horrible zombie-like monsters out there is entirely so we can tell a story about the relationships between parents and children, what parents have to give up and what they want for themselves out of parenthood. It feels much more like these core themes justify the zombies, not the other way around.

Unfair comparison?

I am not for a second suggesting that the plot came first. Clearly not.

Zombies were something of a silly halloween costume and Romero was forgotten until 28 Days Later reminded us what fun they were in 2002. Romero directed films had a brief revival with some direct remakes, some new features and even a new film from the man himself. Like the monster it was based on, Zombie stories just wouldn’t die. A lot of this had to do with Shaun of the Dead but the movement from being background characters in Resident Evil to mainstream genre recognition was the adaptation of The Walking Dead  to TV in 2010.

Though, based on my copious market research, nobody actually thinks the Walking Dead TV show is any good, it’s a great concept for a show and I have no doubt in my mind that The Last of Us was originally intended to be a sort-of cash in on the popularity*. The recipe of ideas that went on the mood board to create the game isn’t exactly hard to decode: The Road (adapted as a film one year before, with a similar sort of plot), Children of Men (an incredible film, which lends the game inspiration for urban environments and political underground The Fireflies being a direct counterpart to The Fishes) and 28 Days Later (more father/daughter themes and the character David having intentions not too far from Major West’s).

Take away these story ideas and what you have underneath is rather formulaic. It’s a zombie shoot ’em up without complicated survival mechanics starring a tough, gruff, macho one-man-army who kind of han-solo-s his way into a humanitarian mission which exposes his human side. Strip away the context, and Joel isn’t too different from Marcus Fenix at all. The after-humanity urban landscapes were impressive and enjoyable to explore but not entirely unique in computer games.

However, what is clear is that from the start the intention that narrative would be used to differentiate the game in a core way by throwing two characters together and having their interaction continue at length to the point where their relationship develops to such a close state that a natural protectiveness heightens the peril. If you think about it, most games don’t use this idea at all. If there are characters who work together (and solo, not co-op is the norm in most narrative games), they are either colleagues (cops, soldiers, gangsters, plumbers, etc) or independently involved in whatever the game is about (a vigilante and a cop, for example). Even where the link is more tenuous, the characters generally don’t have much time together and the action tends to move fast enough that sharing of back story or development of their relationship is glossed over. The relationship is a side show. As we saw in Brothers, narrative succeeds when it is tied into a central element of the game – if not, its destined to be an easily ignored side show. The interaction between the characters in The Last of Us is ingrained into the game play – both characters are playable at times, both are needed for certain actions, there is a necessity to keep both safe and both will contribute to dealing with challenges and threats.

“We started to brainstorm how you would form a bond through gameplay….”
Neil Druckman, Creative Director

With the key idea of the evolving relationship of two characters in place (see here for source of developer comments) and a grounding in the best of an established post-apocalyptic genre, somehow great intentions conspired which turned something which could so easily have been run of the mill into something quite special. Its obvious that the game became very much about feel and not so much about hundreds of unique and complicated items, weapons, actions or mini-games that are so often incorporated in padding out fighting games. Part of this is the setting, which is excellent at showing us what the post-outbreak world is like rather than telling us through dialogue or textual exposition (the section in the abandoned sewer outpost is an example of this excellent style) but most of this is simply the fact that the two characters continue to interact, and more than this communicate throughout the game.

Dialogue is character and communication is plot says the old wise author-sage on the mountain top and The Last of Us took that to heart by writing a crazy amount of incidental dialogue between the characters. Usually meaningful dialogue is relegated to the ghetto of cut sequences and in-game dialogue is reduced to mission instructions. Here, the cut scenes give vital details but the incidental dialogue between the two characters which are triggered by locations, items, threats, views and sometimes nothing at all are also vital here because the real plot is not centred on the over-arching world outside the game-play but is centred on the relationship between the two characters themselves. Lines that would be throwaway in another game become vital here because they tell us about Joel’s changing relationship with Ellie and ultimately that is the central element of the game. So in this most conventional of games, something unexpected. Depth outside of the cut scenes….in the actual game that is being controlled by the actual player. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

So, to the plot-mobile! To save time, here’s wikipedia’s version:

Joel is a single father living in Texas with his twelve-year-old daughter Sarah.
In the early hours on his birthday, a sudden outbreak of a mutant Cordyceps fungus
ravages the United States, which changes its human hosts into violent monsters.
As Joel, his brother Tommy, and Sarah flee the chaos, Sarah is shot by a soldier and
dies in Joel's arms.

In the 20 years that follow, much of civilization is destroyed by the infection, with
pockets of survivors living in heavily policed quarantine zones, independent settlements,
or nomadic groups. Joel now lives in a quarantine zone in Boston, working as a smuggler
alongside his partner, Tess. They hunt down a local gangster, Robert, to recover weapons
stolen from them. Before Tess kills him, Robert reveals that he traded them to the Fireflies,
an insurgent militia fighting against the authorities governing the quarantine zones. Joel
and Tess encounter the Fireflies' leader, Marlene, who promises them double their stolen
cache in return for smuggling a teenage girl, Ellie, to Fireflies outside quarantine.

Ellie is revealed to be infected after she, Joel and Tess escape a patrol. Full infection
normally occurs in under two days, but Ellie assert she was infected three weeks ago,
and that her immunity may lead to a cure. 

The plot from this point on takes its twists and turns but the theme herein is Joel’s changing relationship with Ellie. For a long time, Ellie to Joel is just cargo. Ellie sees how capable Joel is and wants to build a relationship and for him to mentor her in his survival skills. Ellie has seen everyone around her killed and hates being alone. She has a need to make new relationships and create the feeling that the people around her care what happens to her and that she cares what happens to them. Joel doesn’t care. Ellie is his cargo to deliver from point A to point B. However, as that mission becomes harder, Joel cannot help himself from beginning to view Ellie as a companion, especially following Tess’s death. They go through some harrowing experiences and not only are they forced to trust each other and work closely together but Ellie starts to prove that she is useful. To Joel who is used to working with a partner, this is where his demeanour begins to crack and he starts to bond with Ellie. He starts to see her as a partner. Starts to see her as a friend. Starts to see her as his primary companion, someone who he allows to know about his family and past. Joel begins to think of Ellie not as his friend and protege but essentially as his adopted daughter. This dead-inside smuggler remembers the father who once lost Sarah now unlocks that paternal part of himself that knows what it is like to love someone and want to protect them to the extent of placing yourself in certain danger.

We’ve seen this sort of relationship before. All cops start out distrusting their new partners before becoming fast friends, right? But to follow these characters and their changing relationship through the best part of the game and through actual game play adds something. This isn’t just something we are told. This isn’t just something that happens in the character’s heads and suddenly manifests either. This is something that the player feels that they have seen happen. It’s a journey the characters have been on since the start and that the player has experienced first hand and at length. Whereas the missions in narrative driven games can take away from the story, their benefit is that they represent a real application of time. It’s not a montage and it doesn’t use cuts to jump to the action. Game play shows you everything that happens, right from the moment the character walked into town and includes the banal moments such as where the hero checks out rubbish heaps looking for items and finds nothing. When things happen in game, they happen in real time so unlike a movie experience, the relationship between Joel and Ellie appears to play out largely in real time. There are some time-cuts but it’s never implied that anything happened in those cuts that you didn’t already see. This is huge for explaining why the narrative in this game works, without the game breaking the mould in gameplay elements as Brothers did.

The other element where the narrative of this game works but others don’t is who these characters are. Both characters fully subvert who the characters in these games are supposed to be.

With Ellie, it’s obvious that a fourteen year old is not supposed to be a major character in an action game. You might expect that a game where you play with a fourteen year old character would be a constant escort mission where she is constantly under threat and you have to constantly rescue her. This is not the case. Ellie is a vital and engaged character who is desperate to be useful and to pick up skills from those around her. She manages to believably represent somebody who has fully adapted to the world around her whilst never being unrealistically hardened in spirit or callous in attitude. She’s a teenager and she expresses herself openly whether that is anger, sadness or vulnerability. We are far from the typical stoicism of the boring near-silent action hero. Ellie should be dead but she wants to live and learn and experience things but at the same time we learn she only really lives for those around her. With her family and friends dead, Ellie looks to others to give her struggle meaning, befriending first Marlene and then Joel. Ellie’s worst fear is being left alone without anyone to be her new family and towards the end of the game, we learn that without a family, she would actually stop fighting, stop surviving and stop living because she doesn’t feel she deserves to be alive when those she cared for are not. I cannot recall even one other major computer game character that I have ever seen who is not a self-supporting, loner-individual with private thoughts who would never surrender. It’s easy to like Ellie. It’s easy to care for her and want her to succeed and find the familial relationship she needs. The game relies on this. The game relies on making you feel like Joel feels. You feel like you need Ellie to succeed and you feel the need to do whatever you can to give her the life this crisis robbed her of.

With Joel, the subversion is not as simple. He is exactly what a computer game protagonist is. He’s gruff, mean, tough, inward looking, silent by nature, dependable, loyal and most of all self-sufficient. He’s exactly like every other space marine or STARS agent or whatever. Except the thing is, there is one thing that makes him different to all these people. Joel is not the good guy. Joel is the bad guy. And we don’t mean an anti-hero, no, he is beyond this. The thing is that the game doesn’t remind you too much of this as you play through but it does furnish you with the knowledge that makes sense later. When the first crisis happens, Joel and his brother Tommy are trying to escape and get to safety with Joel’s daughter Sarah. Joel is driving on the highway and they see a family trying to ask for help. Sarah suggests that they stop and help the family get out of town too. Joel keeps driving. So far, so Zombie Apocalypse 101, but it sets the scene for learning who Joel really is. Joel will do anything to protect those close to him, even if it means letting his empathy slide. After Sarah is killed, this is the path that Joel takes. When he is re-united with his brother Tommy, we hear that Joel did some terrible things to keep the two of them safe and healthy until the quarantine. Things that made Tommy run away to join the Fireflies and give Tommy nightmares. When the apocalypse hit, Joel decided that the rule was the survival  of the fittest and to survive, it’s clear that he did some bad things. We can only imagine that this meant highway robbery, and yes, murder. As Tess says to Joel before she dies, “We’re shitty people”. The nice man Joel died when Sarah died. He refuses to talk to her, refuses to look at her picture. He became so self-sufficient that other people didn’t matter to him. And so we meet him, as a criminal. As a smuggler.

Not that you really are thinking this through as you play. To players, Joel is basically Han Solo – someone you expect to have a murky and questionable past but as your avatar in the game surely somebody that is heroic at heart. And yes, in a certain sense that is true seeing as protecting and caring for Ellie makes Joel into somebody slightly different and thaws out his caring side that lay dormant since Sarah’s death. This is the side of Joel that you want to believe in. Even viewed in a positive, protective light, Joel’s hardened stoic harshness is hard to like or relate to so the player is very much encouraged to feel exactly how Joel feels. When Joel is injured and nearly killed, my concern is partially for Joel but much more that Ellie will have to make her way on her own. Such similarity of thought despite a lack of connection is how the game perversely links you to Joel and makes Joel’s outlook your own. And, in teaching Ellie and allowing himself to talk about the past for the first time, you see the sympathethic side in him too, even as his villainous past is made clear.

The climax of this contradiction between Joel’s admirable and not-so admirable sides culminates in the game’s finale.  Reunited with Marlene and the Fireflies, the Fireflies take Ellie immediately to their medical facility to begin to look for a cure. They conclude that to have a chance of replicating Ellie’s immunity, they need to remove part of her brain, which would kill her. They do so with sadness but in the hope that a cure that could save millions will result. When Joel objects, he is told to leave and escorted from the building. As he is escorted away, Joel turns on the guard and kills him and begins to fight his way back into the building, killing the Fireflies that stand between himself and Ellie.

As this happens, the veil drops. So far, we have seen Joel as a warrior, but usually only one that deals with mindless zombie-like monsters and violent bandits. Here, he turns his force on the Fireflies, a force of ordinary humans working towards a cure. The Joel we see now suddenly seems to make sense. As he kills and tortures his way back to Ellie, he does so with a callousness that reminds us shockingly what we know about his past but have not yet seen – that this is a man who will act absolutely without any empathy or morality to get what he wants. This is the real Joel – this is the werewolf inside and the threat of losing Ellie rekindles his old instincts.

I spoke before about how games that make decisions for players can feel very alienating if the player is forced to do something against their will or that doesn’t make sense. But this turn of the game is worked entirely into how we the player are placed by the narrative up to this point. Few players want to turn their weapons on the so-called “good guys” but this game was based on the relationship between our main avatar and Ellie and almost no players can bear the idea of walking away and letting Ellie die. Watching play-throughs of this chapter on YouTube is quite fun to hear the player’s horror at how cruel Joel can be, but I have not heard one who actually felt affronted and unwilling to play through the violent actions that will rescue Ellie from her fate. Like Joel, they don’t have a choice and rather than being a weight on them, it makes perfect sense. The plot is so poised that it could not be any other way.

Joel rescues Ellie in a violent spree including killing a presumably innocent (and probably important) doctor who comes at him with a scalpel. He also kills Marlene who he could leave alive but decides not to so that she never tries to find Ellie again. When Ellie wakes from her anaesthetic, he lies to her and said the Fireflies gave up looking for a cure and they go to live in an idyllic seeming new settlement founded by Joel’s brother. Ellie seems sceptical at Joel’s version of events and expresses her guilt at surving where her friends and family didn’t, However, despite her scepticism she accepts Joel’s version of events once her swears it is true.

This ending is a Chris Nolan ending of open interpretations. Either you see the ending as Ellie being honestly tricked by Joel or you see the ending as Ellie accepting Joel’s story by choice even though she doesn’t believe it to be true. Personally in the way she accepts it, I tend towards the latter but to clarify one way or another would take some of the beauty from it. The crux of the story is to make the player experience the most difficult of choices and force them to make one of the choices like a magician forces a mark to pick the card he wanted. We are forced to make the age-old choice between Utilitarianism (the best for the most people – the possible cure) and Kantian moralism (Ellie deserving to live) and to make our decision not logically or morally but based entirely on love and affection – albeit one that relies upon violence and cruelty to others. We make the choice that we had no choice to make but we feel guilty for the burden of what happened, nonetheless. We feel like Joel, somewhat self-loathing, but at least able to live through and experience the best of himself through caring for Ellie. I cannot recall another game I have ever seen that made me feel like this – that made me feel like my guts had been put through the ringer.

But really the choice is even deeper than a simple moral choice. The characters don’t necessarily want the same things. Joel is a survivor and will always fight on but is basically dead inside without someone to care for that turns him back into the sort of father figure he used to be. Even his relationship with Tess which is never hinted at as sexual or affectionate in any way is clearly very close and acts as a sort of emotional tie to Joel. Joel wants Ellie to live not just out of Kantianism or friendship or heroism but because he is selfish. He wants to be the better part of himself and that means making the decision to save Ellie no matter what he has to do to get that.

But actually if the Fireflies had asked Ellie’s permission to do what they were going to do, she likely would have consented. She lives to be part of a group and a family but she doesn’t forget her own friends and family that died before her and would sacrifice her somewhat empty life to save others. She feels guilty about being the one who got to live. She feels guilty about surviving when others didn’t.

So Joel makes the choice for Ellie and goes against her will to save her. Essentially he forces his own values onto her, albeit in a way that may well be for her own good and seems to me to be fully accepted by her. The theme we have is the best and worst of parenthood. Parenthood means that you care and protect others even when it means placing yourself in danger. But it’s not something people engage in without their own stake. Parents like Joel need to care for others so that they can be that caring person themselves. They don’t just care altruistically but they also care selfishly. This is the light and dark side of paternalism. When it works, it’s somebody caring for your when you need it (which Ellie certainly does). When it’s darker, it’s somebody forcing something onto you because they have decided that they know what’s best for you, rightly or wrongly.

Essentially the themes of The Last of Us reflect an issue at the heart of what it is to be human, to be a daughter or a son, a father or a mother. For me, this pushes it over the bar into excellence. Maybe The Last of Us is a standard, linear shooter with no player choice or interesting game-play mechanics but so far it very much forms the high water mark of linear storytelling in games, something which stands up well even outside the medium in my belief, which is impressive considering the concept is basically generic. In some regards, the game surpasses some of its source material. However, it does utilise well what a game can do that a book or film usually doesn’t – which is place the player in the shoes of the avatar much more literally so that moral choices are really felt and show character development in real time rather than through time-efficient cuts and edits (almost no books or films are written with such long sequences of real time as games).

The game does have some criticism aimed at it. For one thing, some commenters were disappointed that The Last of Us doesn’t allow Ellie to be the main hero of the story and forces us to play through a very masculine experience with standard-action-hero-seeming Joel. As such playable complex female characters are like gold dust in games (every female character in Brothers is dead, a damsel in distress or a villain) I understand this viewpoint but I find that forcing the player to take the perspective of a very morally-black kind of protagonist really gives the game the kick it needs to have the emotional impact that it does. Ellie is playable in many sections of the game and if those sections left the players wanting more, that sounds like praise rather than criticism. If we’re going to explore male themes, fatherhood seems like a good theme to explore (much better than most game bullshit) and the idea of patriarchy is given a thorough kicking and exposed as the selfishness it can really be, so the game hardly seems to avoid the dark side of gender issues or avoid feminist themes. The game seems to have the right kind of heart with regard to gender issues: it doesn’t actually pass the Bechdel test sure, but it wants to give you complex, strong and well-drawn female characters in Tess, Marlene and Maria. As a game which fits into the usual game stereotype of ignoring female protagonists, The Last of Us doesn’t really advance us any but it’s much, much, much, much more forgiveable than almost everything else so far.

Some people would like to see a sequel featuring Ellie as the main playable character but given the open-ending, this would very much lessen the impact of this game by defining the ending one way or another. An adventure with other characters set in the same universe would work well, however.

The game isn’t perfect despite my glowing opinion. It’s incredibly linear, the enemy AI is not great and the fighting sequences are fun but a little repetitive as they are with any game of this type. The crafting system is fun too, but feels under-developed. Some parts of the narrative don’t work as well as you would like either. Firstly, when Ellie is pursued by the villainous David, the whole encounter lacks any kind of individuality which is odd as most other parts of the game break free from their genre origins. David is a run of the mill cannibal-robber-rapist and never seems more than a roadblock rather than someone who sticks in the mind. When Ellie fights him in a sort of boss fight, the whole scenario feels incredibly artificial and out of place, not to mention that you constantly feel that Ellie is the predator stalking David, not the other way around. Secondly, encountering Henry and Sam is an amazing part of the game, but to have introduce the only young black males in the game makes you feel like they are sure to die horribly, and then they do. They are treated like star trek red shirts and really the game could be a little more subtle or sensitive about this.

However, for any flaws, the game is a beautiful and well designed piece that I defy you to play through without making any kind of emotional connection. Sure, the game could give you some choices to make rather than being so relentlessly linear but it is the authorial control over everything that happens that allows the game to have the impact it does. An option to walk away and let Ellie meet her fate doesn’t make sense in this context. Game narratives work when they match the mechanics of the game perfectly, which this game does and you can’t really ask for anything more.

* Don’t tell me that the Clickers are not Zombies. They’re stand-ins for Zombies. It’s well within the genre. If you’re going to be a stickler for this kind of thing, then you’re the one the party leaves behind when the real zombie apocalypse comes.

Thanks for reading this part of the article. The final game I will be writing about is something close to my heart.

When it’s written, click here to get over there and read it. In the meantime, why not play some kind of pointless and distracting mini-game designed to cover up holes in game mechanics…..

No? I thought not.

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3 thoughts on “Beyond Cinema (Part 3): The Last Of Us

  1. Pingback: Beyond Cinema (Part 2): Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons | havepunchlineneedjoke

  2. Pingback: Beyond Cinema (Part 4): Gone Home | havepunchlineneedjoke

  3. Pingback: Worst of the Worst: Law Abiding Citizen | havepunchlineneedjoke

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