I’m about to start a new segment here on my site where I become a giant pretentious douche and critically examine things that I love. This might work better in video form, but I don’t have a computer for that kind of work, and I don’t know how to edit for shit anyway. So I do what I do, in the medium that I am best with – writing. I’ve already talked a ton about things that I love, but now I am going to really dive into the things that I love. When I look at something in a way where it may just bore you to tears, unless you love the things I love as much as I love them. Also, feel free to bring your own ideas to the table. For real, all of these things are about discussion. I want feedback from my audience. It’s hard to do on a written piece, I know. Videos seem much more open to comments. Unless you’re an SJW who blocks or mods comments, but whatever. Let’s get into this.
The Last of Us is one of my favorite games of all time. It tells a powerful and gripping narrative about two survivors on a journey across the country, to get a cure for the fungal outbreak that has destroyed humanity out of the younger one, in hopes of saving the world. But that is just the call to adventure. In reality, this game is about two people and their finding of humanity in each other. It is a story about love, family and the cost of living. Only Naughty Dog could have made this game. They are the only ones who are capable of this level of character. And it was also made by the amazing performances of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Only with this ensemble could this game have been done. But what about this game is so striking? What does this game do that other games in this genre don’t? Let’s talk about it.
Part One – Joel
When you first meet Joel, he is an overworked single dad, coming home after a hard day. He is on the phone with his brother, Tommy, arguing about a job that he clearly isn’t happy at. It is not a pleasant discussion, but he hangs up when he sees his daughter Sara on the couch, and realizes that it’s time to be a dad again. Him and Sara share a tender moment, where you learn that she was trying to stay up so she could give him a birthday present. It’s a watch, and through the giving of this gift, and the banter the two of them have, you come to understand their relationship. Joel works hard, and Sara’s had to learn to take care of herself in some ways. There are little cues all over the place telling the audience that. Joel clearly does care about her. There’s a picture on Sara’s wall of him with his arm around her, after her soccer team wins a trophy. Joel’s a good dad, but he is kept busy. He tries to be in her life, but it’s understood that she’s had to take care of herself quite a bit. Part of this game’s quality is being able to tell you lots about characters with short-hand. Whether it be the pictures on the wall, the birthday card Sara forgot to give her dad, the banter between them, or the note on the fridge, this game conveys a lot about its characters through subtle touches.
That’s one thing that gaming can do that film could never do. Ever. Some of the things you learn about characters is done through stuff that you can totally avoid. You can totally miss the little piece of dialogue between Joel and Ellie after Tess dies. You can totally pass by when Ellie wants a high-five after the two of you work together to get past a dam. But it’s because of these little touches that this game gives every one of its characters personality. Even the evil ones.
The next time we see Joel, he’s getting home. Sara’s been alone, desperately looking for him. Something is wrong and he is scared. This man is not the gruff person you meet later on. He’s a typical person, who is in a situation that is way outside of his control. When one of his neighbors tries to attack him, he is forced to kill the man. Clearly, he’s never had to do something like that before, and he tries to hold it together for his daughter. Then Tommy arrives and the three try to make their escape from the area. Thus, the nightmare truly begins. After slogging through a world going to hell, Joel ends up staring down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. The man has been given order to kill the two of them, and Joel tries to run away. It’s implied that he took a bullet, but only grazing. The killing blow went into his daughter. Our time seeing him like this initially ends when you see his daughter on the ground, crying in her father’s arms as she dies. And then we get 20 years to see Joel’s heart harden and him become someone else.
That prologue might not sound important, but it is. It really is. Because it sets the stage for the relationship that grows between Joel and Ellie. The loss of his daughter forever changed him. It turned him into someone else. Someone that he didn’t especially like, but was powerless to fight. Again, through little cues here and there, it’s understood that Joel has had to do some terrible things in order to survive for the past 20 years. Him and his brother both. He did whatever he had to do to take care of them. His connection to his humanity died when he lost his daughter.
When we meet Joel again, he’s a rough man. Very rough. Time has turned him into a very skilled and violent smuggler. He works with a woman named Tess, who you come to find out shared a connection beyond professional with him. She makes clear before her death that the two have shared moments that make it so that he has some level of obligation to her. It’s an interesting dichotomy. In the early stages of the game, you find out that both him and Tess view violence as a solution to their problems, being quick to torture and kill those who don’t cooperate.
During a mission to recover merchandise that was promised to them, we meet Marlene. The leader of the local Fireflies movement, she is wounded and persuades the two to smuggle something out of the city. She won’t say what, but promises them all they asked for and more. Something to note about the introduction of Marlene is another strength that this game has. They take the time to introduce every major character, in a way where they leave it open whether or not they are friend or foe. This comes back a big way with one of the most dark characters in all of gaming who comes in later. Moral ambiguity is another major factor in this game. Who is good? Who is bad? Is there ever a real answer to these questions? How they deal with this question is left open to the player, and how they do that is also brilliant.
After escorting her back to a safe-house, we finally get to meet the cargo that Marlene wants escorted out of the city – a teenage girl named Ellie. At first, Joel is totally opposed to this, but Tess convinces him to do it. When Ellie’s secret gets out – that she’s immune to the infection that has decimated humanity – it becomes an even bigger task. Thus begins the game’s plot, and all the twists and turns it takes along the way.
So, what is Joel’s journey? After all, I said at the beginning that this game was about finding humanity and the cost of living, didn’t I? That’s true. Joel’s journey is one of finding something to believe in again. After years of taking care of his brother and giving in to his monster side, he has become a different man. A cold man, who has walled off his emotions behind years of hardening himself to the world that he lives in. Gotta survive, after all. Right? During his time with Ellie, though, we see this part of him change. The heart that was walled off starts to open up. It’s a gradual process. We first see him start to open up when they are looking at the capital building in Boston. There is a slightly-tender moment where you see Joel’s defenses soften, just enough to let Ellie have a chance.
The growth of their relationship is tied to the seasons. Each season brings about a different change in their dynamic. Summer has them as strangers, forming a slight bond by the end of the season. Another part of the game’s ending of the seasons is with someone major dying. Fall has the two much closer. They are able to talk to each other like they are traveling companions. Maybe even friends. Joel is still walling himself off from her, but there are signs that that wall is weakening. She is starting to rub off on the guy, and he is a little afraid of that. Part of him remembers that life is so fleeting, and if he opens up to her and something happens, then could he deal? Questioning the boundaries of one’s humanity is not a bad character element. By the end of Fall, the two are bonding as real friends. They talk casually, even having some personal conversations where Joel opens to Ellie. He has a limit, and she has learned where it is and not to push her luck. Just when things are going well for them, everything goes to shit.
Winter sees Joel as incapacitated. Ellie is on her own, and that ties in to her own arc. When he comes back into the story, it’s after she injected him with medicine. He comes back to life, and she’s gone. His mission is clear – find her. He overhears some bandits talking about the girl. After cleaning house with the lot of them, Joel decides to have a little “chat” with two that he captures. It’s here that we get to see another side to his personality much better. Joel has a very violent side, who has no problem whatsoever maiming and mutilating people to get what he wants. After torturing and interrogating one, he gets what he is look for. Without a second thought, he picks up a broken pipe and then uses it to beat the second to death. That violence inside of him is important, because it’s tied up with who he let himself become. And it’s a part of him that doesn’t go away with time.
Joel’s reunion with Ellie is when she is at her lowest point. Despair had consumed her as she is hacking up the face of a man who had psychologically tortured her, beaten her, and it was implied that he wanted her sexually as well. Joel takes her into his arms and holds her. It is in this moment when he finally opens his heart to this little girl. We will never know what it was that he said to her when he pulled back, but I like to think that it was just right.
Spring has Joel now being infinitely more open with her. He is kind, outgoing, and openly more optimistic. This contrasts well with Ellie’s open personal arc, and how her story is unfolding. They finally reach the city where the Fireflies base is. After trekking through it, the two reach their destination. They reunite with Marlene and a dark fact is revealed. It seems that the only way to extract the cure from Ellie is to kill her. Without a moment’s hesitation, Joel fights against this. Marlene threatens him with death of he tries to stop them, then has one of the guards escort him out. Again, we see that, without hesitation, Joel turns to violence. He attacks the guard, taking the man’s weapon and then blasting him the groin, over and over again until he tells him where Ellie is. After fighting (or sneaking, however you play) past the guards, he then finds the surgeons about to open up the only person he cares about. When I first play the game, I saw the doc coming at me, so I blasted him. I didn’t know that I could leave the nurses alone, so I blasted the first. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to kill them. It was a moment that questioned the morals of the player, and that is another great quality the game has, that we’ll get into later.
After getting Ellie out of the surgical ward, there is a touching moment where he is fleeing with her, and the guards are giving chase. It is powerful because the words that he says to her as they are running eerily mimic what he said to Sara. See how I said that what happened before is important? Yeah, there’s a reason. You get to the elevator and ride it down. When we get to the bottom, there is another confrontation waiting for him. Marlene is there, gun in hand. She tells Joel that his saving her now is pointless. Even if she survives all of this, how long before she’s ripped apart by Clickers? Assuming that she hasn’t been raped and murdered first. She says that it will be painless, and that Ellie will never know. Then, she reasons that it is what she would want. This actually gives Joel pause. He has to think about it. Marlene lowers her weapon and starts walking toward him, assuring him that it is for the best. In this moment, we truly discover who Joel is. When Marlene finally gets there, he blasts her in the belly.
Once he has put Ellie in the car and shutting the door, we see him walk back. Marlene is on the ground, her blood everywhere. She begs him to let her live. To just leave. There, we see him rationalize killing her. To be fair, his reasoning is sound. He says that she would come after them. That’s probably true. After putting a hole in her head, Joel leaves.
What have we learned about Joel? We’ve learned that he has been a survivor. He’s done whatever he believes was needed to keep him and his brother alive. If he believes that it’s necessary, he’ll kill or torture without a moment’s hesitation. These qualities sound like awful ones, but that’s why it is so important that we saw what happened with Sara. That introduction made this game work on an emotional level, because we saw why Joel had become so blocked-off, emotionally. It makes him finding his humanity again so much better. But when Ellie is threatened, you see how quickly he is willing to trade on that dark part of him. And in the end, he lies right to her face. This character is complicated. His darkness is uncomfortable, and that is why he is so interesting.
This post has already gone on absurdly-long enough, so I think that I’ll end it here. In the next one, we’re going to have ourselves a look at Ellie. The other side of this dichotomy that makes this game work so well.
Until next time, a quote,
“You don’t know what loss is!” -Joel, The Last of Us