*Warning! There are going to be metric ton of spoilers! If you have not played this game, don’t read further!*
I love this game. Having finally gotten all the way through the single-player campaign, I have seen what this game was trying to be, and I love it. The plot of this game and how it is used is something that I think is going to be talked about for years to come. This is a trend-setting game. This is a game that is going to set the standard for great stories of this kind. While I am saying that, let me point out that not all games should follow this format. Some games, like the Mass Effect Series, don’t follow this kind of format of very centralized plot at all. And for the better. Free range of choice and learning about a world is a good thing. But for this kind of game (survival-horror or action adventure, of which this game is a merger of both), this level of emotional commitment and emotional climax that leaves the player feeling so many things at once by the end should be taken to heart.
The thing that truly makes this story is that it isn’t large. For real, for as heavy as some of the subject matter can be, it is never, ever large. It isn’t about the world and this infection. It isn’t about the fact that Ellie has the cure for it inside of her and what it can do for the human race. It isn’t about the time that Joel has spent becoming part of the life he leads. It is about the Joel and Ellie’s journey. But the destination isn’t the point of this journey. In fact, the destination is almost superfluous. Truly, it is about the personal journey that these two characters take when they are heading toward a future unknown.
Let me clarify. This game opens with Joel coming home from work. His daughter is on the couch, up past her bedtime to give her dad a present for his birthday. Where is the mother? Who knows. What is their relationship? They don’t clarify. You get the feeling that the two are close and get along. Joel is doing his best to make a good life for the two of them, but it doesn’t go beyond that. It just shows these two have a night together. Very quickly, things go horribly wrong. After his daughter is killed, the game jumps ahead 20 years. What happened in that time? While you are given bits and pieces of what happened, the total story is never given to you. There is not a single point in this game where it goes into a broad exposition-dump. Again, that isn’t what this game is about.
The reason that they don’t force these unnatural conversations is because the goal of this game was simple – making it feel organic. I mean, who just talks about where their mother is if they don’t live with them anymore on a given night? Almost nobody. Who talks about what they have been doing for the last 20 years with a person they just met? You see that Joel tells Ellie more and more as time goes by, but since these conversations would naturally happen at random times and wouldn’t be often, it is only natural that the player wouldn’t be privy to when they talk about all of this. Again, it feels organic.
That is one thing that I absolutely love. But the other thing is the emotional levels that they go to in this game, and they do it by not letting the game’s grim tone get lost. Not for a second. My personal favorite parts in the game were when Ellie gets kidnapped. Alone, she doesn’t flinch. She fights until she has nothing left, because she doesn’t want to die, and she doesn’t want to leave Joel, the only friend she truly has. He is also something of a father-figure by that point as well. The final scene in the restaurant when you kill the bandit leader, and you see how destroyed Ellie is by the fact that she is fighting for her life against a monster that wanted to kill and cut her up into parts to be eaten by the bandit group. All of the ugliness of her situation, along with her inner desperation at what she faces, comes to a head at that point. She keeps on striking and striking the man with a machete, crying the whole time. When Joel pulls her off him, she sobs in his arms. That scene was beyond powerful. It was downright heart-breaking to watch.
The second scene that has stuck with me the most is (for real, if you haven’t finished the campaign, stop reading, right now. Don’t let me spoil this. You have to see this for yourself) when Joel and Ellie finally reach their destination. Joel is confronted with the fact that the cure that Ellie has in her body can’t be made into a cure in a large-scale without killing her. Now, Ellie has become the thing that makes his life worth living. You have seen how broken and alone Joel has become since the death of his daughter. You see him being given his reason to live back, and now he is faced with it being taken away and there is nothing he can do about it. That is, if he wants a cure for humanity. Without even a second thought, Joel kills the guard who is leading him out, then goes on a rampage, killing all the rest of the guards, to get the only person on Earth who matters to him back. Now, I don’t know if you could have just taken Ellie when you got to the surgical wing, but I didn’t tempt fate. I killed all the surgeons in there. Blew away the first one with El Diablo. Took out my small semi-automatic pistol and blew away the second. The third is crying on the floor, but you get so caught up in how desperate Joel is, I killed her too. She is on the ground, saying you are a monster when I shot her the first time. I finished her off. No reason to make her suffer.
But the thing that has stuck with me is after that. Joel picks up the tiny body of his young companion on the operating table, hauling her out as fast as he can. He gets to the base of the elevator and is greeted by the woman who paired them up. She gave him this job. She tells him that this is how it has to be. She can save so many. And what future is there for her if she doesn’t? The future is vile, ugly and filled with pain. What kind of life can this little girl expect? She puts that to Joel, and you can see that he is wrestling with it. But, in the end, he decides to kill the woman and take Ellie back to where his brother lives.
As they are are arriving, Joel is confronted by Ellie. He told her a massive lie to get her to not question going back. She is a smart kid. She confronts this man who means everything to her about the fact that life has been nothing but death and pain, leaving her to wonder when her turn is coming. Then she tells you to do something.
“Swear to me that everything you told me is true.” Without missing a beat, Joel says that he swears. He made his peace with what is happening. Then, comes the single-greatest moment in the game. You can see on her face that she knows he’s lying. But, in the end, it is easier for her to be with the person she cares about and accept ignorance than to fight against it. If that doesn’t make you think, especially about what you would do in her or his place, then there is something wrong with you.
I am not against Joel’s decision to take her away. After all, humanity is already dead. He chooses to fight for the friendships and the love he has, rather than embrace a hope that means nothing at this point, because without her, he has nothing. They have taken care of each other. They are all each other has, and it has made his life worth living. The dedication it takes to fight and kill people you called allies in order to save the life of someone you love must be respected. Similarly, I see where Ellie is coming from.
Let’s all admit that we embrace ignorance when it makes life better. There isn’t a human relationship that doesn’t do this. Romantic, family, you name it. We all do it, and we all try and make it sound like it is noble. It’s not noble, it is just better, for us. I’m not hating on this, but I do recognize this.
This is a game that has stuck with me. I am still thinking about it. The scene when I walked in to the operating room and then saw all three surgeons look up in fear. It literally was a reflex at that point. I didn’t test and see if I didn’t have to kill them to take her. I just blasted the first, then the second and finally the third. Because this game connected with me. I wanted to see Joel end up okay. I wanted to see these two find some resolution. And that is why this game is great. That’s life. We all want there to be some catharsis to it all. We all want everything to mean something, because without that meaning, what do we have? In a way, we are all Joel and Ellie, trying to get through life.
And that is my nerdlove for the weekend. For all those who read this, I hope you enjoyed this game as much as I have.
Until next time, a quote,
“You’re gonna go in there?!” -Ellie
“I just wanna know what we’re gonna find.” -Joel
“You’re gonna find my body when I die from a heart attack.” -Ellie, The Last of Us