***Warning: spoilers for The Last of Us ahead***
You don’t often feel like you’re winning when you play The Last of Us. It has a story mode that can be played through to a definitive conclusion, but it’s not one that ends in triumph and celebration. There’s no flagpole to jump on, no place to punch-in your initials, and Princess Peach isn’t waiting at the finish line with a fresh slice of cake. As you trudge toward the finale, you’ll have immediate objectives to achieve and obstacles to overcome, but their reward is the cold comfort of having survived to face whatever new threat is lying around the corner. Instead of getting a pat on the back, your success is marked by sighs of relief, usually after having snuck past an encampment swarming with enemies, or just pulled off a life-or-death headshot on an advancing ghoul (which was probably more the result of dumb luck than your own skill).
Even the obligatory multiplayer mode, which with cursory inspection appears not at all that dissimilar from every other shooter’s Deathmatch offerings, comes with a meta-system where your profile’s “level” is measured in the welfare of a band of survivors under your care. Skill in combat results in you becoming better able to provide for the faceless, but not nameless dots that depend on you, but their numbers growing only makes the stress of a match greater. Continued success becomes harder and harder to achieve with each new mouth to feed, and you’ll quickly grow to resent the microbial swirl of specks after your particularly bad round gets half a dozen people killed.
When you can’t even enjoy the simple pleasures of online shootouts without being reminded that lives are at stake, it’s clear that The Last of Us is flying in the face of some very basic design in video games, and just games in general. Whether counting out bills at the start of the family’s annual Monopoly session, plugging a token into the skee-ball machine, or teeing up for your first drive of the season, you engage with entertainment to make yourself feel better during, and after the experience, than you did before. Sometimes, that means beating a personal best, and sometimes, that means just not coming in last place, but even in failure, the reason for playing games is just that: it’s play.
That’s the exact notion that has made video games the red-headed stepchild of the entertainment world ever since 1s and 0s started rubbing up against each other vigorously enough to make Pong paddles. It’s right there in the name, so unless “interactive entertainment” suddenly catches on in a big way, it’ll be a while before the term “video game” loses the stigma it formed during its nascent decades. Hell, even the term “gamer” still seems derogatory in most circles, because the medium as a whole is still defined by images of basement-dwelling nerdlingers, or energy drink-crushing dude-bros (given recent sale figures, it’s easy to see why the latter stereotype is coming to replace the former).
Gaming is still used as a punchline in just about every other media, so even as the percentage of people who could realistically self-identify as “gamers” increases with every new mommy app and edition of Angry Birds, the march toward respectability has been a slow one. Bear in mind, there’s big difference between “acceptability,” and “respectability.” Most won’t be startled by the appearance of an ad for The Last of Us on national TV, as trailers and game announcements now frequently grace major sporting events. All the same, trying to convince someone that a particular game standouts out from the crowd will often be a futile effort, like trying to convince your soft rock loving mom that, no really, she would totally dig this one Phish song.
Serious discussion of gaming’s cultural capital only ever breaks out of into public forum when the Games as Art vs. Games as Entertainment rigmarole blows in every couple of years like El Nino, brining in lots of hot air and wasted spittle. The debate is often sparked when particularly harsh criticism of gaming comes from outside the community, or a new, and quickly beloved game appears, and is hailed as the chosen one destined to lead its kind into the promised land of artistic integrity –or, barring that, at least aiding in changing a few minds on the other side of the issue. It’s a futile argument, as what actually constitutes art is a moving target seen from a different perspective by each person, but it’s a conversation that’s becoming more important as the ratio of “art” to “entertainment” games continues to fluctuate.
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Sitting in the shadow of a used game brouhaha, the always-online connectivity disconnect, and the all-around dick measuring of June’s E3 press conferences, the actual games coming out with the newest batch of consoles looked like almost an afterthought. Familiarity dominated the crop of next-gen titles on display, as Battlefield 4, and Call of Duty: Ghosts are set to be the biggest sellers for both XboxOne and PS4 upon release. For the longer term, warmed over revivals like Killer Instinct and Mirror’s Edge 2 look to capitalize on gamer nostalgia, a force so powerful in the industry, it could move mountains, were it not one of the more active agents responsible for gaming’s reputation as infantilizing. “New” was in surprisingly short supply, given that the birth of a console cycle often gives developers a chance at a fresh start. While original IPs like Knack look to recapture the console mascot glory days of Crash Bandicoot, and Watch Dogs promises to meld the flavors of Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed well enough, the offerings for Generation 8 thus far seem content to mostly riff on, but not revolutionize the industry.
The dogs and ponies of Microsoft and Sony look sharper than ever, and continue to pick up more tablet-compatibility bonuses and peripheral doodads like a multimedia-glomming Katamari ball. But stripped of all the flashy new shaders, and cross-device accouterment, the next generation looks as entrenched in old ways of thinking as the current one is. Instead of using the new tech as an invitation to try something bold and creative, major publishers are relying more and more on the Hollywood golden rule of “what works.” Consequently, the biggest games of the medium are retreating further and further into a warm memory quilt the industry comforts itself with, one knit together with squares reading “annualized franchise,” “microtransactions,” and “modern military shooter.” And where innovation is lacking, the only way to differentiate oneself is to be the biggest, most expensive version of oneself possible. By following the commercial film industry’s lead, gaming has entered a financial arms race with itself that, unsurprisingly, has no win state.
Modesty is no longer compatible with the high-definition era: you either go AAA, Master Chief-branded 7-Eleven Slurpee’s and Doritos bags big, or you go indie. Just as film’s bar for success has ballooned from $100 million domestic, to $1 billion global in a few short decades, sales targets in gaming have grown wildly, but over a much shorter time frame. When a big budget Tomb Raider reboot is branded a failure for selling 3.4 million copies in its first month, the goal line has pretty much cleared the stadium. And with the bets only getting bigger, so too are the loses, for publishers and developers alike. THQ’s most valuable property is the empty developer studio that happens to have the most copper wire hidden in the walls, and once successful studios like Raven Software have become glorified water boys for Activision’s quarterback with the golden firearms, Call of Duty. Unfortunately for gamers, game developers, and Microsoft and Sony, consoles are not too big to fail. It’ll take more than just the modern military shooter and MMO bubbles bursting, with spectacular failures like Homefront and 38 Studios being just a taste of what’s to come, but the industry is due for a crash.
As the writing on the wall becomes clearer for Nintendo and the Wii U, Microsoft and Sony are increasingly looking like the last ones standing in an industry-wide fight to the death. Their press conferences reflected starkly different means of hatch battening for the approaching perfect storm of exploding development costs, and fracturing markets. Microsoft, with noble commitment, and open disdain for PR, wanted to drag gamers kicking and screaming into an always-online, digital-only future (policies they’ve since bloodied their knees and feet over, thanks to subsequent groveling and backpedaling). Sony, meanwhile, ran a Kingdom Hearts and minds campaign, intending (and largely succeeding) to rally as many to their cause as possible, before the seventh console generation seal is broken, and all hell breaks loose with the eighth. That’s the difference between the two in a nutshell: Microsoft was preparing for the future – Sony was preparing for Armageddon.
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Perhaps Sony needed a grim and apocalyptic mindset to let Naughty Dog get away with making The Last of Us on the corporate dime, since grim and apocalyptic seems to be on-brand these days. Granted, there’s no shortage of end times entertainment in any medium right, but chief among the reasons why The Last of Us is the most important game of generation 7’s twilight is that it makes no damn sense that it exists. Naughty Dog has spent three years working on a game that rejiggers or rejects many core tenants of modern blockbuster game design, despite having a budget and marketing to play in the big leagues. Its gameplay, which is positively obtuse and restrictive compared to most shooters, is built in service of the story, which is the game’s actual main feature. That’s a pretty dodgy premise to hang a tentpole release from one of gaming’s biggest developers on, and that goes double when you consider how bleak and emotional the tale that The Last of Us tells is.
The craziest part is that the gamble looks like it’s paid off. Sale figures – which no doubt owe a great deal to a prominent ad campaign, and the week’s worth of critical hosanna singing from critics pre-release- are already well over 1 million units sold since the game’s June 14th release date. That might not sound like a number that will set the world on fire (Sony having exclusivity rights automatically split the potential purchasing audience by more than half), but when taken in consideration of what the game actually is, that’s something to celebrate. Naughty Dog’s deception was in marketing a nail-biter, action-heavy zombie apocalypse shooter in the vein of their popular Uncharted series, when secretly, they had made one of the biggest little games ever.
There’s an inspiring economy to every major element of The Last of Us, and the one thing it does seem to have an abundance of is restraint. Despite a cross-country travelogue structure that explores devastation on a global scale, the single player campaign is all about the relationship between two characters, which is something of a rarity in this industry. Excluding the vast majority of titles that either cobble together a narrative based on what the development team has produced, or outright ignore having a story all together, most games that do make a serious effort simply follow the Hollywood playbook of “more is more.”
When it comes to big budget games stretching their dramatic legs, two main flavors of story exist, drawn roughly across geographical bounds. American game design, unsurprisingly, emphasizes freedom and choice, where the word “linear” is bandied around like an epithet. Japanese design, on the other hand, is often far more restrictive, with advancement in gameplay having a corresponding narrative progression. Each style has its pros and cons. Skyrim and Far Cry create expansive worlds chockablock with detail and lore, but because of player choice, the hundreds of small stories are never composed into a well-paced or consistent greater whole. Meanwhile, JRPGs, the most popular story-based Japanese genre to make it over to the west, often focus on a small group of characters over a long period of time, which is very conducive to good storytelling, but due to poor translation, awful voice acting, or just plain bad writing, investment in the story usually develops in a brute force, Stockholm syndrome-like fashion.
More problematic, is that RPGs (J or otherwise) have been telling the same story since the original Final Fantasy, because the fate of the world will inevitably be in the balance when a writer has to constantly up the stakes for 40+ hours. The same can be said of Western games as well, because just like Hollywood, everything has to be dialed up to 11 at all times. Just as John McClane and the Fast and Furious gang have been pushed from their roles as above-average ass-kickers into saviors of all mankind, so too have games felt the need to make the player the only one capable of preventing oblivion, again and again. It’s exhaustingly repetitive to have the fate of humanity resting in your hands in every other story-based game, and more than a little insulting that a writer assumes an audience’s attention will only be grabbed when life as we know it is on the line.
The over-dependence on pre-fab, insta-conflict is a direct result of the thing required to make resonant drama being absent, and that’s three-dimensional characters. Few games spare the time and energy needed to make the story’s characters appear flash and blood, and fewer still do so in a way that makes those characters actually matter to the greater story they’re meant to be a part of. When you strip all the nostalgia out of the equation, most of gaming’s most memorable characters are nothing more than, or literally started as, mascots, with guys like Gordon Freeman, Link, Master Chief, hell, even Mario being blank avatars for the player to project their own feelings onto.
And while there have been plenty of technical limitations getting in the way of standout characters being created (the uncanny valley is only half the battle, when hearing video game characters talk depends on competent writing and voice performance), the bigger problem is that most games don’t give two shits about having quality characters. The player’s gameplay progression, their exploration of the world, and easily marketable setpieces almost always takes priority over making the character running through that that progression, experiencing that world, or surviving that setpiece matter. It’s a major reason the medium can’t shake its own childish reputation, because indulging the player is priority number one.
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When I was doing similar curmudgeoning about Bioshock: Infinite a few months back, I expressed a belief that Ken Levine and company were just barely able to pull the core relationship at the heart of their game’s story out from the maelstrom of virtuoso ideas surrounding it. For all its ambition, the byzantine plot threatened to swallow Infinite’s story whole in pursuit of the twist to end all twists, or cause the game to shove its head so far up its own ass with meta-commentary, it could have collapsed into a singularity. Like the oeuvre of Christopher Nolan, Infinite is a carefully engineered think piece in the guise of a rollercoaster, which can be great if done with skill that Nolan and Levine show, but in light of The Last of Us, there’s a clear distinction between how 2013’s triple-AAA story games approach storytelling.
Bioshock: Infinite bases its story on an idea, and a reaction; it’s a magic act led by a master of the craft, who’s got a lovely assistant distracting you from the massive machinery upholding the illusion. It uses the central character relationship as smoke and mirror to keep you from anticipating the big “A-ha!” moment, even though the illusion itself, rather than being revealed as a simple trick, is complicated to a point that earning the prestige meant cutting corners elsewhere. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is a story built on emotion, and on the belief that the mechanics of the plot aren’t half so important as the people trapped within it. It’s a two-hander stage play where the goal isn’t to surprise the audience with the fates of the characters, but instead, to familiarize the audience with those characters well enough that the story’s path is a direct result of the choices made by those characters. Where Bioshock’s plot twists, TLoU’s arcs, following the evolving relationship between two people forced together by impossible circumstances, and letting the player share in that relationship through gameplay and cutscenes.
On the surface, most could argue Infinite is the more daring title, and from a plot perspective, this is absolutely true. However, considering these are video games we’re talking about, The Last of Us trying to make an emotionally resonant and memorable story out of a third-person zombie apocalypse game is, for numerous reasons, a much taller order. Just calling it a “third-person zombie apocalypse game” automatically lumps it in with a crowded genre, bare few examples of which give deference to story when zombie-dispatching methods and monsters are the main attraction. Even the original films that the subgenre is based on aren’t exactly replete with successful examples of what The Last of Us is trying to achieve (to be clear: zombie films are great for social commentary, but usually try to sink into your brain, not tug your heartstrings).
As it turns out, being clever and intricate the way Bioshock: Infinite is isn’t all that special anymore. As superlative film analyst (and patron saint of caps lock) Film Crit Hulk wrote recently about Star Trek into Darkness and the increasingly convoluted nature of blockbusters, big budget storytelling is becoming more and more of a con man’s game, where directness and simplicity are seen as a weakness, and audiences must be kept on their toes, and in the dark for as long as possible. A similar fad has been going on in television ever since Lost made fishhooks out of question marks, and dragged millions on a winding journey for answers to ridiculous gimmicks that couldn’t possibly be explained in a satisfying fashion. As the youngest medium with the most still to prove, it’s not surprising gaming has followed the example of its elders.
But complication does not equal complexity, to borrow a phrase from TV critic Maureen Ryan, and it’s an axiom that more ambitious games have been ignoring in pursuit of adding “Actually as a Story!” to the back-of-the-box bullet points. Metal Gear Solid is hailed as a watershed moment of narrative growth for the medium, but the franchise has since become better known for having the “most” story, not necessarily the best, delivering an overwhelming blend of political commentary, soap opera drama, anime action, and a universe backstory that makes Game of Thrones look patchy. The franchise has maintained some strong characters over its run, but they’ve become increasingly lost in Metal Gear’s ever expanding whirligig of crazy, the latter feature being what imitators have tried to copy.
Many less grandiose game stories are infested with ancient orders, secret societies, and just general conspiracies, because audiences will follow a story for answers, even if the questions of “what’s the truth,” and “who’s responsible,” are being teased down a very long rabbit hole. This because when strong, empathetic characters don’t exist, serpentine plotting becomes the only way to keep the viewer’s attention. It’s a storytelling crutch for game stories that’s built upon the often empty shocks of last second double-crosses, and improbable twists, which have become routine to the point of being laughable cliches.
Every religion in an RPG is inherently evil; the militia group fighting to overthrow a tyrannical force will inevitably just replace the oppressors; one of the characters you play as in a first-person shooter will die. Without a firm grasp on fundamentals like character development and audience identification, the actual story just becomes a bunch of stuff that happens. All the plot misdirection and narrative gymnastics in the world won’t save a story if the viewer’s only question after seeing the big reveal laid out it is “why should I care?”
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The Last of Us effectively sidesteps these issues by having the common sense to quickly establish its characters as the foundation of the story it is telling. Everything you need to know about Joel, the main player character, you learn within the game’s first 30 minutes, which take place in the modern day. When we’re then reintroduced to him in post-infection Boston, twenty years in the future, there’s no ambiguity or vagueness hiding behind the scruff and raccoon eyes, because we already have a clear grasp of Joel as a character. Learning about the past tragedy that came to define his worldview in the post-apocalypse isn’t held back as some kind of reward: it’s vitally important information to understanding who the character is, and why you want to care about him.
Among The Last of Us’ most commendable features is that it’s brave enough to be boring – at least, boring according to the standards of the modern blockbuster. Stretches of the game will pass by with no combat or action sequences, leaving the player to explore the environments Naughty Dog has so painstakingly crafted, or catch a bit of incidental dialogue between the characters. It’s in moments like these, between the action and gunfire, that the atmosphere can breathe, and suspense is allowed to build, and those moments are something the average blockbuster fears intensely. The space between setpieces is, so the thinking goes, the point where fickle audiences might checkout.
The mistake being made is in forgetting that those quiet pockets exist to enhance audience investment in what’s going to happen next; without them, your brain quickly habituates to the increasing scale of the spectacle when the emotional stakes meant to pull you into the mounting drama aren’t there. Immediately putting the player right smack-dab in the middle of the initial outbreak in Austin might have given TLoU a fast-paced opener, but would also set an inconsistent precedent for game’s real pace. Worse, it would be wasting the true purpose of the introduction, which is to seed the themes, tone, and character arcs that are going to be driving the rest of the story.
The first minutes of gameplay don’t have you controlling Joel, but instead his daughter, Sarah. The Last of Us uses its prologue to establish the weight of its apocalyptic main stage by first making you understand just how different the world, and its inhabitants were before the Cordyceps infection broke out, and civilization became overrun with fungal-zombies. It’s not enough that the game spends its introduction first establishing Joel and Sarah as regular human beings (the playful father-daughter relationship, with financial and familial worries on the fringes, casts a wide net to catch audience recognition with); what’s equally as important, is that what the world, and Joel become after the outbreak, are completely alien to what we’re first introduced to.
The opening Naughty Dog made for The Last of Us is a near-perfect example of how to launch a story, not just for the payoffs it sets up for the rest of the game, but for showing that doing so doesn’t have to be homework. Controlling Sarah after she’s awoken by an ominous phone call from her uncle, Tommy, the player is restricted to tiptoeing through the house in search of Joel, while allowing for interaction with a scant few objects, with ambient details like a newscast and police sirens letting you know that something horrible is going on just passed the wooden fences. When she does find Joel, he’s visibly panicked, the reason being clear when infected neighbor Jimmy bursts through the nearby door in frenzy, and Joel has to shoot him dead, despite repeated warnings.
99 games out of 100 would have used that sequence to tutorialize the game’s shooting mechanics, but for The Last of Us, it’s crucially important that the game’s first violent act not only makes the player feel powerless (a major theme of the gameplay), but also establishes the impact such violence has on the characters as we first meet them. Joel is not some preternatural badass, or an ex-military man; he’s a soccer dad, and having to take the life of someone, even to protect his daughter, scares the hell out of him. That need to protect Sarah then becomes the drive for the action through the remainder of the prologue; while trying to get the pair out of town in a truck, Tommy attempts to pull over and pickup a stranded family (including a child), but Joel orders his younger brother to ignore them. Rather than providing the player the chance to apply their own moral leanings to the scenario, the sequence takes Joel’s established goal, and begins to clarify what it is he’s willing to do to achieve it, deepening our understanding of him.
By refracting Joel’s choices through the viewpoint of Sarah, the game is able to both amplify the terror of the situation, but also distance us from Joel in an extremely important way. The player and Joel are two separate entities: you can relate to him, you can empathize with him, but you are not him, and he is not you. For Joel to be a fully realized character, it is not the player’s job to determine his story; you are an observer, a guest who’s been invited to share in the story he is a part of. The pain and heartache that Joel faces is his to experience, and yours to interpret. He doesn’t exist as a vessel to contain our own feelings, and give them an outlet in the game’s world. His job, as a well-rounded character, is to act completely independent of the player’s wants, and only according to his own nature. Our job, then, is to observe, and process Joel’s actions, and then ask ourselves what they reveal about him as a character. It’s only then, when you know who the character is, that care about what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
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There’s nothing all that wholly original about the prologue whatsoever; even its climax is basically a foregone conclusion from minute one, but it’s a conclusion that carries an emotional impact the game earns. Sarah dying after being shot by a solider isn’t just a turning point for the plot, but the defining moment we need to experience in order to understand one of The Last of Us‘s main characters. A good film can use a prologue as the warm-up vignette to the real story ahead (2009’s Star Trek comes to mind), but a great one will be able to turn a self-contained opening into an appetizer for the main course (lead writer Neil Druckmann cites Finding Nemo as the game’s animated inspiration, but Up, another Pixar classic, succeeds at using the same structure).
Within minutes of meeting them, Sarah and Joel are already capable conduits for emotional transference (theirs onto ours, not vice-versa), because they’re identifiable as actual human beings. A blue-collar dad looking to save his daughter from getting devoured by zombies sounds like incredibly simple stuff in light of how revolutionary I’m building it up to be, but it’s not a matter of details so much as efficacy. Simple is not a four-letter word when it comes to proper storytelling, but all too often, game narratives will ignore fundamentals for lack of time, effort, or belief in their value, leading to stories that are built on lazy, or dramatically dishonest foundations. This is evident when looking at the underpinnings of many game stories, of which, two recurring themes pop-up frequently: amnesia and revenge.
Amnesia is a more common characteristic of video game protagonists than left-handedness, because giving the player a “fish-out-of-water” point of view is more important to developers than actually providing the player a character to actually care about (again, there’s that indulgence creeping in). Often tied in with the amnesia cliché is the deep dark secret the lead character keeps hidden from everyone, including the player, until such a time that the secret can be unveiled for maximum dramatic effect. To keep such reveals from being insultingly obvious in other mediums, the entire production can wrap and form itself around the surprise. However, development of a game’s story can’t be as fluid, and neither can the production of the game surrounding that story. It’s not impossible to make a good twist in a game, but forcing one in to save a poor story can just lead to narrative hemorrhaging, which further exacerbates the shoddy construction of the story to begin with. Last year’s Dishonored kept one of the story’s core relationships so secret that it’s optional for the player to find; when hugely important story details are being treated like easter eggs, that’s a problem.
Revenge as a plot motivator is the other trend Dishonored double-dips on, as it just so happens to overlap well enough with the Venn diagram of generic gameplay design (killing things of increasing challenge) and standard story arcing (overcoming increasingly difficult obstacles to achieve a single goal), that it’s become the go-to conflict in character-based stories. Though it’s often the throughline of most shooters and action games, it’s not automatically a bad one: Grand Theft Auto IV did an admirable job of weaving Niko Belic’s desire for a fresh start in with his need to settle a score from his former life. Though it worked in a vacuum, the cleanness of the conflict got lost when placed in the broader world of the GTA universe, which has a satirical edge more grating than usual when it’s suffocating the human element at the story’s center (Rockstar did a much better job with Red Dead Redemption, which both textured the warpath of its lead with more nuance, and contextualized the character’s violence within the world more believably).
A bigger problem occurs when games use revenge, or other singular plot-motivating emotions, as shorthand for character depth. The God of War games are both commendable for how strongly their gameplay and story commit to one man’s vendetta as the fuel for an entire franchise, and disappointing for how utterly banal that motivation becomes well before the story’s conclusion. By the end of the GoW trilogy, the player has killed not just Zeus, the fixation of Kratos’ hatred, but literally EVERYTHING ELSE in the world of God of War, save for the buzzards. It’s an appropriately operatic and tragic ending, considering the Greek subject matter, but it fails to impact the player because Kratos doesn’t register as an emotionally identifiable entity, just a pasty, bald mound of rage. There’s even an entire subplot in the third game dedicated to trying to humanize him, but the choice he makes (arguably the only one of dramatic value in the entire franchise), only serves to reaffirm his position as an outlet for innate player desire to see lost family members avenged, and bad guys punished.
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Without sufficient investment in the story’s character, there’s no catharsis that comes with seeing their triumphs or failures, and it renders the story emotionally inert. Sarah’s death at the end of the prologue in The Last of Us would have worked sufficiently as the springboard for a revenge story, given that the player is able to sympathize with Joel’s grief, but it would have made for another rote/concerning example of the “women in fridges” trope that New Yorker critic Chris Suellentrop misidentifies the game for exploiting. But The Last of Us doesn’t give Joel, or the player a big bad to take vengeance on, or a way to set things right; the game’s initial antagonist is death, and since this isn’t Castlevania or a JRPG, it’s not like we’re going to get a boss fight with a scythe-wielding spook as the climactic finish.
The absence of such goal-oriented plotting doesn’t lead to ineffective drama though, as the characters are what matters more than the events of the plot. Like I said earlier, everything you need to know about Joel as a character is clear within playing 30 minutes of the game. When the game does cut back to him twenty years after the outbreak, it’s quickly apparent that he’s become broken shell of a man, equally because of the loss of Sarah, and from the brutal, dehumanizing place the world has become. He’s a man that lives for the sake of living, which is the most barebones dramatic impetus for a character to have at the start of a game proper, but he makes for just one half of the relationship that drives The Last of Us’s actual story.
The other half of that relationship is Ellie, the young girl who rounds out the game’s four-quadrant appeal, but also contrasts with Joel in ways that create simple, and effective chemistry. Where as the decaying remnants of the post-apocalypse are a constant reminder of what’s been lost for Joel, Ellie, having been born after the infection spread, treats artifacts like billboards and arcade units with curious amusement. Joel often only speaks when necessary, preferring to keep his ears open for the sound of ferocious zombies clicking in the distance, while Ellie has the mouth of a stevedore, and a knack for lightening the mood with a joke. Most importantly, while having no doubt faced her fair share of adversity in a short lifetime, the realities of what it takes to survive the outside world are still new to Ellie, which is why Joel, a survivor to his last fiber, is the one charged with ensuring her safety on a long trek across the country, and to a militia group though to be trying to cure the Cordyceps plague.
The game doesn’t muddle the importance of Joel and Ellie’s relationship by needlessly complicating their quest. In another example of the game smartly refusing to keep things a secret for the sake of shock value, you learn that Ellie is immune to infection shortly after she’s first introduced. No one seems to understand why this is, or what it means, if anything at all, but it might mean something, and in the world that’s been established up unto that point, hope for things getting better is as rare a resource as they come. The goal itself is almost nebulous in comparison to its actual storytelling purpose, which is to launch the twin character arcs that form the story of the rest of the game: Joel rediscovering a purpose for which to live in this world, and Ellie seeing her own reason for living challenged by the trauma the pair experiences over the course of the game. Again, this is all basic, Screenwriting 101 stuff, but that’s a good thing; fundamentals need to come first in storytelling, because once you’ve nailed those, you’ve gotten the audience’s attention. It’s only then that you can take the favor you’ve curried with the player, and use it to lead them through the real story you want to tell.
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Much like with Bioshock: Infinite, there are unfortunate business realities that The Last of Us has to address in order to earn the funding that makes its world so visually cohesive, and performances so frequently astounding. Only in very rare cases is “high quality story” a marketable feature, and as such, the gameplay in The Last of Us can’t always avoid invoking the ludonarrative dissonance that’s been holding back many story-focused games, though not for lack of trying. The game’s emphasis on player disempowerment makes most of the early encounters with enemies rather difficult, as Joel’s resources are extremely limited. That a solution to many of the initial combat puzzles is to simply avoid them outright, presents an intriguing choice for the player: should you expend resources and time in clearing out a room, in the hopes that better crafting materials and ammo are laying about, or attempt to sneak through an area, and let sleeping zombies lie.
The separate approach options add an interesting quirk to the player’s interpretation of gameplay as story. I would restart entire sequences upon being spotted by an enemy, because in my mind, Joel and Ellie would be able to sneak through undetected. I broke the illusion, and so I had to fix it by playing the story I was envisioning “correctly.” Others, though, will simply fight their way out of an encounter if being stealthy doesn’t work, because restarting the sequence is more damaging to their immersion than Joel bumbling his way around an enemy. While the player’s resources eventually outstrip the threats enemies pose, deflating much of the tension in a given combat scenario, playing the game on a harder difficulty level can rectify the lack of challenge, and reassert the stress each encounter poses to the characters.
More problematic though, is that pacifist options become less and less available as the game progresses. If we estimate the game’s population of enemies as being half human, half infected, my Joel and Ellie were responsible for the deaths of more than 150 living, breathing, independently thinking people in their yearlong journey. That’s a lot of people, be they cannibals, scavengers, or just other survivors, and the game struggles to make the weight of that register for the player, or the characters. Small touches, like enemies making a plea for mercy when Joel takes one hostage, goons occasionally addressing one another by name, or Ellie exclaiming in disbelief at a particularly brutal kill, humanize the foes, but their frequency, repeated character models, and erratic AI places them in the realm of generic cannon fodder. Naughty Dog providing non-violent options is admirable, as are the attempts to make the violence appropriately gruesome and messy when the player is forced to use it, but the more commonplace it is in the gameplay, the more undercut one of the story’s main thematic threads becomes.
The world of The Last of Us is an overwhelmingly harsh one. In the tradition of zombie fiction’s best, the infected responsible for the complete collapse of society are an afterthought compared to the danger posed by those who can survive in the new world order. The degree of social and moral decay witnessed by Joel and Ellie is somewhere between that of the game’s two major influences, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the Alfonso Cuarón directed film adaptation of Children of Men. What remaining quarantine zones exist are police states falling apart at the seams, but order and honor can still be found out in wild. Bill, the unwelcoming mayor of a town of one, still aids Joel and Ellie in getting out of Massachusetts, out of a debt to Joel worth repaying while risking life and limb. When you encounter a group of desperate hunters in a snowy resort lodge, it’s surprising to learn that even cannibals still need to register their complaints during town hall meetings. And in a shamelessly Spielberg-ian moment (the master of emotional/dramatic efficiency), Joel and Ellie encounter a pack of giraffes, 20-foot tall testaments to the good and majestic things that have survived in this world, however improbably, and the impulse that’s felt to preserve them.
It’s that emotional driver, the need to protect, not destroy, which helps to differentiate The Last of Us from many other titles. Though the gameplay empowers the player in combat as the story progresses, the well-being of the characters as people is completely out of your hands, and your success only leads them toward greater peril. Joel, as the main player character, is presented as having a Teflon reaction to violence by the time we start playing him in 2033, and the things he’s had to do to survive that long are often referenced by other characters (like with Bill, we don’t need to know Joel’s backstory with others in detail, so long as the performance convinces us they exist. This is showing, not telling, and it’s what good stories do). Though we’re aware of Joel’s unscrupulous nature right away, it’s the depths of that amorality which eventually redefine how we view him over the course of the game. Are we really playing the hero if he’s one that’s willing to maim, torture, and kill to save what he cares about?
The answer is, in my mind, no, though the question is beside the point, since Joel isn’t the hero of The Last of Us. He may be a fully realized character by the time he and Ellie start their journey, but Joel’s a character with nothing to lose, which makes for poor drama on its own. In bringing Joel and Ellie together, their arcs are launched in different directions, with a character we do know building up their sense of purpose, and the character we’ve just met, and don’t know, having their established sense of purpose slowly torn apart. The world of The Last of Us has already taken away everything it can from Joel, and even though she’s been born into that same world, Ellie represents everything about the way things used to be that’s worth holding onto. She exhibits the most growth and change of anyone, and is the game’s most dynamic character. Her arc, though, is more adversely harmed by the gameplay than Joel’s is, so for the game to have its meditation-on-the-damaging-nature-of-violence cake, and eat it too, the player has to spend most of their time playing as Joel, casting Ellie in what appears to be a secondary role, despite her being the real hero of The Last of Us.
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Now, this is where the game faces arguably its biggest hurdle, one it mostly clears. “Save the princess” isn’t the trope video game stories were founded on so much as the holy text; positioning the player as protector of a young, innocent female ward automatically smacks of the same tired and frustrating gender dynamics that have made the medium unattractive, and uninviting for many women. This has resulted in pieces like the aforementioned New Yorker critique calling the game out for being sexist, which seems a bit knee-jerk compared to how the game acquits itself on the matter. Of the twelve major speaking roles in the game, five belong to women, four of which are presented in a position of empowerment. It’s not quite parity, but Naughty Dog is making a much bigger push towards it than most media out there, video game or otherwise (women are more conspicuously absent when it comes to enemies: you’ll find female infected, implying their victimization, but none in the ranks of the hunter groups).
But more relevant to the actual relationship at the center of the game, Ellie isn’t portrayed as being some damsel in distress, either in the story, or gameplay. Her agency is never in question during cutscenes, as she’s routinely shown making decisions with Joel, or getting him out of trouble. She will actively join the player in combatting enemies, and is able to save Joel from getting his throat ripped out by a clicker the way the player can do the same for her when the positions are reversed. Even the game’s lone “boss fight” is solely her responsibility to deal with (the player is controlling Ellie while she and Joel are separated, but it’s important that they’re only reunited after Ellie has killed David all on her own).
Games using a similar pairing dynamic usually either render the AI companion completely helpless (Resident Evil 4, Ico), or require some special narrative reason for the female partner to get involved in the action (Bioshock: Infinite). Ellie is neither helpless, nor in need of super powers to assert herself in gameplay or the story; she showcases superhuman levels of pluck, but the game doesn’t need to use clichés about prophetic destinies, or magical abilities to make her a character you’re interested in, care about, and are willing to believe is capable of doing horrible things in self-defense, or defense of someone she cares about.
Ellie is the actual hero of The Last of Us, and so the story itself is structured all around her character arc, and how it is affected by Joel’s. Each of the game’s four segments (split across a year’s seasons) are dedicated to moving that arc forward in intervals: summer ends with Joel and Ellie solidifying their friendship, but recognizing the very real danger threatening it. Fall climaxes with Ellie showing she’s willing to initiate, and take responsibility for the violence needed to protect that relationship. By the end of winter, the weight of that danger, and the violence needed to circumvent it all but break her spirit. Finally, when the game concludes in the spring, Ellie is ultimately responsible for the final choice in the game, the one that ends the entire experience on a dismaying note.
When the winter segment opened with me controlling Ellie instead of Joel, I had even odds on Joel actually being dead, and the rest of the game being all about Ellie –the focus on her is that strong. But again, The Last of Us is not Ellie’s story, just as it isn’t Joel’s either: it’s the story of their relationship. Joel’s concurrently running arc provides the necessary second strand of DNA to give the game an identity, but it’s the conflict between those two arcs that answers the overarching narrative question of whether or not the good things in life are worth saving, if it means committing unforgivable acts to preserve them.
Ellie is responsible for the game’s final choice, but it’s one predicated on the two Joel makes beforehand. After she nearly dies saving Joel from drowning in a bus (a moment that inverts Joel saving Sarah in the car during the prologue), Ellie is taken by the Firefly militia group to have the infection-resistant strand of Cordyceps growing in her brain engineered into a vaccine. When Joel finds out the surgery is lethal, he has to decide between giving the human race a possible second chance, and saving Ellie. With not a moment’s hesitation, he chooses the latter, damning humanity out of his own desire to protect the person that makes his life worth living. Just as slowly as The Last of Us is to reveal that Ellie is the story’s hero, it’s just as measured in giving us proof that Joel is its villain.
But you can sympathize with Joel’s decision in that moment, both out of caring for Ellie’s wellbeing as the hero, and for understanding why Joel might not believe humanity is worth saving. After all the hardships they’ve endured, and the things they’ve had to do themselves to survive, losing the one person Joel cares about isn’t worth letting the ruthless human race that exists now improve its odds of survival. Good things don’t come along often in this world, and if they do, you don’t give them up for someone else’s benefit. Joel’s decision to save Ellie is an entirely selfish one, but it’s one you understand, and are even a bit surprised by. Part and parcel of relationship-road-apocalypse stories is that one half of that relationship has to die (see both The Road and Children of Men) to establish a sense of finality.
Naughty Dog subverts this expectation, but still gets their downer ending, and in an arguably more depressing fashion. The final choice Joel makes is to lie to Ellie about what happened at the Firefly lab, telling her that her immunity to infection isn’t anything special, and that the Fireflies have given up on finding a cure. He’s betrayed the bond between them in order to preserve it for himself, removing Ellie’s agency in deciding her own fate, and undermining her belief that what the two went through was going to have some greater meaning. Joel may rationalize that what he’s doing is for Ellie’s own good, but he’s exploiting her trust in him to do so, despite that trust, hopefulness, and decency being the things Joel is trying to keep alive along with Ellie. She chooses to believe him, and in doing so, must now face the harsh future that Joel does, where there’s no hope for saving the world, just surviving it.
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So, yeah, that’s your reward for playing the game: Joel wins, you don’t. The ending is cynical and ambiguous, but befitting a game that mostly traffics in gray areas. It’s a spectacular conclusion at that, understated, cathartic, and, most importantly, earned by all the events that have led up to it. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s an actual goddam ending: as Kirk Hamilton laid out a few weeks ago, the finality The Last of Us offers is uncommon in the sequel-driven industry of gaming, one of the many other forward-thinking ideas the game presents for both the industry, and storytelling within it. (In all this, I forget to mention that the game even finds time to elegantly include a gay character without A) making them a caricature, or B) overemphasizing the detail just for the sake of making a big deal of it. For an industry that usually won’t touch non-heteronormative sexuality with a twenty-foot pole, that’s a big little win, one of many The Last of Us brings to the table.)
Is it, then, the Citizen Kane of video games, as some are trying to argue? My answer would be a pretty definitive “naaah.” Kane is basically a perfect movie, and The Last of Us, for all its successes, still has plenty of faults. The gameplay has too much action in it, the AI can be disastrous, and the story’s connective plotting is haphazard at times. All the same though, The Last of Us might prove to be something better than the Citizen Kane of gaming as it is: it might mark a big step towards gaming as it could be, gaming where it’s not just the little guys who can get away with building a game around a story, and restraint is a choice, not the result of running out of funding. When just trying to move the medium a few inches forward presents a huge business risk, it’s a sad indictment of the state of gaming, so for making that effort, and succeeding on many of its more progressive ideas, Naughty Dog has my respect, and thanks.
But it wouldn’t be true to the spirit of The Last of Us to end things on a positive note; it’s an apocalyptic game for an apocalyptic time in the industry, and will most likely go down as a glitch inside the construct of video games as a whole. Others may try to imitate its success, but it’s difficult to envision this combination of writing, performances, and gameplay (not to mention Gustavo Santaolalla’s incredible score) all coming together again as a major tentpole release. With so much money, and so many jobs riding on the line, it’s hard to blame publishers and developers for doing whatever it takes to just survive in this industry, instead of working to better the medium. Bu that’s a Joel mindset, and it’s one that inspires the same feeling of quiet melancholy you get from playing The Last of Us. In lots of ways, this industry is in desperate need of more Ellies, and less Joels.Previous