As someone who critiques things like it’s their job, it’s not very often I experience a piece of media that leaves me speechless. Videogames are still a very young art form, and I feel as if it’s going to take many more years of figuring things out before more than a few mature works can even begin to exist in the mainstream, but The Last of Us is an incredible step in the right direction. It’s hard to believe that the same company that less than 10 years ago was making a weird orange bandicoot run away from boulders, would be able to leave in me a complete state of awe and contemplation after finishing one of their games. (Note: many spoilers ahead)
Obviously there were some stepping stones to get to this point, the most notable of which came in the form of three incredibly entertaining and cinematic games in the tradition of the good kind of blockbuster action/adventure movies. This was a smart formula, and I absolutely acknowledge the importance of the Uncharted series. They made great strides in lessening the gap between two mediums, and was undeniably entertaining and fun, but it didn’t exactly shake me to my core artistically. I’ve heard a few great thinkers in the games industry comment on how we need to stop comparing games with movies, and although I do think it can be a hindrance, I believe that Naughty Dog’s formula has so far been a very successful one. When we examine the best way for games to tell a story however, I think what it comes down to is a question of choice.
I’m from Pittsburgh, the zombie capital of the world, (also featured in The Last of Us in all it’s yellow bridged glory) so I’m all for a good tale of death and infection, but for anyone who has any brains left uneaten, I think it’s easy to admit that the zombie trend has gotten a bit out of hand. Back when I saw the original trailer and demos for this, I was intrigued, but not enough so that I was about to run out on launch day and pick up a copy. The addition of a young girl as a sidekick made me moderately excited, but I had my doubts about her actual role in the story and made the assumption that she was just a tagalong/obstacle for the same kind of generic dude to protect through the same old zombie survival story. I’m happy to admit I was proved wrong. Luckily, a friend was willing to lend it to Ryan and I, and we were somehow able to keep from getting the ending spoiled for us. Now I will admit, I did not actually play this one (as I seriously lack the hand-eye coordination and patience to get through this type of game) but took on a very Ellie-like role of providing backup and a careful eye for arrows sticking out of decomposing corpses.
From the first few minutes of the game, it was obvious that Joel’s daughter was going to die. Not to undermine the pain of losing her in such a horrific way, at the hands of a human soldier no less, but she’s not on the box, so it was safe to assume she wouldn’t be coming with us. One of the things I find fascinating about this game is how right from the get go, everyone is the enemy. Humans, infected, soldiers, dogs, they all just become obstacles you are forced to take down to continue on your journey, there is no choice involved. Sure, you can sneak past Clickers and some of the other enemies, but it’s not like you’re doing it out pity, necessity is your motivator, plain and simple. Because the game puts you in such an extreme state of distrust and constant fear of everything and everyone, I often found myself guessing what was about to happen, especially when it came to encountering new characters, and even though I was often correct in my horrible assumptions, the predictability never took away from the drama of each experience, and I never could have guessed the ending would unfold exactly how it did.
As someone with an ever critical eye about the representation of women in videogames, I have to take some time to talk about Ellie. At first I thought it was fine to have it her around, but it took a large portion of the game before she really begins to serve her purpose and come into her own, and that’s not a complaint. The way that Naughty Dog chose to wait until the last third of the game to have you actually play as Ellie was a smart choice in my opinion. It comes as a refreshing shock to suddenly become Ellie after Joel’s accident.
Not knowing if he’s alive or dead, she stalks a deer through a pristine, snow covered field with her bow and arrow. The switch of characters invokes a renewed sense of the struggle for survival as this young girl fights for her life. Although it is easy to assume she will be weaker and more helpless than the character you’re used to playing, after a few minutes as Ellie we see how fierce she has grown. She is just as capable a survivor as Joel, and has her own unique strengths. The game fulfills their male lead quota to satisfaction, and thrust you into a new experience that I don’t think anyone who played the game up until this point could complain about, no matter what their stance on female game characters.
The bond the player forms with Ellie before stepping into her shoes is undeniable, which is what makes her such a milestone character as far as female game protagonists go. Nothing is presupposed about her ability as a hero or a survivor, it is earned through action, which makes her strength as a stand alone character undeniable. After having the opportunity to play as Ellie, switching back to Joel felt like both a relief and a disappointment. I think the way the gameplay is divided between the two characters through the end of the game is a fascinating device to show who is really in control. Ellie’s struggle propels her into violence and adulthood, but the demands of surviving turn her into something she is not prepared to become, and so she must retreat within herself, and the control returns to Joel.
Zombie stuff being all the rage generally lends itself to a pretty standard visual style of gloomy, grey and bloody, which serves it’s purpose in setting a dire mood, but The Last of Us does not follow in that tradition. Borrowing from some of the beautiful, full color landscapes of the Uncharted series, most of this world is in full scale color. The juxtaposition of the dire state of the world with the greenery and butterflies all around is an extremely powerful metaphor for what the game wants to tell us.
There are moments where we are forced to slow down and soak in our surroundings, usually while the characters have some kind of meaningful conversation. We are literally made to stops and smell the flowers (or the rotting corpses, whichever is readily on hand.) Ellie’s innocence and wonder for seeing the world around her for the first time, and Joel’s renewed sense of kinship and fatherhood becomes something beautiful despite their bleak situation, and then watching them discover the horror and the wonder of the world around them is a fascinating journey to take. Though all the trials they face, the beauty of their bond is what helps them survive. And how about those giraffes? Even Fellini would have liked that part.
In the end, when Joel chooses their relationship over saving the human race, it’s difficult to say with certainty whether it feels completely wrong, but the game gives you no choice but to play along. After finally finding the fireflys, and discovering that against all odds, your journey was as important to the fate of the world as Elle had hoped, it’s hard to feel like you are doing the right thing as you gun them all down, but you don’t have the choice to stop. The awkward balance of the actual gameplay being at it’s most difficult and the stress of just wanting to see what happens was a bit of a disconnect at the climax of the game. We assume we are fighting towards the painful death of one or both of the characters as we plowed through throngs of soldiers (the least fun enemies to fight in the game) dying again and again. One such unsuccessful attempt resulted in Joel being shot to death after grabbing Ellie, which we thought was the actual ending of the game until it reloaded and allowed us to try again. By not having us actually deal the final gunshot, it reinforces the power of the game as the storytelling agent. We once and for all hand off any sense of control and put fate into the hands of the game, but it’s almost a relief not to take on the responsibility of our actions.
After the dust clears, we find ourselves back on the road, once again playing as Ellie. Joel makes a trying gesture by sharing some anecdotes about his daughter and how he thinks she and Ellie would have been good friends. It feels strange. We feel as detached, confused, and wonder what could possibly be left of the game. In one last attempt to have some semblance of understanding or control over her own fate, she speaks out to question Joel. Although I’m sure she knows the truth, she recognizes that the choice has already been made for her and there is nothing more she can do, so she resigns to his lie. Ellie did not get to make her own choice and neither did we, and that’s what The Last of Us leaves us with.
Most videogames set us on a quest where we get to be a hero who saves the world. The Last of Us forces us to make a different kind of choice altogether. It’s easy to think that the moral of the story is that humans are selfish, horrible monsters only trying to look out for themselves, but I think it’s hard to not be bit a little bit happy that Ellie does live. I think what we are really left with is that nothing is all that black or white, it leaves us feeling uneasy, but not in the least bit unsatisfied. The choice to end the game this way was an incredibly bold one, and I think an important step in the development of videogames as a legitimate storytelling medium.
When I think back on some of the other big triple A titles from the past few years that have been praised for their story and substance, (Mass Effect, Deus Ex:Human Revolution, and Dishonored) they have all tried to take games to the next level of storytelling by letting the player have some degree of choice in terms of who the characters are and how the story turns out. Although I have had very positive experiences with this formula as far as crafting my own character goes, unfortunately in the end what usually happens is a wishy-washy middle ground ending that no one is really happy with. At the end of the day it’s impossible for an artist to truly tell the story they want without being able to control the ultimate fate of their characters. The Last of Us provides a linear path you are forced to follow, but in exchange for your loss of choice, you get a beautifully told, complete story where the potency of your connection to the characters is greater that any customizable protagonist I’ve ever played. I can’t say with certainty whether it’s better for videogames to yield the potency of interactivity to immerse players in a pre-made story like this one, or to allow a world where you craft the story yourself, but there’s a reason that choose your own adventure books never became bigger than Lord of the Rings.