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13 Dec 2013
The Last of Us

I am here today to ramble at you about some things. Yesterday I finished The Last of Us, a zombie game which for once isn’t really about mashing up zombies. It’s being critically acclaimed as the first AAA title (i.e. game made with big team and big money) to be, well, good at telling a story. To hit you in the feels.

This post is one gigantic spoiler, so don’t go past that line if you don’t want the plot spoiled for you. Pewdiepie has a full playthrough online so if you’re the kind of person that enjoys watching videogames being played here’s the video of the final section of the game. His face did similar things to mine, particularly around the 14:46 mark.

After reading a few other critiques after this ramble I have only this final preface: I’m sorry, I swear I didn’t steal your ideas

The game begins with you playing as a teenage girl, Sarah, with the regular “news reports on TV talking about weird disaster” etc. zombie stuff, a neighbour breaks in and your dad Joel shoots him as he’s clearly all zombie. You escape from the town and eventually come across a road block where a soldier, ordered to keep quarantine no matter what, shoots you (playing as Joel at the moment) while you’re carrying Sarah. You know that a game which kills your daughter within the first ten minutes isn’t going to go easy on your heartstrings.

Fast forward ten or fifteen years, you’re now Joel the smuggler with some dark shit in his recent past. Plot happens (quite well) and you end up taking on the job of escorting a teenage girl named Ellie who appears to be immune after having been bitten. Your task is no less than to save the world. I know - same old video game bullshit, only you can defeat thousands of enemies which should be equally or more skilled than you, to save the world.

At least it’s a bit different, right by the end.

The rest of the game is an emotional journey as Ellie gets in danger, then you get a spike through yo abdomen and are down for the count. Big swathes of time are skipped through. I like that, there’s a lot unsaid. You think Joel might have died from his injury as the game resumes with you playing as Ellie hunting deer in the woods, Ellie who has through the game been forced to kill bandits and monsters to protect Joel and gained more confidence handling firearms. She turns out to be a better shot than him by the end of the game. Anyhow, you’re playing as Ellie when she finally tracks the deer she’s wounded and meets two guys who want to trade her for it, she quickly wants antibiotics and it’s obvious Joel is still alive, but sick. She saves his life in a number of ways, once with drugs then by leading the men trying to kill her and him (the one that gave her the drugs, actually) because they’ve just killed many of their group who attacked them in the city. The dialogue is interesting, the ‘bad men’ talk about you having killed so many of them and Ellie saying “we had no choice”. Which is true, they attacked us, but then they reply with “and we had a choice with that?”. This group of men have taken it upon themselves to survive no matter what, supporting a commune of themselves, women and children. The game hints that they’ve been hunting and eating people recently, the manifest describing pounds of “meat” without specifying what…

So humanity has become something twisted, and that twisted part of itself appears to be a natural continuation of concepts which luckily never get tested in normal life. Unfortunately, normal life has been very different for the past couple of decades, as dialogue with Ellie reveals. She reads a girl’s diary and can’t understand how anyone could be hung up on selecting which clothes to wear, can’t believe that ice cream trucks did what they did.

What’s unclear is how twisted Joel is. We see him become closer to Ellie after pushing to keep her at a distance, obviously using her as a surrogate for his own dead daughter. At the end of the game they finally reach their objective, a group called the Fireflies who are going to use Ellie to make a cure. They incarcerate Joel and tell him that Ellie won’t survive the operation but it has to be done, save the world etc. etc. It’s at this point in the game that you start realising that the protagonist is his own person. You were there for the journey, shaping his minor details of the story by deciding how combat was carried out, but now the player might really disagree with Joel’s choices they can’t do shit.

Joel continues the rampage he’s been on from the start of the dystopian section of the game, killing his guard and stealthily sneaking around the rooms of the disbanded hospital killing whole squadrons of soldiers who are there because they are trying to save the world. Joel is referred to by enemies as some kind of demon towards the end of the game. The way I played, that made sense: often a bandit would find himself alone, patrolling to discover the rest of his troop strangled only to have the same fate enacted on him. For the majority of the game killing was bad, but justified because a) they started it and b) Ellie needs protecting No Matter What as she’s hope for a cure.

You murder everyone you encounter as sneaking past them is near impossible, and they’ve orders to kill you on sight. Even if, as the player, you might think that Ellie dying now won’t be so bad: the world will likely be saved and the suffering that’s broken you so much won’t break future generations of humanity. She’s been knocked out and won’t feel any pain. She’s smart, and knew that it would likely come to this - but they stole the choice away from her and from you, which makes a big difference.

You reach her operating room where one of the surgeons stands in your way and prevents you from taking her, threatening you with a scalpel. You have to kill him to advance. Once you do so you take Ellie and leave, meeting the leader of the Fireflies on your escape who tries to reason with you and who promised Ellie’s mother that she’d look after her / do whatever it took to make the most of the gift. The cutscene flashes forwards to you in a car with Ellie, driving away, telling her that “turns out there are dozens of people like you, and none of them helped. They’re not looking for a cure any more” which you’re sitting there holding on to some hope of believing but knowing that he’s lying to this girl / woman so that he can protect her.

It skips back to the original cutscene, and Joel shoots the head of the Fireflies in the gut, she begs for her life but he mercilessly shoots her in the head saying “you’d only come after her”. It’s all he cares about. As the player, you’ve been duped into thinking you’re in control, that you choose Joel’s path and that he’s a good guy. This is a habit reinforced by every other AAA in which you tend not to make a moral choice BUT that’s okay because you’re normally The Good Guy, so you don’t mind. The Last of Us is a critique of its own medium. Cleverly done, but oh so cruel.

In the final scene, as they’re walking through woods to reach Joel’s brother’s encampment where they’ve started growing crops and generating power again, Ellie confronts Joel and asks if everything he said about events with the Fireflies was true (she was anaesthetised for the duration). He swears it was and we know fine well Ellie knows he’s lying (she woke up in a gown, never talked to anyone there despite having travelled all that way). She’s smart. But she seems to accept it, to give him permission to keep protecting her as they’ve grown to realise that when you’ve got nothing left the only reasons you have to keep going are those that you make up yourself, and through the whole ordeal the two of them have made the other their reason for continuing.

You’re left unsure about how psychotic Joel is, whether he’s forcing Ellie to become his daughter and whether she wants to be or not. You put in all of the work required to save the world only to choose not to, and your lungs are still empty of air after being punched in the gut with the realisation that this game was never about you, it was merely your privilege to get a window in to the narrative.

The game has received some interesting feminist criticism which jarred with my own opinions at first before making me feel stupid for judging it compared to the status quo of AAA games rather than a realisable ideal. The plot turns out to be entirely about Joel despite hinting that Ellie might be as important, but it also turns out to be entirely about how Joel is broken and “too weak” to make the decision to save the world. It gives Joel traditionally feminine traits, that of being too emotionally attached to be utilitarian, and hits you with this right at the end of the game leaving you confused. I think that might be a good thing for feminism: a game with a gruff near monosyllabic Texan turning out to be emotionally deep and unable to act in the stereotypical video game male way. The story is guillotined, us not knowing whether Ellie will leave him or accept his protection or what. Apparently they’re not making a sequel following this plot, which I’m very happy about.

Ellie is far stronger than most female characters in games, which doesn’t say that much, but she’s also stronger than everyone else in the game despite only being a teenager. I don’t know. She’s still relegated to a secondary role in the narrative but then she’s elevated to a primary role on the basis that she was the only one I cared about by the end of the game.

It’s complicated.

Why are there so many broken scissors?

Domo aregardos,
J at 00:00


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