In The Last of Us Part I, the remake of the 2013 original, main character Joel looks wearier than ever. While he was always designed to appear tired and beaten down, Part I’s new visuals have made his decrepitude even more evident.
Joel has new wrinkles. He has wider eyes with darker hollows surrounding them, all the better to convey the depth of horror behind his gaze when, say, a man shoots himself dead in front of him, or to communicate the blank animal fury that possesses him when he chokes someone to death under the pressure of one of his hairy, straining forearms+. He is also, now, more visibly grey, with intricately rendered strands of white threaded through the dull black hair of his beard and temples.
Joel, in short, looks like shit in Part I. He is haggard, haunted. Mentally and bodily worn out.
While The Last of Us’ remake is easily criticized as an unnecessary update—a multi-million dollar victory lap meant to attract further profits and laurels for lavishly reminding audiences of a not-all-that-distant past success—it’s also a project whose existence casts a familiar story in a slightly changed light. It’s a game that makes the most sense to look at not as an update, but as a technologically assisted revision to an existing work. Viewed this way, Part I comes across as a very gently prodded new draft, the old structures of the last edition left intact even as its creators choose which elements of the original work to highlight and draw forth.
One of the most dramatic changes is that, again, Joel looks awful now. In the original, he appeared weary, always looking out at the apocalypse with a faraway gaze, but he was also sharper-jawed and brighter-eyed, his age and gloom accompanied by a rugged, outdoorsy handsomeness. He was, aesthetically at least, run down in a nearly aspirational way. He was a no-nonsense, violently capable man whose face reflected the hard-bitten ideal of the sun-weathered American masculine—the kind of gruff figure that pop culture beamed into generations of brains as the platonic man.
Part I’s redesign makes him someone uglier, the lustre of a young Clint Eastwood’s sex appeal having lost much of its gleam under the accumulation of a cowboy’s road dust and bloodstains. If, in the 2013 Last of Us, Joel’s visual design lulled players into considering him a romantic figure from out of a Western—a tortured soul beaten down by the hard realities of survival—before the game’s conclusion forced a revaluation of his character, his new appearance makes the truth of his personality easier to see from the very beginning. Rather than using a dozen or so hours to gradually subvert a videogame protagonist’s supposed heroism, forcing players to confront Joel’s true nature when he murderously rampages through a hospital in order to stop surrogate daughter Ellie from giving her life in order to save humanity from a virus, Joel is now immediately, visually depicted as an aging, selfish, emotionally fragile man.
The brutality that always made The Last of Us an unusually effective and blankly stated critique of action videogame power fantasies is foregrounded in tandem with Joel’s age in the remake. Enemies appear legitimately scared as they’re killed, the eyes in their detailed, personable faces unblinking with shock and the blinding terror of onrushing death in the moments before they’re dropped, limp, to the ground. The inherent nastiness of the world itself, advanced more strongly as a thesis in the game’s sequel, is highlighted here along with the ugliness of the man whose journey seems to typify the reasons for all that horror's existence.
Joel always represented the decaying masculine, but this theme seems impossible to ignore with his redesign and the greater fidelity of Part I’s violence. Any of the heroism that might have helped justify the constant violence of his journey west with Ellie is inevitably washed out by his final decision in the game—to prioritize his need to save Ellie’s life rather than let her give it in order to allow humanity a vaccine for the virus and, as a result, a future for our species at all.
This trip across the country, from the old revolutionary nexus point of Boston through to their furthest point west in Utah++, establishes Joel’s connection to the cowboy myth even further. His eventually betrayed quest to have Ellie provide the East with fresh hope sketches the same path as those “frontier” vanguards of American conquest+++. It’s only fitting that a man who embodies the rugged individualist of American myth—the gruff cowboy who commits violence though he feels bad about doing so—can only lead the world to further ruin. And that, when confronted with this by Ellie, the girl who embodies generations to come, Joel lies to her about his actions and the supposedly unending hopelessness of the world at large.
If Joel is the man of the future, we’re all fucked. When it comes time to make sense of the trail of bludgeoned, bullet-ridden bodies he’s left behind him on the trip west—when, as Ellie puts it, it’s time to ensure that all they’ve been through and done to others “can’t be for nothing”—Joel interprets her need for meaning as one that applies only on the most selfish scale. The world can go to hell. He can’t be hurt again.
The Last of Us has always, at least in part, been a game about traditionally masculine power structures. More to the point, it's about those structures' failure to forge new order out of a chaotic apocalyptic society by violently, individually reasserting control. The remake's decision to place so much visual emphasis on Joel as mouldering cowboy—an impotent figurehead whose selfish motivations hurt more than help others—makes good sense.
The same reading exists in the original game—Part I doesn’t fundamentally remake The Last of Us on a structural level. But the visual changes in its new version more directly underscore those aspects of the narrative, pulling out and magnifying white threads from the original in ways that makes the message of decay they weave a dominant pattern overlaying the whole.
+ The greatest benefit of the fidelity arms race, considering the mainstream game market, may be the ability to more convincingly render a mass-murdering action protagonist’s thousand-yard stare.
++ In the sequel, Ellie will complete this trip by following in Joel’s tradition, sinking into the furthest depths of selfish violence in a bloody fight in the Pacific waters of the California coast.
+++ Here, the visit to the Revolutionary War museum in Boston from early in the game resounds more strongly. Joel’s gore-painted westward trek echoes the gruesome birth of a country whose labour pains amounted to genocide and the enduring myths of the “Wild West,” with its lonesome, determined white hat cowboys wreaking righteous carnage on the march to a selectively brighter future.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.