How the Last of Us Struggles with Complexity
Astrid B
The Last of Us is one of the few games to successfully adapt cinematic language and conventions to tell its story. That’s not meant as a slight—the potential of games to tell painstakingly rendered linear stories is undervalued by both designers and critics. Its success in transmuting certain stylistic conventions, however, does not mask the fundamental cowardice in the story it chooses to tell. Naughty Dog started work on the game in earnest in 2009, working from a revised idea that creative director/writer Neil Druckmann came up with while he was at college in 2004. The naive list of influences Druckmann compiled—Ico, Sin City, Night of the Living Dead—would be worked into a pitch sensibly titled Mankind. It was identical to The Last of Us in all important aspects except one: the virus only affected women. The optics of a game where a man mows down every woman on Earth were, luckily, questioned by several female Naughty Dog employees. But the finished game still suffers from a distinctly narrow narrative frame, choosing to tell 90% of its story from behind Joel’s shoulder. Its influences remain conventional: end-of-the-world narratives like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, and any zombie story that’s used another word for “zombie” to distract from its lack of creativity elsewhere. The Last of Us opens with a scene engineered to get the player to empathize with Joel—tellingly, to accomplish this, we begin the game in control of his daughter Sarah. Playing as both Sarah and Joel in the prologue primes the player to seamlessly enact the later protector-protected relationship between Joel and Ellie. As Ed points out in his piece about the game’s “unspoken family,” Sarah’s death is staged and acted for maximum impact; her breath comes in terrified, failing screams as Joel helplessly tries to soothe her. We were there when Joel lost Sarah. We understand his stake in this. After the opening credits, we see a different Joel—obviously older, but also exasperated and terse in a way that bespeaks the strain of the intervening 20 years. He is every inch the “apocalypse daddy,” having pared away every part of himself inessential to enacting violence against perceived threats. The player will enact plenty of that violence, and though each death is animated and rendered to highlight the fragility of human bodies, the cumulative effect of these encounters is unavoidably numbing. As a player there will never be a situation where you decide fighting is no longer worth it and let Joel die; you have a vested interest in staying alive, even if only to see the rest of the story. When the game finally shifts to Ellie’s perspective, the combat systems come into sharper relief as well, gaining a survival horror edge. Ellie is smaller than Joel, with animations that emphasize how she throws her weight into stealth kills. This shift comes after Ellie, not Joel, saves their skins in a desperate shootout. This is the only time the game can lay claim to telling Ellie’s story. Everything previous is Joel’s story, into which Ellie enters. The Ellie section and the final few minutes of the game are the bravest, most galvanizing things in The Last of Us. These are the moments when the game rises above its derivative premise and fundamentally parochial, and of course binary, gender roles—where it makes narrative choices that would be impressive no matter the medium, but that gain additional power because of how they are set up through the game’s language. The impact of the ending is predicated on the player thinking that this is the moment where Joel betrays Ellie’s ostensible trust. His lie confirms that, probably all along, he was protecting her for his own ends—which, no offense, but duh. Starting with the very first scene the game goes to great lengths to underline that Joel will view Ellie as a surrogate daughter, a way to redeem himself. It does not interrogate the way Joel abuses and indoctrinates Ellie into his own brutal worldview. From the first concepts to the final game this power dynamic remains consistent, and as such The Last of Us is a perfect portrait of how patriarchy shapes which behaviors society values and privileges above others. Joel’s masculine competence drives the narrative forward and defines its worldview. The artistic integrity Naughty Dog displays in certain aspects of the game does not extend to its protagonist. The game misapprehends Joel as someone coming back to life via his relationship with Ellie, as if there is a level playing field between them; he learns to feel again, she learns to survive. Only through the macho lens of survivalist fiction can this dynamic even hope to go unexamined. These contradictions, of course, prove that The Last of Us is a videogame of uncommon complexity; surely measured praise, but it remains the apex of big-budget narrative games. The field has stagnated since 2013, designers willingly diluting their work with open-world bloat instead of following Naughty Dog’s lead. Videogames needed The Last of Us; now they need to move past it.


Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.