THE LAST OF US: A LOOK AT SADNESS IN STORIES, AND OUR PART IN THEM
By Michael Romero
(Warning: heavy spoilers for The Last of Us ahead)
It’s late at night. A little girl, about 12 years old, is asleep on the couch. Her dad walks in, arguing in a gravelly Texan voice with his younger brother Tommy on the phone about the contractor. The father insists that they talk in the morning, hangs up and sits down next to his daughter, whose name is revealed to be Sarah. She wakes up, and her father tells her that it’s way past her bedtime. Sarah retorts, “but it’s still today,” and gives him a birthday present: a brand new watch. Her father says it’s nice, but it’s not moving. Sarah looks in horror at the watch, only to realize he was pulling her leg. She falls asleep, and her father carries her upstairs to bed
Sarah wakes up to a phone call from Tommy. Her distressed uncle tells her that he needs to speak with her father, but the line goes dead before he can say why. She looks at the TV in her dad’s empty room, where a news lady says something about “victims afflicted with the infection show signs of increased aggression.” Downstairs in the living room where we started, her dad’s phone has 8 missed calls from Tommy and a text saying “Where the HELL are you? CALL ME!” Her father bursts in the room, startling Sarah. Hurriedly, he says something is wrong, and she needs to stay behind him. Just then, their neighbor Jimmy starts banging on the glass door. Her father pulls a revolver from a drawer and warns Jimmy to back off. Jimmy, feral and covered in blood, shrieks and charges them. Sarah’s father has no choice but to shoot him dead. Sarah stands in a mortified shock, but her father says that Tommy is outside and that they need to go. Now. Bright headlights are seen outside. The two get into Tommy’s car and drive off. During the drive, we learn that the father’s name is Joel. Tommy notes that “half the people in the city have lost their minds,” and that the army is coming in to deal with the infected. A traffic jam on the highway. Tommy laments that “everyone and their mother had the same damn idea.” A man in the traffic jam get out of his car and, with colorful language, asks what the holdup is. Two men in hospital gowns barrel towards his car. As he and his wife in the car are torn apart, Tommy takes a separate route through a shopping center. As the group emerges from an alley, a speeding ambulance totals their car. Joel gets out and carries Sarah, whose leg was broken by the crash. As the two reach the outskirts of the city on foot (Tommy stayed behind with Joel’s gun to hold back a group of infected), they come across a soldier. He orders Joel to freeze, and calls in to his commander to advise him.
“Sir…there’s a little girl…but…yes, sir.” Joel tries to reason with him, and he raises his rifle at them in response. As the soldier opens fire, Joel collapses. The soldier stands above Joel. “Please, don’t.” Tommy, who has now caught up, shoots the soldier through the head. “Oh, no…” Tommy gasps. Joel turns to see his daughter bleeding and crying on the ground. “Sarah! Okay. Move your hands, baby. I know, baby. I know.” Joel’s voice cracks as he tries desperately to stop the bleeding. In desperate, quickening breaths, Joel tries to reassure his daughter and himself. “Listen to me. I know this hurts, baby. You’re gonna be okay, baby. Stay with me.” Joel picks her up as she cries and holds his bleeding daughter’s hand. “I know, baby. I know it hurts. Come on, baby, please. I know, baby. I know” Joel looks to Tommy, whose mortified jaw hangs open in denial. Sarah’s whimpering has stopped. “Sarah…baby…don’t do this to me baby. Don’t do this to me, baby girl. Come on… No, no… Oh no, no, no… Please. Oh, God. Please, please, don’t do this. Please, God…”
We skip to 20 years later. We learn that during these 20 years, tests have found that the “infection” mentioned earlier is a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus. This fungus (which does actually exist) infects ants, compelling them to find a vantage point high above their nest. The ant dies as the mushroom sprouts from its head and douses the colony below with spores, decimating it. This fungus has somehow made the jump to infecting humans, swine-flu like all attempts to cure it have failed, and the infected humans have all but destroyed the uninfected population. The fungus is transmitted through latent spores in the air and by bodily fluid contact with infected individuals, mainly though biting. Governments worldwide are nonfunctional, with martial law taking its place in the United States (or what’s left of them). A group called the Fireflies have emerged in response to this, calling for restoration of government, believing that there is a cure for the fungus. The Fireflies and the armies in charge of the quarantine zones are in direct opposition, and several attacks have been made on both sides. Tensions are high, and civilians that the army finds outside of a designated QZ (quarantine zones that were once cities) are severely punished, or killed if they are found to be infected. The QZ Joel is in now is Boston
20 years after Sarah’s death, Joel wakes up to a knock on his door. A woman named Tess is there. The two clearly have some friendly history. How friendly, we are not sure. She takes Joel with her to find a man named Robert. Joel and Tess smuggle things in and out of the quarantine zone Joel and Tess made a deal with Robert, but Robert stiffed them. Now, the pair knows where Robert is hiding and takes pursuit. When they corner him, he reveals that he gave the guns he owed them to the Fireflies. Robert weakly suggests teaming up and going after the Fireflies. Tess replies “that is a stupid idea,” and then shoots him through the head.
Speak of the devil, and she shall appear; Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, happened to be chasing Robert too. Marlene, who appears heavily injured, offers a deal she will give them double what Robert owed them if they agree to smuggle something across town. She is in no shape to do it, and Joel and Tess still haven’t received their recompense, so the deal is made. However, the pair is shocked to see that their “cargo” is a 13-year-old girl named Ellie. Joel is very reluctant to escort Ellie, but Tess convinces him that “it’s just cargo.” Armed with a switchblade and a nasty teenage attitude, Ellie accompanies the two to the drop point. During the trip, Ellie points out that Joel’s watch is broken. Along the way, they see what happens to people after extended infection. The next stage, called clickers, see the fungus that infected the brain growing from the host’s face, primarily the eyes, creating a tough fungus plate across the top of the face. The clickers are named so because, since the fungus destroys the eyes, the host’s throat changes to emit an almost constant guttural, wet clicking noise used for echolocation. Blind but armed with excellent hearing, clickers are highly aggressive and will attempt to attack and consume any living organism they detect, including humans. We also learn that Ellie was bitten three weeks ago, but has somehow not succumbed to the infection. We also learn in a flooded parking lot the Ellie cannot swim. After avoiding several clickers, the trio makes it to the drop point, only to discover that the army beat them there and slaughtered the Firefly party that was to meet them.
Tess goes into an uncharacteristic hysteria, and pleads with Joel to take Ellie to the Firefly base in Salt Lake City. When Joel asks why she’s acting so strangely, she reveals that she has been bitten. She resigns herself to fate and stays behind to hold off the army troops and buy time for Joel and Ellie to escape. Joel forbids Ellie from ever bringing up Tess, and places strict rules for her to follow. He also angrily notes that they ought to keep their pasts to themselves. It is clear that the two don’t really trust each other, though Joel more so than Ellie
Joel says that there is a man named Bill in Lincoln, Massachusetts who owes him a favor. Upon arriving in the outskirts of Bill’s town in Lincoln, Joel warns Ellie to stay quiet and let him do the talking, noting that “Bill ain’t exactly the most stable of individuals,” and that “he don’t take too kindly to strangers.” The tense duo arrives to find that Bill has rigged the town full of traps, including improvised explosives and suspension traps. After getting caught in one of them and surrounded by clickers, Joel is saved by Bill himself.
After escaping the horde, Bill greets the pair by handcuffing Ellie and frisking Joel at gunpoint. Joel explains the situation, and asks Bill to help him put together a functional car. Bill reluctantly agrees, and expresses multiple times that Joel bringing Ellie with him is a bad idea. Bill says that he once had a partner, someone he cared about and looked after, “And in this world, that sort of shit’s good for one thing: getting: you killed. So you know what I did? I wizened the fuck up. And I realized it’s gotta be just me.” Bill says that an army vehicle with a functioning battery crashed into the side of a high school overrun with infected. Normally Bill stays away due to the high danger, “But fuck it. Joel needs a car.” The trio narrowly makes it there, only to discover that the battery has been taken.
The school has been infected for a long time; long enough to show what happens to infected individuals who manage to outlast the clicker phase. This phase, called the bloater, sees the fungus infest the entire body of the infected, leaving an obese, lumbering beast where there was once humanity. The bloaters retain their echolocation, but their “voice” sounds less like clicking and more like a corrupter lion’s roar. Fungal plates that protected the clickers face have hardened and extended throughout the body, providing the beast a nearly impenetrable fungal plate armor. In addition, the bloater can tear pieces of fungus off its body and throw them. These chunks burst on impact, leaving a lingering cloud of infectious spores behind. The trio almost die trying to take town the bloater in the school’s gymnasium, but they barely manage to kill the brute and escape the school, emptyhanded.
On the way back, the trio must take refuge in an abandoned house. In the living room, Bill finds the hanging corpse of man named Frank. Frank was Bill’s partner he mentioned earlier. Bill notes, with uncharacteristic sadness overcoming his features, that “he’s the only idiot who would wear a shirt like that.” Bill, attempting to keep his composure, points out with a choked-up voice a few bites on the decayed corpse, showing a face of unmistakable sorrow. Bill had mostly expressed cruel sarcasm and irritation up until now, but seeing Frank’s dead body has visibly gotten to him. Joel, not knowing what to say, says that he reckons Frank didn’t want to turn. Bill, finally composing himself again, angrily laments: “Well, fuck him.”
Ellie, who was dismissed earlier to search the house for supplies, finds a functional truck. Bill pops the hood and discovers that Frank is the one who stole the battery from the high school; he had put it in the truck and was about to leave when he was bitten. Bill notes that the battery is dead but can be recharged by pushing the truck and getting it moving. Since only the Joel and Bill together are strong enough to push the truck, they must trust Ellie at the wheel. Joel tells Ellie “you’re doin’ a good job with this. I figure you should know that.” Before they leave, however, Joel finds a suicide note from Frank. In it, he says:
Well, Bill. I doubt you’d ever find this note…But if for some reason you did, I want you to know I hated your guts…I grew tired of this shitty town and of your set-in-you-ways attitude…But I guess you were right. Trying to leave this town will kill me. Still better than spending another day with you. Good luck.
They get the motor running by pushing the truck down a nearby hill, but they attract some clickers with the noise while they’re at it. They narrowly make it to the outskirts of town with Ellie skillfully driving them to safety, something Joel takes notice of. Here, Bill gives Joel a gasoline siphon. Joel thanks him and says “Um, about your buddy back there. Uh…that’s a tough deal. And I’m ah…” Bill breaks the following silence by asking “We square?” Joel replies “We’re square.” Bill’s last words to Joel are “Then get the fuck out of my town.”
The story I just told was roughly the first third of an action adventure video game called The Last of Us. Some readers may have already recognized that, but for those that have not, The Last of Us came out in 2013. As you’ve likely gathered, the story follows Joel through a post-apocalyptic America on his journey to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies. I’ve stopped the story here for now because we’ve just reached the point where Ellie is going to start factoring in to the story. But for now, let’s address the elephant* in the room: the game of The Last of Us.
The Last of Us came out to extremely positive reviews. Critics praised the game’s narrative endlessly, as well as the gameplay. You could get a list of reviews for the game, close your eyes, and point at one, and your odds of finding a rating below 9/10 are next to impossible. This praise is well deserved, but also rare among games. Put simply, rarely does a game this good ever come out. So what makes The Last of Us so good?
While the story received endless praise for the story, we will address the narrative later. We must first turn to the game play. The Last of Us is, after all, a game. A story, but one told through a game, inseparable from its medium. With this in mind, I would like to turn briefly to a documentary about the creation of The Last of Us called Grounded.
In the documentary, the developers of the game stated that one of their main focuses when designing the game was not just to make the gameplay feel right, but to make sure that it and the story go hand in hand. This is something that a surprisingly small amount of games do. Even fewer games do it well. The Last of Us, however, does this spectacularly.
Throughout the game, Joel meets and works alongside many people. Let’s take Tess as an example. She doesn’t just follow the player around and talk, she actually contributes to the game while you’re playing it. If the player is in an area full of enemies, Tess may split off from the player and help. While the player is trying to figure out how to sneak around an enemy, Tess may get behind them before the player does and take care of the threat. Tess will share ammunition and supplies that they find with the player. If a gunfight breaks out, Tess will cover you while you try to get behind the enemy.
Things like this are what get players even more emotionally invested in the story of the game. When Tess dies, the player really feels it, because not only do the characters on the screen have to cope with the tragedy, but the player also has to cope a bit as well. The player hasn’t just lost a character. They’ve lost an ally, a helper to assist them in sticky situations that they can no longer rely on.
But there are other ways in which the gameplay and story work together. A dark and oppressive atmosphere is omnipresent throughout The Last of Us, but it isn’t just because of the writing. The game starves you for items the entire time. In addition to this, one type of supply can be used for multiple purposes. This engages the player even more, because now every action has to be considered. When presented with an area full of enemies, the player has to think about everything they’re going to do.
Do they want to do it the loud way with a gunfight? They had better have enough bullets and good enough aim. Do they want to set up traps with an improved nail bomb? Making one requires some blades and sharp objects, which you could have used to craft a shiv for up close attacks. Do they want to use a Molotov cocktail to set fire to a group of enemies? The rag and alcohol required to make one will be used for that instead of a first aid kit.
Things like this make the player care, because their choices are both important and uncertain. When the player makes something, they silently hope that they won’t need those supplies later. And if they actually do end up needing them, the unforgiving enemies will show no mercy, forcing the player to get creative and think fast, or die. If an enemy spots the player, it is likely that Joel and the player will both say “oh, shit” at the same time. If the player runs into a clicker, they better have a way out, and if they don’t, they better be able to make one.
Another point made in the Grounded documentary was from the UI creators. To make an extremely long story short, UI, or User Interface, is the part of the game that isn’t sneaking around or shooting things. Things like a character selection screen in a fighting game like Mortal Kombat, or like going through the inventory menus to switch firearms in The Last of Us is UI. I bring this up because the UI team said that they took it upon themselves to make sure that every time the player dies, it’s their own fault. It is important to know that while in these menus, the game and the events around Joel do not stop. Consider the following scenario. A clicker finds the player and charges at them. The player’s equipped firearms are all out of ammo. In order to switch weapons, the player must open a menu and 2 submenus and rifle through them for the weapon they want. The player decides: “screw this, that’s too slow and I know it’s impossible to switch weapons quickly enough. I’ll just let the clicker kill me and start the battle over.” A situation like this is terrible game design because the player dies, but it isn’t their fault. It’s the games fault for forcing them to take forever to switch weapons.
The UI team wanted to (and did) streamline it such that a situation like this never happens. Switching weapons is fast, but not instantaneous. It take a couple seconds. To be specific, it takes about as long as it takes for a person to put a gun in their backpack and take another one out. Healing with a first aid kit takes about as long as it would for someone to wrap an alcohol-soaked rag on a wound. The actions take as long as they should take; short enough to not be annoying, but long enough to make the player consider whether or not they have time to do so. This is important in the same way as the limited supplies mentioned earlier. Time becomes another supply that they player may or may not have a lot of, and must tailor their actions to fit the time they have.
At its core, thing like this are what make The Last of Us such a challenging and excellent game. The player makes the choices. There are scripted events, as there are in every game, but in almost all of them, it is the player that must choice how to react to them. The game puts you in a room full of enemies, and you decide how you’re going to make it out alive. The player makes choices, and then enjoys or suffers the consequences of those choices. New players will learn quickly that they cannot half-ass this game if they want any hope of beating it.
The game is not afraid to let the player screw up. And if they do screw up, the game is not afraid to punish them for it. It doesn’t hold the player’s hand. In fact, it knocks the player around. It repeatedly pushes them to the ground, daring them to get back up and fight. This is why people think so highly of The Last of Us. They player succeeds, not because of, but in spite of the game. The Last of Us intellectually demands of the player. It makes you think. It makes you important.
*An interesting bit of trivia: one of the concepts that didn’t make it into the game was a sequence where the player would have battled an infected elephant.
The Last of Us, at its core, is about loss. This is very unusual for a video game. Think of just about any video game and you’ll find that it’s almost always about gain, even in cases where it seems otherwise. The game shows how different characters deal with loss. Joel, who lost his daughter, became a stone cold killer. Tess, confronted with her imminent death, flew into hysterics. Bill, who lost his partner, entrenched himself in his neurotic ways. This is a very serious and real approach to loss that is not often seen in video games.
Take for example the Super Mario series. With very little variation, the plot of these games is this: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach and Mario goes to save her. Then he does. The End. While this may seem to be motivated by loss, specifically the loss of Princess Peach, there two key differences between Mario’s and Joel’s struggles. The first and most obvious is that Mario is simply a happier game than The Last of Us. Mario could not be happier to save his princess. It’s as if Mario decided to take a frolicking stroll through the Mushroom Kingdom, and oh yeah, I heard something about Princess Peach got kidnapped or something. Maybe I’ll mosey on over to Bowser’s and see if he’s got dinner plans. Meanwhile, to put it lightly, Joel’s story is much darker and more heart wrenching, for reasons I won’t go into any more than I already have. But this first difference is the most obvious one. The second is not so.
The second key difference between Joel and Mario is that Mario finds Princess Peach. We all know that Mario rescues the Princess and saves the day. Mario wins. From a narrative perspective, it’s pretty hard to say that Joel wins anything. Let’s take a look at what’s happened to him at around the 3 hour mark of this roughly 8 hour game.
First, no more than 30 minutes in, his daughter bleeds to death in his arms, and there was nothing he could do to save her. Already, he has suffered one of the most unimaginable pains that one could ever go through. This loss is permanent. Nothing can ever bring his little girl back. In addition, Joel doesn’t have time to grieve, because the very fabric of society has begun to be torn apart by plague. He now, somehow, has to push that unspeakably immense pain to the back of his mind and learn quickly to survive this new paradigm, or else die. Seeing as how that is the prologue, set 20 years before the rest of the game, Joel no doubt saw other people he cared for die, as well as other hardships that we’ll examine. He also had to relocate from somewhere in Texas to Boston. Even in the real world, this would be a challenging move to make, and that’s without zombies, bandits, and a crumbling society to get through. In addition, Tess, the only friend Joel has in Boston, is bitten by a zombie and then killed by soldiers. Again, this is permanent. Tess is dead. Then, to fulfill Tess’s dying wish, he has to leave the relative safety of Boston to take Ellie, some little girl he doesn’t know anything about from Boston to Salt Lake City, which means leaving safety again. The nicest thing that’s happened to Joel so far is a neurotic Bill giving a barely functional truck. Spoiler alert, like a lot of things in Joel’s life, the truck doesn’t last long either.
Speaking of trucks, let’s compare The Last of Us and its themes to those of Grand Theft Auto V. While the GTA games are the stuff of legends, linked to everything from obesity to the Sandy Hook shooting, few who have heard of the game have actually played it. For those that haven’t the short version is this. The story mostly centers around Michael, and ex-thief in witness protection who is roped back into crime by his crazed, meth-selling former partner. Michael’s friend Franklin also decides that he wants in on the action. Thus, the 3 form a group of criminals to rob large scores of money from various places. In the game, however, none of the characters are portrayed positively. The closest to a good person is Franklin, who was basically voluntold to join the group. These characters are in stark contrast to Joel.
In The Last of Us, we truly see and even feel how much Joel has lost. Joel can come across as extremely cold and uncaring, but in the game, we see why. We know that he isn’t just a heartless killer. The world around him makes him that way. We can tell that this isn’t the way Joel wanted it to be. But the times require adaptation for survival, and thus, against his morals, he adapted.
Also worth considering with theme of loss is what Joel is fighting for. In GTAV, for example, the three protagonists are fighting for money, glory, and personal satisfaction. That last one is important. Even Michael, who was roped back into crime by Trevor, still feels the rush of adrenaline with each successful score. With Joel, this is not so. Joel gains no satisfaction from killing and subsisting. This is hell for him. Again, we turn to Grounded.
In the documentary, the visual effects team talked about how they approached the themes of the game. Specifically, the people who created the blood splattering effects stated that they wanted to make it look real. When someone is shot, stabbed, or otherwise hurt or killed, the team wanted to make it look like what would happen if a real person were to sustain that injury. Not so little blood as to make it unrealistic, not so much blood as to be humorous. They want you to understand that in this game, you are hurting and killing people, not because you want to, but because you have to. I bring this up to reinforce what I said earlier. Joel does not want it to be this way. He fights because he has to. He fights not for money or fame, but for the ability to draw breath for just one more day. And in the world in which Joel lives, one must consider if the “reward” of survival is worth it.
Nothing is constant in Joel’s world. In a few short hours of gameplay, he has had Ellie basically dumped on him, seen his best and likely only friend die, and come and gone from the unstable Bill’s town. Joel cannot afford to rest. Death waits for him in the forms of both the living and the undead. He can never really gain anything; for all he knows, the next second he could lose anything up to and including his life.
We will now return to the story of The Last of Us and finish it. When we last left off, Joel and Ellie are on their way to Pittsburgh in the truck Bill gave them.
In the truck, Ellie reveals that she took some things from Bill’s hideout, despite being told not to. Specifically, she took some comic books and a cassette tape of some old country music. Ellie rifles through the magazines and finds one that she thinks Bill will miss tonight. “Light on the reading, but it’s got some interesting pictures,” according to Ellie. Joel tries to reach back and tell her that the magazine is not for kids, while still trying to keep his eyes on the road. Ellie evades his reach and muses to herself, “How could he even walk around with that thing?” Joel tries harder to reach her, but Ellie then say asks why the next two pages are stuck together. An “um…” from Joel, desperately thinking of how to avoid the question. Ellie laughs and tells Joel “I’m just fucking with you,” before throwing the magazine out the window, declaring “Bye-bye, dude.” Ellie then gives Joel the cassette tape and says she thought he would like it. Joel says “Y’know that is actually before my time. That is a winner though.” Upon playing the tape and hearing the song (“Alone and Forsaken” by Hank Williams), Ellie says “Whatever you say.” Joel gives her a look of “damn kids these days don’t know what’s what” as the two head off to Pittsburgh.
Upon arriving, they find that the city has been taken over by a stronghold of bandits. They find this out by surviving (barely) an ambush from the bandits. The see a man stumble into view a few yards in front of them, holding his stomach and crying for help. Joel tells Ellie to buckle her seatbelt. Ellie asks incredulously if they’re going to help the man, to which Joel responds “He ain’t even hurt.” As Joel floors the gas and charges forward, the “injured” man, stands upright and pulls a pistol from behind his back. He and his friends open fire on the truck as the two barrel forward. The truck is T-boned by a bus, laid as a battering ram trap by the bandits, and Joel loses control of his vehicle and crashes into what was once a store. A bandit takes Ellie from the truck and tries to strangle her while Joel is distracted by another. Both bandits are killed in short order. Ellie, coughing and trying to catch her breath, curses her would be killer, and the pair are welcomed to Pittsburgh swinging machetes and cracking gunshots.
After the ordeal, Ellie asks Joel how he knew that the first bandit was feigning injury, to which Joel responds “I’ve been on both sides.” Making their way through the lawless city, it is discovered that the bandits, who call themselves “Hunters,” were citizens of the Pittsburgh QZ who didn’t like the way martial law treated them. In response, they rose up and overthrew the military, taking their weapons and even commandeering a military Humvee. The behemoth truck now sports graffiti and barbed wire adornments, which are used in conjunction with the vehicle’s 50. Caliber machine gun to aid the Hunters in hunting down and killing “tourists” for supplies.
Upon fighting their way through the city, the pair find themselves in an abandoned hotel. The bottom levels are flooded and there is water everywhere. During their escape, Joel tries to climb a ladder, only to be kicked down by a Hunter. He grabs the disoriented Joel and drags him to a nearby puddle to drown him. Joel drops his gun in the struggle, and desperately reaches for it. The gun is then picked up and the Hunter is shot dead. His killer, it turns out, is Ellie. Ellie tries to play it cool and say that that was lucky. Joel angrily retorts that he was “lucky not to get my head blown off by a goddamn kid.” Ellie insists that Joel thank her and stop being so uptight about the gun, but Joel will have none of it.
Upon reaching the exit of the hotel, they discover that a large pack of Hunters has arrives and is waiting for them. Though undetected, the two are badly outgunned, and Joel needs someone to cover him. After deliberating, he decides that Ellie is the one to do it. He picks up a nearby hunting rifle and asks Ellie if she’s ever shot a rifle. She says she used to shoot rats with BBs. Joel tells her to aim down the sights and lean into it, because this gun kicks a lot harder than a BB gun. He then shows her how to pull the charging lever. He emphasizes that this is what ejects the shell and gets the next round ready to fire, so she needs to charge it quickly. Joel then jumps down and attacks the Hunters, under Ellie’s covering fire. She performs spectacularly. When Ellie asks how she did, Joel picks up one of the dead Hunters’ pistols and say “How about something a little more your size?”
In Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie meet two more survivors. They are a cocky, outgoing young man in his mid-twenties named Henry, and his quiet, brooding little brother Sam, about a year younger than Ellie. Henry reveals that he and Sam were separated from their group, who escaped the city. There only one way out of the city, a heavily guarded bridge. The brothers had been conducting surveillance and discovered that the bridge was guarded by a skeleton crew at night, and were planning to escape the city that very night. Henry asks Joel if he and Ellie want in. Joel agrees, but first asks Henry if he thinks Sam is up for it. Henry gets close to Joel and states that Joel should worry about Ellie, and let him worry about Sam. The two tensely stare each other down, but are interrupted by the two kids, who are laughing, trying to toss up and catch blueberries in their mouths. Henry remarks that it’s been a long time since he’s seen Sam smile.
After escaping the city, the four are forced to cut through a decrepit sewer. A broken metal door temporarily separates the group, leaving Joel and Sam on one side and Henry and Ellie on the other. The slamming of the door has irritated nearby clickers, who come screaming and bloodthirsty on both side of the door. The older men make desperate pleas to one another to keep their kid safe before running. Even though Sam, like Ellie, cannot swim, the two survive the sewer and reunite with Henry and Ellie while both pairs are on the run from infected hordes.
That night, after surviving the ordeal, the group finds an abandoned building to sleep in. Joel and Henry set up a lantern as a make shift campfire, while Joel tells the story of how he and Tommy one bought a motorcycle and travelled cross country. As Henry expresses his envy of this, Ellie sneaks off to join Sam in another room. Sam is not as happy to see her as he was the day before. He asks Ellie if she believes in Heaven. She says she goes back and forth. He asks her if she thinks that the infected are not dead, just consciences trapped in a body they can’t control, and if they can’t make it to Heaven because of that. Ellie reassures him, for lack of a better word, that even though the infected move and breathe and kill, the people they once were are dead. Ellie knows something is wrong, but can’t figure out how to ask what it is. She reluctantly goes to bed. After she leaves, Sam rolls up his jeans to rub his ankle. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Sam was bitten earlier that day.
The next morning, Henry is cooking breakfast in a crock pot. He asks Ellie to wake Sam up, saying he wanted to let his little brother sleep in that day. Ellie opens the door to find Sam standing awkwardly and twitching. “Sam?” she asks worriedly. The boy’s erratic breathing turns to a throaty hiss as he turns around and tackles Ellie, his eyes glazed over and fungal boils sprouting from his body. Henry stands in shock as Joel shouts “he’s turning!” and scrambles for his pistol. Henry pulls his own gun and fires a warning shot near Joel before saying “That’s my fucking brother!” with panic in his voice.
Sam is overwhelming Ellie now. Joel mutters “screw it” and goes back for his gun. Before he finds it Henry turns toward the kids and fires a single shot. Ellie throws Sam’s body off of her and crawls away. His body convulses just once before going still as Joel asks Ellie if she’s alright. She says she is, but looks at the body of her friend and mutters “Oh my God.”
Tears stream from Henry’s eyes as he chokes up, whispering his dead brother’s name. Joel attempts to approach the weeping man, who can only whimper to himself “Henry, what have you done?” Joel approaches slowly and says “I’m gonna get that gun from you, okay?” Henry points it at Joel in response, angrily sobbing “This is your fault.” “It’s nobody’s fault, Henry,” replies Joel. “It’s all your fault!” retorts the broken Henry. “Henry,” Joel pleads, Henry no!” In a quick motion, Henry turns the gun to his own head. Joel flinches and recoils at the sound of the gunshot. Ellie whispers “Oh, my God” as his body falls and joins his brother.
Joel and Ellie leave the two dead brothers to see Joel’s own brother Tommy. Ellie asks why they weren.t together anymore, and Joel reveals that Tommy joined the Fireflies. “I saw the world one way, he saw it the other.” Joel recalls that the last time they spoke, Tommy’s last words to him were “I don’t ever want to see your goddamned face ever again.” Because of his involvement with the Fireflies, Tommy knows where the Firefly lab is that Ellie needs to get to. Though he does not tell Ellie, Joel is also seeking his brother out so that he can escort Ellie the rest of the way to the Firefly lab.
Tommy and his wife Maria are leaders of a large group of survivors, living in a hydroelectric dam. Ellie noticed on the way in that the colony has some horses. Ellie stands in marvel as she pets them. Meanwhile, Joel tells Tommy that he wants him to bring Ellie to the Firefly lab. When Tommy doesn’t comply, things escalate quickly. Joel pushes Tommy, trying to intimidate him, but Tommy resists, retorting “Put your hands on me again, and it won’t end well for you.” Joel calls Tommy ungrateful for the years he kept the two alive. Tommy responds “I got nothin’ but nightmares from those years.” Just as they are about to escalate to a physical fight, a bandit raid befalls the dam. Joel helps the colony stave it off, but cannot find Ellie afterward.
Maria overheard Joel’s plan to leave Ellie with Tommy and told her about it. Ellie then stole on of the horses and ran away. Joel and Tommy take the two remaining horses and track her down to a small ranch house a ways out from the dam.
In the house, Joel finds Ellie in a bedroom that used to belong to a teenage girl. Ellie is reading the girl’s diary when Joel finds her. She asks Joel “Is this is really all they had to worry about? Boys? Movies? Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt?” Joel orders her to follow him and leave. Ellie ask Joel “And what if I say no?” Joel asks in response, “Do you even realize what your life means? Huh? Running off like that? Putting yourself at risk? Pretty goddamn stupid.” Ellie coldly responds “Well, I guess we’re both disappointed with each other then.” “What do you want from me?” asks Joel. “Admit that you wanted to get rid of me the whole time,” says Ellie. Joel begins to say that Tommy knows the area better than anyone, but Ellie interrupts with an “Oh, fuck that.” Joel apologizes, but says he trusts Tommy better than he trusts himself. Ellie tell Joel to “Stop with the bullshit.” The two argue for a bit, and after a moment of silence, Ellie says quietly, “I’m not her, you know.” Joel asks “What?” impatiently.
Ellie, voice shaking a bit, answers him. “Maria told me about Sarah.” At the mention of his daughter, Joel turns to face her and interrupts her. His voice goes quiet with rage as he tells her “Ellie…You are treading on some mighty thin ice here.” Ellie says “I’m sorry about your daughter, Joel. But I’ve lost people, too.” Quietly, Joel responds with a deathly glare, “You have no idea what loss is.” Ellie approaches Joel and confronts him. “Everyone I have cared for has either died, or left me.” Ellie walks up to Joel and shoves him back “Everyone…fucking except for you!” Ellie, on the verge of tears, finishes, “So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is, I would just be more scared.” Joel, with a cracking voice and a silent self-hatred, replies coldly, “You’re right. You’re not my daughter. And I sure as hell ain’t your dad.” A heartbroken Ellie stares back at Joel, who finishes “And we are going our separate ways.”
Suddenly, Tommy barges into the room. “Get it together. We’re not alone.” Joel looks out the window. “I got two walking in.” Tommy warns, “There’s more inside already.” The trio fight their way through the house and escape back to the dam. There, Joel decides that Ellie was right. He chooses to guide her to the Firefly lab, at the University of Eastern Colorado. Tommy gives the two one of his horses to take with them. Joel forgot to ask the horse’s name, so Ellie names the horse Callus. Joel comments “What kind of name is Callus for a horse anyway?” Ellie and Joel arrive at the University on horseback, with Joel explaining the rules of football to Ellie.
At this point, we are a little more than 3/4 of the way through the game. I’m going to stop the story her because I encourage you to experience the game for yourself, either by playing it yourself or by watching someone else play it. Either way, you should experience it for yourself.
Doing this is exactly what games are about: experiencing things for yourself. Though most of this writing has focused on the gameplay and story as two separate entities, it is time to examine them together, not just in The Last of Us, but in all games.
Games have gotten a bad rap, especially video games. At worst, they are the causes of murder and violence the world over. At best, they are trivial, meaningless distractions. While the former of these isn’t as commonly believed as it used to be, the latter is certainly alive and well. I believe that part of this stems from the fact that most people don’t know how hard it is to actually make a game. This actually extends to a lot of art forms. I see this attitude directed at movies and TV shows, for instance. However, I think that games get it the worst, and the reason for this is simple: if games are trivial, then they must be easy to make, right? I encourage you to watch Grounded and see how much work was put into the game, but the same can be said about almost any video game. The Last of Us took four years to create, and there are games that take even longer.
To summarize briefly, in the Grounded documentary, we see that creating the story for the game was similar to a film. The voice actors were also full body actors; they donned motion capture suits which fed their actions into a computer to animate later. This meant multiple takes of multiple scenes, and all these were done in live action. The film recounts the challenges both physical and emotional of the actors, and also looked into the technical side, showing the huge amount of people and work required to make this game. It was fun for all involved, but also hard work. In a note of levity, W. Earl Brown, the actor who played Bill, compared the props to the games he played as a child, “with a stick, you know, and this is my machine gun. And, you know, a pinecone is my hand grenade. It’s all in your imagination. I’m doing the exact same shit that I did 45 years ago, I just get paid for it now.”
I find an apt comparison is to look at The Last of Us along with Night by Elie Wiesel. In case you haven’t read it, Night is a biographical look at the author. Specifically, the novel documents Wiesel’s time in one of the Nazi concentration camps. You may be asking yourself “Woah, woah, woah, are seriously about to compare a Holocaust memoir to a video game?” Yes I am. However, I ask that you put the notions of novel and video game aside. Instead, let us compare them as two stories. Obviously, one was real and one wasn’t, but I ask you to put that aside as well. We are looking at Night and The Last of Us as two stories.
These are two stories about loss. We have gone over much of the loss that Joel has experienced, and we’ve even gotten a peek into Ellie’s past in the ranch house scene. The losses that Wiesel suffered in the camps in Night are also undeniable. Both are stories of unimaginable suffering.
My next question is this: what are stories meant to do? Initially, one may think that they’re here to entertain us. However, I don’t think entertain is the right word. After all, I think we would all be hard pressed to call a story about someone being kidnapped, taken to a death camp, and forced into slavery “entertaining.” The word I think we should use instead is to fascinate. Stories, fictional or not, fascinate us. They do this by putting us in the shoes of the main character. When reading or watching a story, we secretly put ourselves into the main character’s shoes and ask two questions: “what would I do in this situation?” and “What would this character do in this situation?”
I would like to briefly discuss the second question first. Even in a game, most games have characters, and those characters have personalities. Take the game Metroid: Other M, a game widely panned by fans of the Metroid series. Two things that really annoyed fans were the battle with Ridley and Samus (the player character) taking orders from Commander Malkovich. To make a very long story short, in the first example, Samus has a PTSD-like breakdown when she discovers that Ridley is still alive. The problem is, at this point chronologically in the series, Samus has already fought and killed Ridley 6 times. It’s a bit late to be having the breakdown now. To the point about Samus taking orders, that simply isn’t something Samus does, especially from people like commander Malkovich who she is not employed by. Not only does this make no sense story-wise, but it hurts the gameplay. In areas with extreme heat, Samus takes damage from the burning temperatures. She has the Varia Suit, which is heat resistant, already available to her, but cannot use it until the Commander authorizes it. This leads to the possibility of a player dying of heat because the game thought it was a good idea. Dissonance with a character’s personality and actions like this almost always rubs audiences the wrong way. However, when done right, especially in a video game, the results can be impressive. This is because of the first question mentioned earlier: “what would I do in this situation?”
In a game, the questions “what would I do in this situation?” and “What would this character do in this situation?” can combine to spectacular effect. This happens because not only do you and the character you play as want the same thing, but you, the player, actually go a step farther and do it.
As mentioned earlier in this essay, partner characters help the player in gameplay. The example used before was Tess, but the same applies to Ellie. When Ellie goes missing after the bandit fight in Tommy and Maria’s dam, it is perfectly within character for Joel to look for Ellie. At this point, the player has most likely grown fond of Ellie, both for her aid in battle and her sass toward Joel between battles. Thus, the player and Joel have matching intentions. This is good because it helps the player identify with the character they are playing as. This, in turn, makes the player care. The player, in Joel’s position, would have done the same thing, which gives them reason to care about finding Ellie as well as what happens afterward. But the game takes it a step further.
This step is the step into action. Not only does the player want to find Ellie, they have to. They have to. On a practical level, the game will not proceed until she’s found. But this should never be the motivation for a player. If this is the case, the player is continuing because the game is making them, not because they want to. And if they don’t want to, what’s stopping them from turning off the game? Fortunately, this is not the case in The Last of Us. As previously discussed, the player and Joel want the same thing. However, the motivation is now on the player to do it. The player goes from “I hope Joel can find Ellie” to “I hope I can find Ellie. This makes the player important. This makes the player care.
While dissonance like that of Other M can make players cringe, dissonance between “what would I do in this situation?” and “What would this character do in this situation?” can actually make a game stronger. I will not spoil it, but The Last of Us has a moment like this near the very end where Joel and by extension the player must do a certain task. This specific task is a result of a choice. Faced with two choices, Joel choses one of them and the game follows that path. It is clear why Joel made this choice, and it is very in character of him to do so. However, the choice he makes is not necessarily what the player would have done in that situation. For me personally, it was jarring, and even a bit uncomfortable, playing down a path that I didn’t necessarily choose. But that was the point.
The choice is not comfortable to Joel either. He doesn’t like either option, and neither do I. But time is of the essence at this point in the game. Joel did not have time to deliberate the choice. Even though the player may have time later after they finish the game to ruminate on the decision, Joel has no such luxury, and thus, in that moment of the game, neither does the player. At this point, for the first time, Joel, not the player, is in control of what the player now has to do. The player feels the discomfort and uncertainty that Joel feels at this point. Joel’s life in the world of The Last of Us is never certain, and I believe that this point at the end of the story, the game is offering the player insight into that uncertainty.
This is the advantage of a video game in telling a sad story. I once ran across an anonymous quote that said something to the effect of this: Person A: “I read this because it makes me sad.” Person B: “Why would you want to be sad?” Person A: “Sadness is happiness for deep people.” While I may not share Person A’s sass, I think I understand what he was getting at.
It is a no brainer for people to seek out happiness. “Do what makes you happy,” we are told by our parents when we are young. We as people love happiness. But as it is often said, you cannot enjoy the peak of the highest mountain until you have climbed there from the bottom of the lowest valley. Though we may be mortified by a sad tale from our friends, we always sit and listen with full attention. I believe that the reason for this is to build empathy.
Many studies have revealed that sadness is the most difficult emotion to fake. Perhaps this is because we don’t fully understand it. This in turn is likely because most people do not experience much sadness. As I said before, people are told constantly to do what makes them happy. People are told all their lives to seek out happiness. And so they do. But some people aren’t so lucky as to achieve it. These people often include our friends. In times of sadness, we desire to empathize with our friends, but it may be difficult if one hasn’t experienced sadness to a huge degree. If two friends have lost family members their miseries will at least enjoy each other’s company. But if only one is experiencing sadness, and the other hasn’t experienced it all that much, it is difficult to offer council. It’s nigh impossible to help someone feel better if you don’t know how they’re feeling in the first place.
I believe that this is why we seek out sad stories. They offer a sort of “safe sadness.” We can read about something terrible and in a way practice with that sadness. “What would I do if this happened to my friend or family?” we may ask.
This is why interactive sad stories are so popular, and in this regard, effective. Take for example the game, That Dragon, Cancer. I won’t say anything other than this: That Dragon, Cancer was made by Ryan and Amy Green. The game chronicles their tragic and very real struggle of raising their baby son, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old. Joel lived for four more years before succumbing to the disease in March of 2014. The game chronicles the emotions and struggles from those four years that the Green family faced. This story is a very somber one, and demands respect when addressing it. But an important question to ask is: why play it? It sounds terribly depressing, and speaking from experience, it is. But at the end of it, I thought to myself; this could have been me. This could have been anyone. This could have been my friend. I hope to never have to deal with a tragedy like that. But if one like it happens to someone I care about, I now have a baseline. I have something to start with.
I now have the smallest glance into their suffering.