Monday, 5 May 2014

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #2: The Last of Us

The Last of Us, Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment (2013)

Spoiler warning

The "Games of the Generation" series is a list of favourites, so I was initially puzzled that the number two slot ended up being occupied by the most depressing game I've ever played. In fact trying to figure out quite why I love it so much despite how miserable it makes me has been the primary cause of the delay in publishing this piece, so I really hope it's worth it.

The Last of Us, like fellow downer The Walking Dead (#9 on the masochist's list of recommended weekend activities), is a story about a shady man and an innocent girl making their way across America after a zombie apocalypse. But while The Walking Dead is a tale set in a world without hope, The Last of Us puts you in charge of humanity's only hope: a young girl whose genetic code might just hold the cure for the Cordyceps infection that's ravaged the planet.

In The Walking Dead you must do all you can to ensure the survival of little Clementine on the basis that it's the right thing to do. She's an innocent child who deserves a shot at life, and it's your job to ensure she gets it by whatever means necessary. In The Last of Us, you're a mercenary who needs to get Ellie to a resistance group (the Fireflies) who might be able to turn her immunity into a vaccine, even though extracting the crucial tissue will kill her. The terrible twist is that your character, Joel, decides at the 11th hour that he'd rather slaughter thirty people - including perhaps the last brain surgeon in existence - and sacrifice humanity's last chance for redemption rather than let Ellie die.

After he's rescued Ellie from the people who were trying to rescue the world, Joel lies to her, saying that she was one of many people immune to infection and that because there has never been any success synthesising a vaccination, the Fireflies have now given up. He drives her to the only sanctuary they have left, a walled town protected by his brother Tommy where they can live out the rest of their lives as the human world gradually fades away.

Joel's decision to kill several doctors, scientists and resistance fighters in order to remove Ellie from their care is wrong on a basic utilitarian level: however deserving of life she may be, her death could have meant salvation for millions, even billions of others. The player might want to believe that rescue is what Ellie would have wanted or that the likelihood that a vaccine would prove impossible to synthesise would mean that the attempt isn't worth the sacrifice, but they can't.
Firstly, neither Joel nor the player has reason to believe that Ellie would have wanted rescue. Right before they reach the hospital where the doctors are waiting for her, Joel tells Ellie that there's still a chance to turn back, but she declines, referring to the terrible things she's seen and done to get that far, concluding "It can't be for nothing". Granted, she doesn't know she'd have to die for the experiment to work - one of the last things she says to Joel before she's knocked unconscious prior to the surgery is that she'd like him to teach her to swim "once this is all over" - but her determination that her life should mean something means the player can't pretend she'd have chosen not to go through with it if she'd had all the facts.

Then there's the fact that the (now late) surgeon was in fact confident of his chances of a successful synthesis, as explained in an entry into his log that the observant player can find as they search for Ellie in the hospital.

The decision also makes no sense as a loving gesture because, as resistance leader Marlene points out (before Joel shoots her), by denying Ellie a painless death in her sleep at the hands of the doctors, he is opening her up to the likelihood a violent or slow one later on, preceded by a life of hardship. Sure, Marlene has a vested interest and it's not like Ellie actually wants to die, but she knows how hard her life is, how hard everyone else's is, and how hard they all lives will continue to be. At the very end of the game, right before they enter the town, Ellie reveals not just her survivor's guilt, but also, implicitly, her loneliness. Depressed by the futility of their slow, painful journey across America and traumatised by the horrors she's witnessed and the lives she's had to take, she recounts the death of her best friend to Joel before expressing her heartbreak and exhaustion: "I'm still waiting for my turn."

It's hard to control a character whom you know is going to do something terrible, so when I replayed this game I did so trying to find the good in Joel's decision. I couldn't, but what made me come back a third time and (eventually) write this article is how understandable his actions are, and how poignantly they are conveyed to the player. Joels' characterisation begins with a prologue set right at the beginning of the outbreak that concludes with his daughter being shot at point-blank range by a soldier who is just following orders.

From where Joel stands at the end of the game, there's not much difference between soldiers who would kill a child to preserve one kind of order and a resistance group who would do the same to bring about another. However noble though the intentions of each authority figure may be, they come at the price of individual life and liberty: Sarah never got to show that she wasn't infected, Ellie never got the choice to sacrifice herself. When Marlene uses her final breaths to try and reason with him, he tells her that she doesn't have the right to decide Ellie's fate. He may be right, but he fails to realise that in destroying Ellie's one opportunity to change the world, he's taking away her choice just as much as Marlene tried to do.

Joel's reasoning may be flawed, but then people will come up with any reasoning they need to in order to justify decisions they make for emotional reasons. Where The Last of Us excels is in making the player empathise with him to the extent where they can understand - if not condone - his decision. It's not so much that Ellie fills the hole Sarah left when she died (although that is a factor), more that she helps Joel begin to recover from his loss.

Joel is so severely traumatised by Sarah's death (and, it is hinted, the dehumanising events of the intervening years) that he is unwilling or unable respond emotionally to anyone until about two thirds of the way through the game, when Ellie confronts him about wanting to be rid of her. She's right: her perceptiveness and curiosity disarms him and threatens to disturb feelings that he is not ready to confront, as evidenced by the way in which he warns her against mentioning Sarah. But just as Ellie is about to ride into the sunset with Tommy he decides that he will take her to the Fireflies after all.

This decision symbolises that for once, he would rather feel alive, no matter how painful that might be, than feel nothing. Because it was Ellie who prompted this change, he can't let her go when someone threatens to take her away, and he isn't ready to continue on his own. Although the ending has received reasonable critism (there's a fair summary on Forbes by Carol Pinchefski), the game is still deft enough to make you understand why it happens.

Ellie's character arc is no less significant (I wrote about it in my article about violence in the game, and her backstory as explored in the prequel DLC Left Behind warrants its own article), but it's Joel's that makes the game so important for me. Stories are worth telling even when they end terribly, just as painful lives are worth living because the alternative is either not telling them... or not living.

The fact that games challenge you to accomplish something means that you are almost invariably given a reward for accomplishing it - an assurance that your time has been worthwhile - but The Last of Us ends with you having made the world significantly worse than it was before. I don't think of video games as a metaphor for life, but they are the only activity that involves you pretending to be someone else and carrying out actions that do not have a pre-determined outcome, and just as people tend to believe that their life has a purpose and act accordingly, so video games tell you that your character has one too.  
The Last of Us does the opposite, and it's consequently one of the most devastating games I've ever played, even more so than The Walking Dead, because at least that game lets you feel like you might have made a positive difference. It's not that I enjoy feeling like that (there's a reason The Last of Us isn't #1), more that I find exploring the idea cathartic given that for the most part fiction tries desparately to make us feel the opposite.

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